I never expected to speak at Redwood Christian Park. For years, we’ve brought our kids here for family camp. Our seven-year-old, Cruz, is named Christian because we found out we were pregnant with him here. Redwood just didn’t work for us so we settled on Christian. But before that, we nicknamed our tiny little zygote Cruz after the Santa Cruz Mountains, home of Redwood Christian Park, and I’ve called him Cruz on this blog ever since.
This past summer when Sharon, who manages events at Redwood, asked me to bring my books and come share my story at the spring women’s retreat, I was shocked, gulped, and then said in a trembling voice, I’d be honored to share my story, since the theme of this year’s spring women’s retreat at Redwood is stories.
That was last July. The retreat seemed so far away. I kept telling myself I could do it. I could stand up and speak to all these women if Jesus anointed me for the task. If Jesus didn’t anoint me, it would be a disaster. I’m not a speaker. I’m a writer.
Speaking is not like writing. You don’t get a rough draft and then edit what you say. Once it’s out of your mouth you can’t delete it. Changing what you say after you say it is awkward. And worst of all, if speaker’s block hits you, like writer’s block, you fail in front of everyone, not just a blank computer screen.
The closer the spring women’s retreat came, the more I agonized about it. Could I really do it? I’ve spoken to other groups, but this would probably be my biggest event yet. I was so nervous. I decided on doing a reading for the ladies from my memoir Farming Grace. And then I would speak about this story. But I was scared, and growing more frightened by the day.
Then in March, while releasing my latest novel, I fell apart. Utterly apart. After that, we got a really bad flu that downed our whole family for weeks. I considered calling Sharon at Redwood and telling her I just couldn’t make it. I didn’t want to let her down, so I prayed, asking God if I could back out of the event gracefully somehow. No leading from the Lord came to me. So I waited to make the call to Sharon.
Then my mom backed out of going to the retreat with me. She was fighting the flu too, and said, “I’ll cough the whole time. I can hardly get off the couch. You’ll have to find someone else to go with you.”
I ran down my list of victims and everyone who came to mind was busy. “Lord, is there anyone who can go with me?” I prayed. “Better yet, can I just not go? There are so many speakers better than me. Can you send someone else? A real speaker?” The thought of going and speaking to all those women and then signing books if anyone would actually buy them, which I doubted they would, left me making a lot of excuses to God as to why I shouldn’t go.
“Take Scott,” the Lord whispered the following day. The whisper came out of the blue. I wasn’t even praying about it anymore. I liked the idea but immediately began making more excuses. “It’s a ladies’ retreat. Guys can’t be there. I don’t think this will work. I don’t think I should go.” The more I prayed, the more I sensed God wanted me to go.
I was supposed to arrive on Thursday, but because Scott had to work on Friday, we headed to Redwood with the back of my FJ full of my books Friday afternoon. “Your eyes are bigger than your book buyers,” I told myself after loading four big boxes of books into the back of my car. “You’re gonna have to lug all those books home after nobody buys them. Nobody wants your stupid books.”
My inner voice is often a snide, cruel, little stinker. She reminds me of a junior high girl who doesn’t like me and is always talking crap about me. I’m not sure how I developed such a bratty inner voice, but she taunts me all the time. “Okay, worst case scenario,” I told my inner voice, “I’ll bring the books home. I’ll be all set for my next book signing event in May. I won’t have to scrape together any money to order more books. So take that you inner little brat.”
Do you ever talk back to your inner voice? Ever call her a liar? Or call her bluff? Or call on scripture to shut her up? I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength, Philippians 4:13. I told my inner voice about the retreat. What’s the worst thing that can happen? I get up in front of all those women and can’t remember my name. I can’t even introduce myself I’m so scared. So paralyzed with fear that someone has to come walk me down from the stage, like rescuing a kid off an ocean cliff.
I was originally supposed to speak for only ten minutes in the evening, but when I got there, Sharon said, “We want you to speak longer so we’ve moved your story to the morning.”
Speaking longer made me nervous, but the early morning sounded great. I’ve been to a few of these women’s retreats at Redwood. A lot of women don’t get up for the early morning session. But as I prepared to speak, the women filed in the door. And kept coming. I looked at all those ladies and closed my eyes with my stomach churning. There’s way more than I expected. Please Lord, grant me your Spirit. You are the ultimate story-teller. Please speak through me. If you don’t, this is going to be terrible.
The first five minutes I said, “Um,” a lot, but then the warmth and peace and power of the Holy Spirit hit me. I felt the Lord take over. I didn’t do my reading right away like I thought I would. That came at the end. And went well too. A number of ladies came up to me with tears in their eyes afterward. “You spoke right to my heart. Thank you! That was amazing.”
“God is amazing,” I said. “I felt his presence. Did you feel Him?” “Oh, yes, said the women. God was with us this morning.”
