story

this semester at the advent house, we’re journeying through our stories and the stories of Jesus. we’re looking at our own and revealing several things about ourselves like our family histories, our interests, and our walk with Jesus (no matter how long or short, shallow or deep…). and then we’re spending time with particular stories of Jesus, times where he revealed something about himself to a particular audience and what all that has to do with us.

writing out my story has been quite the growing journey. i’ve decided to post it here. i didn’t share all this last night b/c we’re aiming for 10 minutes and b/c i decided to switch a few things out. but here’s what i originally had in mind. it’s a long piece. grab some tea and a biscuit…

My Story

I was born in London, England in the same hospital, same ward, same room, as my older sister, Abigail—she’s two years older. My other siblings are Anthony and Antonia and they’re 8 years younger than me. They were born in Liberia which is on the western coast of Africa, right above the equator.  Our parents, Errol and Pam, spent much of their lives in London and that’s where they met. But my dad was born in Jamaica and my mum was born in Guyana…not to be confused with Ghana. They got married, and after several years, moved the 4 of us to Liberia where the last two arrived a few years later. When we’re all together we refer to ourselves as the “6 family” which, for the last 2 years has actually been the “7 family” if you count my husband, Justin.

My parents are pretty cool people. My dad has always been a great storyteller and he loves jokes in particular: both telling jokes and playing jokes on people. My mum has very dry humor and yet will laugh at the use of whoopi cushions. She’s an artist, great at capturing life with pencil and paper, but she worked for many years as a secretary. My dad’s a pastor and spent several years teaching at a university. Abigail teaches Language Arts for 7 to 12th graders at a French school in Edmonton, Alberta. It’s not a French immersion program; it’s a French school for kids who come from homes where French is the first language. Abigail is what I’d call “Bad Ass”—she doesn’t take nonsense from anyone and she’ll tell you like it is. She’s also full of loads of love. Anthony has finished undergrad and plans to apply to PT school for next school year. He’s the quietest among us but when you get him talking, it’s on. He’s also the strongest among us, faithfully working out and making it harder to believe that he once kicked my chins when I told him it was time to stop playing and come inside. Antonia is in her last year of undergrad, studying sociology. She’s the most passionate among us and probably the most generous, too. I love her kindness. I’m technically the middle child and I have some middle child tendencies such as being a peacemaker but I’ve received a fair amount of attention through the years so I can’t claim to have been left out as some middle children do.

Our mother raised us to be pretty independent. I say our mother because our dad, for most of his life, was a traditional pastor who spent most of his time with the church members, not his family. It’s what he was taught. I don’t hold it against him although I wish it had been different. Mum’s the oldest of 10 so if anyone can handle 4 kids on her own, she can. I remember being away at college my freshman year. My dad was on the phone and as our conversation ended he said, “I love you.” It wasn’t the first time he’d said so but it must have been the first time in a long time or something because I still remember that moment and I remember that both my parents said it a lot more after I went away to school. It’s funny how distance does that.

When I was very young, I wanted to grow up to be a singer and be as famous as Michael Jackson, but being Adventist, I didn’t think that dream could ever come true so I didn’t pursue it. A part of me regrets never trying. It’s been somewhere in the last 5-7 years or so that my mum has really pursued her art so I wonder what would have happened if I’d pursued mine. I wonder if she would have supported me or if my dad’s job and the social pressure that comes with that would have caused us all to think it was a wasted effort. I guess I’ll never know unless I try and I’m currently not convinced that it’s something I should aim for. I’m thankful for the dream, however, even though it was a dream from my childhood. It reminds me that there are scores of others like me and I feel a responsibility to help them process their thoughts about how a career in art fits with a lifetime of devotion to Christ.

I’m here, working as the chaplain of Advent House and director of ACF for the Georgia-Cumberland Conference. It’s been an interesting (almost) 3 years. When I look back on the vision and mission statements I wrote out for my application to this job, I have to laugh at myself. I thought I knew myself much better than I actually did. Let’s just say that I’ve come a long way and I’m grateful for the growth. Some of it has been quite tough. I’ve had to journey through interpersonal relationship stuff that literally made me sick. It’s amazing how life can kick you in the pants when you find your value in what you do and in how others treat you instead of in Christ. Insecure people can’t effectively lead people.

My first job out of college was as an adjunct teacher at the university where my dad taught—Canadian University College. I like to believe that I got the job based on merit alone but I wouldn’t be surprised if being the chair of the religion department’s daughter had some sway. It definitely helps when people trust the people they know that you’re related to. I taught two classes: remedial English and speech fundamentals. The remedial English class was essentially for people who’d scored poorly on their English proficiency exam. Some were native English speakers with learning disabilities. Some were poor test takers. Some spoke another language first. Most were freshmen. The speech class was mostly sophomores and juniors. That was interesting because some were older than me or at least my age. I decided before the semester began that I’d introduce myself to both classes as “Michaela Lawrence” and let them decide what to call me. Some called me “Michaela,” some “Professor Lawrence” (which I tried to discourage), a few called me “teacher” (which I found pretty cute) and the rest didn’t call me anything (which I thought was funny).

It was a great year. I learned that I loved teaching so I applied to grad schools that offered a teaching assistantship, both so that I could teach some more and so that I wouldn’t have to pay for my Masters.  During that school year, I met my husband. He was one of my speech students and he’ll happily tell you the rest of the story so feel free to ask him if you haven’t already heard it. It’s a good story. Let’s just say that I never thought I’d date, let alone marry, outside my race.

