Sunday, September 27, 2015

When Plan B is God's Best

My story has intersected with Kathy Keller's story for a long time now.

Kathy and I both studied to become teachers at The Master's College in the late 90's, and we attended the same church.  Our paths crossed often.

In 1999, Kathy heard about my plans to teach 5th grade at Haven of Peace Academy.  She had always felt called to teach overseas, but was reluctant to go alone.  This seemed like the perfect opportunity for her.  HOPAC needed her too, and before we knew it, she was on the same path as me.  We planned to be roommates, and we even had a house lined up.

Then, out of the blue, my good friend Gil proposed and my plans changed only four months before I was scheduled to leave for Tanzania.  Of course, I was thrilled, but it was agonizing to know I was abandoning Kathy.

She went to Tanzania anyway, and she even forgave me for standing her up.

A year later, Gil and I both joined her in Dar es Salaam.  Kathy and I carpooled to HOPAC, and we ministered at the same church.  She helped us with some youth events, spent a lot of time at our house, and we became fast friends.

Kathy spent two years at HOPAC, and then switched jobs to work full-time among the South Asian population in Dar es Salaam.  For the last 13 years, she has worked tirelessly in local schools, hosted clubs and tutoring sessions in her home, and walked the streets of downtown Dar, making friends.

For seven summers, she and I planned youth camps.  Together, we figured out the best ways to prepare and host short-term teams.  We worked through the difficulties of putting on multi-cultural camps.  We solved ridiculous problems together, like how to keep 40 teenagers distracted when lunch is three hours late.  Sometimes we fought, but that just made us more like sisters.

Kathy is one of the most high-energy, committed, faithful people I know.  When she sets her mind on something, she does it with 110% percent.  She is gifted at learning language.  She gives generously.  She loves lavishly.  She has a unique ability to morph into other cultures.

Kathy spent the last few years training up a team to do what she does.  In essence, she did what very few leaders are able to do:  She reproduced herself, times four.  And now after 15 years in Tanzania, God is moving her on.  Reach Global recognized her talented leadership skills, and asked her to start something completely new in Paris, France.

So that's what she will be off to do.  In just a few weeks, she will leave Tanzania forever, and move to a new city, country, continent to become the Reach Global City Team Leader in Paris.  She will learn French.  She will cast vision for what God wants to do through Reach Global in that city.  She will recruit a team to carry it out.  It's an extraordinary task for a remarkable woman.

But there's a part about Kathy's life that few people usually consider.  Kathy has never once, not one day, been living out what she would have dreamed for her life.   Her dad died of a heart attack when she was only 20.  She experienced major brain surgery from a genetic condition that left her with stroke-like conditions for a number of weeks.  And her real ambition in life--her Plan A--was to be a stay-at-home mom.

Yet every day, for the past 20 years, for reasons we don't know or understand, God has denied Kathy the things that she wanted most.  At times, it has been unbearably painful.

All of Kathy's life choices have been Plan B.
and over
and over again,
Kathy has been faithful.  She has not sat and wallowed in self-pity.  She has seized the opportunities God put before her.  She has lived life to the fullest.  She has done things that the vast majority of young women would never consider doing--especially alone.  Traveled the world.  Figured out how to rent an apartment, buy a car, and start a new outreach in a foreign city.  Lived in a neighborhood where she was the only American.  Learned multiple languages.

Kathy lives life so enthusiastically that I would guess few understand the internal sorrow she regularly experiences.  She is one who wrestles with God, but daily, she allows Him to win.  She is a beautiful example of a surrendered life.

I still hope and pray that Kathy receives her heart's desires while here on earth.  But I have confidence that one day, she will stand before the One whom she has loved first, who will say to her,
Well done, good and faithful servant.

And she will have everything that's ever worth wanting.  Which, ultimately, is really Plan A.

