Sometimes You Go Alone

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We’ve all been told, “It’ll get better.” Or, “God will help you through.” Or, my personal favorite, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” My cynical side that I try so very desperately to harness will, when hearing this kind of counsel, internally retort, “Well, it sure feels like I can’t handle it!”

As cynical as I may feel, those answers are true; it does get better, we do make it through, and somehow we handle all that comes our way. The question that begs answering is, “What do we do in the meanwhile as we wait for things to get better?”

I’ve passed through times in my life when I have wondered, like most of us, “Why did this happen and why am I alone? Who will walk with me?” Experiencing those times would be more palatable if we had someone to help shoulder the burden.

Matthew 26:37b NLT “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

Jesus had His moment, one that felt “crushing.” He wanted to have someone walk through that time with Him, and He asked His disciples to “keep watch,” but they failed Him miserably. On two separate occasions during His agony in Gethsemane, He found them asleep (Matthew 26:40,42) even though He had asked them to “stay here and watch with me.”

As the rest of the story goes, Jesus was left totally alone; abandoned by those He had handpicked to lead His church in the future. Those He had healed, raised from the dead, delivered from demonic oppression, were all gone and He walked that road alone. Despite their desertion, He finished His assignment faithfully until the end.

His finishing made me wonder, could it be that the answer to our “crushed spirit” is finishing the assignment He has given us?

Matthew 26:42 NLT “My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done.”

Around and around we go in life, facing painful challenges and we go out of our way to avoid the pain, we find shortcuts, to keep us safe. Nobody likes pain; we go to great lengths to avoid it and relieve it. When I gave birth to my children, I welcomed any pain relief offered to me with great joy and if it wasn’t offered to me I begged for it. The problem with relieving pain or taking detours is that sometimes the relief isn’t worth the price paid.

Shortcuts don’t ensure our arrival at our intended destination on time; shortcuts can lead us to nowhere resulting in starting all over again which simply prolongs our process. Instead of avoiding the path and its accompanying pain, it may be better to go through than keep going around in circles only to face the same path ahead of us time after time.

The loneliness in the middle of such a season seems, on the surface, to be meant to harm us and it is often that loneliness that presses us to find a shortcut back to a more comfortable place. Jesus felt and acknowledged that loneliness when He walked through Gethsemane. While it was obvious that the desertion of His disciples was painful for Jesus to experience, He did not use that loneliness as an excuse to abandon His assignment. He knew the only way out of His Spirit being crushed was to go through with his assignment to its completion, to face the desperate moment of death that was facing Him.

John 16:33 CEV I have told you this, so that you might have peace in your hearts because of me. While you are in the world, you will have to suffer. But cheer up! I have defeated the world.”

True peace isn’t the absence of a crushing moment; it is peace in our hearts despite the crush, despite the loneliness. The end of the story for us is not a crushing defeat, but a rousing victory – but to get there, we will sometimes have to go it alone.

 

 

 

 

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The Dance at Shoprite in Blantyre

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This past Friday was like any other day this year even though it was our anniversary. Yes, it was a special day but life went on as usual. We had just come from an amazing week away visiting and ministering in our church in Lusaka, Zambia. Just getting to Lusaka from our home in Blantyre, Malawi takes two days so you can imagine how travel-weary we were by the time we got home.

Two days earlier, on our return trip, we picked up a dear friend who is visiting with us for a couple of weeks. She is a special family friend, more like a family member, who we haven’t seen for some years and meeting up with her was wonderful. We chatted all the way home, revisiting old memories and making new ones.

Pulling into the driveway at the end of our journey my mind filled with all the things that needed to be done: the laundry needing washing, the kitchen needed stocking, dinner needed cooking, and life needed to carry on. Then, just two days after getting home, we marked our 33rd wedding anniversary with a smile and a kiss. My husband Jamie looked at me saying, “We need to go out.” I knew he meant well and loved him more for it but because he preaches every weekend I said, “It’s Friday, you always prepare for the weekend on Friday.” Maybe we will find another day to celebrate, I mused.

The day was going to be busy as the next day (Saturday) I was to lead our first ladies’ meeting at the church. Our church is young and the first of any kind of meeting is special. As I went over the plans for the meeting I realized we still needed a few supplies from the store – yes, I have a penchant for forgetting. When I write lists, I forget where I place those as well so I’m in a never-ending cycle of trying to remember what exactly I forgot.

