The Hashtag

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In this new world of social media, blogging, vlogging, podcasting, Facebooking, Twittering, texting, and other forms virtual contact that I am surely not aware of, there has arisen an unlikely hero on our keyboards: the hashtag, aka #. I don’t even know how to punctuate that in a sentence!

On my keyboard, prior to its recent popularity, the hashtag sat mostly unused above the number 3. I would occasionally use it as a number sign but for the most part, I could’ve easily lived life without a hashtag. Until the advent of the #hashtag movement, this humble symbol went largely unnoticed.

I didn’t really understand the reasoning behind, what appeared to me at the time, the arbitrary use of the symbol until one day when I saw this posted beneath a meme (a picture or image with a piece of relevant text added to it):

thestruggleisreal

#thestruggleisreal

The meaning of the hashtag finally had dawned on the horizon of my understanding. The humble hashtag, when followed by a word or several words connected without spaces, is meant to connect people to the subject at hand and communicate a short truth such as #thestruggleisreal. I finally got it and I saw that hashtag (#thestruggleisreal) fall into place many times over the subsequent months and years.

The truth of the matter is that the struggle really is real, the hashtag has meaning. There are some things we’re going through that have no explanation, no easy way out, no shortcuts to their resolution. The only way to see them through is through the struggle, and that struggle is real. Bishop T.D. Jakes puts it so well in saying, “You have to pay full price.”

As a church planter I’ve experienced more than what I originally thought was my “fair share” of struggle. It seems as if every step forward is accompanied by troubles that go beyond the lines of my expertise. On a regular basis I find myself posing the same question, “Why the struggle?”

There’s a common thread weaving itself through the intertwined fingers of humanity; we’re all seeking an escape from the struggle. Try as we might, however, the struggle finds us and the fight goes on for as long as there are days we have left to live – neither is creation exempt from the struggle.

Romans 8:20-22 ESV “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”

While in our day and age much is taught about the blessings of God (and rightfully so, we are blessed), little is said in comparison of the struggle we face in our futility. We struggle for the freedom we know is part of our Kingdom inheritance, we struggle in our journeying, we struggle for the answers to our prayers and come face-to-face with the reality of how real the struggle is.

Who knew?

On a warm afternoon in October 1991, I stepped off a plane with my young family and onto the tarmac at the airport in Bujumbura, Burundi. Heat rose from the runway in the distance and blurred the outlines of the trees and faraway mountains. My heart was full of hope for the future but the loneliness of our situation wasn’t lost on me. We’ve often joked about this in the past – but on the other side of our joking was the reality of our utter solitude as we began the work of planting our first church.

I can’t the number of times we’ve felt misunderstood by not only strangers but by those who are close to us. How can we go about explaining the fire in our hearts for Africa to others whose journeys are so very different from ours? What possesses us to choose this lifestyle, one so very foreign to our own? This is perhaps one of the most painful of the struggles we encounter (and we encounter it regularly). There is no logic to this call, what is worth this kind of sacrifice?

Over the years we’ve struggled with financial lack, insecurity in the countries we have lived in (not knowing from one day to the next what could happen), sickness, and leaving our children and grandchildren behind in the USA. As this cycle of struggle and loss repeats itself I find myself struggling less and looking forward more. I can’t move forward while at the same time looking back. Has my heart hardened? Am I now unaffected by the struggle? Not in the least. But I’ve learned that as real as the struggle is, the rewards of the struggle are much greater than any pain I’ll suffer in the here and now.

Philippians 3:8-10 ESV “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,”

I have little, in comparison to others, to offer God. While I’ve never gone to bed hungry or held any significant debt, my bank account alone gives testimony to my total reliance on God to meet my needs. I haven’t a great musical talent or prominent spiritual gift that can help propel me forward into the limelight. I don’t have the “pedigree” of coming from a family line of preachers. Neither do I possess any significant connection into the world of the rich and famous. What I do have to offer is this life God gave to me; He gave His all for me and I am now doing the same for Him.

And about that struggle, yes, #thestruggleisreal – but it’s only #temporary.

Hello

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Immersion. That’s a word you don’t hear often.

In the context of missions, it is the best way to learn language, culture, and the discipline required to acquire both. While becoming fluent evades some, the simple effort to communicate in the local language is appreciated by those we live with. I don’t remember ever being berated in Africa for saying something incorrectly; I’ve always been met with smiles and appreciation for the little effort made to learn to say “hello.”

