Come to the Well

I glanced between the open textbook on my desk and the message on my phone. Meet in the hallway in 10 minutes! By the time I saw the message, I had only 5 minutes to decide and be ready to go. All day, I hadn’t planned on going. I hadn’t even considered it. But then I saw the text. And I thought about the next day, and what it would be like to hear about the event from the girls on my hall. I realized that I didn’t want to hear about how good it was; I wanted to experience it. What felt like only seconds later, I was walking towards the common room with no idea what was ahead of me, but an expectation that it was going to be really, really good.

And I can say with 100% certainty that there was nowhere else for me to be on campus that Thursday night other than in the music hall, surrounded by my sisters in Christ, for the first night of The Well, a monthly event for young women at Liberty University. It got it’s name from the story of the woman at the well, and seeks to empower women through the transformative love of Jesus Christ.

In the space of about two hours, I was wrecked again and again by truths I have been regularly rejecting and forgetting. For years, I have been choosing the things of the world over the things of the Spirit. From my dreams for the future to the way I spend my time to where I focus my energy and affections, I am constantly and consistently prioritizing myself over my relationship with Christ.

I go through this battle of self vs. spirit knowing that there is a definite right choice, and yet I continue to make decisions based on what I want and what satisfies my pride. I can sit in youth group or small group and talk how God is so much more than the things of this world, but when it comes down to making that choice, I consistently fall into the temptation to choose myself.

It’s not that I doubt God’s goodness or greatness, necessarily. I believe that God has a plan, and that His plan ultimately is better than any plan I could come up with. The problem is that for years, I have been complacent in my relationship with God. I haven’t had a sense of dissatisfaction in my lack of spiritual growth. I’ve been lazy and selfish with my time and energy.

That began to change that Thursday when the speaker asked an auditorium full of young women where we had our affections. For the first time, the idea of idols became clear to me. You see, I always knew that faith has to go beyond the mind. That it’s in the heart. I had all the words and ideas to communicate that in youth groups and bible studies. But I never went anywhere with it. For all my knowledge, I didn’t invest my heart in God because I was too busy investing everywhere else. In grades, in successes, in the idea of the future. And most of all, in relationships.

When you’re investing your heart in places other than God, you’re already in the territory of idolization. And relationships definitely became my idol. That idolization turned something I was created to have into something that was pulling me away from the One who created me.

But there is so much grace and patience in the midst of this battle. And there is comfort in the consistency of the God who waits for His children to stop running, turn back to Him, and collapse in His loving and safe arms.

One Thursday night meeting hasn’t drastically shifted my habits and patterns. Change is a process, and this process is driven by my own motivation and discipline. But there has been a shift in where my affections are focused, and the awakening of a new desire to know and love Jesus in a profound, life-giving way.

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Focusing on the Why

Shortly before I left for college, my family and I spent a week in a cute beach house in Port Aransas, Texas. We were a short walk from the beach, and spent days playing in the waves and relaxing by the pool.

At one point during the week, my dad reminded my sisters and I that our week at the beach could potentially be our last Payne family vacation. He challenged us to go through the rest of the week focusing not on the what of things, but on the why. Our vacation was full of whats. The beach, the house, the ventures into ‘town.’ And it was easy to get caught up in what we were doing, and even easier to forget why we were doing it.

Ultimately, the purpose of our trip to Port Aransas was a way to get away from our daily routines and spend time growing closer together in an intentional way. And honestly, sometimes we didn’t do that very well. Sometimes we lost sight of that purpose; sometimes we became too focused on the what.

Now, a few weeks later, I am sitting in Lynchburg, Virginia, and remembering that conversation. And as I look around my campus-my home-I can recognize a lot of the whats. Textbooks and classes and meal swipes, dinner with friends and the quiet moments between rush hours. I can also recognize that at Liberty, the why is deeply engrained in the school; the professors are dedicated to relating each course towards the mission of creating Champions for Christ, and the goal of glorifying God is entwined in the events around campus. Students are constantly encouraged and mentored to pursue God and strive to glorify Him in all their actions.

