I had the privilege of sharing a bit of my story tonight at a ladies weekend ‘retreat’ at our church. I was asked a few days ago if I’d be willing to share a bit about my story for a few minutes and I was thrilled since nobody really knows me and I don’t really know anyone else…and well, if you read my blog I’m probably about the most transparent person on the planet. So, I thought and thought and thought about what I wanted to share and I came up with something that was WAAAAAY too long to share. So, I parsed it down, cut out huge chunks and basically only shared a fraction of my story. So, since I already invested all the time into thinking about so much for of that story, I thought I would share it here. Lucky you!
My name is Annie Karel and I, in typical Baptist fashion, was raised in a Christian home, saved at a young age and baptized as a teenager. Unlike some, though, I never really rebelled and honestly found the Christian life do’s and do not’s pretty easy. I went to church, was eagerly and excitedly involved in ministry, and enjoyed how my whole life was wrapped up in said ministry. I married my best friend at the ripe old age of 19 and we began our happily ever after. But somewhere along the line I just simply got tired. I was tired of re-committing to God to give Him more of my time…after all, I was very very busy going about His work. So tired, in fact, that I simply gave up trying. No, I didn’t rebel and stop the do’s and do not’s – like I said, that was the easy part for me. I was really great at living FOR God, I was just really bad at living WITH God. So, I marched on and the further I marched the further away from God I continued to feel. I knew I had a problem, but I, for the life of me had no idea how it happened or how to fix it…I couldn’t even really put it into words. And then I read a book called Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers by Fil Anderson. The title itself intrigued me because I was just simply tired and seriously running on empty. As I began reading I had to stop myself from highlighting practically every sentence that described my life so perfectly. I learned that my problem wasn’t a new one and how it was actually quite common for those who were raised in a Christian home. As I began to seek the wisdom of many of my spiritual mentors, a question continued to resound loudly in my head – can I disappoint God? Of course the answer kept coming back as “of course you can disappoint God”. After all, we’ve been taught since we were little how we manipulate God’s feelings toward us by our actions – do this right and he’s happy with you, do that wrong and he’s mad. I knew in my head that God loved me, but I seriously doubted that He liked me very much with all the things I had done that didn’t live up to His high expectations. I continued to ask my question to countless people, all with the same answers until one gave me a different answer. Exactly one person looked at me like I had 3 heads and said “of course you cannot disappoint God. Disappointment implies He expected a different outcome.” He encouraged me to read Grace Walk by Steve McVey. As I dug into the book and my Bible I began to see something that had been in front of me my whole life, but that I had somewhat missed. Yes, God’s love is unchanging…but what did that REALLY mean? What I already knew was that no amount of bad would make him love me less, but just as importantly, no amount of good could make Him love me more. No, God’s emotions were not constantly being swayed by my good and bad actions, He was just simply crazy about me no matter what. Why? Because I was His child. Furthermore, God wasn’t seeing me through rose colored glasses – I found a renewed strength in the reality of my old life being dead and truly having been given a new life. I wasn’t still this dirty sinner simply covered in grace, I was a whole new person – the old was truly dead and not just covered up. Having been raised in the church my whole life I never imagined going through such an astounding change in my spiritual word view.
I would love to say that my life has been roses since that time, but as with every chapter in our life, these things always seem to just lead into new chapters. After we had been married about 4 years we decided it would be ok if we finally had our ‘oops child’. I would laugh at how I always said that we would probably never decide to have kids, but that we were both hoping for our oops. Well, a year or so of no “oops” and we started actually trying….but to our astonishment, nothing happened. After a year of trying we sought help. And finally, 2 years after we started our journey with a fertility specialist we were pregnant. We were ecstatic. We were broke, but ecstatic. I remember going to my mother-in-laws house shortly after we found out and telling her. We cautioned her that we weren’t telling anyone just yet, and to keep it a secret. She looked me in the eyes with tears in her own and said “Annie, you guys have waited and prayed for so long – God would never let anything happen to this child.” I knew she was right. God would never give me a child that I wanted so badly only to take him or her away. A month later we went in for our second ultrasound. I was 8 weeks and we were anxious to see our baby’s heartbeat. As soon as the exam began I knew there was a problem. The doctor turned the screen so he could see better…and he was deafeningly quite. Our baby hadn’t made it, and it was the absolute hardest day that I have ever experienced. It took us almost a year to get pregnant again. I remember sitting at home the day after our first blood test and crying and begging God to protect that child. I went in the next day for another blood test and when we got the results back we were told it didn’t look good. I miscarried a few days later. I was furious…and not just that I couldn’t get and hold a pregnancy – I was furious with God. In His infinite power why would He do this to me? He had the ability to step in on my behalf, on our baby’s behalf, and did not. The Bible says that children are a gift, a blessing, and I couldn’t imagine why God apparently found us so unworthy of what we consider His most precious and cherished earthly gifts. I was heartbroken, I felt betrayed, and I was downright angry as I fell into a very deep and dark valley in my life. I knew I would come out of it, and thankfully I had already had my first spiritual awakening during my college years that assured me that no matter what, God was not going to just let me go. I knew that one day I would be ok, but I had no interest in expediting the arrival of that ‘one day.’