I had never, in all of my days, thought that I would speak more than 2 languages: English and Finnish (my parents are from Finland and I grew up speaking Finnish at home). I also didn’t know how speaking 2 languages from the get-go would help me learn 5 more languages. My mind was already accustomed to working between 2 languages; adding another 1 or even 5 wouldn’t be impossible.  Yes, you read that correctly: 5 more languages. I studied all of them but became fluent in 3 of the 5. Since our return to Burundi last month, I’ve been working on my Kirundi that I studied in 1991 when we first moved here to plant a church. In 2000 we moved away and as a result, I lost the bit of Kirundi I had learned. However, now that we are back, I’m finding myself speaking more in Kirundi than ever before – I’ve been immersed! Just give me another year to practice and I’ll not only be slightly conversational, I will speak fluently.

Learning the culture of any people group comes from learning language, for culture is deeply intertwined in language. Just think of how differently English is spoken in different places around the world! Years ago in Zambia, my husband was preaching in our church on a Sunday morning. He attempted to tell a joke, which often backfires here as what we may think is funny, often falls flat.  What is funny to us from the USA is often incomprehensible here in Africa. The same holds true for African humor versus Western humor. We often don’t see what’s funny to the other! However, on this particular Sunday, Jamie (my husband) was rewarded with not only a laugh from the crowd but an addendum to the joke. The joke went like this as he said:

“It has been said that the British invented English, but it’s the Americans who perfected it.”

From the crowd, we heard the following:

“And the Zambians ruined it!”

Roars of unexpected laughter filled the place – I’ll never forget it. Why was it so funny? Well, you’d have to hear Zambians speak English to appreciate how funny it was.

Culture and language, they go hand in hand and if we can’t learn to pick up on their cues we risk being effective wherever in the world we find ourselves.

Becoming fluent in language and culture came (and is still coming after nearly 31 years of learning) through being immersed, there is no shortcut, no second option. It’s the only way to leap over the barrier that separates me from those I’m serving and it’s a barrier that must be overcome. Living among the people we serve and being forced, as it were, to communicate with them and learn the ebbs and flows of the culture is enabling me to communicate through a filter they will understand. It’s an extremely frustrating season for anyone serving in a culture foreign to their own – but it’s what we came here for. We didn’t come to bring American language and culture to Africa. We came to Africa to bring Kingdom culture to those we touch. The onus to change how we communicate is on us, not on those around us (see Acts 17:16-21 when Paul was ministering at Athens).

The same principle holds true in Kingdom culture and language. The more we immerse ourselves in the culture and language of the Kingdom of God, the more fluent and comfortable we will become. His cultural cues become increasingly engrained in us as we spend time studying His language, His Word. The more effort we put into learning His ways and language, the more we will get out of our relationship with Him. As time passes we find ourselves needing less interpretation of what He is trying to tell us – because we’re familiar with His voice, His language, His culture.

I arrived early this morning for another bit of Kingdom culture immersion as I sat down to read my Bible, pray, and spend time with God, my Father, who is also the King of the Kingdom I serve. I began as I do every morning when I sit down with Him:

“Hello, Dad.”

He was quick to respond:

“Hello daughter, I’ve been waiting for you.”

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Again

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I couldn’t find scissors to help me open the tightly sealed box. I tried, in vain, to force it open with my hands as sweat began to run down the sides of my face. “Why did I pack this so well?” Finally, I found a kitchen knife and began slicing the packing tape open around the edges of the cardboard; the unpacking of our lives had begun. Again.

The boxes I was unpacking had gone overland from Malawi, where we had moved from, to Burundi. They were brought to us by two of our Malawian pastors who had taken on the assignment of bringing these boxes by bus. It was a 4-day ordeal just one-way for them to undertake but they passed through all the borders practically without incident to Burundi. As we said our goodbyes the same day that they had arrived, it was as if a movie of all of the work that had been done in Malawi over the years was played as a movie in my mind. The churches that had been planted, the children that had been fed, the leaders that had been trained, all passed before me as I looked into the faces of these dear ones who were about to leave. I couldn’t hold back the tears as I remembered what we had been allowed to take part in – and then it was time for them to go.

Then we were left alone to start again.

The box was dusty, but intact, and as I started the process of unloading everything the magnitude of what we had done (again) struck me. Time after time I have found myself in this same situation of starting over and trusting God for the next step. However, knowing we have done this many times before doesn’t make any new step I take easier. In fact, I have learned with each new step comes new challenges and without faith, I could easily be scared out of it! What has kept me going, this time as in every time before, is knowing we had heard His Word spoken to us to go to Burundi and He wasn’t about to let go of us.

Isaiah 8:11 ERB “The Lord spoke to me, like a firm grasp of the hand.”

This move has been a challenge (they all are in their own way) but we have seen God walk with us daily and address everything that has come our way from acquiring resident visas to finding a house to finding the best market in town. Without hearing His voice and knowing His hand is tightly holding onto ours, we would never have been able to see Him at work over all these years.

I’m so glad we chose to listen, I’m so glad He’s holding our hands.