Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Faith Story

OK, since I`m leaving for China on Friday morning and won`t have internet access for the next week, I decided to do an early blog post. But I haven`t had a weekend yet since I last wrote, so I haven’t done anything particularly “exciting,” except write to a publisher and two agents (no responses yet), and go to two Christmas parties, make a new Chinese friend, go shopping and frantically get ready to leave the country. … OK, so I guess that`s not “nothing.” But what I`m trying to get at is that this post is a perfect time to talk about something I`ve wanted to write for a long time. My testimony. That`s a very intimidating word to most folks, but that`s why I titled this entry “my faith story,” because that`s all a testimony really is. The original word means “evidence in support of a fact or statement.” I don`t think my story proves that Jesus is the savior of the world or even that God exists; in this case the “fact or statement” is simply “I am a Christian.” This story tells why.

I come from a fairly small family. Just me, my mom, my dad, and three brothers. We were all raised in the church. I was baptized as an infant in the Episcopal church with God parents and the works, but when my mom got a job at a Presbyterian church, we moved there. She was an organist, so when I say I grew up in the church, I mean I literally grew up there. Often when she went in to practice, Mom took my younger brother Benjamin and me with her. The hallways and basement became our playrooms, and the massive (it seemed at the time) gardens, glens, and playgrounds our backyard. But my favorite place was behind the organ pipes. I loved to hear their deep, bright voices and dance to the music, or climb up inside the chamber and feel the floor vibrate beneath me. That was my heavy metal, my head banging music. To me, nothing could compare to the blast of a Bach or Motzart power cord.

Those were probably my first “encounters” with God. I can`t really point to a time when I started believing in Jesus. My mother claims that I was proudly proclaiming my faith at the age of four, and when my older brother hit me, I`d say, “Stop it Tony or you`ll knock Jesus out of my heart.” But it was through music that I first felt God was real; there, with me, in the room. One Christmas when I was about eight I burst into tears after the partial performance of a mass, and my dad kept asking me what was wrong, if the music was too loud. All I could say was, “God is here.”

I should probably also pause and say that just a few years before that, when I was six, I started telling stories. They began as imaginary games I played with friends, visiting distant worlds with my “super sisters” that each had a special power. By the time I was eight, the character that had been me was someone else entirely, a “Zeptarian” creature of light from another world, and I began creating the universe with all its planets and races and cultures that I obsessively write about in my fiction today.

But when I was nine, the beautiful world of my childhood shattered. My youngest brother Daniel died suddenly. He drowned in our above ground pool- he was almost two years old. I blamed myself, because I had been the one who left the ladder down, allowing him to climb up and fall in. Nobody else blamed me; in fact, everyone seemed to find a reason to blame themselves and no one else. But guilt can be a crippling burden, and no one knew how to address it.

After the funeral, we were expected to go right back to our normal lives as if nothing had happened, as if my brother Daniel never even existed. My peers laughed when they saw me crying, and teachers just ignored their mockery.

I became very sick and had to go to the hospital several times. As the doctors gave me more and more antibiotics, I kept getting sicker and sicker, my white blood cell count as low as someone with AIDs. I had a number of chronic conditions. I won`t list them all, but a few were mononucleosis, lyme disease, and a disease similar to lupis (the doctors never did find out what it really was) that made my limbs and sometimes my lungs swell up at random times, making movement and breathing difficult or almost impossible. My mother took me to at least a dozen specialists but nothing helped.

I longed to escape the horrible world I lived in, so when I was ten, I began writing down the stories that had been swirling around my head for years. Not that the universe I created was a very pleasant one. In my first novel, which I finished at the age of twelve, the main character lost her entire family, was forced to flee her home and marry a man she wasn`t sure she wanted, and by the end of the book, hated her new home and husband. After reading it and several of my short stories, my mother exclaimed, “Why can`t you write something happy for a change?” Now that I think about it, she still says that.

