#198 Improbable Survival, Part 2

 

Photo by Jeff Rogers Photography

In the first part of my story I shared about my miraculous survival of a sudden cardiac arrest. My experience of that event, once I regained consciousness, is another story of experiencing the powerful presence of God. 

As I regained consciousness, while being carried down the trail and loaded into an ambulance, I knew where I was and that something significant had happened. I felt terrible, like a truck had run over me, and while I was able to answer the paramedic’s questions, it was a struggle to focus. I kept trying to shake the cobwebs loose, but they would not go away.

I do not know how long it took the ambulance to arrive at the hospital, but they apparently made a wrong turn coming out of the entrance to the property where we were camping, losing about four minutes. Another factor that likely added to the confusion, is that on the road near the entrance a truck was on fire. This all seems so bizarre, unreal, like something out of a movie: collapsing on a trail, burning truck, wrong turn, riding in an ambulance?

Even the ambulance making it to the property is an amazing story of grace, as the property has no physical address. Earlier in the week someone associated with Crossroads Man Camp figured out how to fool Google Maps into dropping a GPS location pin. Only four people at the Camp knew the “address” and Bryan Carter was one of the four.

Bryan is a Crossroads community pastor and had a central role in hosting Man Camp. He was a busy man helping shepherd a thousand men through registration and on to their campsites. If he had not been listening to the Spirit, he never would have come to the commotion surrounding my collapse. While he heard the cries for a medic, he assumed someone had turned an ankle or something similar hiking up the trail. He felt no urgency to investigate, until he felt an inner prompting of the Spirit to do so. If he had not been there to take the phone from Basilo Harley who had dialed 911, the ambulance driver would not have known how to find our location. 

And the same goes for Basilo having a cellphone. All of “the campers” had been strongly encouraged to leave our cellphones in our cars and “unplug” for the weekend. According to Basilo, when he saw one of his camping mates leaving his phone in the glove compartment, he had the thought, (was prompted?) “Maybe I should keep my phone with me in case of an emergency.” I did not know Basilo — he reached out to me through Facebook to tell me his story. I know he is from out of town, likely Ohio, but he had 911 on his phone to give to Bryan who knew the fake address of our location. Crazy, bizarre stuff — God stuff.

One of the most astonishing experiences for me was who showed up along the way. At almost every juncture, beginning in the ER, there was someone I knew taking care of me, all of them former clients of mine. These are people who knew me and I knew them. I did not always immediately recognize them, but they let me know and, of course, I remembered. In the interest of confidentiality, I cannot give specifics, but it was stunning how often in the course of my treatment  —five specific instances —former clients were taking care of me, or associated with someone caring for me. It was incredibly humbling. It was like God was saying to me “Don, you are known and loved.”

I know some might dismiss this as incredulous, but I received comfort and encouragement seeing these folks, reinforcing to me the intimate connection there is in the body of Christ. It was as if the Spirit was saying to me “Your life matters, and the work you do matters,” not as an ego thing, but as comforting, encouraging, and reassuring.

This experience, from the moment I collapsed and my heart stopped, and all through treatment and open-heart surgery, manifested as a deep experience of connection that runs through everything and everyone, that there really is no separation, just connection. Separation is the illusion, connection is reality. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” Romans 8:35.

I can only assume that God wants me to know this in an intimate and powerful way that only experience can impart. This is not an idea or an insight; it is a lived experience that has made a huge impression on me, and one that I am trying to sort through its meaning. How do I now live in a world where there is no separation but everything and everyone is connected? Maybe this is what the mystics call union with God.

One of the things that almost, without exception, people commented on, those who saw me in the hospital and afterward, either medical personnel or friends and family, is how well I seem and look. And my experience is the same. Somehow “I came back to myself” in the ER at St. Joe East, after my heart catheterization. It is as if everything cleared up and I felt like myself, no worse for the wear. Maybe the sedation from the heart catheterization relaxed me, helped my anxiety, I really don’t know. I just know I felt fully present and not worried, even though my diagnosis was serious coronary artery disease requiring emergency bypass surgery. 

There was such an experience of the presence of God that were it not for the sober realization that I was going to have my chest split open, my heart stopped for about four hours, my body put on life support, and then my heart started again, it was an exhilarating spiritual experience. And really it was both: An overwhelming loss of control and exhilarating sense of the presence of God.

I want to make it clear that I have also had experiences, and still do, where I felt the absence of God, periods of confusion and doubt, where prayers were not answered. I have experienced suffering and pain, with struggles that could not be overcome and those taught me as much, and maybe more, about God. Learning to trust God in the dark, when you can’t see a way forward, grows faith in ways that miracles or other experiences of the power of God never can. “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” Hebrews 5:8.

One of my favorite passages in scripture is 2 Corinthians 1, specifically verses 3–11. Whether you are a believer in Jesus or not, these words are beautiful and will speak to a deep place in your soul. And these words seem especially pertinent to my recent experience of an improbable survival. Paul speaks of a deep and abiding connection with the life of Christ and our life, with His sufferings, my sufferings, and your sufferings; with His comfort, my comfort, and your comfort. This is from the New American Standard Bible:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. 6 But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; 7 and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.

And Paul then references specific afflictions they experienced in Asia in verses 8-11, as well as the deliverance from those afflictions that God provided:

8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; 9 indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; 10 who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, 11 you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many.

