Settling

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Two years ago this month, I found myself standing in the Blantyre, Malawi airport, with my husband and daughter waiting for our luggage. It was hot and sweat poured from my husband’s forehead as he lifted our bags, all 13 of them, one by one onto luggage carts. Once we passed through customs, we walked towards the exit through the downward sloping surface that lead to the exit. I knew we were headed for complications as the cart picked up pace and we struggled to slow it down. It didn’t take much, just a small bump on the surface of the walkway, for the suitcases to be sent cascading down in front of us.

This was my welcome to Blantyre!

We are church planters, you see, and the “job description” (for a lack of better words) requires us to move once we have established a church and prepared the pastor sufficiently to take the riegns from us.

By nature, I’m not one who has a need to collect things. I imagine God prepared me long before I knew I would be a church planter. Moving to Blantyre required me to, as many moves before had, to pare down my belongings to an odd mixture of suitcases and foot lockers and duffle bag or two. Mixed among the necessary items such as my extra contact lenses, 4 plastic plates, a small set of cutlery, and shoes, was a jumble of a few non-necessary as well as necessary items: pictures of our family, a few keepsakes from other nations where we had served, and important documents (marriage license, diplomas and degrees, our youngest daughter’s adoption decree, etc.). As I unpacked all of the necessary and unnecessary things, I felt tears roll down my cheeks as I felt the familiar sting of having to leave one place and start all over again.

Hebrews 13:14 ESV“For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”

As we live life, it’s easy to get distracted by our surroundings and need to conform to the “norms” of society around us that we work so hard to attain. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with settling into a place, as long as the place you have settled into doesn’t cause you to settle for less – less than what God has planned for you.

What are we looking for? Where are we going? With all of the effort we put into settling into life and making ourselves as comfortable as we can, is it possible that we have forgotten that this life isn’t the end of it all?

I live in Blantyre, Malawi today. I’m sure the day will come that God will send me to another city and I will once again have to go through the uncomfortable process of lifting up the stakes of my “tent” and move on. As uncomfortable as the process has been and surely will be, there is not a city on this earth where I will finally rest as I will when I enter that Heavenly City and really put my roots down.

Micah 2:10 ESV“Arise and depart, for, this, is not the place of rest.”

The Paintbrush…

I have four children, each one is precious to me. My firstborn was the first: the first child born to our family, the first one we taught to walk, the first one we walked to school, and the first one to leave home. He was the “trial run” that paved the way for his siblings. I’ll never forget what it felt like to find out for the first time we were going to have a baby, the first time that I held him, and the first time that he smiled at me. Our daughter came a little more than 4 years later. She was the easy-going baby who had to stop and look at every flower, laugh whenever her daddy played with her, and cuddled close to me at bedtime. By the time number 3 came around, we were “professional” parents. He was our funny child; always ready to laugh, always ready for a game, and since we thought he was the last baby, we made sure to enjoy him as much as we could. Fast-forward 15 years and surprise! We were blessed with a bonus baby: number 4 who captured all of us. She had been abandoned in a local government hospital in Malawi where we lived at the time (we still live in Malawi) and when we saw her, we knew she was meant for our family to raise.

After a long and arduous process to adopt her, she became our daughter legally. Our oldest son made the long trip over to Malawi from the States (he had moved Stateside to finish his education by this time) and was with us when the time came to appear before the judge. It was a special day, seeing the first one all handsome and grown, together with this little baby and I thought, “It’s not fair that little ones like her should suffer, that millions around the world should suffer.”

“It’s not fair!” It’s the cry of kids at home worldwide. Each one of my children has cried foul whenever another was introduced into the family. Fairness, as I have come to define it, is an unseen scale by which we measure treatment. All parents try their best to be fair, but as all parents know, what is right for one child may not be right for the other. My second born child never needed a bedtime when she was young because she would fall asleep very early on her own. My oldest, on the contrary, needed a bedtime because he could stay awake until late and then struggle to get up to go for school. What wise parents do is give all their children a level playing field where all are given equal amounts of understanding, mercy, and love.

God is the Ultimate Parent, He knew that all His children would need unlimited mercy, understanding, and love. In His wisdom He affords everyone the same opportunity and sets us on a level playing field.

Romans 11:32 ESV“For God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy on all.”

All of us need mercy, just as our children need mercy when they blow it (and we all know that they do) and all of us have been given the same opportunity to be forgiven. On our individual journeys, it may seem what is happening to us isn’t fair. Perhaps the best way to view it isn’t through the limited lens of fairness but painted with the broad brush of mercy that exceeds what any of us deserves.

We naturally paint the world around us with our understanding of fairness, of what is right and just. Where we stumble as we interpret our world is judging on the surface by that unseen standard of what we think is fair. Were we to know the entire backstories to those issues we are witness to, it might be that our opinions would change. There is only One Who knows the backstories to all the unfairness in the world and He is the only One Who is equipped to understand it all. I don’t suppose, if we knew even a bit of what He knew, that we would be so quick to see things as “unfair.”

As I am writing this, I can hear baby number 4, who is now 10 years old, laughing while she’s playing with her friend. That we listened to God’s heart to take her in when we saw her is an image of God painting a life with His love and mercy. You see, it is only through the hands of His children can He extend mercy to others. Imagine if we all, instead of wondering about the fairness of it all, would paint the lives of those around us with mercy.

