Can Prayer Really Move Mountains?

Do you answer ‘yes’ to the above question? Or, if you are honest, do you say ‘no’?

We know what God says–to call out to Him always. He says to come before Him alone and with others. He promises again and again to hear and do amazing things in our lives and the world.

Yet, we often miss it. How do we put away the guilt of not praying or believing like we’re ‘supposed’ to? How do we get passed our feelings that when we pray it seems like nothing happens? How do we begin afresh with wonder and faith? How do we take God at His word, at His promise, to hear and answer our prayers and yes, move mountains?

Here are some ways to begin on the journey:

  • Be inspired. Know the stories.

In Hungary, a country where I’ve been blessed to minister, there comes a prayer-inspiring story.

It was shortly after the Iron Curtain came down, when the doors were wide open and the spiritual vacuum vast.

The Cru staff in Hungary were having many, many in-depth, genuine, spiritual conversations. However, they began to be grieved as they were seeing very few people come to Christ. This led the leadership to call for a month of prayer in March of 1991. They pulled out of ministry, three days a week, at one of the most crucial ministry times of the year, to pray.

They saw several benefits after this including a 200% increase in those coming to Christ. They also experienced an awakening in prayer which would become a communal discipline.

In December of 1993 they met for another month of prayer. They prayed all day, confessing sins, their own and the country’s, and pleading with God for breakthrough in their ministry.

The following month, key leaders from the Cru ministry were introduced to a Hungarian minister of health charged with AIDS prevention for all of Hungary. Miracle after miracle happened until, in 1995, a Christian-based AIDS and drug prevention curriculum was launched in the secondary schools of Hungary through a partnership between Cru staff and the Hungarian government.

Since then, in Hungary alone, hundreds of thousands of young people have been exposed to the Gospel and given many moral directives for their lives. Now it is in 75 countries, in some it is called ‘Crossroads’, and only Heaven will show the impact.

All because God heard the prayers of those burdened for their country and host country, as they radically committed to come to Him. To read the whole story from Hungary, follow this link and read pp. 101-182

Have you heard these stories?

When one man, Moses, interceded for the entire Israelite people, and they were not destroyed?

How about Frank Laubauch whose practiced attentiveness to God led him on a journey which included a world-wide literacy campaign?

There are many more stories from a book called ‘Fireseeds’.

  • Be willing to sacrifice.

Every great move of God through prayer has come with sacrifice. Yet, what I have found in ministry and missions, is that, sadly, too often, we are not willing to sacrifice. Sometimes, like in Hungary, God is calling His people to give their work, essentially their ministry identity, to Him, so they can pray.

But the fury of questions holds us back. ‘What about all this ‘work’ I raised support and gave up so much to do?’ ‘Isn’t praying lazy, when I could be ministering here or there?’ ‘Will God even hear? I feel like I have been praying and things seem even worse.’ And there’s a host of other things.

We are held back, too, by the forces of evil. So often, these don’t show themselves as clearly what they are. They are masked in things like busyness, success, desire for self-worth in what we do. Prayer forces us to deal with everything that keeps us from God. It challenges our core belief of who is really in control. So, here, it is the sacrifice, often of our self-reliance, which is needed for us to draw close to God.

Whether rising early, traveling far, staying awake through the watches of the night, being willing to openly confess sin, letting go of the strategies and plans of people, or in many other ways, we are called to sacrifice. And, as with all things, God’s plan is to give us ‘immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’ as we come to Him.

  • Draw your line in the sand.

In my early to mid-twenties, when I thought I could save the world, I remember making a type of vow. It went like this, ‘Lord, if you took away all of my other gifts and abilities and just let me pray, I would do it with all of my heart and be thankful.’

It was strangely prophetic. In my journey of the past three and a half years, I have seen my identity, and basic sense of competency taken away. Yet, through it all, my prayer life has only gotten stronger. So that many times, whether morning, noon, or in the watches of the night, all I find myself doing is praying.

I don’t share to say ‘hey, look at me…praying!’ But, I do humbly share, the grief and burden of my heart for this broken world is pressing upon me as never before. In many ways, it is because I have come close to death and know the time is short and eternity so close for all of us.

I raise the banner high and yes, draw that line in the sand. Because I believe God can give any one of us the faith to move mountains, to see a whole, wide world come to know Him, simply because we pray and believe.

  • Don’t lose heart.

 If I could look you in the eyes, I would plead with you to ‘not lose heart.’ If God has burdened you to pray, then pray. Even if no one will pray with you, still…pray. It can be lonely. But, truly, there is nothing more beautiful than prayer.

I remember sixteen years ago, after my mom had just died, I was living with my father. His heart was hurting so terribly, but he rose daily to pray. He prayed in the midst of great pain, as he had done each morning for as long as I could remember. Because of this, the constancy of his prayer life has never wavered.

Today, he prays daily for revival. He intercedes for this lost world that God would rend the Heavens and come down. He prays with all the faith of years of believing in God’s goodness. I believe God WILL hear his prayers and what a day that will be!

It’s true. Life hits us hard. It’s tough to keep breathing, sometimes impossible to stand. But we can always fall to our knees. We can always lay prostrate. We can always cry out to God. These are often the most moving supplications to God’s ears. He’s the Abba Father and He longs for our prayers.