When I listen to the stories of the men who were around me on that trail in Madison County, who jumped into action and saved my life with CPR and prayer, it is a similar story to Paul’s. The sentence of death (verse 9) was within me, my heart had stopped and they all saw it and felt it, this sentence of death. They felt the despair and fear that comes with death. And they experienced the joy and relief that comes from life arising in the face of death, “so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.”

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#192 Formed in the “Suddenly’s” Part 3

 Photo by Andrew Schacht

“Peter, suddenly bold, said, “Master, if it’s really you, call me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” Jumping out of the boat, Peter walked on the water to Jesus. But when he looked down at the waves churning beneath his feet, he lost his nerve and started to sink. He cried, “Master, save me!” Jesus didn’t hesitate. He reached down and grabbed his hand. Then he said, “Faint-heart, why did you doubt?” The two of them climbed into the boat, and the wind died down. The disciples in the boat, having watched the whole thing, worshiped Jesus, saying, “This is it! Truly, you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 14:28–33).

About two months ago, I had a morning in Spain that is still having a ripple effect on my life. And it started with me breaking away from my normal routine to get a closer look at one of the many beautiful gifts the Lord has given us. Spontaneity is not really a new thing for me. Usually, it’s quite the opposite. I believe that when you are walking with the Lord, the beauty of life is found in those spontaneous moments with Him. So, I tend to seek them out. From experience, I do submit to the idea that living a disciplined lifestyle creates more freedom. However, the day that I want to share about was one of those where I chose spontaneity over structure. And the Lord radically met me in that place. 

5:30 a.m. wake up. 6:06 a.m. pick-up in the mini-van. 6:20 a.m. at the gym. That was my routine, along with six of my brothers, each morning of the week during my first three months in Mijas. I was incredibly blessed that the Lord surrounded me with a group of men who loved deeply and were willing to walk, battle, and pour into one another’s lives daily. That routine and group of men quickly turned into one of the most life-giving forms of church I have ever experienced. I was pulled closer to the Father’s heart more consistently in that 30-minute van ride than most Sunday morning services I have sat through. But on this particular day, a day that has been one of the most influential and prophetic days of my life, I decided to break away from my normal routine in hope of finding something different. Instead, I decided to head down to the Mediterranean Sea in the complete darkness of the morning to watch the sunrise from the beach. 

As I walked out onto the beach, the chilled breeze off the waves swirled about, waking me up and almost welcoming me into its tranquil space. I watched from the shore as one of my good friends, who I had gotten a ride down to the beach with, paddled off into the distance toward the horizon line. I sat contently by myself in the silence of the morning with only the smell of the coffee in my hands and the sound of the early waves to accompany me. As the stars and moon began to slowly drift away, I set up my phone to capture a time-lapse of that shift from darkness to light. I was at peace. In my comfortability, I began asking the Lord to speak to my heart and meet me in that place. Well, like He always does, He answered. But, like He does so often, it was in a way that was completely different than what I was anticipating. As so many times before, He showed up with an interruption rather than things going how I planned. 

After about 10 minutes of sitting in the stillness of the morning, I heard a noise next to me that took me off guard. One of the beach workers who was setting up chairs had accidentally knocked over my time-lapse set up. Selfishly, I was initially irritated because the shot I was hoping for had been ruined. Nonetheless, I set my phone back up and hit record again. As I began to walk away from my phone, I felt very clearly in my heart a thought — more of an invitation — from the Lord. “Come get in the water.” My first response was without pause, “Absolutely not. Way too cold.” As I made it back to my warm coffee, I felt it again. “Come get in the water.” Back and forth in my heart this exchange happened for the next several minutes, until finally I decided to say “yes,” instead of having to say “what if” later on. In my life, I have found that the moments where I decide to say “yes” have been the very moments that have shaped my identity, introduced me to freedom, and brought me across the globe on an adventure with Him. So again, even when I am reluctant at first, I tend to seek them out.

After taking off my hoodie and chugging the last sips of my coffee, I slowly began to make my way out into the low tide. At this point, the sun had not yet broken the horizon line. But, the Lord had pulled out his best color palette, filling the sky and the reflections off the water with His favorite pastels. With no one else on the beach and standing about knee deep in the chilled sea, I felt it again but this time different. “Take another step with Me.” I could tell the Lord was stirring something in my heart, but wasn’t completely sure what it was yet. Now, I was about waist deep in the water. “Take another step with Me.” This continued until I was about neck deep in the cold Mediterranean. Once I got to this point, something happened inside my heart that I don’t think I have completely grasped, nor do I think I will ever fully understand. 

In that moment, a sudden sense of boldness, energy and adrenaline came over my body. Without really thinking or knowing why, I took off on a dead sprint swim toward the horizon. Overcome by this flash of life in my body, I swam harder and harder off the coast toward an unplanned and unknown destination. After what seemed like, I can only guess, but about five minutes of this dead-sprint swim, I finally halted to a stop. Up out of the water, salt and hair in my eyes, I quickly gasped for air. Absolutely exhausted from that burst of a swim, each breath brought more and more attention to where I was. Treading water to catch my breath, I realized that I had swam way further off the shore than I ever thought I could go.

