March 21, 2019 by Heather Pennell
Growing up, we always went to church on Sunday, but I didn't really know what it meant to have a relationship with God. I’m a typical oldest child: type-A, independent and perfectionist. As I got older, I had my own plan for how my life would go and really didn’t think I needed God. I strayed far away from the church during college and in my 20’s. I’m so thankful for the people in my life that were praying for me during those years. Even though I wasn’t seeking God, God was still with me especially in the hardest times. God used some radical tactics to turn my life around and back towards Him. After a series of very difficult events in my life, I met my husband Aaron, we got married and moved to Louisville.
Once we had kids, Aaron and I started seeking a church home. When my son, Nathan, was a baby, we found Christ Church. I was baptized and our family joined seven years ago. After joining, Aaron and I had a conversation about just being toe-dippers or being all in when it came to church. We decided we were all-in and started getting more involved. Even though I felt completely unequipped and lost, we agreed to help with leading our Sunday School class, Living Proof. During this time I also did my first-ever Bible study and started realizing how much I didn’t know. Despite feeling inadequate and uncomfortable, the Holy Spirit nudged me to keep at it. I kept doing studies and developing relationships and making myself vulnerable, which eventually led me to making Christ the Lord of my life. Not only did I want to hear God, I wanted to follow and obey his will for my life.
My faith my is perfectly imperfect.
It took me a long time to figure out that faith is a journey, and not something I will ever be perfect at. I’m still figuring things out, but I’m confident in God’s grace and that he loves me. I’ve seen and continue to see how God works, especially when I get uncomfortable. I’ve discovered I’m passionate about discipleship and walking alongside others who want to know the Lord better. I didn’t get here on my own and have the desire to follow God’s command to make disciples. My mission is to be a bold witness to God’s transformational power and to be an example to those around me of how he can use anyone to grow his kingdom. Part of being a witness is being able to share your story.
The first time I shared my story was on a Sunday morning with my Living Proof Sunday School class. I was soooo nervous. I’m naturally an introvert and do not like speaking in front of people. Actually, I was completely terrified of speaking in front of a group. I didn’t tell anyone that I was planning to share that week, secretly hoping no one would show up to class. That wasn’t the case. The room was full of people who loved me and supported me. While telling my story, I started to realize just how present God was throughout my life…the happy and sad times, the really awful “I’m not sure I can go on” times, but especially in the times when I was not seeking Him. Like a good shepherd, he continued to gently call me and waited with open arms until I was ready to meet Him.
I prayed a lot while I was preparing to share my story. First I prayed, “God, you really didn’t need me to share this with others, right?” He answered my prayer with a very clear “Yes, I do and yes, you can.” I prayed to say the right things. I prayed that at least one person’s life would be changed by me telling my story. My sweet husband also helped me a lot in the preparation. Because I hate being in front of people, he encouraged me to write everything out and I practiced in front of him for weeks.
The reaction from my class was love and support from each person in the room. What I didn’t expect is that people immediately pointed out where they saw God in my story. He was everywhere.
Lyle Donan had shared his story in our class maybe a year earlier—he's the first person I had ever seen share their story in a formal way. Pretty soon after that, I attended a leadership seminar led by Rev. Brandon Dirks. He challenged us to answer the question, “Why is all of this God stuff important to you?” and to write our story in 100 words or less. He talked about how the moments in our life with God presents us with the opportunity to share our stories. Not at church, but in the grocery store line, at the gym or at a party with friends. Usually these moments are brief and transient, but they are a chance to proclaim God’s glory and perhaps change a life. If you aren’t prepared to share your two minute story, that moment can be lost.
I thought about so many moments that God had presented me with in my life. I wanted people to know why my life was different because Christ is in it. I didn’t want to continue to allow those moments to pass by with a shrug of the shoulders or changing the subject. The Holy Spirit gently whispered, “Do this and I will grow you.”
I spent a lot of time in prayer and quiet reflection about my life. I thought about the circumstances for which I carried a lot of guilt for a long time. Now I see them through the lens of knowing that Christ was always with me, leading and guiding me even when I was completely ignoring him. Through this lens, I saw that the hardest times in my life were the times that God was trying to turn me back to him so that he could restore me.
Knowing and sharing my story has changed the way that I interact with people when I first meet them. It has made me curious to know their stories. I used to struggle with conversation and getting to know someone. Now I know everyone has a story and we are all so much more alike than we are different. I've shared my story one-on-one and in small group settings. I've gotten a little bolder in sharing with groups that I'm not quite as comfortable with, like the Women's Community Group I led this summer. I've learned that being vulnerable really changes the dynamics of the group and opens up others to sharing much more deeply.
It has definitely led to a new level of openness in our small group. People say things like “I never would have thought that about you” or “My story is so much like yours.”
I was privileged to hear Mark Danzey tell his story a couple of years ago at a discipleship retreat. Mark is a pastor at Mt. Pisgah United Methodist Church outside of Atlanta and is passionate about teaching people how to follow the Great Commission, leading disciples to make disciples. I was so intimidated to even be involved in the retreat. I thought, “I haven’t been to seminary. I’m not experienced enough and definitely don’t know enough of the Bible to be doing this.”
After hearing Mark’s story and seeing where he had been and how God had used every moment in his life to lead him to where he is now, I was much more confident that God could use me too. I didn’t have to learn more scripture or do more Bible studies. I just had to say “yes.”
We all have a story.
You may not think your story is dramatic or exciting enough to share, but the truth is, God can use all stories to grow His kingdom. As Methodists, we are a connectional people. Hearing someone else’s story connects us as children of God. There isn’t anything else I’ve ever done that has connected me so quickly and so closely with another person as when I’ve shared my story with them. You will be amazed at how God works when you get even a little bit uncomfortable. Telling your story can have a significant impact on others who are struggling. Your story matters.