It’s easy to let your heart be hardened. It’s easy to get jaded. It’s easy to have unbelief creep in until it’s a molded cast over your spirit. It’s a broken world and depending on where you read this from, so very, very broken.

But still, I say, ‘don’t lose heart.’ It’s your heartbeat on the line and because of that, it’s Heaven’s and Earth’s heartbeat yearning to be sound and whole forever. What if we all come to see that it’s do or die, life or death, faith or unbelief, God’s Spirit at work or silenced? Mountains would be moved, nations healed and the Kingdom of God ushered in.

Do you have a mustard seed of faith, a child-like trust, a spark which can light up this whole wide world? Yes, I believe you, you and you do. Yes, I believe today, right now, is the time to start praying like you mean it, like God and all His promises are real. Together we can lift the weary on eagle’s wings and see the nations come to Him. Together we can turn the tide and raise the banner of hope. Together we can.

 

When We Hurt Those We Love Most

 

I lay prostrate on the hardwood floor of our Budapest flat. I was pounding my fist and screaming unintelligible things as I lost my struggle with hyper-mania (a symptom of bipolar disorder). My children had been taken to a friend’s house. But not before they heard me shouting at their father. My husband found himself slipping deeper and deeper into a vortex of uncertainty.

I was hurting those I love most and was unable to gain enough control to stop the hurting.

A couple of days after this I entered the hospital. My husband and kids experienced more days of instability and separation. There were a few moments,`when my husband came to see me, not knowing I had been moved to the ICU. As the doctor brought him into his office, he was petrified something had happened to me.

Then, one week after I left the hospital, we returned to the States.

Every one of the people I care most for in this world was profoundly impacted by me. They experienced hurts, wounds, things that broke my heart, and I was helpless to protect them. I couldn’t even protect myself.

I know I am not alone. We all hurt those we love, so often through circumstances and trials beyond our control. It all makes us feel afraid of how the damage will ultimately affect them. It makes us grieve the innocence the hurt has taken. It makes us unsure in these relationships. It makes us feel lost.

As we reflect on these tragic times in our lives, how can we learn from them? How do we live well on the other side? I want to share with you a few things God taught me through the hardest season in my life and how it hurt those I love:

  1. Release the guilt and shame: To move forward, beyond the hurt, we must let go. When those we love are wounded by us, whether inside or outside of our control, we feel helpless to move forward. The Enemy loves the guilt and shame which go along with this. He would love for us to steep in this until we sink down, far away from those we love. However, this is not the Great Healer’s desire. He wants to make us new from the deepest place. He asks us to give to Him those ruminating thoughts of all we could have, should have done to prevent what happened. He wants us whole so He can restore what was lost and give something even greater.
  2. God is the Author: As we begin to release we learn this great truth. It is God who authors every story, not us. His script is poignant and sure. He doesn’t waste a line with bad prose. The dark pages have corresponding light ones. It is all sealed with the unmistakable stuff of redemption. And it is only he who bears this hope deep within who will have the eyes to see such a story. So He calls us to find hope in the pain and press hard into our trust in Him. Indeed, we can surrender to Him those most dearest. He has already wrapped His arms solidly about every part of them, shaping their story with His loving hands.
  3. Lean into Community: As I walked those days leading to the hospital, in the hospital and the months of recovery after, I desperately needed others. In these times we all do. It is our pride and fear which makes us unable to receive help. But we all need friends and family who will love on our kids, make meals for our families, distract them from the obvious and so much more. We have to say ‘yes’ to them. And the truth is, even though we fear judgment, people just want our families and us to know we are loved. So we have to trust here too. When we remain unable to be what our loved ones need, others can help fill in the gap until we are strong enough. Yes, it is incredibly humbling, but it is also right and true. This is something we must carry with us on this long road home.
  4. There is always a New Day: No matter how hard the circumstance, or how deep the hurt, there is always the sun rising the next morning. It shines upon us and on those we love. There is the promise renewed, faithfulness which hovers and great compassion to sustain. Psalm 103 says the Lord remembers our frame, He knows we are dust. In His tenderness, He pledges to be all we cannot be. His grace leads us Home to His heart where all is being renewed. He carries intimately, tenderly all who He loves, and even more so as the need is greater. He is hope and hope does not disappoint. Moving forward this must be the melody which greets us.

I don’t know where this post finds you, but I do know you have hurt those you love. It happens every day in big and small ways. And in this, we need to find our way back. We need to press into truth and grace, all that Jesus is. And we need to face the hurt, others and ours. Sometimes it is all so obvious and other times it is subtle. Regardless, there is no task, no service, no ministry important enough to deny the pain. And if we deal with it, we will find the healing and redemption of God greater than we could have imagined.

Who Are ‘The Least of These’?

 

If I close my eyes, her vivid image appears. She sits, destitute, outside the SPAR supermarket. Skin wrinkled and leather-like, she has been in the sun too long. Her life has become reduced to a tiny meal here. Perhaps there is a smoke there.  And, in the end, a cup of cold water?

Her story seems to jump onto center stage when we think about ‘the least of these’. Jesus’ words echo in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘As you have done unto the least of these, so have you done unto me.’

In every country, on many street corners, we have opportunities to live out Jesus’ words. And this we must do. But is Jesus saying something more than this?

