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Finding God Faithful

How surviving shyness, cancer, and a prodigal daughter helped Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir's director, Carol Cymbala, discover the truth about God

The world-renowned 275-member Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir made its grand entrance at New York City's Radio City Music Hall to a sold-out crowd of 6,000 people. As the lights came up and the choir began, the audience rose to its feet cheering. And right in front of the choir, beautifully poised, stood its director and founder, Carol Cymbala.

It's hard to believe this competent, four-time Grammy Award-winning musical director and songwriter has no formal musical training and doesn't read music. It's even more surprising to discover that mere moments before making her stage entrance, Carol was in her dressing room frantically fighting the urge to run away because she suffers from acute shyness. "I was a nervous wreck," Carol says. "I kept thinking, I'm going to make a complete fool of myself and the choir I love. All I could do was pray."

Throughout much of Carol's life, she's had to rely solely on prayer. A woman who prefers to stay in the background, Carol's had to deal with deep-seated feelings of insecurity: Frequently ill as a child, she missed a lot of school and was an average student; she's an introvert working in a field largely consisting of extroverts; she's a white woman in the midst of an ethnically diverse church. Carol admits, "I'm never quite confident I can do what God wants me to. In fact, I'm certain I can't unless God does something. But the beautiful thing is, he does do something. … time and again." God's proven himself faithful to Carol in the toughest of times. And she's had them.

She and her husband, Jim, began pastoring the Brooklyn Tabernacle in the '70s when it had only about 15 members. Slowly the church grew to about 60. Although she'd never been trained, Carol could play the piano by ear and had some previous experience directing a small choir, so she decided to contribute to her husband's ministry by starting the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. She prayed for courage and strength, then rounded up nine members—some of whom were tone-deaf—and led them. But there was trouble brewing in the church: An usher was stealing money from the offering plates; the building was almost condemnable; two unmarried choir members became physically involved, which resulted in a pregnancy; another person went berserk, arrived to one rehearsal waving a knife, slashing drums, and threatening to stab people. Jim and Carol were at wit's end, so they began to pray, and started a Tuesday night prayer meeting at their church to lead others in prayer. The more they prayed, the more the church and choir grew. So much so that almost 30 years later, the church now has 6,000 members, and the choir has won multiple Grammy and Dove Awards, has performed at such venues as Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall, and has recorded more than 20 albums, including their most recent Christmas CD, Light of the World (M2.0/Word).

But the real test came about 15 years ago when Carol's teenaged daughter, Chrissy, walked away from God and from her family. During the course of that devastating situation, Carol was diagnosed with cancer and struggled with depression. She spent months tearfully wondering where God was and why he allowed these things to happen. But she never stopped praying, worshiping, or believing God could be trusted—even when it appeared as if he wasn't listening or working.

Now at age 53, Carol's found peace in trusting God to do what only he can do. She's finally gathered enough courage to write her story in He's Been Faithful (Zondervan). Although Carol admits, "I really struggled with writing this book. I felt inadequate. My family kept encouraging me, saying, 'You need to do this. It could bless people.' Finally I gave in!" Which is another testimony of God's faithfulness, for the hands raised in worship on the cover of her book belong to Chrissy, her "prodigal" daughter.

In this exclusive TCW interview, Carol talks about her shyness, her bout with cancer and depression, the pain of having a prodigal, and the amazing faithfulness of God.

Exactly how shy are you?

Right after my husband, Jim, and I were married, we had an opportunity to go to St. Louis so Jim could speak at a church there. The pastor knew my dad and knew I played the organ. So right in the middle of the service, from the pulpit, he said, "We have Carol Cymbala here, pastor Clair Hutchins' daughter. And you know she plays the organ. We want her to come play for the offering." This was a church filled with 400 people. I was petrified. I didn't move or say anything. And he kept asking! So finally I said, "I'm sorry. I don't do those things." My fear of getting up in front of people was so strong, I had to say that. Through the years I've had to tell God, "I can't do this in and of myself. You have to help me. You have to come and fill me because this is where I'm weak."

Yet you founded a choir. Why?

Even as a young girl, I dreamed of directing a choir and making beautiful music. I grew up in a musical family, and I was always good at picking out harmonies. My parents signed me up for piano lessons—but I quit after only three weeks. I didn't want to learn the notes or be confined by the music books; I wanted to play my way—by ear. Even though I was painfully shy, I knew I had musical ability. So I decided to go for it, no matter what. But it was rough—especially in the beginning.

In what way?