One day while at our fertility specialist’s office I saw something about an infertility conference put on by Bethany Christian Services. I mentioned it to my husband and he, surprisingly, thought it was a great idea. At that point he really was just desperate to have his wife back. So, we went…and lo and behold, God began to work a miracle in my life that I just didn’t see coming. The speaker mentioned a verse that basically said that the writer was too angry to even talk with God. Of course that struck a chord with me because at the time the only conversations I was having with God were “I’m still mad and not talking with you”. Being convinced that she was taking something out of context, the Awana girl in me kicked in (or probably more accurately the Holy Spirit) and I wanted to look it up. It was in Psalm 77. As I read through the Psalm my heart began to soften as it talked about the ‘former days’ when God was so close. In the margins I had written a note about when how God seems so far away that I must remember all the great things He has done. In one big flood I realized how quickly I had abandoned the loving God who had truly taken care of me my entire life. Up until this point there really hadn’t been any major heartbreaks in my life. God had sheltered and cared for me so long, protected me from so many of life’s hurts, and yet the one time that He didn’t give me what I wanted, I basically threw a little 2 year old fit…and I knew I was wrong. I won’t say that I was healed overnight nor that I’m even healed completely today, but my world changed that night and I let go of my anger and slowly let God back into my life.
A few months later we found out we were pregnant again. I was a nervous wreck for the entire pregnancy, but 9 months later I delivered our beautiful daughter Jessica. She was perfect…and I asked my fertility specialist a week later when we could have another one. Almost a year later we started treatments again and miraculously found ourselves pregnant after only our second cycle. Of course, again, though – God continued to work. At our 21 week ultrasound we were so excited to find out we were having another girl. That excitement quickly turned to anxiety, though, as the ultrasound tech started getting less chatty and continued to tell me to roll this way, then that way, and say how she was just trying to ‘get the right angle’ of our baby’s heart. We knew there was a problem…I’ve had one of these ultrasounds before. The test finished and we were sent to the waiting room. It seemed like forever before we were called back. As the doctor walked in I knew there was a problem…a big problem. He wasn’t making much eye contact and he talked about how this looked good and that looked good…and finally I blurted out “what is wrong with her heart”. With a big sigh, he switched gears. Yes, there was a problem. He didn’t know the extent, but there was definitely a problem and we would be scheduled for a fetal echo in a few days. I burst into tears as I recall him saying things like “doctor’s can do amazing things now days” but all I heard was that we were going to lose another baby. As we drove home the first song I heard on the radio was the “No Matter What” song by Karri Roberts. I will say that the upbeat nature of the song was not at all how I felt, but the words drove deep into my soul and I resolved that I would, indeed, trust and love God no matter the outcome. Over the next weeks we received a battery of tests, changing diagnosis’, and discussed birth locations and plans. Most of all, though, we and countless others just prayed like crazy. In a nutshell, she has a very special heart that may not do so well at ‘some point’. It is so rare that there really is no way of knowing when that ‘some point’ would be, but that she probably wouldn’t have any trouble when she was first born…unless of course she started going into heart failure before she was born. So, week after week I would go in to check up on our little baby girl and week after week was told she’s still doing great. When it came time for her to be born, I was again, a complete nervous wreck. But, her birth went basically without incident (she did get a little stuck, but that didn’t have anything to do with her heart). We got to cuddle her for a few moments and then she was whisked away for a battery of tests. A few hours later she returned to us and shortly after that the man who would become her cardiologist for the foreseeable future joined us to share his findings. He talked about how impressed he was that she not only received the correct diagnosis before birth, but that her defect was caught at all. He explained her condition, all the defects that normally accompany it (none of which she actually has) and what the plan was going forward…and all I heard was “treat her like a normal newborn.”
This was almost 9 months ago and in addition to the changes happening in our immediate family, our church family has also changed. While I was still pregnant, things began to quickly and ferociously unravel in the church we’ve called home for the past decade. My husband had transitioned from youth pastor to pastor over the year prior and so many things were going well – people were getting saved and baptized and growing in God. But, we knew a storm was coming. I won’t go into too much detail, but decisions were made and it was time for us to step down. We were left heartbroken and feeling abandoned by those who were our family for so many years. At the same time, though, we were kind of excited to have the opportunity to find a church family closer to our home. We went to just about every Baptist church around here (and there are a lot of them). After a lot of searching and prayer, we felt God constantly leading us back here to Kent City and decided that while we weren’t sure what God had in store for us long term, that this is where we’d be landing and calling home.
In the end, I look back in awe of everything that God has brought me through and how it has prepared me for what He has in store for me next. Each stage of my spiritual walk has had a purpose and in some way has helped me deal with what life would bring me next. I won’t lie – it has been a really really hard past 7 years or so…but we’ve been really really blessed with two beautiful daughters and are excited to see what God has in store for us next. Beyond all of the lessons about trusting God and His plan, being patient and giving Him control, what I am most thankful for is His unconditional love for me. I am thankful that He didn’t give up on me and that, in spite of my unfaithfulness, granted us two beautiful little miracles. I used to ask what I did to deserve this, thinking how I deserved so much better after all my faithful years of service. I now ask the same question, but with the understanding of just how undeserving I am. I did nothing to deserve His blessings, but out of His pure and unconditional love, He has blessed us far more than we could have imagined.