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A Bottle of Tears in Cincinnati

I’ve moved back from the Philippines five months ago and since being home, I’ve been stuck in a weird loop of family crises and brief intermissions. I’ve flown to Los Angeles with two days’ notice to be a caretaker for my aunt post-operation and packed up her home for her transcontinental move. I’ve nannied my distant relative’s kids during a family crisis in South Carolina which consisted of a lot of holiday distraction and a million rounds of card games. I sat with my great-grandmother in a hospital after a fall, prepared a Thanksgiving meal for fifteen people by myself, got into a car accident with a Mennonite woman, and flew down to Florida to be with my grandfather after he suffered a stroke. But perhaps the most memorable of all happened during what I thought would be a time of rest when I visited a friend in Cincinnati.

Erika and I met almost two years ago at our orientation to go to Manila, Philippines, with International Justice Mission to serve their staff as they combatted the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children, a horrific form of modern-day slavery. We were bright-eyed, bushy-tailed idealists with a similar passion of justice and adventure.

While our year in Philippines was not without dumb misunderstandings ((greatly on my end…shocking, I know)), we share so many memories of people we love, places we grew to call home, and Grab rides we’ll never forget.

Why do I always feel the perverse need to ruin nice photos like this??? I blame Miley Cyrus.

Since completing our internships, our friendship as only gotten stronger- a lovely surprise I don’t think either of us expected especially as I famously only communicate through Facebook Voice Memos (The Most Annoying Form of Communication). Perhaps I love her most because she came to visit my family right after my great-grandfather passed away. During a time of mourning, she brought so much joy and helpfulness when she selflessly dog-sat one of my family business’ dogs in labor so my family could all attend the funeral together. That’s ride-or-die friendship right there, and that fact that she made cookies earned my sibling’s eternal loyalty.

In early December, I visited her in Cincinnati. We braved our mutual unemployment with long walks around the hilly boroughs, miscellaneous eateries at Findlay Market, and nostalgic SNL holiday specials. ((Also here is where I apologize for the decades-long war I have waged on the Midwest through ruthless albeit hilarious ridicule- Cincinnati is an actual gem so maybe it’s not all that bad.))

One night, we decided to go to her parents’ church. It’s an über trendy millennial mega-church filled with every stereotype you could think of – intimidatingly cool 20-something worship leaders with tattoos and mom jeans, an unnecessary social media element, and Sundance-ready intro videos all contained in what feels like an EDM concert in a historic, remodeled cathedral. Your basic John Crist video. We had mocked it ruthlessly in the Philippines when Erika mentioned how one Sunday, the pastor declared that Jesus didn’t want us to suffer, church was meant to be fun after all! So communion that week was champagne and cake.

I was excited to try it out because honestly, I wanted something to scoff at. I wanted to marvel at the western, millennial-ness of it all, of these massive, self-absorbed mega-churches that just didn’t get it, like I clearly do at my wise age of 23. Before the service started, Erika mentioned how she didn’t really know anyone there so was surprised when she ran into a family friend who she invited to sit with us.

During worship, I was convicted that I was limiting my experience. Why did I go to church hoping to get nothing out of it? So I asked the Lord to open my heart to experiencing Him in a new way in this new place and also apologized for generally being a brat.

The sermon came and went leading nowhere and I felt a small sense of deflation for putting in all that work trying not be sarcastic about it all. But as the music blared and people poured out into the cold night, the family friend asked us to stick around a second. She was kind of an eccentric older woman so I was honestly anticipating maybe an invite to a book club or something. ((Tbh I would’ve whole-heartedly accepted. I’m just trying to find love via a Jane Austen Book Club-esque meet cute like everyone else)).

Instead, she told me that she had had a vision to give to me. Me, a perfect stranger who hadn’t had said five words to her.

During the service, she saw a bottle which led her to Psalm 56:8.

She asked if this maybe meant something to me and I immediately began sobbing. In one verse held the anger and confusion of having to say goodbye to a home on the other side of the world, of people I dearly loved and didn’t feel done with yet, of things that felt waiting to be experienced and felt and gloried in. In it held the despair of feeling like I lost my place in the world and being cast out into the unknown with nothing to hold onto. It encapsulated my utter loneliness that seems to follow me everywhere I go and my fear of never being fully understood.

And I was reassured that it all matters.

It is all held in the palm of the One who put the heart of justice in me, the tenderness towards others, the soul that longs for community, the feet that leaps into wandering. It is validated and cherished by the One who heals and saves and gives and takes away.

You only save what is precious and worthy of being kept. You only save something to be used again. My experiences, however messy and heartbreaking and imperfect, were for something and will be used for something greater than I can imagine. It’s being put away for now because in God’s timing it will be made even more potent, even more vital. I can’t know. It’s not for me to know. But I can trust and rejoice that it wasn’t for nothing. I wouldn’t have been put so close to so much evil, so much sorrow, for it to never be used again. I wouldn’t have been stretched so far to never actually reach what it was all for.

As she prayed over me, her words fell with such specificity and I marveled in astonishment. She asked for faith in His perfect timing and perfect ordering of my steps. She thanked Him for seeking me out in the wilderness with a passion like a love song. She put a name to the sorrow and a light to the hope.

She also mentioned that there are times I don’t even know of that He has kept me safe and put His angels around me to protect me. I was shaking at this point, admitting to myself how many close calls I had had recently into relapsing in my most shameful coping mechanism- self-harm. I hadn’t ever done it because I had felt such despair knowing that it wasn’t going to heal me and in that moment I was flooded with gratefulness. Why don’t we ever ascribe God these moments, these victories we know didn’t come from us because we don’t possess the strength? I was floored by someone else recognizing it for what it was. Protection.

Because this woman opened herself up to be used by God, I got to experience what can only be described as a warm embrace. I felt so loved and seen during this season of feeling so left behind.

It’s funny how I embraced all spirituality in the Philippines. I never questioned when people used their gifts there and marveled at each miracle and prophesy and healing I saw. But in my limited mind, I felt like that only existed there. We just simply don’t do that in America. When do we ever talk about the Holy Spirit? When do we ever expect miracles in a church service? When do we ever grapple with the unexplainable in our attempt to serve the mainstream?

But God’s so much bigger than that and He won’t be limited. Only I can in what I’m open to. I was just so humbled that a stranger went out of her way to deliver these words to me in a place that I had discredited. I think both Erika and I walked away in such a renewed admiration for God’s people, the ones who live so bravely and boldly in their faith from bar room churches in Manila to windswept cathedrals in Cincinnati. What I wouldn’t give to be one of them for someone else.

It’s not easy having no answers, no next step, no place to rest my head that’s really my own. But it all pales when I consider that bottle that it being held by my Savior.

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