Without warning, a sudden sense of fear and panic began to creep into my head. I am a good swimmer (shout-out to a few years on the Hartland Swim Team), but by no means would I call myself an endurance swimmer. At this point, I had absolutely exerted all of my energy and strength during that sprint. I quickly made note of a few things. One, that I was so far off the coast that I could not touch the bottom. Two, I was not completely certain that I could make it back to the shore. Three, there was absolutely no one near me or on the beach. In a sense, I stepped out and had gotten myself into a place where I wasn’t sure if my own strength could help me. 

As I spun back around to face the horizon, I began to slowly calm myself and my breathing. Completely surrounded by the utter magnitude of the Mediterranean Sea with only the faint sight of the shore behind me, I was completely isolated in this theater of beautiful colors and potential fears. It was in this moment that I knew exactly what new revelation the Lord was trying to reveal to me. It was in this moment that I knew what this morning was all about. Once again, I heard His voice in my heart.“This is where I want you to live. This is where My love is made perfect. When you step out — into a place beyond your strength — so that you can be fully engulfed in My presence and love.” 

You see, similarly when Jesus called Peter out of the boat, this last season of life has felt like that ‘sudden boldness’ Peter was overcome with. I have felt more alive and more free than ever, which has led me time and time again to places where I am not sure if my own strength can hold, and I feel like I am beginning to sink. Like the morning I am describing, I continue to see these moments as invitations from the Lord to step out of the boat of life and walk on water with Him. I am also keenly aware of the stirring waters that must be stepped over to get there. However, one of my favorite parts of the Mark 12 passage, which is much of what the Lord was trying to tell me on this particular morning, is the simple phrase, “Jesus didn’t hesitate.” Jesus didn’t sit there while Peter drowned and scold or mock him for not having strong enough faith. He didn’t rebuke him for being afraid of where He was at because of his boldness. Instead, He didn’t hesitate to reach down and pull him up out of the water. He was right there to pick him up, to refocus his sights on Him, and to allow Peter to experience something completely impossible without Jesus.

Continually choosing to risk and live in a place where only His power could make things happen, and being bold in all aspects of my life, was exactly what the Lord was wanting to show me. It was through this morning swim that He was trying to invite me to step further out into the depths of His love, beyond my own strength and engulfed in His presence. As all of this was passing through my head, immediately the sun broke the sea’s horizon line, and I was welcomed to one of the most beautiful sunrises of my life. It was as if He was confirming everything I was feeling in that moment. Floating in the depths of the Mediterranean Sea, I was completely surrounded by overwhelming colors of His beauty and love. 

The experience I had on that morning is one I will never forget. Thankfully, I did slowly but surely make my way back to shore. As the Lord continues to invite me deeper into the unknown with Him, I will continue to give Him my “yes” and not focus on the churning waves around me. Even if those invitations mean being on the other side of the globe away from my friends and family for the holidays. Even if those invitations mean having to wait nine months to meet my new niece. Even if those invitations lead me out onto choppy waters. 

And when I do begin to feel the waves around me and start to sink, I know He will not hesitate to reach out His hand to pick me up. To continually step out of the boat and onto the water with Him is a life worth living. And to that kind of life, I say, “yes.”

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#176 Finding Safety in Vulnerability

 Photo by Nicole Tarpoff

Several years ago, one of my best friends died from cancer. I still go regularly to his family business and take care of the orchids in the reception area. A few weeks ago, I was there watering the orchids, and the receptionist asked me if I had enjoyed my vacation to Florida. I knew going down this road of conversation could be difficult, but I also knew that God would want me to be honest.

“We didn’t go on vacation,” I said. 

“Oh . . . why not?” she asked.

“We had a family tragedy.”

“I’m sorry. What happened?”

“My grandson . . . . We aren’t sure what happened, but we believe he committed suicide.”

The next Sunday I was teaching the young couple’s class in Sunday school. A new couple joined our class. I knew the man, as he had attended a Sunday school class I taught several years ago. He introduced me to his wife and said they had just recently gotten married. We began our lesson by talking about the scripture verse, and then I felt God leading me to share the conversation I had about my grandson. When I shared with the group what I had told the receptionist, the young bride of the new couple burst into tears. She finally composed herself and asked if she could speak. She shared with the group that she had attempted to kill herself three days ago. The other couples came to her, showing their concern and care. They prayed for her and encouraged her. It was very powerful . . . I could feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in the room.

God knew this young woman’s pain. He knew she needed healing and support from others. God led me to a moment of honesty and vulnerability with the class, and that opened the door for her to feel safe to share her own pain. Now she has been brought out of isolation and has a community of friends who can love and encourage her. It is amazing the way God works.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#156. He Has Been Waiting For You

 Photo by Nicole Tarpoff

I grew up in Cuba where I earned my doctorate degree in veterinary science in 1997. For four years, I had a very successful, busy practice specializing in surgery. But I felt something was missing. I had an emptiness in my life. I was not a Christian but did know that the spiritual world existed. I decided to go to a Methodist church in my city for a revival. There were several hundred people there but the pastor pointed me out and said, “God has a plan for your life. He wants to use you and He has been waiting for you.” I didn’t believe in Christ so I moved to the back of the church. The pastor started praying for people and they started falling on the ground. I didn’t know what was going on. I am a naturally curious person and this intrigued me.

