Can I get a witness?

Dear reader,

As I sat down on Monday to write this post, I prayed and asked God for ideas.

Okay, I whined and said, “God, I have no ideas. I have crumbs of thoughts and I don’t feel well so I know I’m more prone to being whiny.” And then I wrote an email to a friend.

“Friend, . . . this is just an ‘I need a witness’ email because I don’t know anyone else who is dealing with an ongoing medical situation from hell and I know you have in the past.

This current round has been going on since early November. And just when I think I’ve turned a corner and maybe am moving towards not feeling icky and controlled by either having to be vigilant about food or spending so much time with treatment, another flair up happens and I feel discouraged.

Logically, I know that at some point I will feel better (my past history reminds me), but at the moment, I am a bit despondent at the whole process and how long this is taking and how yucky I feel.

All this to say, I know you get it and just knowing there is a fellow sojourner and one who gets it helps me to bear this. I remind myself, “You know, you have walked this path, and Amy you are not alone.” So, even though you don’t know it, you have been helping me on this path these last few months.
Much love, 
Amy

The thing is, to look at me, you would think I’m fine. And the truth is, I am fine and I am also not fine. Knowing that I know one other person who walked this path and could reach out to her, was a comfort to me today.

I thought, that maybe you too have an area of your life that others might not know is giving you fits. And that you too might be fine and also not fine at the same time. I chose the above image because you might feel like you’re all alone in a desert.

While whatever you are facing is unique, I’m also willing to bet that someone else would nod in a “I get you” kind of a way.

So, today if you need a witness, someone to say, “I see you and I get that part of you is not fine,” either leave a comment or send an email to someone who may not know that they have been traveling with you.

We’ll pray for you and bear witness to your current not-okayness.

With love to you too,
Amy

I Too Am a Foreigner

by Ivy Cheeseman

I’ve been contemplating these thoughts for years, but I’ve been hesitant to share them. Most importantly, I didn’t want to make any unfair comparisons. Unlike some of my foreign friends from other nations, I’ve never fled a house being burned by soldiers. They’ve endured so much trauma, and they can’t return. I, on the other hand, can go back “home” anytime I want.

Neither did I want to be misconstrued as being political. I’m not here to offer political commentary on complex issues such as immigration. As a Christ follower, I live in this place in order to serve others.

And lastly, I have a wonderful network of local friends who have helped me navigate life in Thailand. By highlighting my inner struggles, I didn’t want to discredit the kindness of my Thai neighbors.

But despite all those things, I still feel a connection to other global nomads who are wandering far away from the country of their birth. Some of us have “figured out” life in our host country; most of us are still working on the lifelong process. When I meet a stranger in Thailand who stares at me with a mixture of confusion and suspicion, these are the things I wish I could tell them.

1. In my country, I was once a competent adult.

I don’t know how many times (especially in my first year here) that I’ve stood in the grocery store attempting to read the tiny Thai script on the back of a product. I want desperately to explain to the person next to me that I’m really not stupid. I once understood chemistry and calculus. But right now I need help telling the difference between a bag of flour and powdered sugar. My breakfast of pancakes with maple-flavored syrup (which Thais think reeks of urine) depends on it.

2. My odd habits are shared by millions of unseen others.

I’ve tried to adopt Thai customs that do not conflict with my own religious or personal convictions. But it’s hard to kick the bizarre American within. My Thai friends may never understand why I have a little round machine on my kitchen ceiling whose sole purpose seems to be alerting the neighbors that I burned another batch of popcorn. Once, my husband went outside to explain the beeping sound to a concerned neighbor. He used the wrong tone/verb when explaining the pot of burnt beans, and essentially explained that the reason smoke was billowing out of the kitchen was that he had just lost his virginity. Which leads me to the next point.

3. I’m trying harder than you think to learn your language and culture.

But “picking up” a language as an adult is not as intuitive as I once thought. When I make mistakes and sound like a child, please know I’m trying my best. If you speak clearly and simply, I can probably figure it out. When I revert to hanging out with my English-speaking friends, it’s not because I don’t love your culture. It’s just nice to occasionally have a conversation where I understand 100% of the words. Or to have a listener understand what I mean when I talk about a “Thanksgiving dinner” or “living on a farm” or . . . “a pot of burnt beans.”

