Lauren Sullivan has called Pleasant Valley her church home for her entire life. She and her older brother ran through the halls as children while their parents served throughout the church. As Lauren grew into a middle school and high school student, she continued to be involved in church and was baptized at Summerfest in eighth grade alongside her friend, Lauren Simoneau.
While Lauren was active and involved in student ministry, she wasn’t incredibly vocal about her faith.
“Everyone knew I went to church but I wouldn’t go around professing the Gospel.”
While Lauren was growing up, falling in love with Jesus and deepening her relationship with Him, Spencer Hamilton was attending PV as well, although far less involved.
“I first accepted Jesus in kindergarten, but it didn’t become my own thing until later in life. Sports were important and church went to the wayside. Going into high school, I fell into this pit of an image I needed to maintain. I wanted to get more involved in student ministry but I was afraid of what it would look like in high school, so I was ‘too cool’ for church.”
It was in college for both Lauren and Spencer that the Lord began to really move in their hearts. Lauren recalls:
“I went to college and freshman year sucked. It was really hard. In high school, I was towards the top of the social ladder. I was really involved with lots of friends, but when I got to college, Mizzou was just so big. It was hard to get involved, and I didn’t have friends. People only wanted to drink, and I didn’t want to do that. My faith was rocky there for a bit.”
Change for Lauren began towards the end of her freshman year.
“I got a really good small group, and the leaders were my small group leaders for three years. They gave me the spark I needed and the friendship I needed that pointed me to Jesus. That is the reason my faith is so strong today – they pointed me to Jesus. They had really hard lives, but their faith was amazing. They pushed me to read and study my Bible. I hadn’t read it as much in high school. This helped me to see the Bible as His whole story, His whole redemption story.”
Spencer recognized that the Lord had been moving in his heart for a while, but he finally responded when he got to college.
“When I went to college, the Holy Spirit had been doing a work in me for a while. I remember sitting with friends and just realizing that something wasn’t right with my current college situation.”
For Spencer, after hearing the Holy Spirit speak to him, he changed paths immediately.
“I had a complete 180. I came back home and began attending UMKC, then I got really involved at 20-somethings and interned at PV. This opened the door to friendships I could’ve had in high school. It was this creation of a life I thought I was too cool for, but the life the Lord intended for me to have all along.”
It was their mutual friend, Lauren Simoneau, that helped bring their two stories together by suggesting they give dating a try in their sophomore year of college. Lauren remembers:
“Lauren Simoneau put us together, but it didn’t go well. You can’t build a long-distance relationship without a foundation of friendship. So we broke up, which is a story of God’s timing. We weren’t ready yet, and we needed to grow.”
Their breakup didn’t go well, and Lauren’s heart was pretty bitter towards Spencer.
“That’s a huge part of our story. The Lord had to change my heart towards him, but He can change our hearts. And God was able to do that in our story.”
Their friend, Lauren Simoneau, had a kidney transplant during their junior year of college, so Lauren came back to Kansas City to support her friend. Lauren Simoneau’s insistence on having Spencer at the hospital as well brought Lauren and Spencer into proximity with one another. Lauren laughs as she says,
“Spencer’s dad was telling him, ‘You need to start dating again and get off the couch.’”
Spencer recalls that bizarre afternoon when he went to visit their friend in the hospital.
“I was going to get a haircut, but when I found out Lauren was with our friend, Lauren, at the hospital,I drove to Liberty Hospital instead. They weren’t even there. She was at Research! So we sat with our friend, and sparks were flying between Lauren and I. I thought she liked me.”
But Lauren wasn’t feeling those same sparks and kept telling herself, “No. I’ll never date him again. Not after what happened.”
The next time they were at church, however, Lauren asked Spencer to sit with her.
“Then I tried to ask her out in the lobby of Pleasant Valley. But I couldn’t get the words out and by the time I started to, her mom came out and asked if she was ready to go eat at Margaritas.”
Eventually, they did start dating. But their stronger walks with the Lord was a steady foundation for a relationship with Christ at the center.