The next day I went back to the revival and the pastor said the same thing to me. I still wasn’t picking up on this message. I just really wanted to see what he was doing and was there only as an observer. When he did an altar call I ran to the front to see what he was doing. There was a long line of people waiting. The pastor was praying and saying “Holy Spirit come!” and people would fall on the ground when he prayed for them. I was in line for him to pray for me and prepared myself not to fall. When he prayed over me, I fell to the floor laughing and crying. A couple of my friends tried to help me up but I couldn’t get up. Finally, I got up and left the church wondering, “What was that?”  During the months that followed, I continued to reflect on what had happened and I continued to feel that same emptiness that took me to church in the first place.

After six months, I went back to the same church and received Christ. Finally, the emptiness was gone. When I came to Christ, all of my passion and drive were channeled for Christ. I became a tsunami, sharing the Gospel and bringing people to the church.  A month after I became a Christian, I left Cuba to move to the United States. Shortly before I left, in December of 2001, the church leadership called me in and told me that I would become a pastor. I didn’t believe it and laughed at them. But two months later, in February of 2002, I was a pastor at a church.

I came to U.S. chasing the American dream. I had my own plan but God challenged me to take His dreams and not mine. I moved to a city in the Midwest where my sister lived. I sought out a Methodist church to learn English and when I got there I knew more English than the teacher did. So, they asked me to teach the English class. Then the church asked me to teach a Bible Study. Then they asked me to give a sermon. I had only been a believer 6 months and I was preaching! People were coming to church and getting baptized. The Bishop in the Methodist church felt I needed training because I didn’t have the credentials to baptize people. He asked me to go to school to become licensed to baptize and preach which I did. I was still working as a veterinarian at this point.

My wife had come to the U.S. with me and she helped me plant a church in the Midwestern city where we were living.  After this, the Methodist church sent me to a rural area in Kentucky where my wife and I planted a second church. The Holy Spirit told me that the church would be for people coming from different places. I had a dream that the church was packed with people and the very next Sunday people started coming from all different places and the church was full. There were many baptisms. I was 29 years old and had given up my career in veterinary medicine for full time ministry. It was an exciting time. The church was growing and my wife and I had a vision for our future together. But then one day we were coming from a pastoral meeting and I had a car accident and my wife was killed. I was injured as well. I passed out or was dead – I’m not sure – but while this occurred I remember that my wife and I were together, lifted up above the scene of the accident and together we were walking toward the light. But I let go of her hand and she kept walking. She looked back and smiled at me and kept walking away from me into the light.

I didn’t blame God for the death of my wife. I had spent much time with Christ beforehand in prayer, fasting and reading the Bible and this helped prepare me for what happened. When dark moments of life come, your relationship with Christ is what really defines what you are going to do.  Still there was much grief and pain. I loved my wife. We had many plans together and then she was gone. It was difficult to imagine my life without her. I left the church where I was pastoring and went to my sister’s house. There I went into a room, locked the door and began fasting, praying and reading the Bible. Eventually I felt the Holy Spirit say to me, “Stop looking for your wife in the past. She is not in your past. She is in your future. Keep walking forward and you will see her again.” I remembered the day of the accident seeing my wife walking into the light. I just needed to keep walking with Jesus and I would see her again in heaven.

This message from the Holy Spirit lit a fire under me. I was ready to preach again but this time with more urgency. I went to my sister and told her I needed a pulpit and that same day three churches called me and wanted me to plant a church for them. I met with each of the pastors at these churches to see which I felt called to work with.  I had felt the Holy Spirit calling me to preach the gospel in the Dominican Republic so when I went to stay at one of the three pastor’s homes and saw a photo of two pastors from the Dominican Republic on his refrigerator, I knew that he was the one. The other two pastors offered health insurance and a parsonage, neither of which this pastor could offer me, but I didn’t care. I knew that God wanted me to go to the Dominican Republic and this pastor had the connection there. I started a church plant for this pastor and people started coming to Christ. It grew so much that the parent church became enveloped into the planted church.  A year later, in 2004, I was in Dominican Republic planting a church. I have been back in the U.S. since 2005 pastoring a church and providing leadership training and coaching for pastors.

As I reflect back on my journey with Christ, I think about what the pastor said the first time I went to church in 2001, “God has a plan for your life. He wants to use you. He has been waiting for you.” I resisted at first, even bracing myself against the power of the Holy Spirit. But God was patient with me. He didn’t give up on me. He pursued me until I came to Him and gave my life to Christ. And once I surrendered my life and my plan, God’s power was unleashed in my life. God has shown me that life with Him is the only way to true joy, peace and contentment. His plans are better than my plans…much better. God has been so faithful to me in every part of my life, guiding me to the right places and right people not only for my own good but to be used by Him for the good of others. He provided comfort and encouragement when I lost my wife and restored more than what was lost. I have married again to a wonderful wife and we have a beautiful seven-year-old daughter named Sulam, which is a Hebrew name meaning open heavens.  I know that God is with me, working everything out for good.

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#143. Little Church by the Creek: A Billboard Message

Photo by Nicole Tarpoff 

In 1989, my future husband moved from Texas to the town in Indiana where I lived. I was working as a manager of Pizza Hut at the time and he applied for a job. I didn’t need to hire anyone but the waitresses thought he was cute so I ended up hiring him. We developed a friendship. He had hinted that he would like to date me but there was a no dating policy—so he filled out termination papers and said, “Now will you go out with me?” We went out and have never been apart since. 

We dated for a year and then decided to get married. Neither one of us were churched at that time. He had only been to church three times and I had never been to church with my family. I called a pastor of a church and felt a little bad asking to get married in their church. 