I became very angry and bitter toward God. During my illness from the time I was ten to about twelve, I read a lot and started exploring other religions and even atheism. If God is real, I reasoned, than He must not be a loving God, in which case, why should it matter whether I believe in Him or not? When I read the Bible, I couldn`t find any answers. All I saw were the stories of God's wrath and anger, and it didn`t help that a few of my Christian friends at school told me that God was punishing my family, or that maybe Daniel would have grown up to be a serial killer. In one last, desperate attempt to hang on to my faith, I cried out to God. “If you`re real and you care, then do something. Heal me. Fix this.”

And that`s exactly what God did. Almost the next day, my mother found a Christian homeopathic doctor who was able to cure me and take away all my physical pain. A Christian counselor began meeting with my parents, and helped repair their broken marriage. Another Christian counselor from our church called and asked if I wanted to hang out, just hang out, and through our time together all the hurt and bitterness came pouring out, and she helped me wade through it. She and a number of very faithful Christians in my church and school looked after me and prayed for me, read the Bible with me and tried to answer my questions. “Nobody has all the answers, they said, “Just trust in God.”

I hated that answer. I called it the “great Christian cop-out.” Like Job, I wanted God to answer for what I thought He`d done, and to know for certain that something horrible like Daniel's death and my sickness wouldn't happen again. Mostly, I wanted to be in control of my own life and to know everything.

That`s when I started hearing God speaking to me. I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes I can hear His voice, still and small, assuring me and guiding me, or very loudly if I`m about to do something really stupid.

So total atheism became impossible for me. From there I examined various religions and theologies. I kept coming back to what I knew to be true in my heart: that something was wrong with the world and things weren`t meant to be this way. Most people know this instinctively and voice it all the time, but fail to realize the full implications of such a statement.

That`s when the Christian view that God created the world perfect- but it became tainted thanks to humans- started to make perfect sense. God hadn`t “killed” Daniel. My brother died and I was sick as a result of this taintedness- what the Bible calls Sin- in the world. Sin dosn`t just mean to do something bad; that`s where people get confused. Sin with a capital S refers to the taintedness of the world. The world WASN`T made this way and ISN`T meant to be this way. The world is broken. The whole story of the Bible is one that describes this brokenness and how God is going about fixing it through Jesus. I couldn`t find this sort of explanation for what I felt in my heart and knew in my head in any other religion, so I concluded that Christianity must be closest to the truth.

Once I realized this, all my suffering became much easier to bare. Not only was God working to redeem the world, but he was not satisfied to let us endure alone in the mean time. God Himself knew what it was like to suffer and lose a family member- his own son who died on the cross for our sins. And through his Spirit, He is with us every day.

But I still held on tightly to the reigns of control in my life. I was able to give some of my pain and grief to Him, but not all. I believed in Christianity intellectually and studied the Bible with all the fervor of a student studying for an entrance exam, but I couldn`t accept God`s love and grace. I still felt I had to earn it, to try harder, do better. Then God would love me. The fact that the Creator of the Universe would love me simply because that is His nature, not something I could earn, and want me to have the fullest, most abundant life possible, was too big for my heart to grasp.

My faith went through ups and downs, or valleys and mountains, as I like to say. I went to a number of churches, ranging from super evangelistic and contemporary to the somber, sit down/stand up liturgy of my childhood. Some days I felt really passionate about God and was excited about reading my Bible and worshiping, other days I found the whole affair tedious and annoying. Praise songs sounded like noise; I felt empty and alone.

In one particularly long “valley” when I was a senior in high school, I met a man named Darren. He was handsome, smart, funny, and a genuinely caring person. But he wasn't a Christian. I didn't think this was a problem because he was interested in Christianity and I thought he would sort of “grow into it.”