After they graduated from college, Lauren began teaching elementary school while Spencer began a career as an analyst during their engagement, and they wed right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. With a twinkle in his eye, Spencer comments:
“We got married in June of 2020 and had a reception in August. I like to say that my 60 day free trial was up, and it was time to renew it.”
When asked how they’ve seen Jesus in their marriage, Lauren responds:
“The sacrifices you make when you’re married point to Jesus’ sacrifices. It helps us to be less selfish with everyday life. We try to read the Bible more together and focus on praying together, which makes intimacy so much better. We also have a cool opportunity to model marriage well since none of our other friends are married. We do our best to show them a healthy, God-honoring marriage.”
“When people see our marriage, we want it to point towards Jesus. We serve together in the nursery and getting to serve alongside my wife is one of the cooler aspects.”
Spencer goes on to talk about the transformation he’s seen in Lauren during their marriage.
“I’ve seen her confidence grow. Finding a job out of college was not easy for Lauren, and there was a lot of discouragement there. I knew deep down that she was worthy of whatever job she was going to get. But it was hard for a long time. And when she finally got a job, it was harder than she anticipated. Seeing Lauren find a way to bring that discouragement to the Lord and her faith in the Lord to get through all of that was incredible. For her heart to be so burdened and feel so inadequate, but to see her go to the Lord was just really cool. I truly see this year is the fruit of that time with the Lord for her. She has one of the best classrooms in the school, and the principal has picked her out to have people shadow her. I’m so proud.”
Lauren’s face if full and beaming when she turns to Spencer and says,
“I’ve seen redemption in the way you love others. I’m much more extroverted and when we were first married, you didn’t always want to call a friend or hang out with people. But I think the way you love people now – it is evident you go out of your way to show love. You see hanging out with people as a way to love people, and a way we can show them God’s love, especially with our friends who aren’t Christians. You’re bold with your faith. You’ve always loved people, but the way you do it now is so much greater. You love people well by calling them when they have a bad week. You’re not extroverted but you’re pushing yourself to be intentional about relationships, and you’re so intentional with me.”
While transformation for people who have grown up in the Church can look more gradual, a definite change from the apathetic high school student Spencer was and the bitter heart in Lauren is proof of God’s transformation power in Lauren and Spencer, and their marriage is a beautiful picture of how God is always moving and working, even when we can’t see it. As Lauren ponders, she cocks her head to the side and says:
“You know, this world will never satisfy us. I can’t put my hope in Spencer or my parents. They’ll never live up to my expectations. God is worthy of my praise and love, and He’s more than enough for me. Jesus is enough.”
Spencer nods is head in agreement, and adds:
“Throughout explaining my journey and faith, when I was being a knucklehead, He was still pursuing me. And when I decided to go all in, He was still there, even as I’ve had to course-correct at times. Jesus is constant.”
Normalizing mental health has been on the rise, and it is in part thanks to the brave individuals willing to share their own journeys with mental health despite the topic that can still feel taboo. One of these brave individuals is Stacy Daniel. Over the course of time, Stacy has become increasingly vocal in sharing her journey with mental illness, while always coupling her struggles with the hope she has in Jesus. Throughout Stacy’s life, both the triumphant milestones and mundane moments, her mental health has played a part.
“I struggled with mental illness since I was little; that theme is woven throughout my whole journey. Brad and I have done a lot of work. It is a big part of my story – besides Jesus. When I was younger people didn’t talk about [mental illness] or understand it.”
Stacy grew up attending church with her family and chose to follow Jesus when she was in fifth grade. Growing up in a small town in Missouri, where everyone knew everyone, she had always known Brad, but they eventually fell in love and married, and soon after Amberlie was born. When she was two, Brad’s job moved them to Seattle.
Once they got there, Brad and Stacy began trying to expand their family again and during that time, something significant happened. The mental illness Stacy had been unknowingly struggling with her entire life was finally given a name – depression.
“To have a psychologist diagnose me – to have somebody who knows, give me an answer and say, ‘Hey this isn’t anything you’ve done. This is just what it is.’ That was huge. It’s not sadness. That’s what a lot of people think it is. It’s a chronic illness.”