 I asked the pastor, “How do you come back to church?”

“Just walk through the doors.”

“What about this membership thing?”

“No, just walk through the doors.” 

We got married and were thrown into married life, trying to blend our lives. I had children from a previous marriage. God was not in our marriage at that point. We had never invited Him into our lives. We decided to go to a marriage counselor. I remember that on the way to an appointment with the counselor we prayed and asked for a sign if we should stay married. We were driving on the highway at the time and we passed this huge billboard that said, “Loved the wedding, now invite me to the marriage.” 

 -God

It just so happened that the marriage counselor was a Christian and he showed us the love of Jesus. He told us to go back to church, which we did immediately. We attended church regularly and got involved, volunteering with youth. There was a revival at our church and the guest pastor asked, “Do you have a fire for God?” My husband said, “I don’t even have a spark.” But God was working in the heart of my husband, and on the third night there was a transformational moment for my husband. He gave his life to the Lord that night. Two days later he went on an Emmaus walk, a weekend designed to parallel the Emmaus walk of the disciples on Easter. The combination of these two events was life changing. He was a different person after that. He had a hunger for Jesus. He became more sensitive to the needs of others, especially to my needs. He became more patient with the kids and even had a calm spirit when driving. It was like he left “the world.”

Six weeks later I went on an Emmaus walk and Jesus became real to me during this weekend. I knew Jesus was real before, but He became more than a just a story on a page. After this I felt a calling to lead our church’s youth ministry. We had volunteered some before with the youth and had been on a couple youth trips with our daughter. The youth leaders were leaving and they needed someone to step in. In the beginning it was just my call, but eventually my husband was called as well. We have prayed to go deeper in this ministry and God has been faithful to answer. When we started, it was ten minutes of teaching and 45 minutes of fellowship and games, and now we are able to spend more time teaching because the kids are interested and want to go deeper. We have been investing in teenagers’ lives this way for about 15 years. But this is not the end of the story. God had more for us. 

About four years ago, I went to a conference with a friend and saw one of my favorite worship leaders. She had been singing and praying and God’s spirit was so present. I can’t put into words how powerful I felt His presence that night. I felt God was urging me to give my life to worship. My life changed after that. I heard the call clearly from God and this built a confidence in me. I felt God calling me to lead His people into His presence through worship. I wanted people to feel Him and meet Him face to face. I now sing and lead worship for the second service at our church and my husband does all the sound work and is a drummer. We also do worship at the jail, at a drug recovery ministry, at revivals, and at festivals. Our goal as a worship team is that by the leading of the Holy Spirit, we would lead people into the presence of the Lord. I pray for God’s people to be able to feel His breath—that He would be that close. 

We have been awed by the power of God. We have seen missionaries, pastors, evangelists, and youth leaders come from the youth group. We have seen that God can use anybody to accomplish what He wants to accomplish. For so much of my life, Jesus was just a character from a storybook, but God has shown us how real He is. We have seen it and experienced it, and we want others to experience it too.

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#137. God Is At Hand

 Photo by Pam VanArsdall

I was born with polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disease that slowly progresses and eventually causes the kidneys to shut down. There is no cure except a transplant. I discovered that I was living with the disease about 15 years ago, at around 30 years of age. I was healthy at the time, and for several years after my diagnosis, I kept a busy schedule and lived a normal life. But I felt something bad was coming. My dad also had the disease and died from complications.

In the summer of 2016, I prayed, “I don’t know how this will turn out but I do have one request: I want to be able to see my daughters grow up. I don’t want to miss out on those precious moments in their lives.” I’ve never heard God’s audible voice, but He told me this, “You will have to suffer for a little while but I will raise you up.” 

About a year ago my physical health was deteriorating. I had been feeling really bad but had been hiding it. I have three little girls and I was working full time. I was exhausted all the time. December 10, 2016 was the night everything changed. I serve as associate pastor at our church and was scheduled to preach the next morning, but I came down with horrible diverticulitis. I was the sickest I had ever been. I prayed if God would get me out of bed I would go to the doctor. I was able to get out of bed and I went to see my kidney doctor. He told me things were very bad and wanted me to go into the hospital for dialysis. He said if I had waited another two to three months I likely would have fallen dead in front of my children. I believe God sent the diverticulitis to get me to the doctor. In January, I began dialysis. I was able to work half days and take dialysis at the center nearby several times a week. I transitioned to home dialysis around March, but this was still hard on me and on our family. In April, I went for testing to be placed on the kidney transplant list. We were praying for God’s help. 

Meanwhile, my dad’s younger brother also had polycystic kidney disease. He was also on dialysis and had been on the kidney transplant list for a long time. He was a great support person for me. 

Two close friends volunteered to donate a kidney but they were both declined. This was disappointing. While I was waiting to see if one of my friend’s kidney matched, I got a text message from a lady I knew from high school who played basketball in the late 1980s at a rival high school. I had seen her around at different sporting events but hadn’t talked to her in 25 years. In her text, she asked if I would give her a chance to be a kidney match. My wife and I prayed about it and we were reluctant. As difficult as it is to give the gift of a kidney, it is also difficult to receive, because you know you are asking this person to really do something big. I had told the woman I would get back with her, but I did not. A couple of weeks later she contacted me again and said, “Would you please let me attempt to be your donor. Please give me a chance.” I said, “That’s a lot for me to ask of you.” She said, “God has asked me to do this.” I immediately gave her the phone number to call about testing to see if she was a match for me. 

