Guest Speaker Alex Costanzo shares how she overcame adversity in her own life. For more information, visit cornerstone-sf.org
We’ve been going through a great series called Growing Through Adversity. The first thing people know about me is my adversity, I’m blind. That’s what the white cane means. My disability has certainly been one of the biggest challenges in my life. I was born legally blind. This means that even with correction, I used to wear glasses and contacts for a long time. I only have one-tenth of the acuity of normal vision. What a normal person can see at 100 feet, I’d have to be at 10 feet to see, just to give you a better idea of what that means. The little vision I did have, I lost gradually over the span of four decades. I have no sight at all today. But because I did have some sight for many years, I do have the same reference points as you do. I know what colors look like. I’ve seen famous paintings and monuments. I know that my husband doesn’t really look like Brad Pitt, although he says he does. This is a joke we have between us. I heard he looks more like Jason Statham them if you know who that is.
The funny thing is, even though I’ve been blind my entire life, it took me a very long time to accept it. I grew up in a small Midwest town. I was painfully shy. Like most kids, I just wanted to fit in, which was hard because I was the only Asian kid in a 200-mile radius. I just didn’t want to stick out any more than I already did anyway. I downplayed my vision problem and began to view it as a great weakness or flaw. It was something I didn’t want people to know about and I would hide. You would think that I would’ve grown out of this eventually, but even as a young adult, I didn’t always tell people I was legally blind. I refused to carry the white cane. I was too self-conscious, too proud. I had just enough vision to pass as normal. A lot of the time I just faked it. I figured out little tricks to compensate. I used to travel a lot for my job. So I would use a little telescope to read gate numbers at the airport. At business lunches, I’d bypass the menu, which I couldn’t read, and just ask the waiter for a recommendation.
I’d get myself into trouble from time to time, like getting on the wrong airplane. I’ve done that a few times. If you’ve ever seen somebody scramble off the plane, when they make that announcement, “If San Francisco is not your final destination announcement,” it was probably me. I would run into glass doors and trip on curbs and steps. Sometimes it was a little hard to get around. Honestly, it’s really a miracle that I didn’t get more seriously hurt. I guess you could say that I was in denial about losing my vision. So one day I went shopping at the Gap. I was checking out a denim jacket on a mannequin. I started with the sleeve, working my way up toward the collar when suddenly the mannequin says, “Well, hello, there.” Just picture the scene in your mind for a minute. It wasn’t a mannequin, it was a man who was waiting for his wife in the fitting room. Talk about awkward. I had to face it. I was blind. I couldn’t see. There have been times in my life when I’ve asked God, “Why did you make me this way? Am I a mistake? Was I an accident?” I’ve had medical experts look me over. I’ve had people pray over me for divine healing. My kids still do.
Each time that answer has always been the same. I had to accept that my blindness was part of God’s plan for me. Looking back, I’m not sure which was harder. To physically lose all of my sight or to watch the world in front of me, just fade away. The glorious sunsets, my children’s faces or to make that mental shift to my identity as a disabled person given my hangups. What I’ve learned through this journey, through the desert of losing my sight are so many different things. If I had to pick one to share, it would be that weakness is not a bad thing in God’s account, in God’s economy. In fact, it can actually be a strength. I spent so many years denying my weakness, covering it up, trying to compensate for it on my own strength. It only resulted in frustration and disappointment.
It wasn’t until I embraced my weakness and began relying on God’s strength that I found contentment and confidence. Even excitement. I wasn’t a mistake after all. I was exactly how God intended me to be. I started to think of my disability as an adventure, rather than a prison sentence. On many levels, my blindness has helped me to grow. It’s humbled me. It’s made me less critical, more accepting of others. I’ve learned to not take myself so seriously, to be able to laugh at myself. I love what the Apostle Paul says about weakness. It’s in 2 Corinthians chapter 12. He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
Have you ever gone through something difficult and thought to yourself this is the main event, the main trial, the main test in my life? Then you realize that it was just the warmup act. In 2009, I lost my mom. In 2010, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and was treated. In 2015, the cancer came back, stage four, this time with a sobering prognosis. I have to be in treatment for the rest of my life. I get chemo every three weeks. I’m just recovering from my treatment last week. I’ve had the chance to share a lot of my cancer journey with all of you. Many of you today are dealing with some difficult things as well, I’m sure. Health issues, family, job, finances. Sometimes, doesn’t it feel like you just can’t get a break?
