Thursday, January 30, 2014

from fear to freedom

In my last post I wrote about how God was teaching me to step out of my comfort zone. For the past year, my Saturday nights had been occupied with leading Sr. High youth group at church. However, just when I started to get comfortable with that role, God decided to shake things up again.  

January 2010. It was supposed to be just another Saturday night. I had everything all planned out. An hour of games in the gym, followed by a brief lesson and prayer time. Then snacks and some more games. I was a little nervous because I was leading all by myself that night, but I'd done it before and knew I could handle it. No big deal. 

Much to my dismay, 7:30 rolled around, and no one showed up. Up until this point, I could always count on at least 4 kids coming out. But 7:45 came and went...and still nobody. By 8pm, it was obvious that the night was a bust. Disappointed, I said goodnight to the janitor at the school, and headed out. 

Walking to my car, I paused to look across the street and noticed that there were several cars in the church parking lot. The lights were on at the church. Was there some event going on that I had forgotten? I was not ready to face a Saturday night home alone, and my curiosity was piqued. I decided to head to the church instead of going straight home.

Upon arrival, I could hear the band practicing for tomorrow morning's service. I decided I would slip inside and  just listen for a while. Unfortunately, my plan was thwarted when the praise team leader saw me and immediately said, "We're short a singer tonight...want to come up here and sing with us?" 

Now, don't get me wrong--I actually enjoy singing. I'd sung the choir, and been in several musical productions back in the day. But to actually stand where people could see me and sing into a microphone so people could hear me? Yikes! 

Sensing my hesitation, the guitarist assured me it was only a practice and there was no one else in the auditorium. The pianist, who I knew from choir, informed me that I already knew all the songs anyway. The drummer, who just happened to be a close friend of mine, gave me a look that said, "Don't be a chicken...just do it." 

I reluctantly agreed, and gingerly accepted the microphone, half expecting it to bite my hand. It did not. Somehow I made it through the first song. The second came easier.  I started to relax and have fun. Well, until practice was over, and the pianist said, "I think you should sing with us tomorrow morning," that is. 

Crap. This was exactly what I did not want to do. Public singing was a million times worse than public speaking! I could feel my throat tightening and my body breaking out in a sweat already, just thinking about it. As I envisioned myself standing in front of an auditorium filled with 300 people, I started to feel sick. 

Long after everyone else left for the night, my drummer friend sat with me on the stage, as I "claimed my space" for the upcoming service, and practiced deep breathing techniques to try and calm the butterflies. He assured me that each time I got on the stage, it would be a little easier. Each time? If I somehow managed to survive this ordeal, I vowed that there would be no next time.

I did not sleep very well that night and my anxiety was at an all-time high the next morning. I felt like throwing up. Then I had the random thought: what if I had to throw up while on-stage? Oh golly! I had fifty thousand other crazy what-if scenarios playing in my head that morning. Most of which involved either a wardrobe malfunction, my voice squeaking, me tripping over a microphone cord, me singing the wrong words. Well, you get the point. I was absolutely terrified. 

I made it through morning practice without vomiting. Or losing my clothes. Or squeaking. Or tripping. Or singing the wrong words. And before I knew it, church was starting and I was singing. And guess what? Nothing bad happened.

Afterwards, a lot of people said a lot of really nice things to me--none of which I really remember because I was too busy being relieved that it was all over. But my friend was right. The more I faced my fear of standing on the stage and singing in public, the easier each subsequent time became. Because I didn't quit singing that day.  My spur-of-the-moment Saturday night decision turned into a year and a half of service on the church praise team. Unfortunately, our new church is too far away for me to be as involved in it as I was in our previous church. My work schedule is unpredictable, and I tutor in the evenings. So for now, I'm taking a break from music.  

I still don't like standing on stage. I still don't feel comfortable singing in a microphone, and I will most likely never sing a solo to a group of adults. I've spent most of my life living in fear, playing it safe so I wouldn't risk the shame and embarrassment of failure. But that year God showed up and proved that He was bigger than all my fear. It's a lesson I hope I can hold on to for the rest of my life.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

it's not about me

This past week, I had the opportunity to catch up with two of the youth that used to be part of my youth group. Now well into their 20's, I have lots touch with most of "my kids," so it was incredibly special to be able to chat with two of them in the same week. It is such a joy to hear how they are establishing careers, getting married, and most importantly, walking with the Lord.