The Tent

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The tent in Blantyre, Malawi

This morning I woke to the sound of wind and rain. Immediately my mind went to our church site and I thought, “The tent…”

When we moved to our church’s property in December 2016, we pitched our tent and carried on meeting and growing the congregation. How the property itself came to us was a miracle; it was one of those situations that, up until that time, a miracle of that magnitude was something we had only heard of happening to others. The piece we had our eye on was ideal; located on one of the main entry roads leading into the city. When we found out the asking price we simply looked up and said, “Dad? What about it?” Within a couple of weeks, we were able to make our counter offer and close the deal shortly thereafter. After having spent 30+ years in Africa, preaching , working in local communities, and planting churches, we were amazed that in less than a year from the planting of our church in Blantyre, Malawi, we had a piece of amazing property that was fully paid for. This process in itself has usually taken years to accomplish in other places we have served; we knew God was up to something and are still pinching ourselves as we witness His amazing hand at work.

Prior to owning our own land, we rented property from a local school that was willing (for a price of course) to let us set up the tent and meet as a church. It was therefore a great relief to begin the process of settling into our own place. If we had to spend money, we were glad it wasn’t to be spent on rent but on developing our own property, which was totally undeveloped at the time. We hired a large grater, leveled the land as much as our finances allowed us as hiring a sufficiently powerful grater needed for the job we had was no cheap undertaking. Once the land was sufficiently leveled, we set up the tent. There was no (still is no) running water or electricity; we had to come up with creative ways to build without a reliable source of water or power. We learned it was possible to haul large amounts of water from a local stream as well as bring a generator on site to run musical equipment during church services on the weekend.

As we are going on our second year on site, we have a nearly-complete security wall fence around the property and if you look hard enough, you might “see” the main building and surrounding educational/office complexes that will go up in the future. Standing proudly in the middle of the mud, rocks, piles of bricks, and drainage ditches is our tent. In this tent we’ve held meeting after meeting, week after week, and it has been a great adventure seeing people come week after week and meet Jesus.

Yet, tents are not meant to be permanent structures. During the rains in Malawi, our tent has come down a few times due to violent rain and wind. Repair has always been expensive and challenging: expensive as the materials needed are not cheap and challenging as the man who has a sewing machine that is able to sew the tent lives far away and requires us to collect him and his sewing machine whenever we need a repair. All of this doesn’t take into account the fact that not only do we have to go through a lot just to get him on site to sew, but also, we have to arrange for power to run his sewing machine –  out comes the generator.

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When the tent’s come down, we’ve prayed in the sun.

So, when I heard the rain and the wind this morning, Sunday, I prayed, “Lord, the tent.” It’s all I could think of to pray as He already knew the situation. Later on, as we left the house and were in the car driving to the property, I saw a large sign along the roadside that had blown over in the wind as well as some sheet metal blown off a construction site. I kept whispering quietly, “Jesus, the tent.” As we drove up, it was still standing tall without a single tear and we all breathed a sigh of relief and started the service.

It was cold today and windy; we have no walls and are at the mercy of the weather. The sand blew in my eyes and the damp wind made me shiver. Jamie (my husband) preached a message on gratitude and I closed my eyes for a moment, thinking of all I had to be grateful for just that morning: we woke up well, the car got us to church (sometimes I wonder about that car!), and the tent was still standing. Behind me sat a teenager who wore shorts and a T-shirt and I watched his teeth chatter as he huddled next to his friend. Yet he smiled when I looked at him. My eyes looked over our people and I thanked God for them – they’re in a “no frills” church with uplifted hands. These, our people, I thank God for them, they are really coming because they want to come.

In days to come, when God blesses (for He always blesses) and buildings begin to go up on site, I will remember these precious ones who were brave enough to come and meet in a tent. Somehow, I think I prefer these days; there are no bells or whistles to distract us. It’s simply the people, loving Jesus and us watching a church be born.

I’m grateful.

Excluded

No one likes to be excluded, left out, or ignored. We actually go to great lengths to be accepted; everything from clothes to speech and friendships gets filtered through the test of cultural acceptance. This happens gradually, so gradually that we may not even be aware of its importance to us until exclusion stares us in the face and challenges our decisions, accomplishments, and values. Those things that vie for our attention, time, and approval, demand that we bow to the pressure of their “importance.” Without the appearance of certain things in our lives – money, popularity, and security – we risk exclusion from those groups that are esteemed in society.

To get included, it’s amazing the lengths we go to the “sell” ourselves and seem “worthy” of acceptance. I remember there was a time in my life when I was part of a group where each person was expected to refer and have people be referred to them by others in the group for the purpose of growing one another’s businesses. The principle sounded logical and needing new business, I was hopeful that this group would bring help my way. Getting entrance into the group was a process but somehow I managed the hefty fee and was approved. Each week, I had to give a short minutes-long speech that would hopefully convince other members to help me. There was even a trophy that circulated among those few (usually a select few in the group) who gave the best speech. Pictures would be taken and updates would be posted on social media. Defeated, I never won the trophy and after a year, let my membership go. I felt utterly defeated and my speeches on what a good job I could do seemed to be all for naught.

As I reflect on those days, I see how that scenario, although extreme, plays itself out almost daily on those of us who are lured into trying to gain acceptance by noting all of our achievements. Those achievements, which one day are acceptable and the next day useless as society changes, do little to secure our worth.

Romans 3:27a ESV “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded…”

There is a group, one that I’m profoundly thankful to be part of, that doesn’t require me to make a flowery speech about how good I am at what I do. The speeches given at that group are always of the Founder Who takes all of His qualifications and gives them freely to those who request entrance. No one is ever turned away or denied entrance because of their personal flaws. Were our entrance based on our accomplishments, each application would be marked, “Denied.”

Yet, by grace and mercy, as we are accepted, the only exclusionary clause is boasting of ourselves. That gets left at the door, the pressure to perform is gone, and everyone is in the same category: saved by faith. The only requirement is accepting free entry offered by the Founder.

Ephesians 2:8,9 ESV “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”