Despite the depression, Seattle played an important part of God’s future callings on Brad’s and Stacy’s lives.
“Seattle was a key to a lot of things I think. That’s where we grew up in our marriage. We got connected with a community group at a church there. That’s where adoption started. One of the couples was in the fostering-to-adopt process and one of the other couples – she was adopted. It wasn’t anything I had considered before, but that’s where the seeds were planted. And China became heavy on my heart during that time. I didn’t know why then but I do now. God also planted seeds in Brad and began giving him a heart for students. So a lot of seeds were planted at that church.
But it was a discovery.
The infertility, the depression, and ministry.”
Brad and Stacy never conceived the second baby they were trying for and after two years in Seattle, they moved back to Missouri. Brad had a lot of health problems and most of them were ear infections triggered by allergies to pine, mold, and other vegetation in Washington. After a few ear surgeries, Brad’s doctor told him he needed to move back to Missouri. They settled in the Kansas City area. Not only would Brad’s physical health benefit from this move, but Stacy’s mental health would, too.
“The first thing I noticed was how blue the skies are. We were in Seattle in a bad winter. I knew that fall used to get to me but I thought it was because of going back to school and I hated school. But then there was no one going to school in my life and it kept happening. I learned that blue skies and daylight are important for me. I can tell you exactly when the days are getting shorter. I can tell you even before the news people do. Winters are like hibernation for me.”
When they moved back to Kansas City, they began attending Pleasant Valley. Brad began serving in the student ministry, and Stacy served in the nursery. Then, the seed planted for students in Brad, began to grow.
“Brad wasn’t content at work. We knew his job was going away, and he started feeling disconnected. He had talked to some people and said to me, ‘I may be called to ministry’, and I said, “No I don’t think so. I don’t see us ever doing that.” Through that process, he got a part time job [at PV] but when he became full-time is when I really hit rock bottom.”
When Amberlie was around seven, and shortly after Brad accepted the position of Junior High Student Pastor at PV, Stacy’s mental health took a turn for the worse. Her daily routine consisted of waking up to take Amberlie to school, sitting on the couch and staring or taking a nap until it was time to get Amberlie, then do what she needed to do until bedtime. But when bedtime finally came, Stacy couldn’t sleep.
“Something was really wrong, and it wasn’t going away. When Brad went into full-time ministry I wondered “How can this be happening? If I’m like this, I can’t be a pastor’s wife.” Plus the struggle of having a baby. Infertility didn’t help the depression. I had adopted this ‘I’m not a good mom’ mindset. The enemy uses anything to make you feel like: ‘I must not be a good mom if I’m not getting my blessing.’ Then the spiral goes down. But at that point I was almost too numb to feel anything. The depression played into the idea that I was wrong and I was flawed and I wasn’t good enough. But also, I felt during that time that I can’t do anything for God anyways. How can I be worthy? I couldn’t see the light.”
One day Stacy was in a very dark place when Brad made the decision to call Stacy’s doctor because he knew she couldn’t.
“I remember opening my Bible and praying, ‘Okay God, I can’t feel You and I’m not sure You’re there but I know that You are.’ My Bible was opened to “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” [John 1:5] I felt a lot of fear. That was my first panic attack. I was really scared. I felt like something was going to consume me.”
After Brad made the call to Stacy’s doctor, she began going to counseling and taking medication. It was a long process to discover which medications worked best for Stacy’s body, but soon, things began to change.
“It took quite a while until I was able to see color. One day I woke up and was able to see things. I felt like I was seeing in black and white and now I’m seeing color. Medication is what helped me. I still had work to do though. Medicine isn’t a magic pill. It just gave me the energy and ability to do the work and continue to heal.”
As Stacy’s life became more vibrant and she walked towards healing, she began praying about adoption again.
Stacy continued to go to therapy, and her doctor shared that the medication was almost like she was in remission from the depression. There were times Stacy wanted to be done. She wanted to be done taking medication and done talking to a therapist, but she learned that her body doesn’t work that way. She doesn’t get to decide that she’s done having a chronic illness.