4. Not all foreigners are alike.

Southeast Asia attracts many backpackers and long-term residents. Some are lovely. Others get drunk and do extremely offensive and illegal things like taking selfies on top of ancient, sacred structures. I’m terribly sorry for the way foreigners have mistreated this culture and its people. I know I will make many of my own mistakes, but please give me a chance to learn through relationship. I am extremely grateful for my many Thai friends and neighbors who have taken that risk.

Perhaps some of the residents where you live can relate to these sentiments. Foreigners around the globe, regardless of why they live in a land not their own, are real people. When you meet a struggling immigrant face-to-face in Walmart, I see only one Biblical way to respond—with love. If you’re not sure what that looks like, a smile is a good place to start.

So the next time you see a foreigner grappling with your language or culture, think of me, and have compassion for them. With smelly foods, weird customs, and a thick accent to boot, I, too, am a foreigner.

 

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. . . . I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.

Matthew 25:35-36, 40

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Ivy and her family have served with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Southeast Asia for the last 10 years. She enjoys hiking, writing, and seeing God’s grace and power shine through the local church.

Can You Talk the Talk? Swimming in the Alphabet Soup of CCW-ese

How are your language skills as a cross-cultural worker? No, I’m not talking about the language(s) you’ve learned for living and working in your new home. I’m referring to your fluency in CCW-ese, or the jargon that cross-cultural workers often find themselves swimming in. Immersion is the best way to learn, right?

I’ve put together a collection of vocabulary below to help you see just how fluent you are. Does it all make sense to you?

The next time you’re on home service and someone asks you to say something in your new language, call this up and start reading. (By the way, some of this may not apply to you, as it’s slanted toward the experience of someone with a US passport. In other words, your dialect may vary.)

Hello, I’m a CCW living overseas. I’m part of a larger group of expats that includes such people as EAWs working with NGOs to help IDPs in low GDP countries and FSOs serving with the DoS. My journey abroad started with PFO, where the MBTI showed me I’m an ENTP, and my spouse and I, along with several others, were briefed on CPM, DMM, M2M/M2DMM, T4T, BAM, and DBS strategies and were shown how to write an MOU. Then it wasn’t long before all of us were following directions from the TSA and walking through the AIT scanner at places like ORD, LAX, and ATL, headed for other places such as BKK, NBO, and PTY and parts beyond. It was hard for my MKs to leave our POMs behind, but they were looking forward to their new lives as TCKs, growing up with other GNs and CCKs, on their way to becoming ATCKs.

One of our first steps upon arriving at our new home—which is among a UUPG in the Two-Thirds World, just outside the 10/40 window—was language learning. We started out using LAMP and GPA with some TPR mixed in, as well. Someday, I think I might try my hand (so to speak) at ISL.

We’ve also had to make cultural adjustments, for instance switching from letter-sized paper to A4, switching from the NFL to FIFA, and learning how to switch out RO filters for our water. And when we take trips to other locales, we’re sure to bring along a voltage converter and adapters to knock the power down from 220/240 to 110/120 and to use C, D, E/F, G, H, I, J, L, M, and N plugins when necessary.

Then, before long, we were hosting STMs and engaging with the locals by using our TEFL certifications to teach ESOL. A few of our students are hoping to take the TOEFL or IELTS and get I-20s and F-1 visas.

At some point, we expect to fly back for good, filling out a CBP Form 6059B for the last time, again hoping that nothing in our bags will bother DHS’s CBP agents. That will mean no more yearly IRS Form 2555 to claim the FEIE, no more scheduled chats with fellow workers around the globe using P2Pe apps (every Saturday at 13:30 GMT), and no more jumping on the HSR for a quick getaway.

It’ll be another big change—RCS can be hard. But we’ll be prepared, because we’ll have built a RAFT, which should keep us afloat through the transition.

And, of course, we’ll be sure to keep connected through ALO.

[photo: “Alphabets,” by Tomohiro Tokunaga, used under a Creative Commons license]

Why Do We Assume Western Theology is Superior?

by Tamie Davis

When asked about the value of African theology for Western Christians, the late Ghanaian theologian Kwame Bediako said, “Well, Christianity is thriving where we are, and it’s waning where you are, so maybe there is something that could be helpful to you all.”1 It’s a gracious invitation with a little sting in the tail, reminding us that for all the seminaries and books and libraries in the West, Western churches are still heavily in decline. Bediako’s point was not that book learning or academic rigor are not valuable – on the contrary, he was a significant contributor to both, teaching at universities for a good part of his career. But the perceived theological riches of the West are not mirrored by growth in the church, which might get one asking how shiny they really are.