I will give another example, this one very personal. When I was strapped to a foreign hospital bed, my battle with bipolar disorder raging, I was the one poor in spirit, ‘the least of these’. I think of those who ministered to me. They sat by my bed and love poured through their eyes. They read to me, prayed with me, brought me food and just simply listened. I have no doubt they were heeding Jesus’ command to do unto the least of these as is done unto Him.

Then there are those who issue great challenge, but no less fit into the category of the least. It’s the teammate who is covering their pain with a hardness that causes friction all around. Their story is unharvested, untold. Inside they are begging for someone to give of themselves in time spent together or a listening ear. Yet, they remain alone, naked, in need of the covering of grace.

As with any command of Jesus, there are nuances which can only be understood by deep heart connection with Him. We need to learn to see with His eyes, hear with His ears, love with His heart.

Why?

Because until we can see Him in all of these examples, we may win battles but lose the war. We may get that meal for a stranger in Jesus’ name but then hate our brother or sister in our heart. We may become so busy with ministry, we have no time for the poor. And so, we miss it. The challenge of ‘the least of these’ is lost to us. We have given here but held back there and so short-changed the One who deserves everything.

Taking one aspect of this, it has been said the number one reason missionaries leave the field is conflict with other missionaries. This should be heart-breaking to us. Something is wrong when our ability to love is not enough. All of the arduous journey to get overseas is cut short. It’s tragic.

But what if our lens begins to change? What if we start to see our difficult teammate in the same way we see the person asking for money outside the store? In the same way Jesus sees both of them. What to one person is a few coins given in love, is to the other a service done from the genuine affection of our heart. How different would our relationships, teams, families look if we lived like this?

Then too, we must learn, as I did so broken, helpless and frail in that Hungarian hospital bed. At times we become the least who need the compassion of others. When our pride is laid down, we are each naked in our vulnerability as we experience so many things which break us. We must learn to remain in our nakedness, exposing our hearts, so that others may cover us, love us, be Jesus to us.

Who are ‘the least of these’? It’s her. It’s him. It’s me. It’s you. But most, it’s our Savior who calls us to live like Him. And he enables us to do so because every morning is grace which covers, every blessing is water which quenches, and every bit of love is food which satisfies. He is perfectly to us what He would have us be to others.

What Does God Want From Me?

 

I swayed back and forth perched on the swing. Looking out from the hilly courtyard of my flat, I could see the tall cement apartment complexes. They represented tens of thousands of people who needed to hear about Jesus.

Just beyond what I could see, was a city of two million. The vast majority did not know the love of the one true God. And then there was our specific mission—to reach high school students. There were 200 high schools and tens of thousands or more young people who had been the heart of our vision to come.

Yet, I asked God, ‘why am I here?’ It seemed as though I couldn’t touch any of them. The mission was so big and I was so small.

So with mounting emotion, I asked again, ‘why am I here?’ As I waited in the silence, I heard his answer. ‘I brought you here for you. I didn’t bring you here to be the most successful missionary, but so I could refine you and make you mine.’

It was a hard answer to accept and still is. We had spoken to so many churches and with so many people about the vision for this country and its people. How could He have brought me thousands of miles from home for…me?

But it was true and it still is true. And I have come to realize I am in good company.

Think of Abraham. God’s promise was to make him a great nation. Yet, he had no child and so Abraham’s heart, his trust in God, was tested again and again. Until after his promised child came. Then God asked for more of Abraham. He asked him to sacrifice his one and only son, the child of the promise. Why? Because more than a mighty nation, God wanted Abraham’s devotion to Him. (see Genesis 22:1-18)

What about Elijah? The prophet spoke for God faithfully. Then he gave everything on a mountain to defeat evil in Israel once and for all. The victory he had over the prophets of Baal was one of the most stunning feats recorded in the Bible. Yet, what happened next? He fled in fear and wished to die. And what did God do? He met him personally, tenderly in the cleft of a rock and with a whisper. Why? Because more than a monumental victory, God wanted Elijah to know Him. (see I Kings 18:22-19:18)

Then, there’s Peter. He was called to walk beside the Messiah. He showed great promise only to miss it and mess up again. And in Jesus’ greatest hour of need, he denied him—the one he had sworn to die for. But here too, what did God want of Peter? When he was restored to ‘feed [Jesus’] sheep’, he was asked one question again and again ‘Do you love me?’ God didn’t want Peter’s zeal but his affection. (see John 21:15-19)

In the courtyard moment, it seemed strange and just too simple to think God wanted me most of all. Wasn’t it just an excuse for not doing more, working harder, giving more fully to the mission? How could my one solitary heart be so important to him?

My heart is this important (and so is yours) because God’s work happens through surrendered lives. It happens through people who know the One for whom they are living. It happens through the active power of God at work within and through his chosen ones. And it happens, so often, after or during failures and shortcomings. It happens in ways in which everything we are is tested.

‘Who can endure the coming of the Lord?… for he is a refiner’s fire’. The greatest things God wants to bring to His world, even the completion of His work and the return of Jesus, come only through purified hearts. It is both freeing and painful. And it is what He is ultimately about in us. It is what He most wants from us.

