This year changed me.
I hope there is never an ending of a year when I cannot say those words.
In 2017, I learned to open wide my heart to the unexpected things God was doing in my life. Instead of holding back my heart, with iron-walled defenses against the possibility of hopes being dashed, I learned to keep looking forward, to keep expecting God to move.
When I left my heart open to God, and kept saying yes to Him, was my heart kept free from all pain? Absolutely not. Rather, disappointments came, trials bombarded me, and my heart broke. God had a perfect plan, and He was holding it out to me, but I had to let go of the things I had clutched tight to my heart before I could have open hands to receive.
The first half of 2017 was preparation. I knew I was going to spend a large portion of my summer in the Netherlands, and I knew I had work to do before I would be ready to go there. Sure, I had language work to do–I worked very hard to make great progress in my spoken communication capabilities–but I knew without a doubt that God had work to do in my heart before I would be truly ready.
I was right. God and I had some wrestling moments in the spring. He had asked for my whole heart, undivided, and when I gave it to Him, my life changed. The cutting away of the dead branches must be done for the new branches to emerge and the flowers to bloom at their fullest and brightest. Change, even good, necessary change, is painful and messy.
By the end of these trials, buckets of tears had been shed, and I think they softened the soil of my heart. I had seen God so clearly, and known Him so closely, that I knew again with such certainty just how much I could trust Him.
Then, on the afternoon of June 25th, I walked the halls of the Tampa airport by myself for the first time. I ate only part of a ridiculously expensive turkey sandwich at the waiting area near my gate, and across from me I overheard a man reading to his son. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” I heard, and my head shot up from the sandwich in my lap. Galatians 5–that man was reading Galatians 5 to his son, right in the seats a few feet from me. I talked to him, and later his wife when she returned with their daughter. His first question to me was “Are you a missionary?” and I couldn’t help a little laugh. When we boarded the plane and went our separate ways, I waved goodbye and thought, God is with me.
Sitting in the London airport with bleary eyes not convinced it was morning (it was only 2 a.m. my time, after all), I marveled at how far God had brought me to that moment. That afternoon in the little puddle-jumper of an airplane, I craned my head to see as much as possible out the tiny window, gasping in awe at the sight of the land we were approaching. The wheels touched down, I made it through customs and baggage claim, and emerged to meet the smiling faces of Daniel and Heather Boyd, waiting for me. They thrust a bouquet of flowers into my hands and although it was a welcome to a new country, it felt strangely like a welcome home.
And over the next five weeks, it became home.
Living with an open heart is never painless. Being willing to throw yourself wholeheartedly into loving a people and a place you know you will have to leave is a joy worth every tear and ache. But it is very much an exercise of faith and trust to let go, to step away, back into situations you are scared to face, back to what feels mundane. It is a fight every step of the way to say, “God, You are the same God on this side of the ocean. You have a purpose and a plan for me here, and I trust You.”
August was a busy and trying month, as I muddled through those situations I knew I had to face and shifted gears to school. Barely two weeks into the school year, hurricane Irma barreled through the Caribbean in a path of destruction, and school was closed for a week. I spent my days preparing the house for riding out a hurricane, and on a last minute decision, I found myself in a car fleeing to Alabama with my family. I studied and completed homework assignments from a living room couch, just like in my homeschool days.
I had been asking God for months what He had planned for me at this college that hadn’t been part of my plans. And He kept telling me to wait and see. And then see I did. He overwhelmed me with so many examples of His hand at work in my surroundings, both big and small. This semester, I learned the critical importance and power of truth. I learned what a faith that shines like a beacon of light and hope looks like. I have learned how important it is for me to own what I believe, and what it means to thrive, walking in the confidence of knowing I am right where God wants me.
Looking back at 2017, I know I have grown, most of all, in my faith and maturity. I have learned to dare to hope, even when hope seems like the most painful thing possible, because He is faithful, and He is good. This year was so much about gaining and changing perspectives, and I am vastly different because of it.
Something my pastor said yesterday morning resonated with me. Paraphrased, he said:
“I’m not dwelling on the past–I’m ready to look forward.”
It’s a popular thing to pick a word for the year. I have mixed feelings about this practice, and usually I instead I look back on a completed year and for a theme. But for 2018, I’ve decided to look forward–to pick a word beforehand to come back to when I need some focus and clarity. I wouldn’t say God “gave” me this word, but I did choose it after some time in prayer. I feel that it embodies what I’m hoping to pursue and grow in over this next year.
Reach – for health
Reach – for balance
Reach – for change
Reach – for knowing God through prayer
Reach – others for God’s kingdom!
So much is in store for this year, and I am looking forward to pursuing it with everything that is in me. I hope to grow monumentally, but more than that, I want to intentionally reach others, both the lost and the saved, and lead them along with me on a journey of growing closer to God.