Paris is a lot more expensive than Dar es Salaam, so Kathy is praying for new financial partners in her ministry.  If you would like to join her support team, please click here

Thursday, September 24, 2015

What Johnny (and His Mom) Need to Learn

How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?

I hear the fear in his voice.
When he wakes up from his nap and I am not in the room.  When he can't locate me in the house, even if it's only been 10 seconds.  It only takes about 5 more seconds for the fear to turn to panic.  

Mommy?  MOMMY?!
I'm here, Johnny.  Mommy is here.  Mommy will always be here. 

Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

You don't need to be afraid.  

My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand.

You are mine.  You are My Johnny.

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

I love you forever.  I am not going to leave you.

I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know that this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

He is learning not to be afraid.
To trust my love.
To trust my presence.
To believe his status as a son.

In doing so, I see the picture of myself and the Father who adopted me.  I think of the times I have doubted His presence, His love, my status as His daughter.  He is saying the exact same things to me as I am telling my son.  And I know I am learning too, just like Johnny.

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and and have no compassion on the child she has borne?  Though she may forget, I will not forget you!

God's love is infinity stronger, better, and longer-lasting than mine.  Why do I doubt?

Psalm 13:1, Matthew 28:20, Isaiah 49:15, John 10:29, Ephesians 3:17-19, John 14:18

Friday, September 18, 2015

I Was Made For Another World

Once in a while, I still get homesick for America.

Of course, I get homesick for people in America all the time.  But I don't often think about the actual place itself.  After all, I've lived in Africa for 17 years.

But there are times I long for America, and this week was one of them.  Facebook is to blame, as it is for so many forms of envy.  People posting about the weather getting cooler, pumpkins and scarves, leaves changing colors.  And I am filled with memories:  the smell of wood burning on a crisply cold day, leaves dancing in the air, running inside a warm house from a rainstorm.

I long for the lit up houses on nights that darken early.  The feeling of socks on my feet on carpeted floors, blanket sleepers on small bodies, holiday treats that aren't rationed.

And then I look ahead with dread to my changing seasons here:  the coming of fall in the northern hemisphere means the coming of summer in the south.  It means leaving our pleasant days of "winter" in the 80's to enter into months and months of endless heat and humidity.  It never feels like fall.  It never feels like Thanksgiving.  It never feels like Christmas.  I find myself mourning, once again, all I have lost over the last eleven years.

Yet when I examine my imagination more carefully, I realize I've left out some significant parts.  Cars that break down on the freeway in the cold.  Static-filled hair and dry skin.  Broken relationships that mess up the perfect Thanksgiving.  Grouchy children in the festive shopping mall.

In my imagination, my house in America looks like a Thomas Kincade painting.  The weather always cooperates, I am never sick, and there's certainly never any traffic.  Joy is the only emotion I ever feel.

So I am realizing:  I'm not actually homesick for America.  I'm homesick for heaven.

Sure, we could move back to America and I would enjoy fall again.....but I would miss the smell of tropical rain.  My kids could jump in the leaves, but would miss out on snorkeling in the Indian Ocean.  Most importantly, the problems with the car and the pipes and the relationships and the grouchy children--they would follow me.

My imagination will always deceive me.  There is no perfect place, no better place.  Not on this earth.  We long for it anyway, don't we?  We think that maybe if we had a bigger house, or a nicer neighborhood, or a more sensitive spouse, or better behaved children--then we would be happy.  But when we fantasize about these things that we don't have, we always filter out the sin and the brokenness.  And that will never be a reality on this side of heaven.

The author of Ecclesiastes says that eternity is in our hearts.   We can never be completely filled with anything in this mortal life.

"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."  
(C.S. Lewis)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

One Month

He's happiest when we are all together.  Somehow he knows that's how it's supposed to be.

Every morning, we drop off the kids at school and Gil at the training center.  As soon as Johnny and I come in through our front door, he buries his face in his arms, shouts, "I'm sad!" and wails crocodile tears.  For the next six hours, he asks, "We go in car?" or "Daddy is where?" about 17,253 times until it's time to go pick them all up again.