Most of you may not know this, but for a year an a half, I had the amazing privilege of being a Senior High youth group leader at church. Although we struggled with the reality of declining numbers for that year an a half, we were blessed with a faithful core group of about 7 or 8 students. Having such a small group allowed us to build close relationships with the youth that did attend regularly. To this day, when I walk in the doors of Pinecrest School, I look back with fond remembrance of the Friday nights spent in their gym for youth night.

It wasn't always this way for me, though. I remember walking through those same doors back in 2008 filled with anxiety and dread, feeling totally unprepared and ill-equipped to face a room of 13 to 19-year-olds. The thought of speaking in front of them, nevermind leading them in prayer turned my stomach. It was the last place I wanted to be, but as I later learned, it was exactly where God wanted me to be.

In the summer of 2008, I was part of a small group that studied the book Experiencing God. That in itself was a new experience for me, but what I learned the most out of that study was that a relationship with God has to come before anything else. It is only then, when you are focussed on Him, that He will speak to you--and when he does, you’d better listen and obey!

Just before Bible study ended, a close friend of mine asked me to help him lead the Senior High youth group at church. I knew that he was in desperate need of a female youth leader, but I definitely did not want to do it! Leading high school youth group was way out of my comfort zone. At the time, I was a successful Kindergarten teacher, but I still struggled with major self-esteem and confidence issues. Facing a room of 4-year-olds was one thing, but a room full of teens was quite another! I had previously taught Sunday School for a grade 3/4 class, expecting that it would be much like teaching regular school. It wasn't. I felt like it hasn't gone very well, and I vowed never to get involved in any type of children's ministry again.

However, I agreed to think about it, fully intending to say "no" later that week. The longer I thought about it, though, the more unsettled I started to feel. I was all set to say "no," but I didn't feel any peace about it. (This in itself was quite surprising, since getting out of something like that would have been a huge relief.) Then I remembered something I'd read in our small group study:

“When you believe nothing significant can happen through you, you have said more about your belief in God, than you have declared about yourself. You have said that God is incapable of doing anything significant through you.” It went on to say that:

"God delights in using ordinary people to accomplish his purposes. God deliberately seeks the weak things and the despised things because from them He receives the greatest glory. Then everyone knows only God could have done something through them.” 

Immediately I thought of the scripture verse II Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in [your] weakness.” At that moment, I pretty much knew what I had to do.

When I reluctantly agreed to come on-board as a youth leader, I made sure that everyone knew it was not my idea. I’m pretty sure I even said, “If for some reason this whole thing works out, you’ll know that it was not me working, but it was God, working through me. There is absolutely no way that I can do this. It’s going to have to be all God.”

It turned out I immensely enjoyed doing all the scheduling, planning, and behind-the-scenes work. But actually co-leading the group each week was often emotionally and physically painful. We did a lot of physical activities and sports because that's what our core group was really into that year. But boy, was that ever not my thing! It brought back the shame and embarrassment of being the klutzy, non-athletic kid in phys ed class, and it was all I could do to run and hide in the changeroom all these years later. That year, I played soccer, volleyball, basketball, dodgeball, and even paintball. Boy did it stretch me!

A few weeks, I even had to lead the group alone. That too was huge for me! But "the kids" were so amazing. I had been very up-front and honest with them about youth not being "my thing" and they responded with so much grace and encouragement over the year. I really bonded with them, and by being "real," I hope I was able to make God be real to them. I don't know how much they got out of my lessons that year, but they sure taught me a lot!

Besides that, leading youth group gave me something to do on what would have been very long and lonely Saturday nights. At the time I wasn't dating anyone, so being able to devote my time and energy to "the kids" instead of sitting at home feeling sorry for myself, was a blessing and gift from God.

In the winter/spring of 2010, we decided to bring some changes to our program to reflect the recent changes in the children's ministry program. We proposed to switch our meeting time to the same weeknight as Kids Club and Jr. High, and decided to bring new leadership on-board. Our new program was now in capable hands, and already growing by leaps and bounds. For this reason, and also because most of the original core group had now graduated high school, I felt like it was time for me to move on as well.

Although I was sad to go, I had also felt God calling me to another area of ministry completely out of my comfort zone: music. (That's for another post!) But because of that year and a half with "the kids," I had learned to face some of my fears and insecurities because it wasn't about me--it was all about Him. That year with "the kids" turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences ever. God totally showed up, and He showed me that He can do more than all we could ever ask for, or even imagine--if we are willing to step outside of our comfort zone.