There are several tests necessary to confirm a match. During this time, the woman kept messaging me as she took each test and telling me she passed. Finally, she sent a message that she had passed all the tests and had an appointment with the surgeon. 

In July, I received a call from the transplant center: “I’ve got good news for you. We have a successful match for a kidney transplant!” 

The surgery was scheduled for July 20. We were so excited! God had answered our prayer. We both met with our surgeon on July 12. When the surgeon saw the results of the match testing he said, “This is a no brainier. This is a 100% match! This is a perfect match.” This was GOD!! 

I asked my pastor to have all the ordained men of the church pray for me before the surgery and my uncle who also needed a kidney transplant was one of the deacons that prayed for me. I remember in particular my uncle’s prayer. He had been dealing with kidney disease and dialysis a lot longer than I had but he never mentioned himself one time. He had every right to mention himself, but he just prayed for me. That really impacted me. 

My surgery was scheduled on a Thursday morning. We were getting ready to leave for the hospital on Wednesday evening when we got a call from my uncle. He had previously told my wife that he would be with her during my surgery. He told her that he could no longer be with her while I was in the hospital because the hospital just called and they had a kidney match for him! 

The next morning, I showed up at hospital at 5:30 a.m. The woman who was donating the kidney was already at the hospital. They prepped us both for surgery and she insisted that the nurses bring her bed to mine so we could pray before our surgeries. My wife and her sister joined hands with us and in front of all of the doctors and nurses we asked Jesus to take care of both of us. 

As soon as the kidney was placed, it began working immediately. The surgery was completely successful for both of us. After they got me in a room, my wife told me that my uncle had gone into kidney transplant surgery at the exact time they took me into surgery and his surgery was successful. God divinely healed both of us at the same time. The story started to spread and even people who are not Christians could see that it was God’s hand. 

I believe in angels and that we encounter them from time to time. When they were moving me to a hospital room after the surgery, the phone in the room was ringing. My wife answered and I could tell she didn’t know who was on the other end. Afterwards, I asked her who it was and she said, “I don’t know, but it was a sweet lady’s voice and she said to tell you and your uncle that you will both be okay. Her name is Anita and she said she is an old acquaintance.” Later I asked my uncle if he knew anybody named Anita. Neither of us know anyone named Anita. 

Later when I was discharged from the hospital it was discovered that my phosphorus levels were dangerously low. I couldn’t go home from the hospital until I had the phosphorus infusion which would last six hours. We were taken to the far back corner of the emergency room, to a room that seemed like no man’s land. My wife and I were tired and really just wanted to go home. We were frustrated and having a really difficult time being patient with the delay—even just one hour into the six-hour infusion. Then there was a knock on the door. I told my wife they must be lost because no one would be back here. The woman said, “I’m sorry, I think I have the wrong room. Is your name Thompson?” We said yes. She said she had a piece of mail for us, which was interesting because we never received any mail when I was staying in the hospital room. She left and my wife opened the card and started to weep. She showed me the front of the card. It simply said, “God is at hand.” It was as if God just walked through the door and sat down with us. I felt His presence so strongly—perhaps more strongly than I ever have. The card was signed, “Many Blessings, Miss Anita!”

After the transplant, I immediately started to feel like a new person. I didn’t know how sick I was until I got the new kidney. We are four months out now and every check-up and every test has been perfect. I have a second chance at life now and my whole outlook on life has changed. I used to borrow tomorrow’s trouble for today, but I have learned to live life one day at a time. I have changed my whole outlook on life. I smile more. I laugh more. 

I have learned from this experience how many people really care for me. God reminded me that it is a truly priceless gift to have people that love you and that this gift comes from Him. Those loved ones come from Him.

God knew every need I had and He met them. I’m a walking miracle. He is truly faithful.

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#125. Journey to Jordan: Dawn on the Jordan River

Photo by Anna Carroll

The rooster crowed as I made my way down the dusty trail to the shore.  It was dawn on the banks of the Jordan River. I had hoped to have a few moments alone in this sacred place, to be with the Lord, to sit quietly with Him. I sat down next to the water, alone except for the singing birds.

The reflection of the moon swayed gently on the river’s surface. It was so quiet, so peaceful. I slid off my sandals and put my foot in the water, sensing a physical connection with Him. The water in this river touched the body of Jesus and the water from this same river now touched my skin. Something stirred deeply in my soul. Softly but earnestly, from my heart I sang.

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!

Early in the morning, my song shall rise to Thee.

(Reginald Heber, 1826)

I was glad no one was around to hear me – but at the same time I longed for others to join me in worshiping Him. I sat silently for some time, recalling the Scriptures and imagining Jesus walking into the water to John and being submerged, then lifted up, the Spirit of God descending on Him like a dove and the voice from heaven, “This is my Son whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:16-17

After a while, another woman arrived on the hill above me. Perhaps she wanted time alone as well. I had only walked a few steps away when I saw a white feather along the rocks of the shoreline. I immediately thought of God’s Spirit that descended on Jesus as a dove. A coincidence perhaps.  But perhaps instead it was God’s way of reminding me of His presence… His Spirit in that place, His Spirit in me, His Spirit in us.  