A new year is coming. It’s a time to re-assess where we are at in our journey. Does God have our hearts? Do we believe he wants us more than anything we do for Him? Do we believe He is big enough to complete his work simply through refining us?

In the end, we cannot give what we do not have. If God is not our treasure and we are not fully open to His molding of us, we cannot give this away to others. And yet, if he is, there is no limit to the beauty, the miracles, the new life—both within and without—that we will see.

Support Teams, Vulnerability and Applause?

My hands are shaking in a jerky vibration. My legs are unsteady as they threaten to give way. There are one hundred people in front of me. It is a group from a church which has just begun to support our ministry. My husband just introduced me. Now they are waiting to hear a part of my story. It’s the part I would most like to hold back.

It is as though I am at the edge of a cliff. In the expanse there is an echoing call. Will I leap forward into the unknown, into vulnerability? Or will I take the safe path?

I close my eyes to ready myself for the plunge. I open my mouth and start to speak. We have just talked about our story, how we had to return to the States. It’s a vague thing until they hear my piece.

So I say it.

I tell them how a bout of hyper-mania landed me in a Hungarian hospital for 2 weeks. I speak the diagnosis of bipolar disorder and I try to keep breathing. It’s all ashes, but somehow the Spirit tells me my voice is the beauty.

When I finish, something unexpected happens. There is the ring of applause. Applause. It is a shocking thing. And I realize again how vulnerability changes the world.

Why? How?

Because when we choose to speak the hard, open up the wounds, bring others into our honest story, we touch the pulse of human need. We need to know we are not alone. We need to know we are more than our tragedies. We need to know there is hope in the pain, life after death, and freedom from bondage. When these needs are met we become someone altogether new.

However, as missionaries, the tendency can be to think we must be strong before others. But, I truly believe there is a better way—one which leads straight to the heart of God.

Here are some reasons to choose vulnerability:

  • Because Jesus did: Jesus emptied himself of everything. Pride. Reputation. Stature. He never appeased the crowd. He laid down every care of what others would think to live the life he was called to live. He formed his communication of the truth about himself, knowing it would open him up to rejection. His story is lined with tragedy and brokenness. Yet, in it all, he lived vulnerably in a way which overcame the world. He calls to us to know and be like him.
  • Because we want true community: Establishing a team of supporters is difficult. There is much work of casting vision, travel, late nights and early mornings. It is easy to want to hang onto it all tightly. But, the better way is to let go, risk sharing vulnerably, because we want the comfort, strength and warmth of true community. As we do this, we will become surrounded by those who love us, not the perfect missionary. We will find those who labor in prayer for our needs, because they know those needs, and believe their support is crucial to the victory.
  • Because we give courage to others: The beauty of vulnerability is that as we share our brokenness, it gives others the courage to do the same. They are freed from the hissing lie which says they must hide their weakness. They too gain freedom to be honest with others about what their life really is. Our vulnerability becomes, for them, a stepping stone to, perhaps, an even greater experience of it.
  • Because we are strengthened by it: The discipline, the lifestyle, of vulnerability is a gift. While it as an invitation for others to enter our lives, the greater thing happens in us. By opening up to show our cracked and bleeding places, we remember how we are loved. We are loved inspite of, and more, because of our frailty. It brings forth the tender heart of God.
  • Because through it, we know the Gospel: As missionaries, some of our biggest fears are found in losing reputation and being seen as weak. But when we walk the way of vulnerability, we take away the power of these fears. We make space for the Gospel—the healing of our souls. In the great economy of God, we first receive the Gospel, and then, we are ready to give it away.

I don’t know where this finds you. Are you in a habit of sharing vulnerably? Keep on.

Are you struggling behind closed doors? Please consider opening up to others. It doesn’t have to be everyone, but it needs to be someone. As you take these steps, I know you will find genuine love and acceptance from God and others. You will find great strength and contagious courage. You will find Jesus and all it is to be like Him.

Do You Know Your Host Nation?

I sat along the edge of the Danube river. It was a cool, gray day. I was scratching out thoughts with pen and paper when I stopped and really saw them. The Shoes on the Danube Bank. Metal, weathered reminders of World War II when the people, mostly Jewish, who after being ordered to take off their shoes, were shot into the river.

I felt their bravery, their silent strength. I wondered at their last thoughts. My heart shattered as I gazed upon the tiny shoes–little lives so tragically lost. And I was humbled to touch this deep wound in this city, this country. From fascism to communism, the people were battered and beaten. It was a great, weeping thing I knew that day.

Every nation has a soul. It is the heart of its story and it is calling out to be known. We must make the journey to understand the imprint of this soul upon the holy ground of this nation.

When we become attuned to the soul of our host nation, we gain an entire framework for ministry. Our eyes are focused, our ears really hear and our hearts become like God’s.

So how do we come to know this heart of a nation’s story?  The truth is we can never truly, completely know it, because it is as complex as the convergence of a million souls. Yet we can make this humble journey to know our new home more. To this end, I am going to list some practical steps:

Prioritize: With so many things vying for our attention, it is easy to forget the deep, contemplative things. But in order to learn the soul of our host nation, we must make it a priority. Time needs to be carved out to connect with the story and history of the people to whom we are called.

Plan: Next, we need to plan how we will become learners of the story and soul of this nation. There are memorials, monuments, museums, interviews, documentaries, holidays and history books. It is important to find something which connects with our soul too; something which speaks to our hearts.