One of my sons had a particularly bad day and asked me, “What’s the point, mom? Why can’t we just go to heaven? Why do we have to stay down here where it’s so hard?” His life isn’t that hard by the way. It’s still a valid and profound question. It made me think of a passage that Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians chapter 5. “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens for in this tent we’ve grown longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.” He who has prepared us for this very thing is God who has given us the spirit as a guarantee. We are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord where we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please Him.
The first time I ever read this passage, I thought to myself, what’s with the tents, the tent reference It makes me think of camping. I have a confession to make. I am not a huge fan of camping. Many of you will probably disagree with me. Don’t get me wrong. I love the great outdoors. But camping, it’s just so much work. The tent, setting it up and tearing it down, the gear, the food, and all that stuff. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up camping that I don’t really like it that much. My parents immigrated to this country so that we wouldn’t have to sleep outside. In my defense, I’m really allergic to mosquito bites. I’m more of a resort girl, room service, housekeeping, and indoor plumbing.
In a way, I think that’s what Paul is saying here, “We’re on a camping trip, and we have to rough it. This broken Earth is not our true home. Our true home is with God in heaven.” God put heaven in our hearts, so we long for it. We long for that place where we’ll have new bodies, not impaired diseased ones. Maybe this is why we have such a visceral reaction when we hear about injustice and suffering in this world. We all yearn for paradise, a place where there’s no sorrow and no war. Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t really answer the why question that my son asked when he was having that bad day, but he does have encouragement for us. He acknowledges that things are far from perfect down here and we’d rather skip all this adversity stuff. Paul wants us to be of good courage, to be confident because we will check into that resort called heaven one day.
When we decide to follow Jesus, we receive the Holy Spirit, the deposit for our guaranteed reservation. The Holy Spirit will help us fulfill our mission of pleasing God, to know Christ, and to make Him known. The most important thing in this passage, the most interesting thing I think that Paul says is that while we are still on this Earth, we walk by faith, not by sight. Isn’t that fascinating? The language he uses, walk by faith, not by sight as if our vision can’t be trusted, as if our vision is impaired somehow. The most dangerous phase during my vision loss was when the little sight I had left was so poor, I couldn’t trust it anymore. For example, I’d burned myself pouring coffee into an upside-down mug that looked right side up to me. I’d bang my head on an open kitchen cabinet that looked closed to me.
I’ve already told you about the Gap incident. But I had to learn to operate in a different way and resist the temptation to use my impaired sight, to completely ignore it, and to do things by feel. I always check by feel if the mug is right-side up before I pour the coffee. The experts who help visually impaired people would call that an adaptive technique. I had to implement many of these adaptive techniques as I learned to operate without sight. Tying bells on my toddler shoes to keep track of them in the house. Leading with my hand when I bend over to protect my head. In the same way, when we decide to follow Jesus, Paul is saying that we can no longer trust our sight. We are called to maneuver through life in a new way, God’s way. He’s urging us not to be distracted by what we see, what might be right in front of us, to turn a blind eye to our surroundings and circumstances, to adapt, to learn to walk by faith and not by sight.
In the time I have left, I want to share some ideas about what walking by faith and not by sight might look like. I’m going to give you a few principles and then an application of the principles. An adaptive technique, if you will, which I hope will be helpful to you. Our first principle is we navigate our lives by God’s word, not by cultural norms. By God’s word, not by cultural norms. I think that my white cane is a really good metaphor for faith. First of all, my cane doesn’t do me any good if I don’t use it. I’ve owned my cane since 1988. It laid around collecting dust for many years. I think it was 2005 when I finally picked it up. Faith, in the same way, is meaningless unless we actually use it.
If we don’t apply faith to our lives, it’s just a bunch of head knowledge. It’s just religion. If we grab onto it and put it into practice, it becomes powerful. It’s like another sense that helps us navigate the darkness. God doesn’t want us to just believe that He exists, He wants to actively guide us through life and each day. One of the main ways He communicates with us is through His Word, through the Bible. Look at what it says in Psalm 1:19 about His Word. Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Not using God’s Word, in my opinion, is like a blind person trying to get around without a cane. You stumble, and fumble around, you waste time. You bang into stuff, and get hurt. Learning to use my cane was awkward and uncomfortable. It took a lot of practice, but I’ve learned to trust it. It helps me find my way quickly and safely.