Things started getting tough when we went to college. He attended Oklahoma State and I went to the University of Tulsa. I honestly have no idea why I went there. I had wanted to go to England (preferably Oxford) or California (USC or UCLA), but last minute I settled on the university just twenty minutes from home. It was a good school (top 4% in the nation), I got some descent scholarships, and I liked the Presbyterian Leaders and Scholars program, but it felt like settling for fourth best. I didn't know it at the time, but coming to The University of Tulsa was really a great example of God's providence in my life, of Him shaping and molding me into the person He wanted me to be. But after only a few months, I was miserable. OSU and TU were about one hundred miles from each other. I didn't know anyone at TU. I lived at home with my parents but I wanted nothing more than to get out of the house and be close to Darren. 

As our relationship progressed, it became clearer that he was not becoming a Christian. He started hanging out with some drug users and not-so-nice people, began using foul language, and refused to go to church or pray or read the Bible. And he really started pressuring me about sexual things. I was determined to stay pure until marriage. Of course, his logic was “we`re going to get married anyway,” but I knew it was too early. It was a constant battle to keep my morals- I felt like I had to fight him every time I saw him and I felt myself slipping further and further. I stopped reading my Bible and praying as much, and went to church less. After our first year in college, he officially proposed to me, and against the voice that had been screaming "NO!" in the back of my head for the past six months and was now almost deafening, I said "yes."

That`s when I heard about a mission trip to Malawi, Africa sponsored by the Presbyterian Leaders and Scholars at TU. During high school I had gone on several mission trips and really loved them. There were several members in my church who were very active in Malawi missions, so I had told myself since I was a little girl that if the opportunity ever arose for me to go, I would go. But when I told Darren about it, he said no, and refused to discuss it. He very rarely put his foot down on anything, typically being of a gentle and sweet demeanor, but he was livid about this. And so was his family. They said it was too dangerous, that I had no business going to Africa and that I wouldn`t be able to do any good there. Torn and depressed, I let it go.

About the second semester of my freshman year, I had met a really wonderful Christian girl named Nicole. I confessed a little bit of what was happening with Darren. She was very supportive and understanding, and active in a group called Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). They held worship, Bible studies, and fellowship every week, and she encouraged me to come. I always made an excuse not to, usually that I was busy and didn`t have access to the car in the evenings. Knowing I really wanted to live on campus, she suggested we room together. I agreed, and the fall semester of 2007, my junior year, we became apartment mates.

Now that I didn't have an excuse anymore, I started going to worship with Nicole and her friends during the week and attending Bible Study that met in our apartment. I realized how much I missed being in a community of faith and that I wasn`t the only one who felt deep inside that the things Darren wanted me to do were wrong. He and his family and friends always acted like I was crazy for thinking that. I was "too conservative and sheltered." He also started mocking my beliefs, making them sound silly, and I had begun to wonder if they were. But the Christians I met through Nicole, RUF, and the Presbyterian Leaders and Scholars were very intelligent people who thought and felt as I did. They introduced me to a number of books on Christian apologetics (defense of Christianity) that reassured me I held a perfectly valid, logical view. Among my favorites were C.S. Lewis`s Mere Christianity, Timothy Keller`s A Reason for God, and various pamphlets discussing the origins, validity and trustworthiness of the Bible.

That`s when what I knew in my head became clear to my heart. Before I only knew intellectually just how foolish it was to think I could earn the love of an all powerful, all knowing, all perfect Creator. It would be like a bacterium trying to earn the love of the scientist who cultured it and continually watches over it. What can it do, wave its meager flagella and try to help the other bacteria? Is that really going to earn the scientist`s love? The only way the scientist would ever love such a small, unimportant creature is if he simply decided to do so.

And now I knew, so it is with us and God. He has decided, in accordance with His loving nature, to make us His children. Who would do that, after we were so disobedient and mocked Him and even tortured Him to death? Would a robot maker, if the robot were to start smashing things and killing other robots and attacking the maker, allow the robot to continue running, let alone love and adopt it? What an amazing God! Many people ask the question, “Why does God send people to hell?” But when you think about it, God has absolutely no moral obligation to us, and we`ve made this planet and each other miserable and disobeyed Him over and over, so why shouldn`t He eternally separate us from Him? It would make sense for Him just to wipe out all of this tainted creation and start from scratch, for real this time, not just with a flood. But no, the true mystery and wonder of Christianity is this: How can a perfect God love screw ups like us? But He does. Once I realized that with my heart, not just my head, my whole outlook changed.