The next two years, I studied English Lit at the University of Illinois, Chicago and taught English Composition I and II. Again, I loved the classroom but I struggled with trying to save my students. No, I wasn’t witnessing to them about Jesus. Instead, I wanted to save them from their home lives, lives that were making their school lives a mess. Not all my students fit that category; just a few, actually. But all it ever takes is a few negatives to make it feel as if everything’s negative. After my program was through, I spent another year there teaching. I remember talking to a student one night over the phone. I was trying to encourage him, help him do better in my class without cheating or anything like that. When I got off the phone, I listened to “Spare an Angel” by Chris Rice and bawled my eyes out. Part of the chorus says:

Can you spare an angel tonight
Send a little help from your side
Coz somebody’s lost down here

That lost somebody was my student, the guy who’s trying to take care of his mom and siblings and pass my class so that he could remain a star basketball player on the school’s team. I wanted to give him a different family and a love for English comp. I didn’t care that much about his basketball skills. He needed a savior. I couldn’t do it so I was willing to settle for an angel. That year I fought hard to not feel needed in an unhealthy, co-dependent sort of way. And I fought hard to help my students appreciate a good sentence and craft good ones themselves.

My own world shifted at the beginning of that school year when I lost the sight in my left eye. I became a bit of a medical wonder at the school’s Eye and Ear Infirmary and Cardiology department. “You’re so young,” they would say. “I know,” I would think. “Now do something.” But they couldn’t. The damage was done. I’d had a stroke, it seemed. Lack of blood flow—lack of oxygen—loss of sight. I was 24, exercised pretty regularly, ate fairly well, and there were no other symptoms or health conditions that made blindness make sense. Crowded spaces were intimidating for a while as I adjusted to my loss of depth perception. Initially, just walking down a street was hard. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” You never really understand the value of two eyes until you’ve had two eyes and you lose one.

For the first time in my adult life, I learned what it meant to grieve. I moved back home after that year, took a couple years “off” so to speak. I explored becoming a writer, wrote a lot about my grief, and tried to get stuff published. Nothing major happened with my writing life except that I learned it would take much more than “I like it” to become a great writer. Those two years, I volunteered at an adult literacy program in town and then got a paid gig teaching evening English classes. It was great. Being back in the classroom (without grading) was right up my ally. I also got really involved in my local church. After being involved in a church while in grad school, I’d learned the value of ministering to and with my fellow young adults. So I took that energy back home with me and joined with a few others to start a young adult ministry. I kept myself busy, purposeful. And I processed my pain.

I got baptized at age 14. That’s considered late for a pastor’s kid. That was the perception in 1993, anyway. I was a freshman at an Adventist high school and we had a week of prayer speaker make an appeal for baptism. I think I ticked “yes” on one of those cards they hand out so I was called into the school chaplain’s office to talk with the visiting pastor. He was surprised that I’d taken so long to get baptized. Unbeknownst to him, I’d made up my mind years earlier that I wanted to follow Christ “all the way” as the evangelists like to say. But I didn’t want to get baptized when it seemed like everyone else was doing it. I guess I wanted to make sure that I was doing this for me and me alone. I certainly didn’t want to do it just because my dad was a pastor.

The day of my baptism, I was excited. And then after I came up out of the water, I was thoroughly disappointed. Where were the angels singing? Where was that incredible feeling of joy? As people congratulated me and wished me well in my Christian walk, I was experiencing the great disappointment. I’m not sure where I got those false ideas and you’d think that a PK would know better. I guess I thought I’d at least feel as excited when I came up as I was as I watched others get baptized. I loved baptisms. Growing up in Liberia meant baptisms in the ocean. We’d sing great songs of baptism and salvation and people would come up rejoicing. Baptisms were celebrations. All we needed was dancing and cake to top it all off. I’m not sure how long it took me to come to terms with what had not happened, but I eventually did and I didn’t let my experience stop me from following Jesus.

I’m not sure what that exactly meant at the time. Now it means obedience and time spent in prayer and study of his word so that I know his voice and hear his instruction for my life. It means shifting my eyes away from my navel to the people around me and thinking about ways to be a blessing. I call it surrender. I find a lot of peace in surrender. I also find a lot of frustration because it’s not often as easy as it may sound. I like being comfortable just like most others I know. But I’m learning to trust Jesus with my life and find my value in him.

Losing my sight forced me into a very vulnerable space. I wasn’t able to be the independent woman my mum raised me to be. And learning to grieve meant returning home, something I never wanted to have to do again. I learned to talk to God differently, from a place of great need. I desperately wanted to know the future, whether or not I’d get my sight back and what job I would find myself in. But everything was unknown and the unknown was scary. I became more honest with God.

The Wednesday before I became blind, I attended prayer meeting at my church. The message was on Job and his commitment to the Lord no matter what. After becoming blind, I often wrestled with the question “Why?” but remembered Job and decided that if he could still trust God, so could I. I did have a condition, however. I told God that I’d trust him and that I’d be faithful, “but please don’t take my right eye.”

A few years later, I had a temporary episode in my right eye. Being completely blind for a few minutes is terrifying. I hope I never experience that again. I want to believe that I’ll still trust God and be faithful to him but I don’t want to find out.

The loss of sight has made me a firm believer that everything that happens doesn’t have a clear reason and that that’s okay. We want to know the answers to the question “Why?” but it’s not the end of the world if we don’t. It’s a waste of time trying to figure everything out and it’s ridiculous to say that everything that happens to us is part of God’s master plan. Yes, I believe God lets things happen. In other words, I believe that God doesn’t stop all the bad stuff from happening. It’s the result of living in a world that has gone against God’s master plan. However, I do believe that God can and does make something beautiful out of every bad thing. That’s why hope is real. It wouldn’t exist if God weren’t able to make good out of bad.

So I encourage you to hope in him. That’s my story.