Press in: Once we have made it a priority and planned how to learn about the soul of this nation, we press into this story we are learning. We sit with the things we are seeing, hearing, reading. We ask for new eyes to see meaning in the oppression, wars, desperation, heartache. We expect to be changed as we receive into our hearts the soul of the people.

Practice: Now, it is left to cultivate a cross-cultural ministry which is profoundly impacted by what we have come to know. We ought to feel like we have new eyes, ears and a heart prepared to walk ahead in understanding. So we do. We live like in the very depths, this new and different home is connected to ours. We become students of it in an on-going, life-changing way.

We can get so focused on our goals in ministry that we forget we have walked into a story and are meeting its soul. The nuances of our new life are not only adjustments to things like language, shopping and visas. There is, too, this deeper thing.

When Jesus came into the world, he entered time, space, history and culture. He had to do the work of understanding his culture on a soul level. In his ministry, he restored the dignity of the poorest of poor. He saw beyond the political structures and proud leaders to souls over whom he wept. He heard the yearning cries of a nation longing to be re-born. And he knew. He knew the story of humanity and the Jewish people found in the Scriptures. He stayed connected to this as a core element of his ministry.

How could we do anything less?

As I looked upon the shoes that day, I knew I was being handed a gift. Who was I to behold such a tragic, yet heroic memory? Who was I to walk those city streets over bridges repaired after bombings, look upon citadels, and bear witness to the greats?

This whole new life was so much more than me and what I would give. Its healing so beyond my capacity. Its story unable to be rendered in a day, week, month, year or a hundred years. It would take the work of my heart, my soul, and nothing less to learn it, embrace it and live it.

May you make this journey. If you have already begun, may you long to know more, dig deeper, find new parts of the story. It will refresh you in your ministry and connect you to the heart of God.

Do you have a place, memory or story which has connected you to the soul of your host nation?

When I Failed At Missions

The whisper of summer breeze caresses my face as I perch on the concrete steps of New Creation Lutheran Church. This has become a daily meeting hour. After dinner, my fellow team members and I linger outside with the neighborhood kids. They’ll pop wheelies, zig-zag on skateboards or just sit and chat. Some days the girls and I chase bubbles. Some days we all get wet to abate the haze of summer.

It is fun. It is life. It is Gospel. I never want to leave.

My home, this summer, is a two-story brick church on West Tioga Street. It’s located in an area of Philadelphia called the Badlands. Here violence is just a block away. We have experienced the good in the people and the bad in crime. One day we return from downtown and find someone attempted to burn down our church.

And yet, here is where I have come to call ‘home’.  I smell gasoline mixed with stale smoke and too ripe fruit and it is comforting. I play kickball with fast running neighborhood boys until my lungs scream and love every second of it. I make crazy singing ‘Father Abraham’ in front of a hundred kids and with a gigantic smile. I look in eyes and give hope. For nine weeks I tell little lives of big love. I learn the size of God’s heart through my own. I give everything I have.

It is the summer after my sophomore year of college. My heart is just beginning to beat for God and His kingdom.

Last year I had a ‘grace awakening’, coming alive to the gospel in ways which made it feel like I had just begun to believe in Jesus. As I then began to think about missions, during my sophomore year, Bart Campolo came to my college’s chapel and talked about his ministry in Philadelphia called Kingdomworks. That day, I knew this ministry was for me and a few months later I came to Tioga Street.

Now I am here, full of faith. Unafraid. I am ready for anything. I know God is with me and He loves the city. I vow to dedicate my life to urban ministry.

I hug the tear-stained children on my last day. I promise to write. I promise to visit. I promise to come back.

 A few letters I write. I visit once. I don’t come back to stay even for a little while.

In the end, I failed. I left and never came back. Tender hearts would not trust easily again. The pressure of drugs, gangs and despair would weigh heavily and I wouldn’t be there to guide them towards the good.

I have wandered this earth ever since, remembering Tioga Street. Twenty-two summers have come and gone. How could I? How could I leave and just…leave?

I remember the chain-link fence lining the alley next to the church. I sat against it flower-covered journal in hand. I remember writing of a love for the city and the desire to commit my all to it. I was sincere as far as I understood my own heart as a sophomore in college. And yet I failed to make good on my words and what seemed a genuine calling.

Looking back, I am still unsure where I went wrong. Did the fear just creep in? Was my capacity to love limited to nine weeks? Did I lack the faith to raise support for my mission? Did the fear others had for me affect my own?

More importantly, how could I keep going after I failed?

It was a hard question to answer.

One summer I gave everything and yet later, suffered the guilt of not loving longer, of not being truer, of not risking more.

But in my quest for peace with my past, I came to see this failure as a part of a greater plan, a greater story. It was not mine to carry like so much weight on my shoulders.

Failure defines us one way or another. It can consume us, planting seeds of fear, shame, guilt or unworthiness. Lord knows I have lived this. But, it can also humble us. It shows us our limits. And, if we let it, it profoundly shapes our stories.

My Tioga Street is a love I have surrendered countless times. I have grieved the lives of the children I sought out, visiting their homes, to invite them to our day camp. My heart has broken remembering Ahmad, so tough already at the tender age of eight. I remember how he started to come to Bible study and gave his life to Jesus. Did it change anything? I remember Cely, with her long, glossy raven hair. So beautiful and sweet. What have the years done to her?