Early that semester, I also went on a Presbyterian Leaders and Scholars retreat. One of the pastors, Michael Holman, gave a sermon about a relationship he had during his youth that was a lot like Darren and mine and how he broke it off. I went to him afterwards crying and he prayed with me and encouraged me to be open to God's call. A few days later I heard another sermon about the same thing that made me cry. The very next day I went to RUF worship for the first time, and the RUF pastor gave a similar sermon. I`ll never forget that. “The Bible tells us that if we become a Christian after we`re married, we should stay married to our non-Christian spouse, working and praying for their salvation. But you should not, under any circumstances, when you are already a Christian, YOKE YOURSELF TO AN UNBELIEVER!”

He looked straight at me. Direct eye contact. It felt as if he locked his gaze for a full thirty seconds, but I`m sure it was only half an instant. After the service, I approached him hesitantly.

“I guess the other girls in Bible study have been talking about me, huh?” I asked.

He turned to me, his brow furrowed in confusion. “I don`t believe we`ve met.”

“I`m Laura, Laura Popp.”

He smiled. “Nice name, though I can`t say I`ve heard it before.”

How silly of me! I thought. I know those girls aren`t gossips. “But then, how did you know to look at me right when you said, `Do not yoke yourself to an unbeliever?` ”

He shrugged. “God told me to look at you then. And you should have seen the way you squirmed! So, you wanna talk about it?”

The next day we had coffee, and I explained everything that was going on with Darren. He listened intently and patiently, saying nothing, his eyes closed and nodding. Finally when I finished my story, he opened his eyes, looked straight at me again and said, “What does the Bible say about this?”

I swallowed. I knew what it said. And from the look on my face, he knew I knew what it said.

“Do you believe that the Bible is the Word of God?”

I cringed. “Well…”

“Or maybe just sometimes, when it`s convenient? It either is or it isn`t, Laura. You can`t pick out the parts you don`t like and call the rest Good.”

I sighed and nodded.

“Then you know what you should do.”

Yes, I did. And at that moment, even as the tears spilled over my cheeks, I felt the Holy Spirit fill me with courage and I knew God would give me the strength to see it through.

That weekend I called Darren and he came over to my apartment. I gave him back the engagement ring and told him I couldn't marry him. He cried and argued and fought with me for six hours and there were moments when I thought I couldn't go through with it. At those moments I left my room and cried in Nicole's arms. She told me everything would be all right, that God would be with me. Then I'd go back into my room and talk to Darren again. Finally he came to understand that I was serious, that we weren`t compatible, and that Christ and the church were far more important to me than he was. He left, and I never saw him again.

That was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I won't pretend it's been easy since. But God gave me a lot of encouragement when I needed it most. Shortly after I broke up with Darren, my dear friend Amy, while on an RUF ski trip, had a horrible accident on a remote slope. She literally busted her head open. The paramedics said she wouldn’t even make it to the hospital. She made it to the hospital, but they said she wouldn`t live through the night. She lived through the night, but the doctors said she would never wake up. The next day, she was surrounded by the other RUF members, who were praying for her constantly. While they were singing her favorite hymn, Amy squeezed someone`s hand. She could hear them, she was conscious, but the doctors said she would never open her eyes. The next day, Amy opened her eyes and smiled, but she couldn`t see. The doctors said she would never see. Very soon, Amy could see all the smiling, supportive faces of her Christian friends at her bedside. Then she was able to mouth words, and to talk, and to walk, and go back to school, and six months later, she could play her favorite sports again. Other than a slight cross in her eyes and a few scars, you would never know she had the accident.

