Keeping Things Under Wraps

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Popularity – pɒpjʊˈlarəti/

noun

  1. the state or condition of being liked, admired, or supported by many people.

How much of our lives is spent in the pursuit of what is popular or to become popular? For some reason, we are wired with an innate desire to be liked, to be first, and to be the best. Early in childhood we all wanted to be first on the best swing, first on the climbing frame (monkey bars for all my US readers),  and first to take a turn at hop scotch. From there, everyone slowly steps into line in the “pecking order” of the group; everyone knows his or her place. The first place always goes to the one who won, who got there first. Thus, the “popular kid” is born.

As you might have already guessed, I was never the first kid on the playground. I wasn’t blessed with the speed needed in those days to get the coveted first spot. Now, looking back, I realize that there were very few first kids because there could only be one first place among a group as large as our elementary class of 20+ children. The great majority of us were simply the ones who came in last – for first was all that mattered back at that time.

Try as we might, human nature (especially when it is unredeemed) continues to chase after the invisible goal of popularity. As much as we wish it didn’t, the idea of pleasing people, being propelled into the spotlight as “best in class” still can entice the humblest among us.

Enter Jesus.

John 2:25 ESV “and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”

Throughout Jesus’ three-years of ministry on the earth, He did nothing to raise His own profile on purpose. His profile was raised naturally by the fact that His goal was to fulfill His Father’s will (Luke 22:42); not His private agenda. I imagine it would have been very easy for Jesus to convince the disciples to engage an advertising company, raise banners, start a Twitter account (not really but the ancient equivalent), and offer free fish sandwiches every Friday evening by the Sea of Galilee. Indeed, there were times it seems the disciples wish He had taken the popular route.

Acts 1:6-8 ESV  So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’”

Even after all they had witnessed (ministry of miracles, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus), the disciples still wondered if they were going to be “first” among the nations. Patiently, as per His character, Jesus simply said (my paraphrase), “It’s not for you to know…but I’m giving you power to go, so go and tell the world the Good News.” It seems that His response stunned them for in Acts 1:10,11, they simply stared into heaven and had to “snap out of it!” (Again, my paraphrase!) By all accounts, it seems they couldn’t believe that after all Jesus had been through, He wanted the world to be reached – through them. He wanted them to stop thinking about themselves and look to those around them who hadn’t experienced what they had.

Wherever Jesus went, except when entering Jerusalem for the last time, He didn’t seem to put much weight into the thought of being popular as He knew what was in the hearts of men. He knew, as He went down the road to Jerusalem for the last time with crowds praising Him, that not many days would pass before those who cheered Him on would crucify Him.

Popularity, it’s a poison that, when it takes effect, seduces and then destroys those who are unfortunate enough to fall victim to it.

I’ve been reading in the book of Mark and have begun noting scriptures where Jesus wanted to keep miracles “under wraps” as it were. In 3 chapters alone (chapters 7-9) I found 4 separate instances where Jesus didn’t want anyone to know what had happened (Mark 7:24; 7:36; 8:30; 9:30), this begging an answer as to why?

Some say if word got out of the miracles then His ministry would be hindered by the vast crowds. I can understand that viewpoint but there are many instances in the Gospels where Jesus ministered to large multitudes.

I wonder if Jesus didn’t try to keep things quiet at times in order to keep the monster of popularity away. Once word got out, for example, that someone has raised from the dead or been healed of leprosy, I’m sure every newspaper and important figure in town would have wanted to see the person themselves – all at the risk of becoming popular.

The Son of God chose to come to this world in the most obscure way, had an opportunity to become popular (and in fact was popular for a time but was not wooed by it) but ended up dying between 2 thieves.

I wonder if we took the energy we expend on garnering popularity and shifted even a small bit of that energy  into “going” (as the disciples were told in Acts 1:8) to all the world, we would find ourselves in a much better place. The world wouldn’t hold us and the grave would no longer frighten us.

John 15:18 NLT “If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.”

 

Temper Tantrums and Leftovers

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“You just don’t want me to have fun!”