Later our group gathered at the Jordan River for a communion service. The pastor who led us asked that we sing together before we received the bread and wine. Softly but earnestly, from her heart she sang.

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!

Early in the morning, my song shall rise to thee. 

Soon everyone’s voices rang out in harmony and my early morning longing was fulfilled…. with the same song! In this group from different backgrounds, different denominations, even different countries, we had this in common…. We were one in the body of Christ and our hearts were made to worship Him.

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#115 Gaining Confidence

Photo by Erin E Photography

Ten years ago my son died by suicide. He shot himself and I found him. There really are no words to describe the pain, trauma and sadness of this. It was truly horrible. 

Within the year, my husband wanted to sell our house – the house where our children grew up. He wanted to build a big new house. I didn’t want to do this, but we did it anyway and it added to my stress. In fact, I was so stressed that I lost all my hair. The big new house did not heal our sorrow or make us happy. After two years, my husband and I were talking less. And then one day, after not speaking to me for two weeks, my husband told me that he thought I should move out. We had been married for 30 years and this was very hurtful and shocking to me. I learned later that he had found another woman that he wanted to make a new life with and that she had moved into our new house with him. 

I moved into an apartment and one evening I was crying uncontrollably in my room. So much had happened. I was devastated, broken and lost. I was crying so hard I felt like I couldn’t breathe. But then I felt a warmth, like hands hugging my heart. It was a very a physical presence. I had never experienced anything like it before. A tremendous sense of peace came over me. Someone explained to me later that this was the Holy Spirit comforting me. There was a shift in my attitude after this. Whenever I encountered a problem, I felt like I could handle it. 

Not long after this experience, a leader in my church told me about a new shelter for the homeless.  He suggested that I volunteer there. So I began volunteering at the Center and from the start, it felt right. 

After about a year at the Center, I knew in my soul deep down that I was supposed to buy a house and make it into a home for men in recovery from addictions. That was the first time I ever really felt God speaking to me. I was obedient to what I felt God wanted me to do. I bought a house and made it into a recovery home for men with addictions. After I did this, God always provided. There was always enough income to pay the bills. This was confirmation to me that I had done the right thing.

As I have became more confident in my ability, I have been able to connect in deeper, more meaningful ways with those I serve at the Center.  On a practical level, I register new clients and see what services we can connect them with. I help manage a grant that helps homeless clients get into housing. But a lot of what I do is to just LISTEN and care. Many of the homeless clients  I work with are divorced, some have experienced the tragic death of loved ones and many have experienced deep rejection, trauma, and brokenness. All of the tough parts of my life have prepared me for relating, understanding and empathizing. I can connect with clients in a special way because I have experienced some of the same difficulties they have. God put me in a place where I could use the painful experiences of my life to help and encourage others – a place that would also be a great blessing to me.

Throughout this journey there’s been a lot of heartache, but I’ve also learned to trust God. I know that He is always there with me even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. But when I stop and breathe…. I just know God is there and that gives me peace.

He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.

2 Corinthians 1:4

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#106. Missionaries in the Mountains: A Rushing Wave of Love

 

Photo by Amy Wallen Photography

I grew up in an abusive home and I thought I deserved all the abuse. As an adult, I went from relationship to relationship, choosing the wrong men and looking for love in all the wrong places. Because of my history of abuse, my definition of love was skewed. I didn’t understand what it was. I accepted things I shouldn’t have and was in relationships that were not real love.

After my four children were grown, I went through the Experiencing God Bible study. Then I discipled someone else through this same Bible study. Not long after, I moved in with my daughter and began going to church with her. Her church was doing the Experiencing God Bible study and I did the study again. God took me through this Bible study three times with a purpose. He knew what I needed. The first time grounded me and helped me dedicate time to prayer and study. I was taught how to hear God. The second time taught me to share and teach, preparing me for missions. The third time taught me to rejoice and lean into God even closer. It also ignited a deep longing for missions. 

I decided to go on a mission trip with a church group to the mountains of Kentucky. Before I left, a lady told me she felt I would be used by God to minister to the missionaries. I am a licensed massage therapist and when I arrived in the mountains with my massage table, the director of the ministry said, “I have been praying for you for eight years!” The director had experienced unrelenting pain for many years and my massage therapy was very helpful to him. God did use me to help . . . but He wasn’t finished. 

I ended up staying longer in the mountains than the rest of our group. I felt God was calling me to missionary work but I didn’t know what that meant. The director and his wife took me to a beautiful farm which was part of the ministry. I felt God’s presence so strongly there. The moment I stood overlooking the stables at the ministry’s farm, I remembered a vision God had given me three and a half years before. It was in that moment that a rushing wave of love washed over me. I knew without a doubt that God loved me. His love shone through powerfully in this moment. When you experience a love like this, it is unexplainable. The only thing you can do is to give it back to Him and share it with others.

I moved to the mountains, opened a Christian wellness and massage center, and became the director of the ministry’s gym. 

God led me from abuse—“dysfunctional love”—to Divine Love, and gave me a sincere heart to love others. It is all because of Him that I know what real love is and want to extend it to others. I am so thankful for His love.  

 And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is.

Ephesians 3:18

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.

#100 Merciful and Gracious

 

 Artwork by Lily Murphy

My grandparents raised me until I was six years old. They were very godly people. We went to church regularly and they taught me great values. When I was six years old my mom got married and I went to live with her and my stepdad, who adopted me. My stepdad and I fought a lot, mostly because I was disrespectful. When I was 16 we got into a fight and he threw me out of the house. I ran the streets and began using drugs. 