No one else exists besides his family.  When in public, he summarily ignores everyone he meets.  No eye contact.  No smiling.  No greeting.  But when he sees his big sister across the playground yard, he runs to her at top speed.  "GRACE!"  We'll work on politeness with strangers later.   For now, he needs to just establish dibs on his family.

Periodically throughout the day, he holds his arms up to me and says, "I want to cuddle."  He gives me kisses and says, "I love you, Mommy."  He loves to dance.  He loves to do puzzles, over and over and over.  He sings to himself while making puzzles.

For the last few nights, he has been told that he would get a Matchbox car if he sleeps in his own bed.  This is apparently the most exciting thing that has happened to him; his entire body does a happy dance when he gets to pick out his car.  (Although, I have to admit I'm doing my own happy dance that he is sleeping in his own bed.  Go ahead, kid, you can have a million dollars.)

Last week at the pool, Johnny started an amusing game with Lily and Josiah.  One of them would pretend to do something naughty and Johnny would march him or her out of the pool.  He would sit them down, put his hands on their shoulders and sternly demand, "Say, 'Yes, Daddy.'"

Um, I wonder where he got that from?

A friend of ours observed, while watching us hold down our flailing child, "It's kind of like you're going through the 1's, 2's, and 3's all at the same time."

Truer words were never spoken.  Johnny yells, "Me do it!" just like a two-year-old.  When told not to touch something, he looks directly at me with a curious expression on his face, and then.....touches it.  Just like an 18-month-old.  We're pretty much in time-out central around here.

My arm muscles are getting a workout.  Yesterday, after some minor incident, I held him in a straight-jacket pose for about 20 minutes while he kicked and screamed, until he finally relented.  Then I held him like a baby and we read a book.  It's a hard lesson:  Mommy loves you, but Mommy is the boss.

I have no personal space.  He needs to be with me or Gil every second of the day, and I think it's because he is afraid we will disappear.  After all, that's happened with other people he has loved.  Thanks to the Matchbox cars, he's in his own bed, but I still sleep in his room with him.  He often wakes multiple times a night, needing to know I am there.  I've had to establish boundaries:  You are not allowed to lay on Mommy when she is eating or going to the bathroom.  Sheesh.

I am so proud of him.  He delights us all.  He makes us all laugh.  Josiah says he sounds Italian:  "Help-a me!" "I'm-a going."  Sometimes he speaks English with Swahili grammar: "Daddy is where?"  Sometimes he speaks English with no grammar:  "I'm get it for water me."

I agree with Johnny; when we are all together, that's when I am happiest.  We are six.  God is good.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

I Am Loved By You. It's Who I Am.

Fear is losing ground to our hope in you.

I had looked forward to last week for a really long time.

Reach Global does their All-Africa conference only once every two years.  Except that I didn't get to go to the last one, because it was in Kenya and Lily didn't have a passport yet.  And the next one was supposed to happen last year, but got postponed because of Ebola.

So I hadn't been to an All-Africa conference in five years.  This time, it was held at a hotel only five minutes away from our house.  So our journey was pretty short, even though others came from all over Africa and many more came in from the States.

It's a filling experience, to be reunified with those from the National Office who care deeply for us and make us feel so supported.  It's wonderful to sing together in English, since I've only done that a few times this year.  It's encouraging to be part of an organization with so much wisdom and vision and humility.

I've tasted and seen the sweetest of loves
Where my heart becomes free and my shame is undone

But mostly, this week, I just felt small.

Maybe it was because it's intimidating to be in a room with so much wisdom and experience and languages and churches planted.

Maybe it's because I'm in the thick of the intensity of molding a three-year-old into our family.

Maybe it was just because I've been sick with stomach stuff and sinus stuff and pure exhaustion for the last three weeks.

Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes

So I just felt small.  And inadequate.  And wondering what on earth I am doing here.

But the speakers, and the worship leaders, and the prayer team, and my colleagues....over and over again, they reminded me that God is Big.

Unstoppable God, let your glory go on and on
Impossible things in your name they shall be done

So if I feel small, then maybe that's just a better opportunity for God to be Big.  He usually likes to work that way anyway.

You're a good, good Father
It's who you are
And I am loved by you
It's who I am

My identity is not in being a successful missionary, or a member of Reach Global, or as a teacher or even a wife and mother.  I am loved by Him.  It's who I am.

How Johnny spent the conference sessions, since he was totally unwilling to join child care.  

Hanging with the president of the Evangelical Free Church of America.  Because we're cool like that.

All lyrics are from songs we sang this week:  Unstoppable God, Holy Spirit, 10,000 Reasons, Good Good Father

Friday, September 4, 2015

That Scandal in Me

photo by Gil Medina

If I'm ever involved in a scandal, I hope you won't be shocked.  Sad, yes.  Maybe even horrified.  But please don't be surprised.

This has been a difficult couple of weeks in the Christian world, as we've seen some of our best, most respected leaders bite the dust under scandal.  It's been sad.  It's been horrifying.  But it shouldn't be shocking.

Sometimes I think we Christians have forgotten, and allowed the world to forget, that within each of us lies a despicable beast.  If we are children of God, then that sinful nature should be increasingly ruled by Him, but that doesn't mean the fight is over.  We've been given the weapons to fight it; we can beat it back and shout it into submission, and hopefully over time it will become more tame, but it will never be domesticated.

There was a story over 10 years ago about Las Vegas performers Siegfried and Roy, who were famous for their exotic animal shows.  One day, after 2000 performances with no incident, one of the tigers viciously attacked Roy, leaving him partially paralyzed.  Investigators were mystified.  They couldn't find any reason why the attack happened.  Maybe they just forgot that tigers will always be wild animals.  

We shine our shoes and our Bibles and put on happy smiles, but that beast is still there.  We can protect our children from everything evil and teach them to mind their manners and rattle off Scripture verses, but that beast still lies within them.  Sometimes, we get really good at painting it all up to look pretty, or maybe just throw a sheet over it, but it's still there.

I don't plan on being involved in a scandal, and this is not some thinly veiled attempt to get your imagination going.  I was born a rule-follower, and that's kept me out of a lot of trouble.  At this point in my life, I have nothing to hide.  You are welcome to have a look into my bank account and search engine history.

Just....don't look into my brain.  The beast is there, and he doesn't sleep.  His ugly head rears itself in my life with selfishness and laziness, a controlling nature and pride.  I shock myself with the thoughts that run through my head.  I push him back and pray hard and shout loudly at him, and he temporarily submits.  But the longer I live, the more I realize how powerfully vicious he really is.  How powerfully vicious I am.

Sometimes I worry about what people think of me, and then I remember that whatever awful things they may be thinking, in reality I am worse.  You might not believe what I am capable of.

Two things I've taken away from these days of reflection on the fallen among us.  One, that we should never underestimate the power of that beast.  We may think we've got our sinful nature under control, until one day the circumstances are just right, and it rises up and grabs us by the throat.  We must be on our guard.  We must never, ever think it couldn't happen to us.  

And Two, we've got to stop putting up this front to the world that once you're a Christian, the beast is gone.  Why must we pretend to each other, pretend to the world, that we've got it all together?  When we make everyone think that we're above the power of the beast, then why are we surprised when the world mocks us when we fall?

Let's remember who we were before Jesus saved us--broken, hopeless, beggars.  He has raised us up, but anything good that we do is from Him--certainly not from us.  Maybe if we were better at recognizing the power of sin in our lives, and the price that Christ paid for it, it would be much harder to fall.  Maybe then our reputation wouldn't be as those who think we are perfect, but as those who live by humility and grace.