But I have learned over the past two weeks that ultimately it doesn’t matter how focused my school is on glorifying God. It doesn’t matter that the student body seems alive with spiritual energy during convocation, or that my professors are dedicated to aligning their courses with Christ, if I am not stepping into those places with a heart and mind prepared and focused on glorifying God on my own.

I have heard a lot of people talking about revival in the past few years. Church and group leaders declare a desire for revival to begin in their congregation. I believe that a community cannot fully glorify the King if the individuals within that community are not experiencing a personal, intimate revival in their own relationship with the Lord. And although many of my classmates and professors may have that, they cannot make the decision for me. Simply being around them is not enough to start a revival in my soul.

Before I came to Liberty, I thought it would be easy to schedule quiet time with the Lord. I built up my life here to be one full of intentionality and personal connection with God and with other believers. And it can be; but it isn’t the place or people that make that decision. That decision rests on me alone.

So here’s to choosing intentionality and connection this year, and actually following through on that choice. Here’s to focusing on the why, and dedicating my days to glorifying God.

The Unseen Woman

I spent countless Sundays as a child sitting in church classrooms, listening eagerly to teachers tell stories from the Bible. Even though these stories stuck in my mind for years, I only recently started recognizing the relevance and depth of them. The stories, once just interesting tales, have become real, personal stories that teach and comfort me. The most recent of these is the story in Mark 5:21-43. 

This passage tells the story of Jesus healing a woman while on His way to heal the daughter of a synagogue ruler. For years, the story was to me simply a demonstration of the power Jesus had and an example of the miracles he could perform. After rereading the passage several times, and hearing my high school girls group discuss it at youth group, the story has taken on a new and deeper meaning for me.

The woman in this story was an outcast from society because of a disease that made her ceremonially unclean. She was unwelcomed in the temple and in her community. For 12 years, this woman was unwanted and ignored by her people. By the time she encountered Jesus, she was getting sicker, without resources, and out of options. But when she heard of Jesus, she knew that just grazing His robes would be enough to heal her.

Reaching out to Jesus in her position was a gutsy move; because of her uncleanliness, she wasn’t supposed to touch anyone, let alone a well-known and respected teacher. But because of her faith in Jesus’ power, she cast aside the potential backlash and pursued the Savior. Unaware that Jesus was on His way to heal Jairus’s dying daughter, the woman followed Jesus through the crowd and touched His clothes. 

Jesus, feeling power leave Him, paused despite the fact that Jairus’s daughter was on the brink of death. He asked the crowd “Who touched my garments?” and out of the crowd came the woman, trembling with fear. Jesus then directly acknowledged the woman and said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Not only did He heal her of the debilitating disease that had plagued her for 12 years, but He stopped in the midst of everything going on to see her and call her His own. Not only did He give her the ability to rejoin her community, but He brought her immediately into His own community.

How comforting is it to know that Jesus does the same for us, every day? At any moment, regardless of our sin or isolation or rejection, we can reach out and be healed by the Savior who loves us and calls us His own. There is no problem too big for Him to resolve, no matter too insignificant for His love and attention. We don’t have to feel unseen or unwanted, because Jesus welcomes us into His family and His love with open arms. All we need to do is have faith and reach out to Him.

When I read about the bleeding woman in Mark 5, I see myself. I see the reflection of women across the world; women who feel isolated, undesired, and ashamed. And in that story, I see redemption and healing and love. I see broken people being made whole in the unconditional love of our God, being brought out of loneliness and into community with the Savior.

Small Gesture, Big Meaning

Almost a week ago, I made the small gesture of moving my tassel from one side to the other. As small a movement as it was, it carried a pretty significant meaning; I am no longer a high school student. I am that much closer to independence and adulthood.

The entire weekend of my graduation, I felt the need to blog pressing in the back of my mind. It only made sense to post something about graduation. There was no way I had nothing to say about such a big event. But every time I sat down to write, I felt stuck. The words wouldn’t come out in the right order, if they came out at all. This remained until I realized I don’t owe anyone a blog post. I write on this blog ultimately for myself, and while I have an audience, I do not owe that audience. I have the freedom to wait and give the blog post time to come out naturally.