It is the deepest heave of my heart to think of Tioga Street. It is a withering strand of my story, as the hope of the ‘might have been’ disintegrates. There is no lasting triumph to give it weight. I can only fully entrust it to the heart of God.

Yet too, in Tioga Street, is the hard, even brutal, lesson for me, the young, immature girl longing to save the world. The humility of this unavoidable nature of my failure is a solid thread woven into my story. I am not the same for having lived it.

I don’t know where this finds you today. Are you coming face-to-face with your failure?

Some of you have loved and left like me. Others of you have stayed and struggled for assurance of your mission. Some of you are in the midst of failure and are not sure what to do next. Regardless, the reality of our lack is something which finds us all. But it doesn’t have to write its bold, black judgment across our lives, our story.

We all fail. We are all humbled. Yet, we must stay the course of our stories allowing the truth of what we have learned to be woven within. We don’t live in fear, doubt, guilt or shame, but remember this is a part of a larger plan. It is God’s and it is His people’s entrusted with the mission of redemption.

Let your failures guide you to perfect love, your story and God’s woven together. And whatever you do, remember, for many of us, there is a Tioga Street. You are not alone.

Come As You Are

come-as-you-are

Last year, my friend told me how she loved my ‘come as you are’ way of being with others. The phrase made me stop and think about what she meant. I knew she was saying something significant.

In Matthew 11 Jesus talks about how he receives us. Here is the Message version:

28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burnt out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Here, Jesus is saying something very important about how we come to him.

If we aren’t coming to him as we are–with all of our mess, with dirty faces and hands and feet–we’ll become tired, worn out, burnt out trying to live something we aren’t.  In turn, others won’t taste the grace-giving waters which flow from His hand as we come freely to him.

As I have thought about it further, I realize my friend gave me a huge compliment. I am entirely unsure if I live it even part of the time. But I have come to think of it as my true north.

All of this reminds me of a conversation with my friend who is many years ahead of me in ministry and life. She commented on what it was for her to receive Hungarian women into her home. She said she bought the same pastries they would at the corner store. She put down her recipes and specialty drinks and she made herself one of them. It was all in the hopes they would be empowered to know they could give and receive just as they were.

‘Come as you are’ is a posture. It is the heart of hospitality. It is laying down the perfect hair, outfit, aroma of freshly baked goods and picked-up home. It loves people enough to give grace and our real selves, so they learn to do the same.

As a woman, I have spent most of my marriage and all of my motherhood crucifying myself between two thieves. The one is perfection and the other is failure. The one takes all of me and the other tells me I have nothing to give. They each battle to have full say in my mind, ramping up their efforts at just the right time.

Come As You Are.

It’s a holy whisper in the dark night of the soul. It’s an oasis in this wilderness I have roamed too often. It’s the words spoken to me and the ones I want to live. It’s the life I want and the one I want others to have.

Let it be our mantra during this Advent season. There is so much potential to receive and be received by others. Yet, there is so much opportunity for the Thief to come and steal. And so, there are many reasons to learn just this:

Come as You Are.

The Mother of Modern Missions?

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It was a Sunday morning. Sunshine filtered through the rose trellis by Lake Balaton. I stilled my heart and reflected upon the message I had just heard.

Three pioneers of the faith were highlighted. One of them was William Carey, considered ‘the father of modern missions’. When talking about his home life, it was said that his first wife went crazy then died.

Under the crimson buds of summer opening to the full light of day, it was this lost story, Dorothy Carey’s story, that pricked my heart. I grieved and shed a few tears. I asked God to show me more lost stories of women. I pleaded for their stories to be recovered.

And when I read more about William Carey’s behavior towards Dorothy, particularly how he left her pregnant with two small children in his first attempt to go to India, I wanted to tell him a thing or two.

I could not have known that a mere seven months later, I would be in the mental ward of a Hungarian hospital, my own story on the verge of extinction.

‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own self?’

Traditionally ‘the whole world’ has been interpreted as all one could want of the secular world. Things like fame, fortune, success, an entourage of servants, etc.

But what if ‘the whole world’ were the world of missions? In this way it can be said that William Carey gained the whole world, especially regarding his legacy and esteem. But did he lose his soul in the process, even for a season?

He lost the story of his wife. The wife of his youth. The one he had vowed to love, and according to the book of Ephesians, the one for whom he was called to lay down his life.

Then, the whole world lost her story. She was seen as unfit or selfish or crazy.*

But what if he waited, and she was won by his love and sacrifice?

William Carey was the product of his culture. At the time, it was assumed that a good wife would follow him. It was also assumed he would ask her to do so. Her status in society was considerably inferior to his. This left Dorothy with an impossible choice as she struggled to embrace the pioneer mission.

It is important to remember these factors.

But we are not living in his time. We live here and now. And women are considered equal to men. Marriage is a partnership. Yet our stories, especially those of wives, especially in the church and missions, can easily be lost.

When I reflect on these things, I know them intimately.

At the time of my hospital stay, we were living in a country for which we had endured a six year process just so we could be there. Our work with students was thriving. We had labored towards fluency in a very hard language. Our children were virtually bilingual. We were excited about the future.