We decided since we would be out for prayer at church, we would stop at the store to pick up the few items needed for Saturday’s meeting. In the back of my mind I was remembering our own special day; no one else thought Friday was special but it was to me. Only once can a couple celebrate 33 years of marriage so I tried to find a card at small stationary shop while my husband was at the bank. I hurried looking through the dismal selection of cards and glanced out the store’s window, hoping he wouldn’t catch me only to see his smiling face in full view. I couldn’t even get a card to surprise him with and chastised myself for waiting too long to find one, for in Malawi finding an appropriate card of any kind is no easy task.

Feeling a bit sheepish, I exited the shop and hugged him saying, “Sorry, there wasn’t a card.” Then, some love song began to play on the loudspeaker. I really don’t remember what song it was but I put my arms around Jamie’s broad shoulders and said, “Dance with me.” This was particularly out of character for me since I don’t know anything about dancing – but he smiled and complied. For a few brief moments the world was ours and my favorite anniversary memory was created. Jamie smiling, arms entwined as we swayed to some silly song. I guess a few people wondered what we were doing but I really didn’t care. Lifelong love deserves some moments of its own and for me one of those moments happened in front of the Shoprite at the Chichiri shopping center in Blantyre.

Life is a special dance of moments that God has graced us with to enjoy. While our anniversary passed without great observation as far as a night out is concerned, the moments we danced together were a gift whose value was far greater than any dinner we might have had in the best restaurant in the world.

The music is playing, life is happening, it may seem ordinary, but God is waiting. Take His hand and dance.

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How Incredibly Reckless

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I don’t know where to begin with this thought. I’ve been staring at an empty screen for some time, typing, deleting, and typing again only to erase my thoughts and start over. I don’t want to write something that is simply entertaining or interesting – I want to achieve something with this entry that comes from a part of my heart that I rarely share.

Most of my life has been spent working in missions and there are times when it has felt as if I’ve been trying to empty an ocean of need with a teaspoon. I’ve been shoveling and shoveling for many years and it would seem that the water level hasn’t moved a bit.

We began our work 30 years ago on the continent of Africa and what we are doing today was the farthest thing from my mind when I first stepped on the airplane with my husband and 18-month-old son. I thought we were going to serve under our senior missionaries Ralph and Shirley Hagemeier for the foreseeable future; church planting wasn’t even a thought that I had allowed to cross my mind! My husband Jamie wasn’t intending on pastoring, he had grown up in a pastor’s home and knew the stresses that went along with the job all too well. Yes, I was happy to settle in and be a teacher and a preacher’s wife. We had the luxury of a reliable schedule during the week and on the weekends; my husband was invited almost every Sunday to preach in churches in the surrounding area. Looking back, it was an amazing time where we were allowed to land “softly” into missions. We had seasoned senior missionaries watching over us and we worked in an established Bible school. What more could we possibly want?

Then came the call to plant churches. This disturbed my idyllic life on the mission field. I can’t say that the call came in the form of a great vision or prophecy. It came more like something we knew we had to do. At first, it was exciting – the very idea of starting a church from nothing was intriguing. Where would we go? How would we start? Who would come?

While we had no idea which city we would start in, we knew we had to learn another language: French. We had already learned Swahili but in the Central African region, we knew that learning French would only be an asset to us in the region. For nearly a year we studied in France and prayed about where we would plant the church. We knew we wanted the church to be planted in a capital city and in time we felt in our hearts that we would go to Bujumbura, Burundi.

On a warm October afternoon in 1991 we landed at the airport in Bujumbura. There wasn’t a person around to receive us; this was my first indication that we weren’t “in Kansas anymore.” When we were asked why we were in the country, all we could say was, “We’re here to plant a church.”

That evening, we somehow found our way to the home of a family that was gracious enough to let our little tribe settle with them for a few days until we found a home of our own. Within a week we had rented a house and began the task of applying to register the church.

Months passed; we faced sickness, civil unrest, and our own nagging fears. Nevertheless, God was with us and the church finally was approved and we were able to begin. I thought, naively so, that things would get a bit easier with time but that was not the case at all. Civil unrest turned into war when the president was assassinated and we wondered if the church would even survive. No one ever taught us how to lead a church during war – so we did all that we could do. We prayed.

Survive it did and it thrived during the years of war and 9 years after the church was planted, we handed it over to our national leaders and moved on to plant another church. Time and again this scenario has repeated itself: we move to a previously unknown city in an unknown country, we arrive with no one to meet us and begin at ground zero. Each country has challenged us, each church we have planted has touched us, and each pastor we’ve been allowed to mentor has changed us.