I’ve given it almost a week, and although this week has been somewhat busy, there have been pockets of time to reflect on the past four years and the lessons I’ve learned throughout.

One of the biggest things I have seen and learned about in all four years of high school is God’s provision. In my freshman year, He opened the doors for me to become involved in the school newspaper, which kick started a passion that hasn’t faded. As a sophomore, God gave me two fantastic friends who made me feel loved and important in a place that made me feel unwelcome, lonely and isolated. Last year, God surrounded me with a community of supporters that lifted me up and encouraged me as God was working in my heart and my life.

The provision I’ve seen in the last year alone is beyond words. Through the process of applying for the ROTC scholarship, God filled me with strength, determination and patience, and He opened doors repeatedly that got me to where I am now. When I felt inadequate or uneasy, He filled me with His peace. And after an initial stinging rejection, He opened the doors for me to be accepted into Liberty’s Honors Program. Smaller, but just as meaningful, He provided me with a much-desired Arabic class that fit perfectly into my schedule. And emotionally, He gave me energy and healing after a toxic friendship.

God is a great, great provider, and He loves to meet our needs. I remember being so shocked at the story of Gideon and the fleece, because somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that we’re not allowed to ask God for clarification or signs. I thought we were supposed to sit tight and not ask questions. I thought that if you asked for a sign you were showing your doubt. When I read about Gideon and the fleece, I thought “What is this guy doing? Doesn’t he know we’re not supposed to ask questions?”

I am so glad I was wrong, and that Gideon asked God for signs so many years ago. I am so glad that my God loves me and loves when I ask Him for things. My God is so, so good, and even in the abundance of awkward, lonely, insecure moments He has used these four years in high school to meet my needs and show me His love for me.

An Overwhelmed Heart

A dear friend recently asked me, “If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself going into your senior year?”  Although I had expected some broad, deep question our entire walk, I had to pause and think about my answer.

“I would tell myself to step take a step back and chill out.” I told her. “Because when it comes to chill, I have none.” It was a lighthearted response, and the conversation was filled with a degree of ease and laughter. But the comment had a large degree of honesty in it, too .

I like to be in control. I like to have a plan. I like to color coordinate my calendar and cross items of To-Do lists and reach mental goals that in the grand scheme of things really don’t matter. I obsess over time and whether or not I’m spending it well. I worry that I’m being held back or disadvantaged and that I need to be pouring all of my energy into alleviating the drawbacks. I get upset when people waste my time because I have things to get done.

This mentality is often a source of motivation and productivity. But it is also a source of anxiety and isolation.

I went through a several-month period where I didn’t spend time with friends or take any time to relax. Watching TV became stressful because I felt that the 50 minutes spent on Netflix could be put towards studying or reading or doing homework. I declined invitations to spend time with friends because if I went with them, I could not let go of the feeling that I was running out of time for other things.

For several months, everything I did was surrounded with stress and anxiety. I could not escape the feeling that I was wasting time.

This mentality comes and goes. I’ll have a couple months of ‘relaxing’ that are likely a result of a temporary burnout from my stressful, intense productivity. But even these months of relaxing are marked by a worry that I’m not doing the right thing.

But I was not created to live life in a vacuum of stress and anxiety, and when I choose to focus on To-Dos and Haven’t-Done’s, I invite in negativity that God doesn’t want for me. And more importantly than that, when I prioritize school and my success, God falls to the wayside.

I am learning (and will be learning for the rest of my life) that I cannot overcome the stresses and anxieties of life on my own. I am powerless against the craziness, and no matter how much I plan, things will always go wrong.

I love the image evoked in Psalm 61:2, which says “When my heart is overwhelmed; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” When we are in the midst of the chaos, our problems loom over us, blocking our view of our Savior. But God is a solid foundation that is higher than us, and when we let Him be, He is much, much higher than the struggles we face. He lifts us up in His righteous right hand, and is unendingly willing to show His power and love for us.