The first singing group I directed was at the church Jim and I attended before Brooklyn Tabernacle. I invited six women to our house for our first practice. On the day they were to come, I was so anxious, I made myself physically ill. But I made it through. Or there was the time years ago when I was invited to Nashville for a meeting with our record company. About 15 recording artists and executives were there. Each person was asked to introduce himself and talk about his ministry. When it was my turn, I felt so insecure, I couldn't even say my name and ministry! Jim, who was with me, had to speak for me. Now that's bad.

But why did you feel so insecure?

I don't read music and have no formal training, yet I direct choir members who have musical degrees. I don't deal so much with this anymore, but I used to have people approach me and say, "Let me teach you how to direct." That hurt. Plus I've had to deal with music executives and professional musicians. I used to think, What do I know? They read music. They're in the business. Who am I?

A lot of us think that. We're our own worst enemy.

Exactly! We put ourselves down, or allow ourselves to think less of whom God created us to be. We talk ourselves out of things because we can't do them with our own strength. But you know what? God gives us talents we can use for him—regardless of our in-securities. He's simply looking for people totally dependent on him.

Do you still struggle with those feelings?

Not with directing anymore. For example, when the choir performed for the first time at Radio City Music Hall, I was down in my dressing room—petrified! But all of a sudden, something like a jolt of electricity, a surge of strength, came over me. God came into that dressing room and gave me what I needed: the boldness to go onstage and do what I had to do. That was purely God. He's done that time and time again.

But I still struggle with shyness. I'm more comfortable being in the background. When I have to get up in front of people, I'm forced to rely on God for the confidence I don't have within myself.

In what other areas have you depended on God?

Two years ago, my mom, now 82, became ill, and we didn't know what was wrong with her. The paramedics took her to the hospital, where the doctors discovered she had stomach cancer.

My mother had surgery, in which they removed half her stomach. That afternoon my brother-in-law called me from the hospital and said, "They said Mom has two and a half months to live." You can imagine how I felt.

So after I hung up the phone, I went into the auditorium where we were getting ready to record the song, "Nothing Is Impossible." I knew I had to face the choir, but my heart was so heavy. So

I shared the news about my mother with the choir, and we prayed.

The next day I flew to Florida where my mother lives, and stayed at the hospital with her for a few days. The church sent her the most beautiful roses, so plump and beautiful and full of life. I kept looking at those roses, and felt God telling me my mother's time wasn't up yet. I said, "Mom, look at those flowers. They represent life. You're not going to die, not now. I don't care what the doctors say!" Many people around me thought I was crazy, but I kept praying for my mom.

So when she was discharged from the hospital, she started to feel good. Most people who've had an operation like my mom's can eat only pureed food at first. Mom went home and started eating pizza and tacos!

And she's missing half her stomach?

Yes. I guess no one told her stomach most of it was missing! I don't know how long she's going to be on this earth, but she's already confounded the doctors' prognosis by almost two years.

I know God answered my prayer and the prayers of others. Prayer is all-powerful; it moves the heart of God. And I know prayer is all-powerful because my mother's a woman of prayer. My grandmother was a woman of prayer. So I've been raised in a family where we call on God and believe for the impossible—and we see it happen.

But was there ever a time in which you said, "That's it. Let's chuck it all; this isn't worth it"?

Oh, yes. When my daughter Chrissy fell away from God. At the same time I was diagnosed with cancer. Plus I was really suffering from depression. I felt as though God had forsaken me.

What happened with Chrissy?

Chrissy, our eldest, had always been a model child. But when she turned 15, she did this about-face. She started hanging around with the wrong people, and she turned her back on the Lord. She went so far away from God, we didn't even know her. It was as if she were another human being. She wasn't the daughter I raised.

When did you start to notice there was a problem?

At first Jim and I didn't see it; a lot of times you don't as a parent. Your child's a certain way, and you trust her because she's always been a good kid. The changes were subtle. We began sensing a hardness in her, a real lack of interest in God, and a growing tendency toward deception and destructive behaviors. Her attitude was, "I'll do things my way." By the time Jim and I finally realized what was going on, it was too late.

That must have been so devastating to discover.

Definitely! It's still difficult to discuss. The situation culminated in her running away from home.

Did you have any contact with Chrissy during that time?

I did. Chrissy stayed in several different places. Sometimes she'd call me. Sometimes she'd communicate with a good friend of ours who'd let us know how to get in touch with her. I couldn't bear not to have contact. While it was extremely hard, just hearing her voice and knowing she was okay gave me some comfort.

When you talked with her, what kind of guidance did you give?