And He was. I’m amazed and so grateful and can hardly remember what I said because that wasn’t me. That was God.
God surprised us.
Scott was hiding in our room at the retreat and I would bring him food, like sneaking contraband to a prisoner. So Saturday afternoon when I was done with my retreat activities, I said to Scott, “Let’s drive down to the ocean. We can grab something to eat in Santa Cruz and get back in time for the night session.”
“That would be great!” Scott jumped up from the hotel bed and put on his shoes. We drove down and parked north of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Within five minutes Scott exclaimed, “Look at that whale!”
Like everyone around us, I was on my iPhone. “What whale?! I missed it!”
“Put your iPhone away.” Scott pointed to a place just past the waves breaking out there in the blue. “He’ll surface again.”
And he did. The whale surfaced several more times. The people parked on both sides of us didn’t notice. They stayed on their phones. Tourists rode past on bicycles. They didn’t see the whale, either. Surfers carried surfboards past us down to stairs carved into the cliffside. Their eyes were on the waves. They missed the whale too.
“I don’t think anyone else sees the whale,” I said to Scott in unbelief. It’s right there! The Humpback so close to the shore we could see the barnacles on his back.
We could have spent days looking for whales without seeing one. My friend did that just last week. Drove hours over to the coast. Camped out on a cliff. And waited. And waited. And waited. She never saw a whale.
The whale was an unexpected gift. Just like speaking that morning at the retreat that wasn’t me speaking at all.
“I can’t believe how good you did sharing your story,” Scott said after the whale passed by. He’d been in the back of the room setting up my book table, trying to stay invisible to the ladies. But the ladies found him. Before I walked off the stage, ladies began buying my books. “Your wife spoke right to me,” several women told Scott. “She’s such a gifted speaker. How often does she speak?” Then they bought nearly all of my books. I only came home with a few novels. There are four, large, empty boxes in the back of my car. Take that you crappy little inner voice that hates me.
“I could never speak like that by myself. I’m not a speaker,” I told Scott after watching the whale pass by. “That was God and grace.”
“I know,” said Scott. “The Holy Spirit was strong. Everyone was blessed this morning. It was wonderful.”
I’m so grateful the Holy Spirit arrived at Redwood because I’ve been feeling so weak these past few months. And I certainly didn’t deserve to see a whale. We didn’t work for it. Didn’t camp out on the cliff waiting for whales to pass by like my friend did. It just happened to us. The whale felt like grace.
Undeserved. Unearned. The Holy Spirit really shouldn’t speak through someone like me. I’m such a weak person. Just a month ago, after four days of working like a maniac to finish Chasing the Wind for my Amazon deadline, I had to take sleeping pills to settle down. I felt like such a bad Christian. Like wasn’t God enough? Wasn’t reading my Bible every day enough to keep me from falling apart? To keep me from a trip to the doctor? Nope. I fell apart. I desperately need grace.
Undeserved. Unearned. There were several speakers at the retreat. Two bestselling authors also came and shared their stories and their books with the women. One of them, Allison Allen, a Women of Faith speaker, author of the book Shine, so touched my heart. Everything she said resonated with me, but one thing really hit me. She said, “In the American church, we are taught to live by our strengths and bury our weaknesses. This seems great but it just isn’t Biblical. The Bible teaches, “For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong,” 2 Corinthians 12:10.
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t delight in weakness. I hate being weak. I hate that my husband called the doctor in March and said, “My wife needs help.” I hate that I worried my husband and frightened my family when I fell apart. That Scott put his foot down and said, “You’re coming undone. You’re done. No more writing. You need rest.”
“I need rest,” I told God when I was making excuses as to why I couldn’t speak at Redwood Christian Park this past weekend. “I’m too weak to speak. Too weak to write. Too weak to be strong enough to help anyone. I can’t even help myself. There’s no way I can speak at a Christian retreat.”
“God gets all the glory when we are weak,” said Allison Allen. “When you’re a broken clay pot, God shines brightly through you.”
He also shines brightly when you see a whale’s barnacles in the afternoon sunshine. When you park on a cliff, put down your iPhone, and pick up grace. Amazing Grace. A whale of grace.
What you don’t deserve and cannot earn. You didn’t do a thing to see that whale except raise your weak little human eyes to the great big blue ocean and say, “God, you surprised me!”
Here I am at the retreat with two new friends. Beside me, the actor, Kirk Cameron’s cute little mom, and next to her, Shelene Bryan, a former movie producer who is now the bestselling author of Love, Skip, Jump… start living the adventure of Yes.
I’m so glad I said “yes” to speaking at the retreat. If I had pulled out like I desperately wanted to do, I wouldn’t have seen that whale. And I wouldn’t have felt the Holy Spirit take over so I could do something I never could do in my own strength.
When we are weak, God is strong.