And then, the unthinkable. I had what psychologists call a manic episode caused by lack of sleep and a later diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Essentially, I went crazy for a time.

I was in the hospital two weeks including three days in the ICU. As I recovered, many were saying we needed to return home to Pennsylvania for my healing and long-term care. It seemed like a death to all we had fought to keep, in other words, ‘the whole world’. Children pulled out of school. Loss of relationships that were just beginning and held so much promise. Leaving this life we had built through blood, sweat and tears.

But then, my husband came to the hospital one evening and said he thought we did need to return to the States. He had been listening to the song Lay Me Down and said that’s what he felt God was calling him to do.

In the year and a half that has followed, God has picked up both of our stories and is writing things beyond imagining. We miss our overseas ‘home’ and always will. But we are in the palm of God’s hand, safe in his clasp.

My husband has walked a road where he could easily have succumbed to bitterness for what my mental illness has cost him. But instead, he has let his own story be nearly lost in order to find this new, or redeemed, story with me. I have no doubt he will be honored for all eternity for his love and faithfulness to me.

We need to remember the lost stories. In particular, husbands, I speak clearly to you — yet with compassion. You must be the protectors, the guardians, of your wives’ stories. It is the greater part of all you will do, in close relationship to your love for God. And, in the end, what is gained will far outweigh the sacrifice.

For many a story will be found and lifted up as the crowning jewel of your life unto the glory of God.

 

*I do not know the true state of Dorothy Carey’s heart, but I do know she hasn’t been remembered kindly.

How to Witness the Miracle: When Tears Become Laughter

witness the miracle

So, it’s been a heavy year. There’s been a lot of tears and raw grief. There’s been a lot of therapy and the chance to heal in healthy relationships. Right now, there’s a season of counseling aimed at dealing with the trauma in my life.

Yes, heavy, I know.

Which is why my soul has been crying out for perspective. The kind which mingles tears with laughter. The one that sees how the cracked vessel of humanity can open a door to the glory beyond.

So I am sharing some humorous, yet tender glimpses into the life of a girl I once knew. She’s had some funny and yes, sad, moments in the crazy days of figuring out how to save the world. She’s gotten it more wrong than right, but no one can doubt her heart.

She has something to teach all of us. And I hope she’ll make us laugh, and maybe cry a little too. She’s worth knowing, and maybe you know someone like her too.

Something tells me we need to remember them all as we make our way on this long road home.

It’s the early, starlit days of youth. The clear nights of a Montana sky, with their twinkling grandeur, have got nothing on her. She’s too young and crazy, full of passion and self-importance to heed any caution.

It’s the summer of ’94 and she’s spending nine weeks in West Kensington, Philadelphia. She is living on the edge of the notorious Badlands. There’s been a drive-by shooting one block and one week before she comes. She goes door to door and gathers kids, some black, some Hispanic, some white. She loves on them all summer, even on the rest days. She runs the bases of kickball hard and throws with aim slightly off as she tries to get the little rascals. She jumps up and down and swings her limbs for ‘Father Abraham’. She gets a bit pudgy as she eats too many white chocolate-covered Oreos donated in abundance to her mission team. Over the phone, she breaks up with her long-term boyfriend, convinced he doesn’t share her fervor for urban missions.

She gives beyond reason. At the end of those nine weeks, she leaves her heart on West Tioga Street. She doesn’t know how she will ever get any of it back. She has done it all wrong, only returning for one visit and exchanging a few letters. She can only cry as she remembers the desperate reality of those dear children. She aches for what she does not know of their lives today. But the naivety worn by her oh-so-sincere heart captures me. I want to thank her for reminding me how to love without reserve. She shows me how real-life stories seldom have happy endings, as far as where we think they will go. Yet her twinkling eyes shine bright with the glory of the Great Story.

It’s still early, but she is starting to realize she cannot save the world. These are the Latin American Years. She translates and serves as a part of summer missions’ teams in Mexico and Honduras. She teaches the Bible story in Spanish before a hundred or more kids at VBS. Little Miguel with his spiky hair laughs at the words that twirl around her mouth and fall with the spin and thud of marbles.

On a later trip, she learns to sleep in a hammock which she falls into, exhausted. Her head hurts from being everyone’s brain as she translates the English into Spanish and vice versa. It amazes her how the corresponding sides smile as if her voice descends like wings of eagles. In her week of rest from translating, she tries the local guanabana and Montezuma takes revenge on her innocent stomach. She sways in a hammock as she determines to believe the motion will heal this sickness. She finds her way back to the church and Kids’ Camp. She sings loud and lifts her hands high in flowing, Hawaiian-colored pants. She cannot believe she wore them, but the pictures say she did.

She’s still jumping in with both feet and literally, dancing in the rain. She’s starting to weary and is woefully lacking in good missionary methodology. Yet, I want to tell her to ‘hang in there because I wouldn’t trade you for another.’

And now there’s a husband. Here she is all grown up, or so it would seem. Her missions’ journey is picking back up in a new country, new language and yes, with a fairly-new husband. One of her first days in country, her new boss sends her and her very brave husband out on a sort of Amazing Race about the city. Later she will call the horror of it all the Amazing Survival.