As their adoption process continued, there were times they wondered if it would happen because the timeline kept getting pushed back. However, when Amberlie was 11, she and her parents flew to China for two weeks to adopt Emma – the one-year-old baby they’d been praying for who completely captured their hearts.
After Emma got home, Stacy learned to give herself more grace for the seasons she isn’t able to pour herself out as much as she might want to. Stacy has learned that every fall and winter she has to step back from being as involved in activities to give herself room to make it through the winter.
Throughout Stacy’s journey, in the darkest of moments when she felt like God was nowhere to be seen, she clung to the fact that she knew He was still there. When she couldn’t see the light, He reminded her through Scripture that the darkness has not overcome the light. She could not be consumed.
“God’s just been there. He’s been so good and so kind to give me glimpses of that grace when I need it.”
With Stacy’s struggle through depression, one of her biggest convictions has been something the Lord spoke to her…
“He said to me, ‘I created you and I decided when you were born. I am the only One who gets to take your life.’ He’s told me this more than once. There’s a firmness. ‘I gave you life and I’m the only One who can take it.’ It doesn’t sound like kindness, but it is. I know some people laugh when I say my favorite verse is ‘Jesus wept.’ But for all of the weeping I’ve done, just to know that Jesus is God and in His humanity, He gets me…”
Stacy’s voice trails off as she fights back the tears, her hand reaches up to tuck her hair behind her ear.
“I can’t grasp it or comprehend it, but His kindness… I get to see Him in the little things. In the tears – that’s where I feel like I connect a lot with Him.”
Stacy’s journey has not been an easy one, and she still struggles with seasonal depression every year. When she feels like the winter will never end, when the depression is feeling especially heavy, Brad reminds her that she’s felt this way before, and she’s always made it through the winter. As Stacy prepares for the darker days each year, she holds on tight to the peace Jesus brings her.
“In fifth grade, when I said I want to follow Him, His peace is what I wanted and that’s what I continue to come back to.”
“Jesus is my peace.”
I was complaining recently to my trainer that I didn’t think I was making much progress towards my health goals. She paused a moment, and then said, “Well, what gains were you expecting? Because, at this stage of our journey – if you are diligent and focused – you will see subtle changes that let you age well. And may I just emphasize ‘subtle changes’ and ‘age well’? This is a game of inches.”
I have pondered this “game of inches” comment the past week vis-à-vis my spiritual goals. I become frustrated there to – maybe you do not, but I do. I keep wanting to be better at prayer (by which I mean just be able to do it longer without my attention shifting to something else!). I want to be more willing to listen than talk. I want to love more deeply and truthfully. I want lots of things like that – things I think I should be by now, but suspect I am not. I think, however, that I could be in this same “game of inches” in my spiritual journey.
The days of my confession of faith are long behind me. I have read the scriptures enough times that I know most of the stories by heart. I have memorized (and forgotten) long chunks of scripture. I have meditated over scripture and asked God to make it new to me — to help me see Him anew in the pages — because it is so familiar. Please don’t hear me suggesting that I know all scripture by rote or that I have it all stored in my heart. I have a long way to go on both of those. However, my early days of joyful discovery and the newness of my salvation are well behind me. I will not have those large strides in learning that I once had. My behavior is more steady. I am not undergoing radical change in friends or life choices as I once did. In short, I am doing all the things we are told we should be doing to draw closer to God and yet…it seems like my “drawing closer” is slow and in small starts and pieces.
I am in a season of my journey with God where I could so easily become complacent and coast thru my faith. I am in the habit of doing all the things an obedient believer ought to do (read the Bible, pray, journal, go to church, praise, serve others). Yet still I can see my flaws so clearly and wonder if I am making any headway on this journey with God. I would like to be more like Christ. But am I? Am I more like Him this year than last? Did I handle the most recent bumpy part of life with His peace wrapped around me? Do I lean more on Him and less on my bank account or my ability to spout Bible trivia upon command? In short, am I changing? Because I want to.
