In these last few weeks many surprising turns have been taken deep within the souls of those in our household, not the least of which I will tell of on this post.
In our community Bible study, where we gather with our 10 foster kids, our dedicated team of local teachers/missionaries, and roughly 30 local children and teens to study God’s word together and sing His praises four mornings per week, we have been drilling hard (as in, going deep) on exactly what Christ meant when He said that anyone who wishes to be His follower must deny themselves, take up their cross (die), and follow in His footsteps.
Those words Christ spoke to His first disciples so many years ago are probably well-known by most Christians and may even be included in the list of general Bible verses we all memorize and recite without thinking twice how to actually live it.
So, we gather in our concrete-floored rustic dining room with the panoramic mountains behind us to dig deep into just what that means. What does it mean to really die to ego, to really let go of our own personal desires — however painful and scary it may be – in order to fully embrace Christ and the fullness of His teachings, His radical lifestyle? After all, to consider oneself a Christ-follower is in essence to actually follow Christ and what He taught.
How do we ‘die’ to our ego in daily life? What does this actually look like? And – dare we ask – can anyone truly follow Christ without this element of death-to-ego? Can anyone claim to call Christ Savior without recognizing Him also as Lord, as He who commands life’s decisions and attitudes? How do we go beyond memorizing or simply hearing this verse to actually living it out, to living a crucified life in the flesh (in order to enjoy a resurrected life with Christ, even now in part in the midst of this fallen world)?
These are the questions we’ve been asking, and God has been leading us to the answers.
With the arrival of our two newest daughters (now becoming 7 young women in our household ages 10-17, all of whom come from traumatic backgrounds and are on the long road toward total healing in Christ) two more precious balls have been added to our daily juggling routine. We had placed our two new arrivals together in a room with Dayana, Jackeline and Gleny, which had unintentionally cultivated a nightly ‘sleepover party’ environment, creating a huge imbalance in our household (and much noise and squealing late into the night). On the one hand Darwin and I were thrilled that all of our girls were getting along so well (that had been one of our fervent prayer requests prior to Paola and Carolina’s arrival, as with any new arrivals in our home there tends to be a period of adjustment, potential conflict, etc as everyone finds out all over again where they belong on the totem pole). On the other hand, we felt that is was unfair that one of our girls’ rooms (the one with the 5 teens) was enjoying a little too much fun each night while the other room (where two of our younger girls, Josselyn and developmentally-challenged Gabriela, biological sisters) oftentimes felt left out and destined to frustrating nights of solitude.
Although all of this may seem so trivial to the outsider’s eye, this backstory and understanding of our household layout is vital if you are to truly appreciate the ensuing events.
In our household this imbalance of sisterhood had wedged itself deep in my consciousness, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that we needed to move at least one of our girls from the ‘sleepover party’ room into the room with only 2 girls, both to achieve more nightly quietness and also in favor of cultivating more balanced friendships (instead of 2 against 5). This thought bothered me for several days, and one day as I left one of our bi-weekly planning and prayer meetings with our local teachers/missionaries, I crossed the threshold into our home and felt the Lord guide me to go talk with Jackeline, our 14-year-old daughter who has been living with us alongside of her special-needs brother since January 2015.
I knocked on the wooden doorframe of her bedroom and asked if I could come in. She quickly passed me through, and I found her sitting on the top bunk of one of the two wooden bunkbeds, peacefully folding a huge pile of clothes. Our other girls were busy with piano practices and other household chores, so it seemed that I found her at a good time.
Feeling uneasy about the whole female rooming situation as it was and inclined toward some kind of action (but still not knowing which to take, plus it is never easy to be the bearer of what our girls would take to be bad news), I approached Jackeline and simply asked her to pray for me. She listened attentively while I explained to her my frustrations – how I felt it necessary to move one of the girls out of her room, not due to any kind of punishment but just o bring a bit more balance to our household.
She listened sincerely to my initial frustrations as I vented as I would with a wise friend (alas, God is making Jackeline into a very wise young woman), but she began resisting and even crying when I mentioned the fact that I was seriously considering splitting up her roommates and moving one of them into the ‘undesirable’ room (alas, everyone knows that to room with Gaby is less than delightful, for she wets the bed at night and has many strange and annoying behaviors that even her own biological sister cannot stand). She oftentimes speaks obscenities to her own sister, gets into her sister’s belongings, and lacks basic common sense after having suffered a childhood of prolonged sexual abuse and other mistreatments. Her healing in Christ is definitely occurring, but perhaps not as quickly as any of us would humanly like. Surely – speaking frankly – to room with Gaby is to suffer a certain kind of death to the teenage ego.
Worry crossed Jackeline’s face as she was undoubtedly pondering all the implications of any of her roommates having to begin rooming with Gaby and Josselyn, and she began saying, “No, Ma – you can’t move any of us out of our room. We all get along so well! Please…it’s not fair…It’s not fair.” She began shaking her head back and forth as she communicated several times – and very respectfully – that she was completely opposed to the idea of any one of her beloved roommates being moved out of the ‘party room’ and into the much more boring (and physically smaller) room where Gaby and Josselyn sleep. Time and again – literally for about 20 minutes or so – we openly discussed the idea as I sought her ideas for how to bring more equality to the living situation, and each time she resisted any thought of her or her roommates being split up.