Through everything, we have a God that loves us and loves to be with us. His presence is full of peace, grace, and comfort, and provides relief from uncertainty and trouble.  Although I am prone to an overwhelmed heart, I have the ability to choose God’s presence, and all the good that comes with it.

P.S., It’s Not About The Song 

When I was in ninth grade, my youth group and I took a trip to Kansas City for a youth conference, Acquire the Fire. On the way home, my friends and I were talking about the event-and complaining about the music.

The band that lead worship was a talented group of people. But they chose the same songs for every worship session. And they repeated the same lines over. And over. And over again. We all agreed that the worship would have been better if we’d been able to sing different songs. Or maybe if we sang the chorus twice instead of twenty times.

A dear friend and mentor heard the conversation, and fortunately stepped in. She challenged us to see worship in a different way. To see the Lord instead of the lyrics on the screen. To have a heart of worship regardless of how many times you’ve repeated the same phrase. She told us that worship is more about where our heart is than the quality of the music.

That night, she began to teach me a lesson that I still haven’t learned. I still find myself criticizing worship leaders and aspects of the worship bands (which is ironic considering I can’t carry a tune to save my life.) I still find myself saying “if they could just play it the right way, it would be easier to worship.”

This mentality takes the responsibility off of my shoulders. If I blame the band for my lack of worship because they were playing a song too fast, then I don’t have to confront my own failures in worship. I don’t have to admit that I was holding on to anger and that it was keeping me from worship. I don’t have to admit that I wasn’t willing to let go of my daydreams to focus on the Lord that has never stopped focusing on me. I don’t have to admit that I failed the one who would never fail me.

But by blaming the band or the song choice, I’m also telling God that my ability to worship is based on external factors. It is based on the people I’m with and what they’ll think of me. There are times where I’m hesitant to raise my hand in praise because heaven forbid I do something unusual. How different a picture that is from King David, who danced before the Lord with complete disregard for anyone else’s opinions-including his wife’s.

Since that conversation in Kansas City, I’ve come a long way with worship. I am more deliberate with where my heart is when I sing praises, and I understand that worship isn’t about the song. As I move forward in my relationship with the Lord, I want to deepen this intentionality so that my worship fills all my actions, not just the ones when I stand in the church pew. I was created to praise the Lord in all I do, and I’m not going to let a song put a damper on that.

Smart Phones Suck, Get Rid of Yours. 

Every morning, I run past a house with chalk drawings scrawled across the sidewalk out front. While most of the doodles were images of creatures and people, one child had elected to write a simple message to passerby: ‘Smart phones suck. Get rid of yours.’ I meant to take a picture (with my smartphone, of course), but it was washed away by the rain before I did. 

I wondered how many times that child had noticed the epidemic plaguing society: a couple going for a walk after a day at work, both with eyes glued to their phones. A teen walking past, their phone an extension of their hand, not bothering to smile at the people they passed. The epidemic may very well have hit their own home, with parents missing stories from the day because they’re scrolling through Facebook, or an older sibling ignoring the pleas to play in favor of texting their friends.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a trend in my own habits. When my friend group is met with a lull in conversation or action, my phone is in my hands, either to check my social media (needlessly) or to play a couple rounds of a mindless game. Although I’m still aware of the conversations when I’m playing those addicting iPhone games, I seem disinterested. I seem uninvested. I seem like I’d rather be somewhere else. It gives the impression that the people I’m with aren’t good enough for my full attention. 

Smartphones are a fantastic asset; I can connect with my global friends instantly, I can keep tabs on what’s happening around the world, and I stay on top of events and appointments with ease. 

But smartphones can also be dangerous. We have a habit of devoting time and energy to the people in other towns, states, and countries, while neglecting the connections we could be making within our neighborhoods. We’re so focused on what’s happening in the world that we forget to ask what’s happening in our friends’ lives. We spend so much time thinking about future appointments that we forget to live in the moment and soak in experiences.