In my humanity, I’d like to see big changes in me. But in truth, it is probably a “game of inches”. If I am diligent and focused daily on the disciplines I know I should have, then I will see subtle changes and I will finish well.
Honestly, I don’t love the inches. I love the grand gesture, the joy of discovering something profound and new, the moment of life change when I turn away from sin and towards God. Is it still possible to have large strides in my faith? Yes. Remember the “refining fire” in 1 Peter? Yep, that could do it. Or The Holy Spirit could just swoop in and remove some sin in my life. So it is still possible to have “the grand gesture” and “the moment of life change”. Yet I am not seeing that today. Today I am seeing the game of inches. Perhaps this is true of you also?
If so, my fellow inch-ers, let us gather together and exhort one another to excellence and diligence in our game of inches. Galatians 6:9 (NIV) says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” I don’t want to give up. Nor do I want to become complacent in my current spot. I want to press in, press on, gain the prize! And this means – today – being diligent and faithful, cherishing the subtle changes that will let me finish well.
Jane set her coffee down on the table and then sat down, folding her hands in front of her. Her usual, warm smile found its place on her face and her welcoming spirit instantly filled the space as she began to share that she became a Christian as a little girl. She shares more about her background before sharing that she married Jay 33 years ago and they had three beautiful children while Jane taught elementary school.
After her children grew up, and after Jane retired from teaching, she entered into one of the most transformative seasons of her life. After her retirement, a trusted friend and pastor warned her that she would go through a feeling of uncomfortableness and that it would be ok to live in that feeling. He then encouraged her to read the book, “The Gift of Being Yourself”.
At the time, Jane felt like she wouldn’t need this book. She was excitedly looking forward to the freedom that would come from retirement.
“I taught for 30 years – right out of college. I taught third, fourth, and fifth grade the whole time, and I loved it. I loved my career. But I knew when my 30 years was done, I wanted to be done. As a teacher, you always miss out on your own children’s moments. You see a lot of other kids’ moments, but you miss out on your own kids’. God showed me right away that I could be home when Clayton would come by or Mikayla would call any time from college. Prior to that, I was available from 10:00 – 10:30 every day but Wednesday, and that’s the only time they could call me. I missed a lot, it felt like. I was done missing moments. You still get a lot of grown-up children moments that I’m glad I have.”
However, after what felt like a typical summer break, school headed back into session and Jane found herself home…and some uncomfortable feelings began to creep in.
“In a backwards complimentary way people would tell me I was too young to stop working, what are you going to do with yourself? Even though I know they meant that in a good way, it felt really yucky.”
She began to question her identity, her purpose, and even her value.
“I thought, ‘Where is my self worth? I’m not a teacher. I’m not a mom,’ even though I was a mom just not needed in that capacity. ‘I’m not a grandma. So, what am I?’”
The words of her friend and the wisdom he had imparted on her kept echoing in her head: “It is ok to be uncomfortable.”
“We don’t want to sit and wrestle ever, well at least I don’t. But, it was like he gave me permission to sit and wrestle. I had time to figure it out.”
After several months of sifting through the uncomfortable feelings and awkward questions about what she would do with her time, Jane picked up “The Gift of Being Yourself” and slowly began to read.
“I just really wanted to hear from God. I sensed that He was saying, ‘Just read and just be quiet and I will take care of you.’ Really it was through reading, trusting, and praying that God began to speak. I prayed ‘I know You have a plan for me and it’s a good one and it’s for Your Kingdom. I’ve done school, now how can You use me even deeper?’”
Jane’s voice became earnest and thick as she remembered the time she heard so deeply and intimately from God through the little book her friend had given her to read.
“I remember reading, ‘You’re a child of God and that’s all you need to be,’ and that just struck me. That’s exactly right. Then I just dwelled on that for a long time. Even though you know the truth and you know the truth…”
Jane gestured to her head and her heart as she spoke…
“You have to decide, ‘Do I believe the truth? Is that enough?’ Even though I’m not a teacher anymore or a mom with other responsibilities is it ok to just be this?”