Theology fuels the church, and it fuels mission. In 1792 when William Carey wrote his famous essay about the use of means, he was responding to a theology in which God’s sovereignty was so great, a Christian’s obligation to share the gospel was effectively removed. Carey deconstructed this theology, arguing that evangelism has always been part of the church’s witness and that using means – like ships to sail to India and money to fund missionaries – was not at odds with God’s sovereignty but rather an outworking of the Great Commission. He was part of the modern Protestant missionary movement, a tradition in which many of us find ourselves today. Theology matters, and it can contribute either to the decline of the church or to its growth.

My aim here is not to critique Western theology or to start laying blame for the decline of the Western church; it’s to ask if we have the humility to listen to theology from the Global South. After all, as we note the growth of the church in Africa, it would make sense to suppose that theology has played a role in it.

I often hear concern from my fellow missionaries about the kind of theology which has fueled this growth. They say things like, “The church in Africa is a mile-wide and an inch-deep.” The assumption is that the kind of growth we are seeing in Africa is like the seeds sown on the rocky soil without strong roots, or the ones that look good to start with but then get choked by the weeds of the world. I hear that Africans, with all their talk of prosperity, do not have a well-developed theology of suffering or perseverance.

And yet, as Marilyn Gardner reminded us recently, the church in the Global South is well-practiced at suffering, whether it be a result of religious persecution or socio-economic circumstance. Knowing what it is to live without safety and security, Africans may have fewer faulty theological assumptions that need to be unpacked than those of us whose lives are more comfortable and less precarious. As my Tanzanian friends assure me that ‘God is able, just pray and have faith,’ I ask them, ‘But what if it doesn’t work out? Is that a sign that my faith is poor or that God is not able?’ And they laugh. They laugh! Because my question seems ludicrous. They say to me, “Tamie, you know God is still God, right?” How’s that for a theological statement!

And theology is carried out in bodies and practice as well. When someone dies in Tanzania, very little attention is given to blame, but for three days or more everyone gathers and just sits together out of sympathy. And these sympathy visits continue well after that period. I was once visiting an older mentor whose husband had just died, when someone else turned up. Her husband had been a church leader, and the visitor was a pastor who had worked under him. This pastor had driven for two days to sit with her in her grief. He listened, and they cried and prayed. It was a couple of hours. Then he ate a meal and drove the two days back the other way. I can only imagine his weariness, but Sunday was coming and he needed to be back with his congregation. Tanzanians may not have a theological answer to ‘why God?’ – it may not be the question they’re asking – but I think they’ve understood a great deal of the compassion and self-giving of God. We must grapple with the fact that these practices are profoundly theological.

The Holy Spirit is clearly at work in Africa, growing Jesus’ church. Why would we think that as he was doing that, he was focused only on numbers or only on endurance? We can recognize the Holy Spirit’s work in growing his church numerically in Africa; why are we so reluctant to think he might be doing it theologically as well? It doesn’t have to look the same as ours to be true, because it’s responding to a different context.

In championing African theology, Bediako did not think that African theology ought to be transplanted into the West. He spoke of African theology and Western theology as “overlapping circles, sharing in their overlaps certain common elements and features, which . . . give them a ‘family’ air.”2 That makes sense: Western and African Christians share a brother and a Father yet contend for their faith and are grown in very different places. Like a family, there are times when we need each other. The song ‘Waymaker’ became a bit of an anthem for 2020, bringing hope in a global pandemic and becoming a prayer for breakthrough as the US grappled with racial violence. It’s an African song, penned and sung by Nigerian worship superstar Sinach. In 2020, it was African theology that people found they needed.

To come back to the digging analogy—for all our depth, it’s possible those of us who’ve dug a mile deep have somehow found water rising around us. If our African sisters and brothers are standing at the top, offering to hoist us out to see the progress they’ve made on their hole and learn from that, wouldn’t that seem like a good idea?

I am not advocating for an uncritical acceptance of African theologies, or any other theology from the Global South. To be sure, some are faulty, just as there are many false teachers in the West. But those of us who ‘live overseas’ are rarely in danger of uncritical acceptance; many of us are here to give, contribute, teach and train. Indeed, we are used to hearing about poverty and famine in Africa, and it’s easy to assume that this is true theologically as well, that somehow all the ‘good theology’ got concentrated in the West like the world’s capital. We may even be told this by local people who are beholden to our greater monetary wealth or who are used to thinking of that which comes from the West as better. But Jesus spoke time and again of how wealth warps theology, and that ought to give those of us from wealthy countries pause about the quality of our own theology.