In the same way, learning to apply God’s Word to our lives is a process. It takes practice and discipline. I guarantee you that at times, God’s Word will be in con with our culture and our own desires. Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Our culture says, “Don’t be stupid, they’re enemies.” There are a lot of voices out there competing for our attention. Who are we going to listen to? I went to a conference for blind people once when I was in college. Imagine thousands of blind people all in one place. Do you know how blind people find each other? They just yell out each other’s names. It’s utter chaos. I noticed a group of blind people moving across the convention center. There were maybe five or six of them all in a line. They were all hanging on to each other and the leader was also blind.
The curious thing was that when the leader ran into an obstacle, he would ricochet off of it and wasn’t able to help the guy behind him avoid it. The second guy would hit the obstacle and then the next guy, and then the next guy, and they each took their turn hitting the same obstacle. It was literally the blind leading the blind. Cultural norms are not a light to our path, God’s Word is. This is why we need to read it, study it, and meditate on it. Here’s my first adaptive technique for you. Read a Bible verse every day. We all have access so there’s no excuse. We all have smartphones and tablets. There are hundreds of Bible apps and Christian blogs out there to choose from. Subscribe to one verse a day. Just one or a five-minute devotional a day. Challenge yourself to read it first, before email, social media, or Netflix. If you’re already doing that much, do more. Read a chapter a day, join a study, or lead a study. We need to be investing our time in God’s Word.
The second principle is about walking by faith and not by sight is develop resilience to circumstances. Develop resilience to circumstances. Life is hard. Would you agree? It’s hard. Sometimes I think we have the wrong expectations. We’re so surprised when the storms hit. We hear bad news and we’re just so shocked and outraged. I remember when I was first diagnosed with cancer, a lot of my friends were just in disbelief. Why does the blind girl get cancer? As if my blindness should make me exempt or something. I wish it did. I really do. I’m not the only one who’s experiencing storms. I have a friend who struggles with anxiety and depression every single day. I have another friend who can’t have biological children. I have another whose son is struggling with drug addiction. I have another who’s losing not just vision, but his hearing. Yet another who recently lost her husband of 50 years suddenly on the very vacation to celebrate their 50th anniversary. It was tragic.
I’m sure many of you are dealing with some heavy things right now as well. No, we shouldn’t be surprised because Jesus warned us that life would not be easy. Let’s take a look at what Jesus said in John. “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on Earth, you’ll have many trials and sorrows, but take heart because I have overcome the world.” I’ve learned over the years that it’s not about avoidance, it’s about resilience. If Jesus overcame death itself, we can overcome our circumstances. We all know that the Bay Area we live in here is prone to earthquakes. It’s not a matter of if they hit, it’s a matter of when. My husband is involved in a project called the Resilient Sunset. Their purpose is to put all the emergency preparedness in place so that when the big one does hit, the sunset district will be back up and running in the shortest time possible to be as resilient as possible. In the same way, we should aim to be resilient to life storms because the storms will come.
None of us are immune. My next adaptive technique is to ask ‘what’ rather than ‘why.’ Ask what rather than why. It’s okay to ask why. It’s okay to kick, scream, and be completely honest with God. He would rather we come to Him in the midst of our frustration, anger, and confusion than not at all. At some point, the better and more productive question is what is it that you want to show me, Lord? What is it that you want to teach me? What is the greater purpose for this difficult time? God always has a purpose. He is also the expert at taking a bad thing and using it for good. This is the one who took the pain of the cross and offer salvation to the world. Even when we mess up and suffer grave consequences, you can still use it for good. This is where the growth comes in. Every storm is an opportunity to grow, to be transformed more into Christ’s character, and to grow closer to Him.
I asked my friends that I mentioned before, what does it mean to them to walk by faith and not by sight as they’re going through each of their personal struggles today. This is what they said: “Learning to have an unconditional trust relationship with God, focusing on the giver of the gifts, and not the gifts themselves, making a choice to believe in Christ despite my persistent questions and reservations, knowing that there is a deeper, planned out purpose in the suffering, and trusting that God will get me through anything.” That’s resilience. My final idea about what it means to walk by faith and not by sight is ‘let go and let God.’ Let go and let God. Let go of all we are trying to control, whatever that keeps us from fully trusting and obeying him. I let go of my vision. I couldn’t move forward in my relationship with the Lord. I couldn’t grow the way He wanted me to grow. He’s still asking me to let things go.
