How do I know God? Well the only way I can answer that question is to tell my God Story. You see knowing God is about being in relationship. It is not a formula or about reading a book or being in the right place at the right time. It all begins with being awake and aware. God desires to have a personal relationship with all of us. We may not even be aware of God’s presence in our lives but when we become aware life takes on a whole new dimension.
Last week I shared my first tangible encounter with God. This week I share my 30 year faith Journey. I am not special. I am simply awake and aware of God in my life. You can also become as alert to God’s presence. If you are seeking or even if you are not God often shows up.
Here is the rest of my story.
In 1985 I began attending a prayer group in my church, which met from 5:30 -6:30 AM Monday through Friday. I attended two or three times a week. There is something that happens to a person who purposefully plans their day around prayer. We would gather for ten minutes of devotion, then scatter around the sanctuary and pray together yet in solitude.
Although it was late spring, the sanctuary was often cold. Not a wintery cold but a spring cold that is transformed in moments by the warmth of the sun’s rays. I would say my prayers and meditate on a passage of scripture then wait in silence. I had a burning desire to hear that still small voice spoken of by Jeremiah, Isaiah and Samuel. I went faithfully expecting to hear for months. Then one day it happened! I heard, “the voice”, “Donna I have called you and will equip you for the work of the ministry”. The words did not come from without but within, from the deepest part of me as though coming out of the darkness into the light. The words were said once but echoed in every fiber of my being.
Although I had never heard anything like it before, I knew that I knew it was the ‘Divine Voice.’ I was afraid to move not wanting the moment to end and began to cry. Half in fear, half in awe, I said, ‘yes Lord.’ I prayed every day hoping for more direction. About ten days later, in the same place, around the same time, something else happened; I had a vision.
I was in a race, running in front of the pack. Suddenly, I felt a pebble in my shoe that caused me to stumble and fall to the ground. Others in the race kept running. With all my might, I tried to take the shoe off. It was as though it were glued to my foot. No one stopped to help me and as the sun began to set and the last racer passed over the hill, I sat on the ground weeping alone in the dark. With the morning light came a person running toward me from the direction where the race had begun the day before. She stopped and did not speak a word, knelt down beside me and untied the shoe. She took out the thorny irritation and held it up to the light. It was not a pebble at all, but a beautiful pearl and like a prism, it revealed hidden multi-color rays. The runner took me by the arms and lifted me up and I felt light as a feather. Taking my hand, we began running together. Suddenly, I felt the ground vibrate with activity and looked back. I found myself in another race and once again at the front leading the pack.
At the time, it was hard for me to grasp its meaning. Nevertheless, it was a very powerful experience. The race metaphor was not new to me. The Apostle Paul talked about the Christian journey as a race.3 Nevertheless, what did this mean for me? Over the years, I tried to interpret this against different occasions in my life but it never measured up. Eventually, I let it go. I had forgotten all about it until I took my first course at Andover Newton Theological School. It was the Summer Institute of 2004. It happened on the Thursday while singing a chorus during morning devotions. As I listened to the community singing, the vision came again, jarring my senses as vividly as the first time. I recognized that the race was a balcony view of three key periods of my life. The paradoxical and perplexing questions revealed their remedies, alerting me to nineteen years’ worth of fresh new meaning and clarity.
Part one: Growing up, Connecting to God, Growing with others and Serving the Community
Growing up, I first understood myself as the oldest in a family of eight: my father, mother and five siblings. My father owned his own gas station. In addition to raising six kids, my mother worked 11PM-7AM. Raised Catholic, we regularly went to church with many of our extended family, some of which were lay leaders and clergy
I was different from my other siblings: it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (J.R.A.). I was also dyslexic which went undetected until I was an adult in college. Not knowing why I was different, I learned lessons in my early years about physical suffering and being misunderstood. I also learned the ‘Collins way’ of handling problems… those family behaviors, which pass hurt from one generation to the next. Nevertheless, I retreated to my attic, my sanctuary. I taught myself to play guitar and wrote songs. I learned to sing. I discovered my creativity and learned how to paint. It was in my attic that I cultivated deep convictions which originated from a belief in a providential God who is all loving and intimately involved in the day to day events of people’s lives. My personal life and physical pain and the sudden death of my nineteen-year-old cousin, who was killed by a drunk driver, challenged my beliefs and caused me to question my understanding of God.