Looking back over the years of seeing churches born and leaders raised up to lead those churches, I find a smile forming on my mouth as I think of how incredibly reckless this kind of life might seem to those who are looking from the outside in. How did we dare raise our children when life was, seemingly, so uncertain? There were times we wondered whether or not we could continue, there were times we rejoiced over great miracles; that our children grew up in such an atmosphere of faith and trust in God and His plan is nothing less than a great honor for us as parents. While we may not leave them a great financial inheritance when we step over into eternity, our children have a heavenly inheritance of faith that will see them and their families through their own personal journeys.

Back to that teaspoon emptying an ocean of need; all these teaspoons later and here I am still scooping away. Somewhere along the way I have found it’s not what we perceive on the surface, like the level of the ocean’s water, that matters. Tsunamis form on the ocean floor, far from the surface. When they form out in the deep places, it isn’t immediately apparent the size of the wave since the ocean’s surface covers a vast area. However, as the wave moves toward land, it gains momentum – it’s size and power is only evident once it reaches the shore.

God has seen fit to place us where He has placed us for reasons only known to Him. On the surface it may seem to be little, and indeed it is, but the power of the wave that has been created will be seen, perhaps years from now, when the wave reaches its intended shore.

Be encouraged as you take your journey. You may feel as if your part in the great puzzle of life is so small that you don’t matter – nothing could be farther from the truth. Keep on being faithful to what you have been called to do, for you are part of a great wave that will, in God’s time, surprise the world.

Colossians 3:23 NLT “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.”

Mud or Dust? Take Your Pick

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Mud or dust? Take your pick.

We often joke about our church floors; they’ve all been either rock, dirt, and, on occasion, cement. They’ve never been pretty; they are always of the “needs improvement” variety. I used to be bothered by the floors, especially those of rock, as they would ruin my shoes. It didn’t matter what kind of shoes I had, the rocks would eat them up. Together with the rocky floors, we also have a permanent dust issue. It’s mostly dusty in our church “facility” (a tent) and if it’s not dusty, it’s muddy. I much prefer dusty to muddy, as the dust is much easier to clean up than the mud is.

I’ve long forgotten what it is like to wear nice shoes to church; I have to think of what is sensible, easy to clean, and what to wear that I won’t miss in the event they get ruined in the mud. The ladies and I of our churches have concluded that we can identify who goes to our church by looking at their shoes.

How do you clean a dirt floor? Isn’t it impossible? By definition, a dirt floor cannot be clean – but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to clean it. The floors are swept before every meeting; admittedly the sweeping makes them appear neater but they are no cleaner. The chairs get set out on the neat-looking floor and service begins. Once we have finished, the chairs get put away and the dirty floor remains ever the same: dirty. Dirty as it may be, the floors tell a tale that can be seen in the footsteps, and sometimes knee prints, of those who made it to service.

That people would come to church still amazes me all these years into our service in Africa. All over the world people are busy; everyone has laundry to do, children to care for, jobs and businesses to tend to and yet, our people make time to come to church. They don’t make time to come to a church that meets in a nice building; they are making time to come to church that meets in a tent with a dirt floor.

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One might be tempted to think that here in Africa people don’t care about their surroundings – I must disagree with that perception. As much as anyone else in the world, Africans love beauty but their understanding of beauty supersedes what the rest of the world perceives as beautiful. Here on the continent, we have understood that beautifully built buildings don’t make the church. Church meets wherever God’s people come together and this has allowed for massive church growth all over the continent. Our floors are dirt and sometimes our roofs are little more than the shade offered to us by the trees, but we have church. And that is what we find to be beautiful.

I’ve been to services where musical instruments were fashioned from discarded car parts and soda tops – never has there been a sweeter sound. I’ve sat on stones in the sand and heard beautiful choirs sing amazing melodies and watched as tears rolled down the faces of the singers – a truly beautiful moment. I’ve gone to funerals and watched parents lay their children to rest and lift their hands to the Lord in surrender – a sacred moment if ever there was one.

Beauty, I have come to find, is much more than what I used to think it was: beautifully manicured lawns and stained glass windows. Beauty is found in the footsteps on the dirt floor of this life; those steps mark lives of love and loss. My eyes, every time I set foot into the tent, go to the floor, to look at the footprints there. I wonder who is behind the prints I’m studying and what brought them to our tent – and I pray, Lord, may we value the lives behind those prints, for they are beautiful.

I look forward one day to having a building with proper chairs and a proper floor; it will be a real treat to wear a nice pair of shoes to church one day. But in the meantime, I’m busy praying over those footprints on the floor, they are the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

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