By age 17, I was trafficking drugs and had my first felony by age 18. I went to jail but my parents bonded me out in two days. In the next couple of years, I started cocaine. By age 20, I had six counts of felony receiving stolen property. I went to prison and started reading the Bible. I was interested but not committed. After I got out of prison, I violated my parole with alcohol and cocaine and spent six more months in prison. This happened four times with the same result…each time I went back to prison. So between 2000–2004, my life was spent in and out of prison. While I was out of prison, I went to college and completed courses. Finally, I successfully completed parole and graduated college with a degree in social work and a 3.36 GPA. 

Instead of using my social work degree, I bought three nightclubs with the money I inherited when my mom died. One was a rave club. The clubs produced a massive amount of money. I went into drug dealing, selling Ecstasy in the rave club. I was flying in and out of Miami and Vegas to get drugs. I bought restaurants and opened a real estate company. But then things started crashing down around me. My best friend overdosed. My business partner committed suicide. Then a soldier got a drug in one of my nightclubs that killed him, and girl at one of my clubs got a drug that caused her to go into a coma. The police arrested a dealer in Miami and eventually that led the police to me. I was sentenced to 12 years in a federal prison. But even when I went to federal prison, I was still thinking about how I could develop my drug business to be even bigger and better when I got out.

While in prison, I got into an argument with a guard, which got me thrown into the “hole”—basically prison within prison. There on my bunk was a small Gideon New Testament Bible. I started reading it, and by Matthew 16 I started crying. I said, “I am checking out of this. If you’re real, God, show me.” Now the hole is very loud, with prisoners making all kinds noise, but within minutes after saying this, everything went quiet. Everything stood still. A warm sensation wrapped me up and held me. It literally felt like someone holding me. In my head I heard, “You’re forgiven.” 

 Then I said, “Yes Lord, but what about this…?”

“You are forgiven.”

And again I asked, “But what about this…?”

“You are forgiven.”

Back and forth this went on until I finally believed I was forgiven. Then I sat and cried. I still felt that warmth, like I was being held. Then from my toes to the top of my head, the presence just swept through my body. It was like I had just taken my first breath. The hair on my arms stood up. Everything in the prison cell was beautiful. Even the stainless-steel toilet was gleaming. I felt such joy. From that moment on everything in my life changed. I started reading my Bible again and soon a young man was brought to share the hole with me. We became great friends; we prayed together and became brothers in Christ. Later, when we were both out of the hole, he invited me to a Bible study and I started to go. I told the prison chaplain about my story and my experience with God, and he began discipling me into the faith.

I prayed, “Lord, I want to know the truth. Show me what is true and what is not.” The Lord sent people and books to show me the truth. God sent me books on theology and apologetics, defense of the Christian faith. And God opened my eyes to truth through the scriptures. I hungered so much for God’s Word and spent six hours each day studying the Bible and memorizing verses.

I began to see how God was blessing me after I got out of the hole. Usually when you go to the hole, all your personal possessions are destroyed or thrown away. When I got out of the hole, all of my possessions were returned to me in perfect shape. Everything was stacked neatly in a bag. Even my underwear was folded. One of the prison officers said to me later, “How did you like that bag? Be blessed!” This just does NOT HAPPEN IN PRISON! Then I had a court date about the altercation with the guard that landed me in the hole and they forgave it and cleaned it off my record. I got the best job you could get in prison. I started serving in the prison church, ushering and preaching from time to time. I was moved to a prison in Virginia, then to Kentucky, my home state. Here I was discipled by a wonderful prison chaplain, a committed, godly man.

At the end of my prison sentence, the prison chaplain told me he felt God calling him to help me. Three days before I was released from prison, the chaplain told me to call a men’s ministry and recovery program. I interviewed there and connected with the director. I spent the next six years working there, preaching, teaching, cooking, counseling, volunteer coordinating, and renovating their building. Because I had a social work degree, I was eligible to become a certified alcohol and drug counselor. A counselor I had met when I was released was the counselor for the resident drug abuse program and agreed to be my supervisor for this certification process. After I became a certified counselor, I created my own ministry for outpatient substance abuse treatment. This ministry has expanded and I now have my own building. In 2016, I went back to graduate school to become a licensed professional clinical counselor in mental health. I will graduate in July 2018 with a Masters in Counseling and Human Development after which I will be able to expand my ministry into mental health counseling as well as substance abuse counseling. I am also now working for Job Corp, an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Agriculture. In this role I work with 16-24 year olds to provide counseling and substance abuse prevention and intervention. 

My life bears witness to a God that is MERCIFUL and GRACIOUS. He gave me life. He gave me a chance to turn it all around. I should have been in prison for life. I damaged and destroyed thousands of lives. It still amazes me…moves me to tears. I am FORGIVEN. Because of God’s love that is beyond all comprehension and Christ’s sacrifice, I am FORGIVEN. Pure. Blameless. My slate is clean. 

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.”

Matthew 18:12–13

A Million God Stories is a Christ-centered ministry which offers a platform for Christians from all streams of Christian faith to give praise for how God has worked in their lives. Christ heals in infinitely creative ways and we acknowledge that His way of helping may differ from person to person.