Unshed tears gleamed in Jane’s eyes as she reached for a tissue and smiled…
Jane continued to share the revelation of truth she experienced reading this book.
“I had to wrestle a little with that. It was through the book I was able to grasp that ultimately, I’m a child of God and that’s my identity. Period. I don’t have to be anyone else. I’m God’s child and He’ll use me however He chooses. When I read that, it was so freeing. I’m good with that. That’s all I have to be. I don’t have to make an excuse or come up with a justification of why I do this or that. That’s who I am. And if I’m living how God wants me to live and doing what He wants me to do, there’s my identity. He showed me so clearly that’s all I need to be. All of us feel like we need to be so many other things and forget the most important thing.”
New opportunities began to present themselves to Jane, as she carefully chose what she would do to fill her time and what areas she could best be used in. One of the first things she did upon retirement was sign up to be a mentor mom for Pleasant Valley’s “Moments” group. A gaggle of young mamas gather together monthly to eat, celebrate new births, and be encouraged in their walk with the Lord. Jane wanted to be a part of that. She knew that she’d be sharing a devotional with these women and began praying about what she was supposed to share.
“My devotion came to me in a dream. I dreamed about all of the different hats that we wear as moms and as women. We get bogged down with all the things we do. We think that that’s who we are, when ultimately, people’s identities are stripped away, forced away, taken away, sometimes we just lose identities as we go through circles of life. But ultimately underneath all of that is who we are – a child of God. I woke up realizing that there it is. That’s what I needed to tell these women.”
It was in that dream and shortly after that Jane felt the constant and promising whisper of the Lord saying, “You have a purpose beyond teaching.”
Jane and Jay began serving with PV’s Twentysomethings ministry and have been two of the key leaders in getting the ministry off the ground. Jane has taken time to meet with some of the group members as they’ve obtained a degree in education and prepared for their first year of teaching. She’s shared some of the wisdom she gained from 30 plus years of teaching and prays for them and their students specifically. She also began serving on the Staff Care Team at PV and has looked for other ways to serve. Her aim is to keep serving and keep her heart and hands open.
Jane’s soft eyes sparkle with excitement, and peace radiates from within her when asked how this season was the most transformative.
“It is freeing to me. Don’t you see people in life where their whole identity is their job or being a mom? Those are super important and I wouldn’t have changed those for anything. But, when all those go away, who are you still? When we learn that, it makes us a better Christ follower. You’re God’s child and He’s going to use you how He wants to. I’ve learned that I don’t need all of the hats of identity I’ve worn over the years. Jesus is enough.”
Recently a leader asked a group of Christians, “What sort of things should Christians be able to discuss with one another?” The unanimous answer was that Christians should be able to discuss anything with one another—but the follow-up discussion revealed that there are many topics we cannot discuss in our Bible studies, small groups, family settings, coffee shop conversations, with believers, etc. Why is that? Is there so much fear and anger, despair, refusal to listen (or speak) that much of what disturbs us today is walled off as “forbidden territory”? Must we carefully sound out our Christian brothers and sisters around us and make sure they have the same opinions and thoughts we do before we can share our feelings or thoughts?
The Apostle Paul was familiar with groups of quarrelsome Christians who could not or would not act in love. Before one of his visits to Corinth, Paul, defending his ministry,
wrote, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God and take every thought captive to obey Christ . . . ” (2 Cor. 10:5, ESV). Arguments, lofty opinions, disobedient thoughts among believers—sound familiar? Destroying strongholds, does that sound like work that needs to be done in your heart and mine?
Often we “redirect” Paul’s words to make them focus on spiritual warfare between the church and the world. But today it is time to let Paul’s words to the Corinthians speak to us about the battles among believers within the church. It is Christians such as you and me who have the arguments and lofty opinions, the disobedient thoughts that cast a shadow on Jesus’ words that people will recognize His disciples by their love for one another (John 13:35).
For our own spiritual health, for the spiritual life of the next generations, and for the cause of Christ in the world, we must take Paul’s words to heart as we look into our own hearts.