She was so deceived, she couldn't see right from wrong. So even if I tried to guide her, it was like talking to a brick wall. At one point we told her, "This is wrong. You know this is wrong. You're walking down a destructive road." We explained how grieved we were. But no matter what we said, it didn't penetrate. From then on, I knew our words wouldn't mean anything. She knew how we felt about the choices she was making. So I just loved her. What else could I do? And I never stopped praying for her.

How exactly did you pray?

My prayer was that God somehow would shine his light into her heart, that she'd be drawn back into the light of God's love.

Did you ever blame yourself?

Oh, yes. I'd think, I'm not a good enough mother. I always tried to have meals on the table. I always tried to stay home with my three children. But still, there were times when I couldn't be there. If I left them with a babysitter, which I had to do, I'd feel guilty. I battled often with guilt. So naturally when Chrissy rebelled, my mind went, Oh, I should have done this. I should have done that.

How did you work through those feelings of guilt?

I've come to this understanding: My parents weren't perfect. But I knew one thing about them without a shadow of a doubt—they loved me. I always felt secure in their love. And even though I haven't been the perfect parent, my children know unequivocably that Jim and I love them and would do anything within our power for them. God used that knowledge to comfort me when the guilt showed up.

You mentioned earlier you felt as though God had forsaken you.

I'll never forget one Sunday when all this was going on. My husband had been invited to speak at a typical, middle-class suburban church, and I went with him. I sat there and looked at all these families who seemed so perfect. There was Daddy and Mommy sitting with Sally and Junior.

And I had a pity party. I prayed, "God, why? I've worked for you, and I've served you with a sincere heart because I love you. So why would you allow this to happen to my daughter?" That was a hard time.

At that same time, I started to feel ill. I didn't know what was wrong; I thought it was the result of all the stress in my life. I mentioned it to my secretary, but I never went to my physician.

One day my secretary said, "Carol, I made a doctor's appointment for you today." I went, and after some tests, they found cancer cells in my ovaries, my uterus. So I was admitted to the hospital and had a hysterectomy.

After the operation, I lay in that hospital bed, feeling despondent and alone. My world had fallen apart. That night, I was in such physical pain and despair, I rang the bell for the nurse to come, but she didn't appear. A curtain was drawn around my bed because there were four people in the room. All of a sudden, this Hispanic woman with a Bible came through the curtain and started praying for me in Spanish. She didn't even know me; she'd been admitted while I was in surgery.

She was a patient?

Yes. She was going to have an operation for varicose veins. She could hardly walk because of the pain she was in, but God directed her to get out of her bed and pray for me. It was as if God sent an angel.

I just lay there and wept. God was letting me know he was there. He had not forsaken me; he still loved me and cared for me.

Did you have other treatment?

No, they got everything with the hysterectomy. I didn't have to go through chemo. I had the operation in May. By July I started going downhill emotionally. I'd get up every morning and cry—that's all I did the whole day. My daughter had run away from home and was away from God, I'd undergone cancer surgery, and my body was crying out for hormones it no longer had. I felt as though I couldn't function; I wanted to die.

Were you still directing the choir at that point?

was still directing. But during one choir practice, I was so despondent and out of control, I said, "I'm sorry. I have to leave." I got up, walked out, got in my car, and cried and cried. For some reason, I drove to an upscale department store, went to the furniture department, sat down, and cried for an hour.

What did the sales associates do?

I don't know. They probably thought I was crazy. But I was just so distraught, it didn't matter. Women get to that place—and that's where I was. I have my pride. I wouldn't want anyone I know to see me in a state like that, but I was so devastated by everything.

Did you have any close friends who walked you through this whole ordeal?

Of course my husband was there with me, praying and encouraging me. I also leaned on my dear friend Jackie. Jackie's always been there for me.

How did she help you through it?

She encouraged me. She prayed with me. Through those prayers I was strengthened to go on a day at a time. We have a real spiritual bond. I also had a small circle of supportive friends who prayed for me. But by October, my depression was so bad, I finally went to my physician, who prescribed hormones to bring emotional balance back to my life.

So what finally happened with Chrissy?

I knew the only way we could get through to Chrissy was through serious, intense prayer. There was nothing else we could do; words didn't mean anything. But I knew prayer was so powerful, God could change her. Well, one Tuesday night when Chrissy was at her worst and still away from home, Jim was leading the church's prayer meeting when a woman handed him a note that said, "I really feel we need to pray for your daughter." After reading that note, Jim broke down in tears and asked one of his associates to lead the church in prayer for Chrissy. About 2,000 people lifted Chrissy up to God.