Amy is such a testament to me. Throughout her rehabilitation, people were praying for her all the time. She was always a happy person, but after the accident, I never saw her without a smile or laughing. She`s always praising God and telling others what He`s done for her. Her life is a testimony to His saving power. I don`t know why God chooses to help some people and not others, why He healed Amy and not Daniel. But I truly believe that in the end it dosn`t matter, because I will see him in heaven.

As for breaking up with Darren, that was one of best decisions I ever made. In the summer of 2008, I went to Malawi, Africa for three weeks. I made a documentary about it which has been shown all over the world to raise money and awareness for Malawi`s AIDs orphans. I have it up on youtube, so if you want to see it, here`s a link:

And now I`m living and working in Japan, doing ministry with the most loving, gracious people in the world. None of this would have happened if I`d married Darren. I can look back at the times in my life when I thought God was being cruel, arbitrary, and unfair, and see that He was actually picking up the pieces of my shattered life and making them into a beautiful mosaic.

That is my testimony, my faith journey. It`s my prayer that it will be of use to someone. But it`s certainly not over. Every day God adds new pages. I prayed fervently on Friday for God to give me more opportunities to tell others the Gospel, and on Saturday at a Christmas party, I was talking about my church with another ALT, and a Chinese man approached me.

“You`re talking about church?” he asked. “I`m not a Christian, but my brother is, and I`m curious to learn about it. Do you know the Bible? Could you teach me?”

Wow! And then at the Wednesday night “Forget the Year” party thrown by my adult students, one of them randomly opened up to me, telling me about the “hole in his heart” caused by so much grief, and that he wanted to know what he could do to fill it. I told him about Jesus, and he said he had read the Bible, so I explained the scriptures to him, highlighting God`s love and the fullness we can experience through faith in Jesus Christ. He seemed deeply touched, and became a little teary eyed. “I want that hope,” he said.

Many people tell me they don`t witness because it`s too hard, they don`t know what to say, and they don`t want to be obtrusive. Really, all it takes is prayer and love. Pray for opportunities to witness, and they will arise. Pray for those you know who aren`t Christians; that`s how my pastor became a Christian. No one pressed him, but there were many faithful Christian praying for him. Pray to know when to speak, and when to just listen.

Speaking of Prayer: In addition to the above mentioned things, please pray for my safe travel to China and in China this coming week! Also, on December 25th, the church is having a special candle light service and many non-Christians are planning to attend. May God do great things!

I`d like to end with my favorite scripture, Hebrews 12:1-3. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.” I 'd just like to encourage any Christian reading this to stay emerced in a body of believers, to surround yourself with strong Christians who will root for you to keep running the race and fighting the fight until the day we see our Lord Jesus Christ face to face, and he can say “Well done, good and faithful servant.” For those who aren`t Christians, just give it some thought. It may not seem so important compared to the many problems and troubles facing you in the present, but your eternal destiny is the most significant decision you will ever make, effecting your life now and forever.


Rich said...

I appreciate this. I also appreciate the way you made this an encouragement for Christians. I am reminded of the Story of the Prodigal Son. Yes, the story seems to be about the lost wayward son who screws things up, but it's also about the Other Son, too, who represents the people who have been Christian for awhile, but sometimes forget themselves and get angry with God.

L.J. Popp said...

Wow, you know, that`s interesting, because I always sympathized a lot more with the older brother! I found his struggles were my struggles, and I am much more prone to act like him, bitter and unsatisfied after "all the work I`ve done" than like the wayward but humbly grateful prodigal. The wonderful thing about parables is that we can see ourselves in any one of the characters and learn from it. I`ve even heard some people say they feel most like the father, struggling to love both sons the way they need to be loved, when it`s not always easy!

dean douthitt said...

Just read this post and found it interesting. If you don't have a boyfriend yet, you will, Laura (maybe not in Japan, though). You're attractive and attractive Christian women always get picked up by Christian men sooner or later.