She and her dear husband (who you will instantly love) start out from a district just obscure enough to require two buses and a tram to get back to. The first address they are given is so hard to find, they will abort this phase of the mission entirely. Their first move is brilliant. They hop on the first tram they see and go in exactly the wrong direction. And now it begins. How each of a hundred times they are lost, she literally throws her too-sweet man at stranger after stranger. A thousand times, in a thousand ways, he learns to say the only phrase ‘they’ knew ‘beszélsz angolul?’ Do you speak English?

These two are trying to get it right, after all, they’ve committed to a whole year! And she does a good job that day, her maiden voyage as the wife of a missionary. She makes sure her hubby can handle all future stressful and uncomfortable language-challenged moments. But I would remind her that all of the packing that’s happened since can be considered ‘payback.’

Did I really sign up for this? This, for her, is when it becomes long-term, with greater sacrifice and did I mention children? Yes children. All thousand miles and points of light in a constellation of new life. She goes from filling two suitcases with child #1’s things only to learn to reduce three children’s things into a single suitcase. American baby food and ointments are easily replaced by the local fare. These are the days of flights, flights and more flights and the children so little. These are the days when the endless stream of comments must stop. You know the ones. ‘It’s good to do this [insert mission] when…’ ‘When you are young.’ ‘When you are both young.’ ‘When you don’t have kids.’ ‘When your children are little.’ (Dear souls actually say this last one and well Lord, love ‘em because I am not sure I can ;))

Early on this mama finds herself on the flight back to the States with a ten month-old. Heading west over the Atlantic, you know the day, like the song, that never ends? When you subtract hours only to add them back again in a way you’ll never understand. Flying east over the ocean, he is the miracle baby who falls asleep on takeoff, his chubby feet hanging out of his sleeping gown. He awakes only on landing while the woman in front exclaims, ‘A baby?!’ But coming back?? Well, it was somewhere between the crawling up and over our laps and necks, dropping every toy a 101 times, and no screen (Can you believe there was no screen?!) that she looks at her husband with wild eyes and panting breath and says, ‘We…don’t…have…to…thrive…only……..sur…vive.’

Clearly she has begun to understand what this whole crazy life is all about. Survival. Plain and simple. This mama is from not too long ago. She’s failed again and again and her upcoming book will bring many, many more stories of all such things. What do I do with her? I wrap her in my arms as she cries and I shower her with grace, for she could never give it to herself.

Then, I dry her eyes and teach her how to laugh.

 

 

On Staying, Leaving, And Which Is Harder

 

Only Perfect Love

I lie in a hospital bed. Tubes run in and through me. Though I remember that I am in the hospital, I do not know why I am in the ICU of Szent Imre Korhaz. 

It is morning. 

The light glides over my bed, streaming through tall glass windows as it bounces off the high rise cement apartment buildings across the street. 

I know two things: I am alive. I am loved.

Saturday marked a year since I went into the hospital in Hungary. Two grueling weeks in both my and my husband’s life which ultimately changed the course of our life. Before they happened, I would have thought staying overseas was harder and leaving was the easy way out.

But not now. Now I know there is another way to see both.

The truth is sometimes it is harder to stay. Sometimes it is harder to leave. But the hardest of all is to know perfect love so fully that we can walk either path without fear.

Life is seldom what we expect it to be. There are breathtaking surprises which change our lives forever. There are unspeakable tragedies that alter our courses profoundly. The only thing we can know for certain about life is that we do not know what tomorrow will bring.

Thankfully, our hope is not in this life.

I have learned this through my journey overseas and the crisis which led us to return home long before we planned. I have learned this through my mother’s cancer and death. I have learned it in the tragedies which daily flood the news, some more personal than others.

Yet, I thought too, I had learned about letting go of control of this life through the moves and transitions of our missionary journey. I thought I had let go of fear to begin a new life. It would be limitless faith, unreserved commitment and telltale determination which would see us through.

But the heart is subtly deceptive despite our best intentions to know it. Trial and suffering in the form of the unexpected have a way of revealing things. They show us what is really happening in hidden soul places.

For me, the crisis I experienced overseas was both horrifying and freeing. First the horror. Then the freedom. Likely, it would not be this dramatic with you or most people. Yet, what I most want to say is that this freedom is a gift coming in the form of perfect love. So is what comes before it, no matter how horrific.

When the apostle John speaks of perfect love in I John 4:18, it is preceded by a declaration:

‘We have seen and testify that the Father has sent His son to be the Savior of the world.’

He goes on to say that it is our confession of His Son that gives us a dwelling with God and he with us. It is a dwelling bound in love, His perfect love.

And that love is not tied to our staying in or leaving the country of our calling. It is completely wrapped up in the Father sending His Son to save the world.

Ironically, sometimes we move cross-culturally and expand our understanding of the world, only to have our view of God become smaller. His work becomes bound to our mission and host nation instead of the person of Christ. 

But it is in the times of our greatest need, when only perfect love will satisfy. It is then  that we see clearly what our deepest heart loves are. 

These moments are poignant. They come through disappointment, failure, crisis and tragedy. They mark both our staying and our leaving. They lead us through the refining fire, molding a faith more precious than gold. They bring forth the things that will remain when we stand before God and hear the longing of our hearts, ‘Well done.’

They cannot be defined by geography, only perfect love.