I patted her leg and stroked her feet as she sat perched above me on the top bunk, me standing in front of her, my upper body resting against the bunk’s top rungs. We were communicating lovingly and respectfully, although we were completely at odds. We both knew that Darwin and I would have the final say in the matter, but just the same I wanted her input and for some reason felt that she was the one to consult with.
I continued probing and carefully explaining my reasons for wanting to make some kind of room shift – for love of Josselyn and Gaby, who oftentimes feel left out, etc – and she kept resisting, saying, “I hope I’m not the one to be moved, because Josselyn and I don’t even get along! And, the whole time I’ve lived here I’ve never slept in another room…It’s just not fair!” I kept listening and sharing, as did she, but we were getting nowhere and she was just getting more visibly upset and she kept crying.
During this initial part of our conversation two or three of her roommates walked in the room to drop something off or grab their shoes, etc, and they glanced over at Jackeline and I – she and I completely at peace and even showing physical affection as I kept stroking her feet but at the same time Jackeline distraught and with tears pouring down her face. Her roommates looked concerned but at the same time at peace, as emotional conversations (charged with God’s love and a respectful listening ear) are very common in our household and always – without fail – bring about a good result.
Then, out of nowhere, Jackeline said – still through tears but suddenly calmer – “I’ll go.”
As far as I was concerned, she might as well have said, “I’ll die.”
I blinked and my head instinctively snapped backward a couple inches. My mind went blank. I asked, “What –?”
She continued, suddenly steady as a rock: “I’ll be the one to move to the other room. Something inside of me tells me that I’m the one that’s supposed to go.”
A peaceful, beautiful silence fell over us for a moment as I recognized that the Lord had spoken to Jackeline’s heart – completely unbeknownst to me as an outsider far removed from the inner workings of her soul – and that she had not only listened to that still, small voice (that voice that instructed her to do that which her ego desperately wanted to avoid at all costs), but she had also obeyed.
I just stared at her for several moments, feeling as though I had never been more proud of her. This is what it means to follow Christ in the nitty-gritty – in the mundane – of daily life! Rather than conserve your life, lose it for His sake. Rather than seek personal gain (or comfort, or security), let go of your own desires and humble yourself for love’s sake. Consider others better than yourself. Humility. Genuine love of others, even those who are hardest to love. Renounce your life for Christ; die to what you want in order to live for what God wants. Not my will, but Yours be done.
And so I asked carefully – feeling like I was tip-toeing on holy ground, fully cognizant of the fact that God was unspeakably near – if I could sit up on the top bunk next to her. Through tears she indicated for me to climb up. Now she experienced tears not of the fear that I would break up her nightly slumber party but tears of loss that she herself would be the one to go (and not because we had chosen her but because the Lord of hosts had).
And so I sat next to her on that top bunk with my long legs hanging over the edge of the railings as I stretched out my arm and she immediately leaned in and buried her head in my embrace, now weeping harder than before. We stayed like that for a long time, and I thanked God in my heart for this marvelous work He is doing in young Jackeline’s life.
That day our conversation ended up stretching close to two hours as everyone else in our household went about their daily business of cleaning, doing homework, playing in our front yard, etc. God – in that hidden place, in that little nook of a bedroom atop that top bunk in the most unlikeliest of souls – had done what I believe to be the most impressive and supernatural work that can occur in any human’s life – that of listening to the voice of the living God and following it (especially when it goes against all that we want and desire). Jackeline had just experienced – perhaps truly for the first time – what it means to really die to ego (and not a graceful, painless death, but rather a bloody, gruesome kind of death that only the cross can inflict). The Lord had really spoken to our daughter, and she had heeded! Truly there is no greater work in the soul of mankind, no greater proof of faith.
And so from there – once she calmed down and accepted joyfully her fate in the Lord’s hands – we began a long and rather animated discussion on just this same topic: what it means to really die to self, to follow Christ even when His desires go against our own, how to hear the voice of God, how to truly love others even when it costs us, etc. We shared stories and Bible verses, talking back-and-forth as we sat with shoulders touching on that messy top bunk at mid-day.
Two days later – the moving date that she and I decided together – sure enough she gathered her belongings and bid farewell to her beloved room just as she had promised. There were no fireworks, no congratulatory remarks from her old roommates for her selflessness, no lightning striking down from the sky to indicate a victory in the heavens. It was more of a sober death march, that humbling (and painful) act of leaving behind that which one loves for the sake of a Higher Love, that dragging of the cross on one’s shoulder as death draws near.
I helped her move her belongings as you could sense the heaviness in her spirit, but at the same time the joy of the Lord was unmistakably with us. Jackeline was joyful albeit heavy with loss. She would no longer enjoy nightly sleepovers with her best friends and dearest sisters; she would now be rooming with a younger sister with whom she had never really loved and a developmentally-challenged little girl with severe behavioral issues.
That was about a week-and-a-half ago. And so now Jackeline is learning to love those whom she does not naturally love; she is experiencing the joy of the Lord on a deeper level than before (for before perhaps it cost her little; this time it has cost her much); she is learning what it means to die to self in order to live for God, and His mark is most definitely upon her.
The transition has not perhaps been easy for Jackeline, but not once has she cowered back from that which the Lord called her to do (and she has even experienced increasing joy in her decision in the midst of what have been the expected trying circumstances of her new living arrangements). We couldn’t be more proud of the divine work the Lord is etching out in her soul, that truly Christ-like character that is being formed in her.
Amen! Glory to God!