The kingdom of God is growing in Africa; are we sufficiently poor in spirit to be inheritors of it, together with our African sisters and brothers?

 

References

  1. Quote appears in various places attributed to Kwame Bediako, though the original source is unclear. It can be accessed here.

  2. Bediako, Kwame, “African Theology as a Challenge for Western Theology.” In Christian Identity in Cross-Cultural Perspective, edited by Martin E. Brinkman and Dirk van Keulen, 8:52–67. Studies in Reformed Theology. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tamie Davis lives in Tanzania with her family and is doing a PhD looking at the theology of prosperity of a group of Tanzanian women.

I Used to Laugh at Ghosts

by Katherine Seat

“Aren’t you scared while your husband is away?”

“I’ll lock the door at night, and the windows have bars on them.”

“Locked doors can’t keep out ghosts.”

I don’t think I actually rolled my eyes or laughed out loud, but that was my attitude. In my early years in Cambodia, we lived next to a house full of Christian women training for ministry. When my husband was away, they worried about me. They didn’t seem to believe that I was genuinely unafraid, and I could not understand why they were afraid.

I didn’t know if I believed in ghosts or not. But what I did know was that because of Jesus, I had nothing to fear. I told them that the God of the Bible is stronger than any possible evil spirits, ghosts, or demons. He is the creator of all things, and Jesus has already conquered death. I felt satisfied that I’d given them the right reasons for why they didn’t need to fear.

I’m not the only Australian who gives off vibes of disbelief when Cambodians talk about the spirit world. My Cambodian husband Soeun also faced this attitude. When he was in Australia, he tried to explain some of his childhood to an Australian seminary student. Soeun’s friend was asking him about life in Cambodia. They were talking about all sorts of everyday things like rice, fish, and evil spirits. The conversation was progressing normally until he got to the evil spirits. It was surprising for Soeun when his friend’s tone of voice became incredulous.

“So people see a head floating around?”

His friend thought seeing spirits sounded like a crazy idea.

 

The Chasm
A huge chasm lies between Cambodian and Australian culture. The unseen world is part of life for Cambodians. In Australia, ghosts are more at home in a movie or book. As an Aussie married to a Cambodian, I find myself staring across this huge chasm. Even though I’ve lived in Asia for over ten years, I’m realising I haven’t been taking enough notice of this difference.

It’s unbelievable that people actually believe in evil spirits—that was Soeun’s friend’s response. This view might be typical of Westerners. But zooming out, we see that Westerners are actually the odd ones. Many, maybe most, cultures around the globe have an awareness of the spirit world. And if I understand correctly, throughout history most people also considered the unseen as a regular part of their life, including in Biblical times.

Our Western culture only stopped doing so recently, around 300 years ago during the Enlightenment. Since then we have used science to explain everything. Using science is all I’ve ever known, so I felt surprised to realise I’m in the minority from a worldwide and historical point of view.

 

My Current Life in the Chasm
My family and I only moved to a village a few years ago. We are near an area of historical and spiritual significance, and visible reminders of history are everywhere. We are daily surrounded by the local animism that’s mixed with Hinduism and Buddhism.

My husband keeps noticing that people here live under fear more than anywhere else he has lived in Cambodia. For example, they might not go to a peer’s funeral. Some avoid using their own name in phone calls near temples at night, and we know of one family who moved house within 24 hours in response to a dream.

One day two pythons slithered into our yard. I was surprised that the neighbours didn’t want to kill and eat them. Instead they advised us against capturing the snakes as it would anger the Neak Da (territorial spirits). Pythons are believed to be Neak Da’s pets. To keep ourselves safe, we should have honoured the snakes by spraying perfume on them and letting them go free.

Our neighbours were surprised to see that Soeun isn’t afraid of Neak Da. They know we are Christians, but they did not know that would have any bearing on how we interact with the unseen world. Perhaps their knowledge of Christianity came from foreigners who wouldn’t appear to believe in Neak Da anyway.

As far as we know, there were no other Christians in our immediate area before we moved here. So we were very excited when a few neighbours decided to believe in Jesus. In the days and weeks that followed, some strange things happened. People had dreams. Evil spirits were seen flying around our house. People heard strange noises at night. It looked like the new believers had disturbed the spirit world. It was as though the spirits weren’t happy. They had had the place to themselves, and now some people had ruined it by following Jesus.

