Grace upon grace.

I'm convinced without a single doubt in my mind that life is found in community, especially churches. My church happens to state that boldly as a tagline-- a good place to find life. Amen. Since settling back down in Richmond, HOPE has been a place I've found life, community and incredible friendships. This girl is one of those dear friends.

As an introvert, I prefer hanging back on the edges of social settings, testing the waters and surveying the dynamics before I dive in. I also really appreciate when other people seem to be similar. In groups, in circles of chairs, around tables, I'm drawn to the people who are quiet, reserved. I know that although they don't speak first, when they do speak, it will be more than worth the wait.

This girl was one of those people. Around the circle, she was the one I was drawn to. The things she shared were eloquent, powerful, full of truth and love. She spoke and I soaked it up. I wanted to hear more from her, wanted to hear her testimony and just dive in to her story and hear all about it. Her wise words, her sweet demeanor and gracious spirit drew me to her and I knew I wanted to be good friends with her.

When the incredible duo Johnnyswim came to town and I had an extra ticket, I called her up and invited her to join me. We got dinner at new local restaurant beforehand and started getting to know each other better, telling little stories of our families, childhoods, high school years and current jobs. It was an amazing night (if you haven't heard their music, you need to) and I loved sharing it with her. It was the first time we had really hung out together, but she felt like an old friend and I loved that.

I launched this Story Seeker project back in June, and she texted me right after and told me how excited she was for me. She said, "I have a serious story of God's crazy grace and goodness in the midst of hard times, but I'm still in the middle of that the kind of story you're looking for?" and I responded with a huge resounding YES.  That was exactly the kind of story I was looking for. Stories that are messy, that aren't resolved, that are covered in God's fingerprints and His love. I couldn't wait to hear her story and share mine with her, too.

We finally found a time in the middle of our busy schedules to meet up for coffee at my favorite Starbucks one weeknight, and we curled up in big leather chairs in a back corner. From the moment she started telling her story, I was drawn in. She was real with me and held nothing back, not even things that must have been gut-wrenchingly hard to say out loud. My heart felt so much love for her as she spoke, laying this incredible story out for me in a way that pointed straight to the cross and to grace.

Hearing her heart for the world, for a country far away from ours, for a completely different people group reflected the heart of the Father beautifully. She radiated hope and peace even when she shared hard things, and it was so clear that she is day by day abiding in the Spirit and leaning into His perfect truth.

We ran out of time that night for me to share my story with her, and I can't wait for the night we get to curl up in those chairs again and fill that corner with conversation. In the weeks since we met, my life has been a whirlwind of change, and I have constantly been encouraged by the most meaningful texts and words of wisdom from her when I didn't expect them but so desperately needed them. She shares with me how she's praying for me in ways that humble me in a heartbeat, she checks up on me with questions that few people remember to ask, she responds thoughtfully and with such precious affirmation...she is constantly showing me Jesus in how she is a friend to me. I'm so grateful for her.

Her story stirred something up in me that night, something that made me want to celebrate God's goodness in a new way. Her strength comes from the Lord, her hope is in Him, her trust is in His sovereignty, and she shines His light. I left that Starbucks so deeply encouraged by her testimony of God's grace. Life, full and abundant life, is truly found in community and in friendships like these.

Her three words couldn't have been more perfect-- grace upon grace. 

Here's her story.

The writer of this story will remain anonymous.

She's a 24-year-old teacher who enjoys camping, kayaking, and a good, competitive game of badminton. She's a lactose-intolerant-dairy-lovin-fiend...I live on the edge, she says. Her future goals are to get a masters degree in biblical counseling and help people realize that a broken life is made whole through Christ alone.

My story is a hard one to tell.  Mainly, because it’s what I would consider a constant work of God’s grace.  When is one’s story every finished?  Maybe when we meet Jesus, himself.  I can tell you the beginning of my story, though.

I grew up in a family with...well, let’s just say, issues.  As much as I loved them (and still do), there were some tough things to deal with.  I became a follower at a young age God put a distinct calling on me at the age of thirteen.  I felt him tugging at me; burdened for the people who haven’t heard of Christ.  

Well, fast-forward through those awkward high school years that were riddled with more family dysfunction and I’m eighteen years old and with a church guy that I’d been in love with  practically since the start of my youth group days.  Or so I thought.  He was my ticket out.  I didn’t see as that way then, but now I know why I made the choices I did.  See, as our relationship progressed onward I eventually began to feel God’s tug again.  This time, leading me away from that relationship.  It was unhealthy.  It wasn’t love that I had read about in the Bible.  But hey!!  It was way better than anything I’d ever seen take place in my family.  In my mind, I thought I was set.  