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard those words. If you haven’t, it’s most likely because your children are still very young. Sometime around the 2nd or 3rd grade mark, children begin to think that their parents’ goal in life is to keep them from having fun.

Mom: “Clean up your toys.”

Son/daughter: “I’m not done playing with them.”

Mom: “They’ve been out for 3 days, it’s time to put them away.”

Son/daughter: “You just don’t want me to have fun!” This is often accompanied by a strong folding of the arms or stomping of feet for emphasis.

Now that my 4th child is 10 years old and I have a bit of experience under my belt, I know how to reason a bit with her when she begins to go down that spiral of, “You just don’t want me to have fun!” The other day I sat with her and asked her, “Why would I want you not to have fun? What good would I get from you not having fun? I want you to have fun – why else would I have gotten you all these toys? To have fun of course.” Cue the blank stare…I usually have 2 or 3 minutes to get a meaningful bit of communication in before the curtain of attention falls.

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My life is full. There’s no real reason for me to have a temper tantrum with my Father over things that I have/don’t have or things I have asked for but have yet to see. Yet, I somehow find opportunities to fold my arms, as it were, and look at my Father and say, “You just don’t want me to have fun!”

On the occasion that I have obeyed in some area, much like my children have been at home, I will think that my obedience gives me “credit” or “points earned” towards favorable outcomes in life – especially in those “spiritual” arenas of life. Since we are missionaries and all of what we do is basically for the Kingdom, it’s easy for me to think that God should understand and will hand everything to me on a silver platter. If things don’t work out as I think they should, “You just don’t want me to have fun!” Complete with folded arms and stomping feet.

“I’m doing this for You! Where is the money to get this vision You gave us to get this done?”

Yet, the things He had given me before are still strewn all over the floor. The new believers who need following up, leaders that need to be trained, and the community outreaches that need to be developed are still unorganized and waiting to be tended to.

If I’m honest with myself, there’s much that I am able to do without money. In fact, helping  someone develop in their life with the Lord takes more time than it does money – and time is something no one is willing to part with easily. In our era of “time management” and scheduling, we find it difficult to invest what’s needed in people to see them grow into their potentials. We have families, jobs, hobbies, sports, and recreational activities we have to fit into our schedules. Doesn’t God want us to be happy? Sounds a bit familiar.

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We can find scripture and verse to assuage the guilt that tries to assault our hearts when we consider what we should be doing when it comes to our participation in God’s work. We want more “fun time” while God our Father is asking us to collect what is strewn on the floor around us.

John 6:12 NKJV“So when they were filled, He said to His disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost.’”

What is significant about the leftovers is that God takes what others would consider useless and scrape into the trash. After a large holiday meal, what’s leftover is often tossed into the trash bin as everyone has already had enough to eat. Without giving it another thought, the designated kitchen cleanup crew won’t bother with the odd bits and pieces of leftovers. Why save them? Everyone is full! Throw them away! Unless there’s an old-time auntie or grandma in the group who insists on taking the leftovers home. “It will keep me full for days!” she says while collecting the last few dinner rolls and scrapings of casserole.

The lives of people that are scattered as fragments in our societies won’t collect themselves. Much like our families’ cleanup crews, the disciples would have most likely preferred to have left the crumbs on the ground. They had already worked and served thousands, but after all of their work, Jesus told them, “Gather the fragments.” They might have wondered, “Why gather fragments? They’re just trash.” Until all the fragments came to 12 baskets full – I am sure that 12 baskets of leftovers fed many, perhaps for days.

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The things we allow ourselves to make time for are what become precious to us. Family and friends are precious for they take up our time. However, family and friends, with time, change. Children grow up and leave, friends move, life inevitably changes, and unless we have simultaneously invested in those things that are timeless, such as God’s work, we will find ourselves hungry and life will appear meaningless.

Once upon a time, like you, I was a fragment, someone whose life didn’t appear to be meaningful enough to gather. I’m so glad that someone took the time for me – someone saw value in the broken fragment of me so I wasn’t thrown away. Surely I have time to do the same.

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.