We, along with our prayer supporters in Australia, had been praying for our neighbours. I couldn’t wait to write a newsletter and tell them the good news! But when I went to write the newsletter, another strange thing happened. I found myself staring across that chasm again. Talking about flying heads had seemed so matter-of-fact when I was talking to my husband. But when I imagined Australians reading about it, it seemed crazy. I toned the news right down so they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable seeing the chasm.

 

Living Under Fear
Something else has happened since we moved to the village: my mental health has become worse. Not only do the locals here live under more fear than in other places, I do too. It could be a coincidence, of course, and some might say it’s related to the spirit world. I do know that from a scientific understanding, my brain is tricking me into feeling fear when the rational part of my brain knows there is nothing to fear.

A counsellor explained to me that those fears are actually my brain reliving feelings that I’ve had in the past. The “smoke detector” part of my brain is supposed to alert me when there is danger. But mine is sending danger signals even when I am safe. It’s a post-trauma response from events that transpired a decade ago. Somehow it has come to the forefront of our lives since we moved here four years ago.

Psychology has helped me learn about how my brain works, and this awareness has been so helpful. And hearing and reading God’s word is a constant part of my life. But for me in this season, those things have only reached the rational part of my brain. I know the correct answers, but I still feel stranded in yesterday, always in danger.

The right answers haven’t brought me relief from the recurring dread. The only thing that makes me feel safe is God’s people —praying friends and pastors who seem to represent the presence of God.

It makes me think back to the right reasons I gave my concerned neighbours. Did it really help them as I had thought it would?

 

Learning to Listen to the People We Serve
When my family moved into a fearful neighbourhood, I began to experience my own fear. It has debilitated me in some ways, and it definitely makes life harder. But it also helps me to understand the people around me.

I now have some experience of what it is like to live with fear. When I see the people around me changing their behaviour according to the unseen, my thoughts and feelings are totally different from when I saw it in my earlier years. The intensity of their emotions can’t simply be dismissed or argued away.

Locals live with the fear of the spirit world. If I want to have deep connections with them, I need to be aware of what it is like for them to live with evils spirits as a real part of their everyday life. When we minister to people in situations like these, we must have an awareness of their needs and worldview.

For many of us from the West, our church traditions are heavy on studying the Bible with a focus on rational thinking. Sometimes a truth might be applied to correct our thinking, when in fact it’s not a “thinking” issue. While correct thinking is vital, we sometimes miss the role that emotions play in our life with God.

All of this makes me wonder if an emphasis on cognition hinders our ministry to those from the Global South? My husband’s Australian friend just totally dismissed the whole idea as being crazy. If he had wanted to show respect and build rapport with Soeun, he would have needed to take the ideas seriously.

I made the same mistake. I thought I was taking it seriously. I didn’t completely dismiss my neighbours’ fear of ghosts; I explained why we don’t need to fear them. But just because I know different worldviews exist doesn’t mean my “right” answer will fix people’s problems. Curiosity and compassion are a better first response. We should listen before we speak. This is easier said than done, of course. Dismissing an idea because it sounds crazy, or thinking that you have the answer to something you barely understand will be counterproductive to sharing God’s good news.

My own struggle with fear has led me to re-evaluate my response to the neighbour women who were so concerned about my safety. I now regret that I gave them the right answer of why they shouldn’t fear, without stopping to realise that they were afraid. Now I know that even if I have the right answer to counter my own fear, it’s possible to still feel afraid. I know what it’s like to have people try to help me without acknowledging my fear. When that happens, their help feels more like harm.

My prayer is that the next time I’m faced with concerned neighbours, I will seek to connect with them emotionally rather than thinking I can quickly correct their thinking with an out of context Bible verse.

I pray I will stop to listen and seek to understand the other person’s perspective first.

I pray I remember that God was here long before me.

I will pause and ask, “What is God already doing in this person’s life, and can I join in?” rather than “How can I fix this?”

I pray these things for the sake of his Holy Name. Amen.

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Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.

I’m Not the Same Person Anymore

by Krista Horn

I’ve known for a long time that living overseas has changed me. Of course it has.  But the extent to which it has shaped me – how I think about the world, how I interpret Scripture, how I relate to others – is most obvious when I return to my passport country.

We returned to America six months ago for a Home Assignment, and I have routinely discovered ways in which living overseas has changed me. There are relatively small, insignificant changes like the fact that I now prefer to drink water from the tap instead of a filter simply because the ability to drink clean water straight from the tap feels like a magical experience. But there are also big, significant changes like how we choose to spend our money and how we interpret media.