I knew I needed to listen to God, but being my stubborn self I decided to put it off--the longer I waited the more trapped my emotions were.  Then the day came where things began to get physical between the two of us, but I wanted to stop.  I couldn't lie there, blatantly disobeying God with some guy who I knew wasn’t the one.  As I stopped, he didn’t.  I couldn’t get away.  Couldn’t move.  I thought, “Is this what relationship looks like?  He said he loved me but he won’t stop.”  Then it was over and the guy left.  I felt disgusting.  I felt like I had something stolen from me.  I felt like it was my fault.  Now I had to stay with him because once that is given away--you’re bonded for life.  That’s what I thought.  It was too late to leave and break the relationship because I was intimate with this ONE guy.  God would only forgive if I stayed with him and married.  That thought was my first great misconception about God’s grace.  

We both found ourselves going to a private, Christian university and I was married second semester into my sophomore year.  I thought I was golden.   God’s forgiveness happened, in my mind, the moment that I said “I do.”  Again, another great misconception about grace.  

I always felt as if I was the only one in my marriage.  Granted, a marriage takes work--but it takes two people working.  I thought things would gradually get better, because my marriage was still much greater than anything I’d ever seen displayed.  The abuse I suffered daily was miniscule compared to what some women would face.  Unfortunately, these were the things I would tell myself.  Reality is, NO woman should ever have to put up with anything other than a husband who biblically loves her.  I just wish I would’ve applied truths to myself instead of making myself the exception.  

Still feeling that call, I began to look into mission agencies that would be a possibility for working with.  I began to talk to my husband about this idea and he said that he was up for it.  We found ourselves official college grads and were hopeful to be soon leaving with the biggest, best mission agency we’d ever heard of.  We went in for interviews and got all the right check-marks.  I couldn’t believe it!!  Four years of theological training and here I was--leaving soon to give God’s light in the darkness.  Now we needed to complete some training and  head off into the great unknown.

We were set to go with a people group in central america that were known to be difficult.  When accepting the job, we didn’t know what “difficult” meant.  During training, marriage problems continued and I began having some depression.  I ended up going to see a counselor but was too afraid to talk about my marriage issues--we would surely be turned away from the field.  During counseling I had to address a lot of problems--some even stemming from childhood.  The counselor really annoyed me most times.  Making me do stupid exercises, having the gall to ask personal questions and address hard issues.  Eventually, though, I began to respect him and get serious about healing.  Even if my husband wasn’t.  Healing began to come as I dealt with my own issues.

I previously said that the job was coined “difficult.” Turns out it meant:  dangerous and near impossible. Some of our supervisors said it was “the deepest, darkest place” in the country.  At the end of four short months, we found ourselves on a plane heading back home.  The people group ended up being very hostile to the gospel and we felt it was best to end the job until someone that was better trained could go in.  Within that four months I found a language and culture I loved, friendship, lessons learned, and my abilities were stretched past my introversion.  It hurt to leave, but I also found that my marriage was weakened.  My husband seemed absent...stressed, depressed?  I never found out.  We were back in the US, in counseling together, for two weeks of debrief.   Then we were back living with family when I found out that he had been behaving in an unfaithful way.  He left.  It happened quickly.  I was shocked.  I was hurt.  I didn’t know how things could’ve turned out this way.

I went through months of aloneness.  I tried to work things out, but he didn’t want to.  He told me that he was ever only along for the ride--that he wanted an adventure.  When things got too hard, it didn’t feel like an adventure for him.  One day he told me that if I’d be willing to give him a year or so to be by himself, doing as he pleased, and thinking things over--that maybe he’d come back after that.  That hurt the most; like he was doing me a favor--but only if he felt like he’d had enough fun to last for a while.  It was then that I walked away completely.  I prayed.  I sobbed. I deeply grieved. Grief isn’t just the tears, it is a deep pain from within that makes your whole body writhe.  I hadn’t known grief until then.  

God is good in the good times, but he's even better in the bad.  As I was living back home, single, with my dysfunctional family I thought that life would never get better. Depression had set in and I thought that God was done with me. I had failed as a missionary and I had failed in my marriage. I didn't think I was redeemable. Then I picked up my Bible; a book filled with a theme of grace. Not because I do anything to deserve Gods love, but because he just loves me. All of my striving. All of my working to achieve and maintain appearance, acceptable behavior, status, and much more...God didn't want that. He wanted a heart to heart relationship with my obedience; and I had a skewed view of that from the beginning. I decided then to be still; to cease striving and give everything to him. That's the hardest and the best lesson I've ever had to learn. Healing has come.

Within a week of that realization I moved to RVA. Within two weeks I had a full time job.  I've found friends, community, life, and my calling once again. It was never really gone--my view was just foggy. He's such a loving and good God. He gives us grace upon grace.