The issues within and outside the church are difficult, emotion-filled, and have practical implications for everyday life. They really cannot be avoided. Moreover, almost any news report and many internet “conversations” stir “arguments, lofty opinions, and disobedient thoughts” that set us off (or make us refuse to think about or to discuss such matters). As a result, we daily run the risk of falling into one pit or another: anger, despair, fatalism, withdrawal.
Christians have honest disagreements with one another about many political, social, and theological issues. But, as Paul implies, Christians may have less-than-honest disagreements with one another that are rooted in strongholds of sin that lie deep within us, strongholds not yet surrendered to Christ.
Honest disagreements seek understanding. They lead us to study, to pray, to think about issues. Honest disagreements with others help us to value those with whom we disagree. We recognize these persons as Christian brothers and sisters. We do not simply tolerate them, we seek their good and ours. In short, we love them.
Disagreements that are fed by strongholds of sin within us raise our emotional temperature. They encourage us to “dig in,” to ignore any empathy. We discount the value of the folks with whom we disagree when our sin is the root of our loud, angry disagreement. Our goal here is to prove we are right and they are wrong. If others’ arguments are too strong for us, we simply think, “Anyone who holds that view can’t really be a Christian.”
Paul must have wondered as he wrote in Second Corinthians, “Did they lose the first letter I wrote, the one that has the love chapter?” Perhaps in these odd times we need to go back to basics: “Love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”
Lake McGinty pulls out his chair and sits at the table, tossing his long brown curls away from his face and smiling a jovial smile. He begins to share his story, his slight accent revealing itself every so often, softening the harsh vowels of the standard American tongue.
“The instantaneous moments are not how God spoke into my life. It has been His continual long-term faithfulness that has pulled me in.”
Lake tells of his earliest years in St. Louis, Missouri, where his family lived out the beginnings of the American dream. When he was seven, Lake found a professing faith in Jesus and just two years later, his parents’ followed God’s calling on their lives to serve as missionaries to college students in Cape Town, South Africa.
The University of Cape Town, or UCT, is the largest university in Africa. Lake’s parents ran a nondenominational ministry for students, and Lake, his older sister, and younger brother attended public school in South Africa.
“That was my life for the next ten years or so. Public school in South Africa is a lot more of a blend of cultures. And it was a huge culture shock, to sum it up – going from a small suburb of St. Louis to a large city in South Africa with my parents serving at a university with over 100 nations represented. I was in school with people from every background, worldview, ethnic background. It became very easy to just be the Christian kid, but the biggest struggle for me was intimacy with relationships. Being a kid who moved around a lot, I had very shallow friendships.”
Despite Lake’s academic and athletic achievements, he often felt like he didn’t belong.
“I always felt like the social outcast. Which is interesting because I was in the upper end of academics; I was the star of the basketball team, and played rugby for four years in high school. I was known by everyone in my year, but primarily because I was the American. But I could bound around and fool myself into thinking I was known. After high school I realized I’d never had a close Christian friend.”
Lake’s lack of deep and steady friendships trickled into how he viewed the Lord.
“The truth that God never leaves and never wants to distance Himself was a hard one to believe.”
As Lake began college, first at a Bible college in South Africa, then at a small, Christian college in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, and finally at Missouri S&T, he found that because of his lack of long-term friendships over the years, walls had been placed around his heart, protecting him from getting too close to someone who might be a temporary figure in his life. Through the Lord’s gentle pursuance and the deep relationship with others, those walls began to crumble.
“None of the walls coming down were my doing. There were a few key people who spoke directly into that – whether they knew they were doing it or not. One was a young man at the Bible college in South Africa. His name is Johan.”
Johan was the first deliberate mentor Lake had in his life. He was the first person to push Lake out of his comfort zone and directly pursue a friendship with him.
“He insisted on having deep conversations and showed up at my room at the most inopportune times. He taught me about God’s persistence and calling us back to Him, then catching us when we don’t want to be seen by Him. Johan would interrupt me when I wrote poetry. And as one who gets very vulnerable and most often uses poetry as a way to talk to God, Johan asking, ‘What’s this about? Will you read it to me?’ felt like an invasion of my privacy, but it was God showing me that inviting other people into the gifts that He has given me is a form of faithfulness.”