My expression of my faith has also been impacted by living overseas. For example, while I appreciate the ease with which I can worship in America – the familiar songs, a recognizable worship style, blending into a crowd – I’ve found myself longing for the chance to work at worshipping again. It takes mental energy to sing in a foreign language and translate words in my head, and it requires extra physical stamina to stand for such a long time in a Kenyan worship service. I have to work at worshipping with my Kenyan brothers and sisters, and a unique blessing comes with that. Sometimes my worship experience in America feels incomplete without expending extra energy to participate in it.

My prayer life has been impacted too. As someone who lives outside my passport country, I’ve gained an increased awareness of the rest of the world, and I pray for people and places that weren’t on my radar before I moved overseas. I also know how encouraging it is to be someone living in a foreign country who is the recipient of prayers of people on the other side of the globe. Those prayers are meaningful and helpful, and I’ve chosen to be a person who also prays for others around the world.

I can pray for others around the world because I now think of others around the world much more often than I used to. I can’t have a conversation in America about Covid or church or the school system without also thinking of how these topics are affecting people in other places. When people discuss the healthcare system, I can’t help but think of the Kenyan healthcare system we work with, as well as those in surrounding countries where our medical residents hail from (and plan to return to when they graduate).

When someone mentions travel, I not only think about travel within the United States, but also about travel in Europe and the Middle East, which directly impacts what route we can take back to Africa. When climate change and the environment are brought up, I recall the plague of locusts in our region and the droughts that have persisted in our host country. I can’t help but think of people outside the American context. My life overseas has expanded my previous worldview and shrunk my sense of self, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.

I’ve also been humbled to realize that any amount of time spent overseas has the power to change a person, not just living overseas full-time. Recently I met someone who served overseas for six months and was forever changed by it. I am nearing six years of living overseas, and I have been forever changed by it. And I know people who spent six days overseas and were forever changed by it. I was reminded of this when a woman at church approached us and said she wanted to financially support our ministry because she had been on some short-term missions trips that changed her. She has been involved with missions ever since, including supporting long-term folks like us.

No matter how long you’ve spent overseas, it has the power to change you. It can make you rethink your preconceived notions. It can make you practice your faith in new ways. It can make you care about people and places you knew little about before. It can expand your worldview and shrink your sense of self.

And quite frankly, those sound like good changes to me.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Krista Horn married the man who once took her on a date to go tree climbing, which just about sealed the deal then and there. After her husband slogged through seven years of medical school and residency (with Krista doing quite a bit of slogging herself between work, grad school, and becoming a mom), they left for the mission field with three boys 3 and under. They have lived and worked at a mission hospital in Kenya since 2016. While her husband is busy on the wards, Krista stays busy with all the details of motherhood on the mission field. When she’s not homeschooling or cooking from scratch or helping her boys search for chameleons, she loves to curl up with a book and eat chocolate from her secret stash. Krista blogs at www.storiesinmission.blogspot.com.

When the Straight & Narrow Isn’t

My parents had their life all mapped out, and then their baby was born with chromosomal abnormalities and died at home, surrounded by tubes and oxygen tanks, only a month old.

As a teenager, I had my life pretty well planned out (get my pilot’s license, be Nate Saint). But then my mom got cancer and died. And the path of God darkened.

The “plan of God for my life,” the path I was following with full confidence and youthful arrogance, disappeared. Because sometimes the straight and narrow isn’t.

God doesn’t always lead in straight lines.

He is the God of fractals, making beauty and order out of lines that look like a drunk man was drawing during an earthquake. Left-handed.

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God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform.

He plants his footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

The paths of God meander. But somewhere along the way we got this idea that we should be able to sit down, especially in January, and map out THE SPECIFIC WILL OF GOD FOR OUR LIFE AND MINISTRY FROM NOW UNTIL FOREVERMORE. I’m sorry, but my life’s just not working out like that. But if yours is, then hey, more power to you.

Don’t mind me, I’ll just be hanging out back here with all the folks who are a wee bit confused by God sometimes.

Deep in unfathomable mines

 Of never-failing skill,

 He treasures up his bright designs

 And works his sovereign will.

I’m a fan of vision and purpose and alignment. I’ve read tons of books on leadership and vision. Really. My personal “Vision & Mission” statement is taped to the tile on my office wall, and I read it several times a week. However, I’m beginning to wonder if these ideas are more suited for a corporation than my life.