We were created for communion with God and with each other, and while phones can contribute to connections, they cannot compare to the power of going for coffee and doing life with people. 

I often find myself planning for the relationships I will develop in college. I daydream about building friendships within my dorm, my ROTC community, and my classmates. God is opening doors and I know He will provide deep, fulfilling communities for me while I’m in college. 

But I cannot let my eagerness for college pull me away from the opportunities and the experiences in front of me as I finish my last semester of high school, or get in the way of developing a solid, consistent relationship with God. 

I’m not going to do anything so drastic as to get rid of my smartphone (sorry, neighborhood kid!). But I am going to start paying more attention to how and when I use my phone. It will be an asset, not a hinderance, to the relationships I am in now and will develop in the future. 

Turning The Page

The last days of 2016 were filled with reflection. Thoughts of the previous year, and hopes and fears for the new year, filled my mind as I went through the motions of Christmas break. New Years Eve held not only the transition from one year to another, but also from one stage of life to another. 2017 will be a year of change, of trust, and of growth.

I’m overwhelmed by thoughts of AP exams, scholarships, and other stressful events. I obsess over whether I should have done something different, or better, or not at all. I wonder if I’m good enough.

With my senior year drawing to a close, I find myself looking into what feels like the vast unknown of my first semester of college. Several paths branch out before me, forking off in different directions and bending out of view. I’m standing before them all, trying to see as far as I can to decide which path to take.

Throughout the past few months, I went through the process of applying for an ROTC scholarship. I spent hours rereading essays and double and triple checking questions. I got up an hour early most mornings to run a few miles in preparation for the physical assessment. I’ve made myself sick from the stress of wondering if I’ll get the scholarship and questioning whether or not I did enough.

I grew up hearing and repeating the phrase “hurry up and wait.” But for the first time, I feel its meaning personally. I worked hard to get everything in on time for the scholarship. And now all I can do is wait and see what God does with it. As I head into this year of change, it seems appropriate to make a few resolutions.

I’ve always thought New Year’s resolutions were pointless. The celebration of the day in general has always seemed the same way. When you wake up on January 1, nothing from the previous year will have changed except the number on the calendar. There’s no magic reset button at 11:59 p.m. on December 31st. Why wait till the beginning of next year to make a change? Start today (whatever day “today” happens to be).

1) With all of the question marks looming before me, I resolve to lean on the Lord and trust in Him. If ROTC is a part of His plan for me, then those doors will be opened-regardless of my mile time, my interview, or my ACT score.

2) As I go through this year of change and uncertainty, I will look to God for my identity and my purpose. I will not place my identity in other people or in my success; I will focus on who I am in Christ and who He is creating me to be and what he is preparing me for. I will ground myself in His word and allow Him to take the reins.

3) Every once in a while, I will remember to stop and smell the roses. This year is a big year, and it will be a stressful year. But it will also be a year of growth and learning, and I will give myself room to be still and soak in the lessons the Lord has for me.

Instead of heading into 2017 with unease, I move forward armed with the truth that He goes before me to prepare my way, that He will provide for me, and that I am beloved by Him.

“Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed.” Proverbs 16:3.

Failure is Tough but I am Enough

At 3:45 two Sundays ago, my mom received the call I’d been waiting weeks for; a spot opened for me to go to Girls State. An hour later, my parents and I hit the road on our way to Seguin, Texas. Mostly I felt excited. For one of the first times in my life, I would be surrounded by intelligent, involved, and eager girls who  were my age.

My parents dropped me off, and I jumped into Girls State life, instantly joining conversations and seeing the beginnings of friendships sprout from unlikely places (Chacos were quite the conversation starter). Since I got there late, I was behind on the information, and the girls in my city were more than willing to help catch me up.

Not only were these girls intelligent and talented, but they were humble. They were honest, and funny, and kind, and unique.

I went into the week knowing that I would run for an office, but I didn’t know what. At first I bounced between city and county attorney. I chose county; but then I began to wonder if I sold myself short by not going for the highest. So I decided to run for Attorney General. I wrote my speech. I loved my speech. I felt confident; I would get through primaries, at least. I was so sure of it.