While God worked through Johan to reach Lake’s heart, he didn’t grasp that he was called to do the same thing for others.
After Lake moved back to the United States to attend Covenant College, two more people began pouring into Lake’s life as well.
“Nathaniel, who we called Nanny, was my RA. And he, independent of his actual position, led us in Bible studies and encouraged each of us to lead one during the semester. That was the first direct call to serve in teaching that I had experienced. And then Peter. He was a dear friend and accountability partner, and also a missionary kid – his parents served in China. He was the first friend of mine where I felt understood. I could talk about struggles with fitting in in the United States, and Peter understood what it was like to have a little bit of an accent. It helped me to learn that God understands our context more than anyone else because He knows. I learned that truth is a foundation in a Christ-driven friendship. You have to know each other in order to best speak into each other’s lives and best uplift one another.”
While at Missouri S&T, Lake developed a one-on-one discipleship relationship for the first time, and finally understood the importance of pursuing a discipleship friendship himself.
“Jason was the first person to one-on-one disciple me. We went through Psalms and Proverbs throughout the course of two years. It was an intense study, but it was life-centric and ultimately, God showed me the depth His scripture and theology can apply to everything in our lives.”
After being discipled, Lake felt the Holy Spirit leading him to now disciple others. He asked his friend, Will, and he agreed to be discipled by Lake.
Lake and Will met weekly, studying Scripture, but also reading through C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia, seeking out Lewis’ intentional inclusion of theology in his writings.
“Throughout the course of time, God used each one of those friends to gradually reveal to me what it means to be in a friendship first, but a friendship that goes on beyond the day’s events and what you enjoy and includes hard things, like calling each other out, keeping one another accountable, and praising together. Now, I can say all of these men, in their own way, have become like brothers to me. I think there’s a new found understanding of the value of every human life in that. And discipleship is a two-way street. I think that the Lord reveals to His children the value of being helped.”
While at Missouri S&T, Lake was actively involved in their student ministry where he served as president during his last year of school, giving him many opportunities for discipleship relationships. From shallow friendships with no idea that intimacy in Christian circles is a gift the Lord has given us, to leading an entire ministry of Church community, Lake’s relationship with others and with the Lord changed drastically. He could now see how the Lord is a faithful friend who desires intimacy with us and never leaves.
After Lake graduated, he began looking for a job and while many doors closed, the Lord made it clear that he was going to work in Kansas City. Shortly after moving, he found Pleasant Valley and began attending Twenty-Somethings, determined to find community but also get involved in leading, discipling, and serving as well. Lake’s longing for intimate friendships is a direct result of the walls God tore down around his heart.
And while Lake now has deep and steady friendships, he has learned that Jesus is really the best friend of all.
“Jesus is faithful and not shallow. He’s been faithful to surround me with people who love Him and then encourages me to surround myself with people I need to share His love with. It isn’t a shallow faithfulness, it is a deeper faithfulness – He knows the depth of us and chooses to give us the depths of Him. Jesus is faithful.”
Am I a burden to my friends?
Am I the one clinging to a past I’ve journeyed beyond?
Do I seem to them to grasp at fading ripples of our times,
Never again able to create the waves that bore us hence
And look as though longing to never use the past tense?
On the surface it seems waves don’t travel far,
Can’t brave the miles between.
But, underneath, I think, they span entire oceans
And traverse the waters unseen.
That is what I hope to be,
The connector, the tides joining the continents.
Not hoping for times fading,
Not expecting a splash anew,
But joining lives together,
seeing no need for them to drift apart
And trusting that the months and miles mean nothing to the heart.
So I pray I’m not a riptide pulling them back to sea,
Brought along for the ride as I drag them along,
Nor that I come across as one who is locked and bound to distant memories.
But, rather one who believes it is to eternity that brothers belong
And that we can endure seasons of silence amidst phileo’s song.
A poem by Lake McGinty