Perhaps God has a higher purpose than us coming up with a goal and then perfectly implementing it. It really seems to me that few people, even the heroes of the faith, saw the whole plan of God for their lives, and then developed perfect action steps that they then enacted flawlessly. Mission accomplished.

Perhaps the Kingdom of God advances less militaristically and more organically. Less checkbox-like, and more with an ongoing awareness that God’s plans seldom travel in a straight line (at least from our perspective).

What about Moses? He had the great call and purpose of freeing the people of Israel. However, a good chunk of his life looked very much NOT aligned to that goal. How would we look at a person in Moses’ position, whittling away time in a faraway land while the people of Israel languished in slavery? Was that out of alignment? Do we just blame it on the fact that Moses didn’t follow God’s plan, so he got banished for DECADES? I sure am glad I obey God perfectly. All the time.

Or David, anointed by God, but residing in pastures. Where was the alignment? Where were the action steps? He didn’t even kill Saul when he had the chance! That’s like minus one action step to ruling the Kingdom.

And then there’s Jesus, who knew at age 12 specifically what the Father had called him to do. However, up until the age of 30, his day-to-day jobs and activities did not LOOK aligned to the call or mission of God. What a failure.

His purposes will ripen fast,

 Unfolding every hour.

The bud may have a bitter taste,

 But sweet will be the flower.

Who’s Flying This Plane?
David says in Psalm 23:3, “He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.” I’m no farm kid, but I’m pretty sure the farmer gets to decide the “right paths.” Which is a bummer if you’ve already got the straight and narrow completely sorted.

For each transition in our life, Elizabeth and I have tried to listen to God, we’ve tried to discern his path, and we’ve been mostly sure (about 83%) we were heading in the right direction. However, in each case, we did NOT have any idea what the step AFTER that step would be. But we pretty much knew what we needed to do to obey today.

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Have you ever noticed that pilots are dumb? I mean, really, who gets from Chicago to Korea by flying north?! It’s like they’ve never looked at a map. Oh, that’s right, they didn’t look at a map, they added a dimension and looked at the GLOBE. The flight paths of giant airliners look really dumb if you’re stuck in two dimensions. But add that third dimension and everyone starts shouting, “O Captain, My Captain!”

I imagine God’s kind of like that too. Sometimes, I want to get to Asia and God says, “Um, you know, that’s great, let’s fly over Santa Claus.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s stupid, I need to go STRAIGHT west and then a bit south.” And God says, “You have no idea what you’re talking about. Would you like kimchi or chicken fingers?”

God deals in dimensions we know nothing about. And I believe he will sometimes lead us along paths that look wrong, that look out of alignment, that — get this — require faith.

If God leads you “off target” or out of alignment, will you follow Him?

There are more parameters, more dimensions, more curvatures of the planet, than we will ever know. If God’s plans really are more wonderful than we could imagine, why do we strive so hard to imagine and define them? Can we rest in a loving Father? Can we continue to move forward in obedience, even if we don’t know where that obedience will lead?

 

Bonhoeffer (Because, Why Not?)
The dude had guts. And I think an uncanny ability to see from a height that helped him understand things. So, after his life deviated from his own plans in a BIG WAY (think Nazis and prisons) he was able to write:

“I’m firmly convinced – however strange it may seem—that my life has followed a straight and unbroken course, at any rate in its outward conduct. It has been an uninterrupted enrichment of experience, for which I can only be thankful. If I were to end my life here in these conditions, that would have a meaning that I think I could understand; on the other hand, everything might be a thorough preparation for a new start and a new task when peace comes.”

In other words, he knew his life looked out of whack. It looked grossly misaligned and greatly off kilter. But, he pulled out that pesky thing called faith, got comfortable with some intellectual dissonance and the tension of unknowing, and believed that God had it under control. No matter what.

How could he say these things? Because He knew his God.

Blind unbelief is sure to err

And scan his work in vain.

God is his own interpreter,

And he will make it plain.

The longer I serve abroad, the less I desire to do great things for God and the more I desire to just be with Him. I feel less ambition and more Peace. Less like I’m racing the buzzer, and more like I’m being pursued by a Lover.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll work less, caught up in some heavenly romance. It means that I’ll work closer. Closer to the One my soul desires. Closer to the One the world needs. Closer to the heart of God.

And frankly, I don’t care how straight or how twisted the path is, if it leads farther up and farther in, I’m so there.