That very night, wherever Chrissy was staying, as she lay in bed, she had this vision of seeing herself going down into a horrible abyss. She realized, Oh no, I'm heading toward destruction! It became real to her. She cried out to God, repented, and asked God to forgive her. And he did a total overhaul on her. Right after that, Chrissy came home and knocked on our front door. I'll never forget.

She knocked on the door?

Well, she rang the bell. I opened the door and there Chrissy stood. She said, "Is Daddy here?" Jim was upstairs, shaving. I ran upstairs into the bathroom and said, "Chrissy's here." He looked at me, wiped the shaving cream off his face, and went downstairs. Chrissy was in the kitchen. Jim went into the kitchen, and she walked over to him and knelt before him. [Pauses. Tearfully.] It was so beautiful. … She said, "Dad, I've sinned. I've come back to God, and I want to ask your forgiveness too. I'm so sorry." And that was it. After about two and a half years of rebellion, Chrissy's life was turned around. It was like the prodigal coming home.

When I think of what God's done in her life—that's faithfulness. She's since married a wonderful man, and they're in the ministry together. Chrissy assists me in the music ministry. I can depend on her.

There have been hard times in my life—and there are hard times for everybody who wants to do God's will. Life's not easy. But when I look back and see how God has ordered everything. … it's amazing how each piece fits. It's like a puzzle. When you're in the middle of it, you can't see the big picture. But when you look back, you see how all the pieces fell into place. When we get through it, we see he's truly been faithful.

And he uses everything.

Our heartaches and everything else he uses for his glory.

Were there any specific Bible verses you leaned on during that time?

I clung to Psalm 138:1-3, which says, "Lord, with all my heart I thank you. I will sing your praises before the armies of angels in heaven. I face your Temple as I worship, giving thanks to you for all your lovingkindness and your faithfulness, for your promises are backed by all the honor of your name. When I pray, you answer me, and encourage me by giving me the strength I need" (TLB). Those verses mean a lot to me because that's exactly what he does; he gives me strength.

How can women learn to pray more powerfully?

The Bible says without faith it's impossible to please God. When you pray, ask for faith. You'll discover the more you go to God through prayer and in the Word, your faith will grow. You've got to say, "God, listen, I'm going to believe you. I'm going to trust you no matter what I see or feel, no matter what other people think or say or believe. I'm going to trust you for the impossible in my life." Then watch God work.

You want to learn how to pray powerfully? Go to God as a child. You know how little children think their father can do anything? I believe that's the way God wants us to be with him. Even Jesus told us that in Matthew 18:3. God wants us to be totally dependent on him.

If we don't go to God, nothing will happen. The Bible says, "The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and wonderful results" (James 5:16, NLT). We've got to call on God because we know in our own strength we cannot do it.

But what if your prayers seem to hit the ceiling?

I've had those times! That's when I really press in. I become more fervent, more diligent. I don't give up—no matter what. It's one thing just to recite a prayer. But there's prayer that comes from the heart. And that's what moves the hand of God.

What about those women who've prayed in faith about a difficult situation, but there's no happy ending?

There are so many things in this life we don't understand. But God is sovereign; he's God. He has everything under control, and he knows what's best.

Listen, I've prayed about overcoming my shyness and my feelings of inadequacy. God's helped me overcome my inadequacies, but I'm still shy. I still get nervous when I have to speak in front of people. But he gives me the strength to handle it. God does for me what he did for the apostle Paul, who prayed for God to remove the thorn, but instead God said, "My power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Sometimes a situation may not turn out the way we want, but if we put it in God's hands, then no matter how it comes out, it will be right—even though we might endure pain. That's why we have to trust him totally. God can absolutely be depended on.

That's so reassuring to hear.

God's faithful not only in the big things, but in the little things. For example, look at the cover of my book, He's Been Faithful. There are hands lifted in worship below the title. The hands on the original cover photo looked strange. I felt they didn't have the proper feel. I struggled with that cover photo, and finally Jim said, "Call the publisher and tell them you're not comfortable with it." So I did. I said, "I'm sorry. But that cover just doesn't look right. It's not me." Then we called our daughter Chrissy and told her about it. There's a photographer across the street from the church. And she went over, and used her hands for the photo.

Just knowing whose hands those are and the story behind them moves me. Those hands—my "prodigal" daughter Chrissy's hands—are lifted up to say God is faithful. And he truly is.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Ginger E. Kolbaba

Ginger Kolbaba is the author of Desperate Pastors' Wives and The Old Fashioned Way. Connect with her on Twitter @gingerkolbaba.

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