It wasn’t long before I went to the Priest with my questions and concerns. I left the meeting with even more questions. Then a series of events and friends led me to a little Baptist church in town. I asked my questions and they told me that my answers would be found in the Bible. The church community identified its meaning and purpose by Bible study. Scripture was viewed from a literal perspective because it was believed to be, “without error”. One’s community identity was defined by right answers and right answers were the evidence of spiritual growth. Being able to read was important and it was a struggle for me. How will I ever know God if I can’t read? I wanted answers to my questions so I confided in a friend who encouraged me to use James1: 5 as a prayer, “If anyone lacks wisdom, let them ask God and God will give it to them abundantly”. I took her suggestion and it eased my anxiety, I prayed and before long I was able to comprehend what I was reading. During this time my J.R.A. and the pain had gotten worse. Despite four surgeries, I was told I would be permanently disabled. The pain dictated when and what I could do things. The Church community became my life. That is where I developed friendships and a deeper understanding of my relationship with the triune God. I also had many opportunities to continue to develop my gift of music. I started a puppet ministry with the youth and as a young adult I pulled together a Christian band called ‘Agape’.
When I was twenty-four, the band was invited to an event with other groups. I met and became friends with folks from a new charismatic church. They invited me to a healing service and that day I walked out pushing my wheelchair. My healing became a part of my new identity. It was so amazing to be able to walk without pain. I hadn’t walked on the beach in years; the next day I was there at sunrise thanking God for a new me. For the next thirteen years, I became a leader in this spirit focused faith community. I met and married my husband and together, we were in several praise bands and moved to Oklahoma to attend Bible School. We were ordained as evangelists traveling to many churches in Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri. Through the school we were asked to help start a new church in Claremore OK. My public life was fulfilling and it was a privilege to serve in worship, in prayer, in teaching and sharing my faith out in the community.
Part two: Dark shadows, The Fall, and the Dark night
Unfortunately in the Charismatic movement leaders I was associated with were accountable only to themselves and their subjective interpretations of spiritual authority. It was difficult to have a discussion with a minister if you disagreed. Women were to be submissive to their husbands. My husband was the spiritual authority in our marriage and if I disagreed with him the heartache and emotional pain inflicted held cause the demise of the marriage. For years I suffered verbal, spiritual, and in the end physical abuse. To add insult to injury, I had a terrible fall, which left me unable to walk with a seizure disorder. Because of a literalist view of scripture, my Christian identity was called into question. One’s Christian identity was defined by your health, what gifts you had and used determined ones perceived relationship with God.
I hadn’t been in church for months and I wanted to go. My husband took me into church and while waiting for him in the narthex, I caught the eye of one of my close friends. She looked at me, then looked away, grabbed her kids and went into the church. Not one person greeted or welcomed me back. I felt a deep sense of rejection and did not go back to church after that. I had lived my life according to this belief system and for a season, I believed that God had judged me unfit and punitively responded.
Part Three: Dawn breaks, my Samaritan comes, a renewed Sense of Call.
or four years, I was isolated living as best I could in a wheelchair. Then, in nineteen ninety-six, I was introduced to a doctor who offered me hope. I had double knee replacements and spent several months in a rehab. It was there I met a chaplain with the United Church of Christ. Her name was Nancy. Nancy only met with me a few times. I told her my story and she helped me see once again, God’s loving presence. Her compassion and empathy became a guiding light in my recovery. This marked a new beginning. I was recovering, my husband was no longer in the picture and I was looking forward to making a new life for myself and went back to school. I thrived and got involved in everything at North Shore Community College, (NSCC). Before long, I met two other people who were from UCC churches. One was a professor, who was also a minister. The other was a student, (Audrey) who would become my best friend and years later my wife. It wasn’t long before I realized I had found a home in the United Church of Christ.
My life experiences have revealed to me God is in relationship with us and will never abandon us. God is on the side of the poor, alienated, disenfranchised and those who yearn for justice and equality. I have had to learn to embrace my own incompleteness and brokenness because it is where my faith in God is strengthened. Although my friends turned away from me that day in church, God would one day use a chaplain and others to guide me towards a greater truth than the one I had known.
Still in the middle of the movie:
My personal story with all its ups and downs, sufferings and celebrations are a testament to a God who looks upon me as a “beloved daughter. This revelation is what drives my passion in ministry to be an instrument whereby others may come to realize their own belovedness and dignity as human persons. Ultimately, if we understand ourselves as belonging to God and that God belongs to us and we belong to each other when we are in the midst of losses, betrayals and hurts we can remain hopeful that all things work together for the good. My relived vision experienced at ANTS in 2004 informs me today the sacred marathon continues and I am determined to reach the finish line. I can’t wait to see what God and I accomplish together.
What is your God story?