 


photo credits: flightaware and unsplash
Originally published at A Life Overseas on January 1, 2015

Digging Through the Wall

by Rahma

Old Testament prophets were often called to do ridiculous things. Cook food using human waste as fuel. Shave their heads and let the wind blow a third of the hair away. Marry a prostitute so one’s marriage could be a living metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel. Eat a scroll. The list goes on and on. But there is one story I had never noticed until recently. Let’s add to the list of strange prophetic behavior: Ezekiel had to dig through a wall.

The Lord speaks to Ezekiel, telling him that he is living in the midst of a rebellious nation (Judah) with people who have “eyes to see but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear” (Ezekiel 12:2 NRSV). Ezekiel is told to leave the city like an exile, leaving in the evening, carrying a bundle of possessions on his shoulders. But he doesn’t get to go out through the city gates. It is not as simple as finding the exit door and walking out.

The Lord speaks: “Dig through the wall in their sight, and carry the baggage through it” (Ezekiel 12:5).

Wait. What?! Why?

But like a good prophet, Ezekiel obeys the Lord.

Walls are powerful dividers. When I was in high school, my family was living in the Philippines, and President George W. Bush was coming to pay a visit to Manila. Weeks before the visit, officials were busy preparing: they were putting up walls. Corrugated metal walls went up to hide the poverty on the streets of Manila. Walls to hang pretty banners on, to present a fashionable and clean city. Behind the walls, life in slums became harder than normal, as access in-and-out of some communities became more difficult. All to create a façade for a visiting president.

When I think of walls, I remember my visit to Israel-Palestine during college. From Jerusalem, the wall looks like a normal-size wall, just high enough to not see over. There are decorative bushes and flowers planted to make it look like a pretty divider. After going through the security checkpoint and entering the West Bank, however, I was astonished to see that on the Palestinian side the ground was much lower—revealing a wall at some places 26 feet (eight meters) tall! This side of the wall has no decorative flowers or fancy bushes; instead it is adorned with artistic cries for freedom. Paintings of doors or windows revealing beauty, men throwing flowers instead of grenades, and peace doves wearing protective jackets as they are about to be shot down are some of the examples (you can view these and other powerful images with a simple google search).

When I think of walls, I picture the borders around the slum communities I have lived in. Concrete slabs mark the borders of the property. When eviction and demolition inevitably come, those on one side of the wall are safe, while the other side gets flattened. One side has legal documentation, one side does not. One side is safe, one side ceases to exist.

Walls are dividers. Whether they are the walls holding a roof on our house or the protective walls around our gated communities, walls by definition divide. Walls create “insiders” and “outsiders.” If we are comfortable with our walls, we must remember that there is always another side. Who are the people on the other side of our walls? Do we know their names? Do our walls serve a good purpose, or are they keeping us from encountering Christ? For the homeless person squatting on a street corner or the beggars who are no longer allowed to enter our gated communities because of Covid fears, what do these walls mean?

Ezekiel was told to dig through a wall. His wall was not concrete; it was probably red brick. It still must have been an uncomfortable process, perhaps involving hitting it with a hammer. There must have been dirt flying, dust in his eyes, and red earth under his fingernails by the time he was done. When he finally had a hole big enough to squeeze through, he walked out of the city—probably sweating and out-of-breath. This was just another weird thing Ezekiel the prophet had to do, likely gaining him more sideways glances and judgmental smirks. No one wants to listen to a prophet say that their city is going to be attacked and destroyed and that their king will escape through a hole in the wall.

But somehow, I feel as though Ezekiel has something for the Church of today to think about. What are our walls? Our literal walls— whether they are made of brick, cement, or plywood— do they keep people out? Are our physical church buildings such that those who do not know Jesus would never set foot in them? And more than that, what are our invisible walls? Mental barriers between “in” and “out”? Between “insiders” and “outsiders”? What barriers stand in the way of us engaging with others—with us being loving witnesses to Christ’s Kingdom? It could be religious walls that divide us, like the age-old misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians. Or it could be economic walls, creating a divide between the rich and the poor.

Are we willing to be prophetic? To follow in Ezekiel’s footsteps? To smash holes in the walls and dig through with our hands if needed? Can we hear the Lord’s voice to His Church, calling us to have ears to hear and eyes to see what is beyond our walls? Are we in a rebellious house, like Judah? And if so, are we willing to speak out—to be different than our friends and family if needed?

Are we willing to take the risk of obedience, to meet Jesus outside our walls?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rahma (not her real name) and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.