There’s a cost to following Jesus, and that cost sometimes is our will, our desires, or maybe our need to feel like we’re in control. Maybe God is asking you to let go of something. Maybe it’s your career or an unhealthy relationship. Maybe it’s a wound from the past, your comfort, material things, or maybe your notion of how your life should have turned out. My life certainly didn’t turn out the way that I had planned. But we had to let go and let God be God. Psalm 46, let’s take a look at what God says. “Be still and know that I am God.” Other translations say, “Be in awe and know that I am God. Stop your striving and know that I am God. Let go of your concerns and know that I am God.” Sometimes we forget how big and powerful God is, how trustworthy He is, how good He is, how He knows what’s best for us.
Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Church in New York City recently posted something on his Facebook page, something that I wanted to share. I thought this was really good. “Worry is thinking that God won’t get it right. Bitterness is thinking that He got it wrong.” I want to go back to my cane metaphor for a minute. One day I went shopping and somehow ended up with all these heavy bags and awkward shape packages. I stopped for coffee and I was trying to use my cane to navigate myself out of the cafe. I was too bogged down with baggage. I spilled my coffee. I poked myself in the face with a cane. I crashed into several innocent bystanders. I couldn’t carry all that stuff and use my cane at the same time. Do you see? We have to let go of our baggage, worries, burdens, and fears.
The less we hang on to, the freer we become. Free to follow God. Free to experience God. Free to be used by God. What does letting go look like? The Apostle Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6-7. “Do not be anxious about anything but in every situation, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. The peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I love that. God is so personal, relational, and merciful. We don’t have to just grin and bear it. We don’t have to keep silent or repress how we really feel. We can bring a request before the Lord. We can ask Him for anything. This is the paradox. Letting go yet still asking, still hoping. When my cancer came back in 2015, the docs told me that the best-case scenario for me given my type of cancer was five more years.
I’m going on two in June. Thank you, Lord. I’m going to keep asking God for more years. I’m going to keep asking. I’m also going to keep laying down my health and my future at His feet. He keeps filling me with His peace. He keeps filling me. There’s this transaction that happens. We empty ourselves of worries and burdens. We surrender them over to God. Then there’s room in our hearts for God to fill up with His peace. He can’t give us this peace when there’s no room. This is not a one-time thing because I don’t know about you, but I leak over time. It’s a continuous, beautiful process. I believe that the secret ingredient in all of this is gratitude. I think Paul would agree with me because remember he says with Thanksgiving, bring your request to God. This brings me to my last adaptive technique. Keep a thanksgiving list. Thanksgiving isn’t just in November. When you feel beaten down, forgotten, discouraged, angry, weary, lost, or just having a blah day, list the things that you are grateful for. There’s got to be something you’re thankful for. Your kids, your job, sunshine, bacon. I really like bacon. Anything.
It may sound silly and kind of kindergarten-ish, but when we find ourselves in that dark place, gratitude can be a lifeline. There’s something powerful about it. It’s as if it can’t coexist with despair. Maybe it’s because gratitude puts us on a vector toward God, rather than away from Him. A course correction. Or maybe it’s because it broadens our perspective, helping us glance up from the pain of our circumstances, if only for just a moment. Last November, Forbes magazine published an article. It was titled, 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits to Gratitude. I read it. Research has shown that grateful people are physically and psychologically healthier. They sleep better. They have better self-esteem, increased mental strength, and they even have more friends. Scientists have proven what was written in the scriptures, thousands of years ago. Make a thanksgiving list. Check it twice, put it on your phone, or your bathroom mirror, whatever works for you. Keep adding to it. Be grateful.
What does walking by faith and not by sight mean to me personally? God has been teaching me lately that His grace is sufficient. Jesus is enough because Jesus is everything. He’s everything. Someone once told me when you get to a place where Jesus is all you have, you realize that Jesus is all you need. I want to leave with you what’s become a life scripture for me. One that continues to help me find my way through the darkness. My good buddy, Paul, gives it to us straight up. Once again, 2 Corinthians chapter 4. “Therefore we do not lose heart, though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. Since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. We’re still roughing it, but with the Lord’s help, we can be of good courage and grow through adversity. We can walk by faith and not by sight. When our camping trip is finally over and we’re home, God will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
In a moment, the band is going to come up and we’re going to have a time of giving. First, I’m going to read through this prayer that I wrote for this week. Lord, sometimes I don’t understand why you allow pain and suffering in my life, but I want to trust you through the storm. Help me to walk by faith and not by sight. What is it that you want to show me? Is there something I need to let go of and lay at your feet? Guide me with your word, renew me with your love, your hope, and your peace. Help me to fix my eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. Thank you for your saving grace in Jesus’ name. Amen.