And then I didn’t. As soon as I heard the other girl’s name, I felt ashamed. I was so embarrassed for trying to do something way over my head. I felt foolish for even thinking that I could make it. I felt stupid.

The worst thing about these kinds of thoughts is that once the first one comes, they don’t stop. I went from being embarrassed about not winning to despising everything about myself. I felt stupid, immature, and ignorant. Things I have never felt before. I began to think I was unqualified to be there. I may have a high GPA, take all accelerated classes in school, and have an undying love for reading. But there? At Girls State? I felt fake, like I was pretending to be something that I’m not.

It didn’t matter that I am aware of what’s going on in the world, or that I’m passionate about a wide variety of things. My desire to learn and my love for the people I am surrounded by were forgotten. The things that make me who I am no longer mattered, because they weren’t enough to get me to where I wanted to be. I felt inferior to the girl who won-anyone who won, really. What do they have that I don’t? What makes them so good?

But I realized sometime between that moment and the end of the night that other people being good doesn’t make me less good. I may not have won the position I wanted, but I am talented, I am intelligent, and I have a right to take up the space I occupy. I am not less for losing.

So often we think failure is a sign of weakness or worthlessness. I’m as guilty of it as anyone else; I have a fear of failure. It holds me back from joining teams and clubs because the thought of trying something and not succeeding drains the excitement from so much. This week, I overcame that fear and tried for something that was not a guarantee.

And I failed.

But I’m more secure in who I am because of it.

Failing does not mean we are inadequate or inferior. The people around us are not better for their successes or wins. Our culture runs on jealousy and bitterness, and it creates the idea that if we’re not the very best, we’re the worst-regardless of how good we actually are.

I was created in God’s image, with a specific purpose and a specific set of talents for that purpose. And so were you. But we can’t focus on our relationships with God (or with others) if we’re constantly comparing ourselves to the people around us.

Over the course of the week, I learned how to fail, and it wasn’t a fun lesson to learn. But without ‘missing the mark,’ I wouldn’t be able to confidently say that I am enough, despite my failures.

Picket Signs and Protests: The Fight for Life

Roughly 422,782 abortions have taken place in the United States this year, a number that is growing rapidly.

I don’t support abortion.

But I understand.

I understand the teenage girl who tries so hard to set herself up for a good future, and gets pregnant unexpectedly. I understand the woman in poverty who feels that an abortion would be better than bringing a child into the life she lives. I understand.

I am pro-life. But I am tired of the pro-life movement.

I am tired of picket signs and protests outside of Planned Parenthood. I am tired of pro-lifers speaking up only when the unborn child is brought into the equation. I am tired of a movement that is pro-birth, rather than pro-life.

So often I hear pro-life activists say women should keep their babies because there are couples that want to adopt those children. But with 135,000 children adopted within the United States each year, a majority of the children born to teen mothers alone will end up in the foster system their entire child and adolescent years.

So often I hear pro-life activists say women should keep their baby because life in poverty is better than no life at all. There’s always the off chance that they’ll eventually escape poverty, right?

Rarely do I hear pro-lifers speak up on anything other than abortion. I haven’t seen pro-lifers fighting poverty in the depleted areas of the country. I haven’t seen pro-lifers making movements in prison reform, suicide prevention, or other areas where lives are threatened. And those that do are drowned out by the voice of the masses who preach life only for unborn children.

What about the homeless? The hungry? The hurting? Don’t they deserve life as much as the unborn child?

There are people who are living in situations of poverty and despair, but the pro-lifers are notably silent on the issue. There are people hanging by a thread to keep themselves and their children alive, and they don’t see pro-lifers marching to save the day.

Instead of telling a woman her child deserves the off chance, give both her and her child a good chance.

Instead of simply banning a practice, make the other options better.

Instead of fighting abortion only, fight for life everywhere.

Sister Joan Chittister summed it up better than anyone else could: “Your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth.”