When the Backpack is too Heavy

Sheila Walsh tells a poignant story of her son wanting to leave home at the tender age of six. Evidently he set out with his backpack and jacket, heading toward a pond near home. She, wanting to allow freedom but aware of his young age, kept a watchful eye from a window where she could ensure safety as well as give him his independence. After a short time he was back at the door, offering no explanation other than a six-year-old going on sixteen response of “It’s good to be home!”

Later that night as she was tucking him in, she brought up the adventure and asked him about it. His response was matter of fact “I would have gone farther but my backpack was too heavy.”

As I listened to her, I was overwhelmed by the truth in a child’s simple comment.

I would have gone farther, but my backpack was too heavy.

Sheila Walsh

These days, I feel like this child. My backpack feels so heavy, the things I carry too weighty. My adult kids and their lives; friends I know who are aching from pain, some that can be spoken and other that can’t; patients and family members struggling beyond believability; worries and fear about the future and regret about the past – a backpack so heavy I can scarcely move.

It’s all mixed together with the good stuff so I’m not always sure what the good stuff is. Sort of like my kids backpacks used to be at the end of a semester, where a mashed up moldy sandwich, an apple, and crushed chips are crumbled up together in what used to be a brown lunch bag, but mixed in with this is a perfectly good juice carton and packaged granola bar. Instead of sorting through, I throw all of it away.

I’ve always thought that the primary lesson to this story was the obvious one – a heavy backpack preventing a child from the joy and distance of the journey. If I just lighten my load I would go farther, make more of an impact, be freer to serve. And to be sure, this is critically important. But dig deeper and the symbolism goes farther.

This little six-year-old knew exactly where to go to remember who he was. and where to drop off his backpack. He knew the way Home. He knew that Home was light, and love and Mom. He knew that there would be no condemnation, just warm chocolate chip cookies, cold milk and a listening heart. He knew that at home he could rest and move forward, his burden gone. He knew home was a place to be reminded of who he was.

As I think about the times I turn around because the backpack is too heavy, I hope I have the sense of a six-year-old who goes back home, and drops off his back pack. I hope I can go back to Jesus, the source and author of love, where condemnation is erased and the load is lifted, replaced with his yoke, his burden. Back to the Church, where I can be reminded of who I am, back to the Author of all that is good and holy and right.

I don’t know where in the world you are today and what things in your backpack make it too heavy. It may be transition and displacement. It may be loss of place. It may be the burden of betrayal or feeling like you’re wasting your life. It may be a struggling marriage or longing for a life partner. It may be the sorrows of your children and their needs that keep you up at night. It may be chronic illness, depression or anxiety. It may be the death of one you love.

I do know that whatever it is, home and rest are waiting. Not home the place, but Home – the person and presence of Jesus.

You Are Going to Hate It

You know that country you’ve been dreaming about? The one that you have been praying over and researching? You’ve been talking about it endlessly these days, building a team who will support you when you move there. You are ready to uproot your family, your job, your entire life to pour your soul into the place you love so much.

Call me a party pooper, but today I’m here to tell you something important: Shortly after you finally arrive in that country, you are going to hate it.

It might take a few weeks, or maybe a few months, but at some point it’s going to happen: You will wonder why on earth you thought you would love this country. You will question why you enthusiastically raised support for so many months to go live in a place that you actually despise.

It might happen when you come to the realization that this doesn’t feel like a fun adventure anymore. The public transportation is claustrophobic and smelly. You are tired of eating baked potatoes and scrambled eggs and yet the idea of facing the grocery store again makes you want to cry. You feel like a frizzy, unattractive mess. The pollution is triggering your little girl’s asthma or your four-year-old has gotten malaria twice in two months.

It might be because the people you meet are cold and suspicious of you. Or in your face and critical. Or just in your face, all the time, peeking through your windows. You feel like a curiosity on display, or you feel like an ignored, cast aside monstrosity. You wonder why you ever thought you could love these people who apparently abhor you. 

Or maybe you find yourself spending all day every day learning the difference between a past perfect continuous verb and an intransitive verb. Your body hurts from sitting all day and your brain hurts from thinking all day, yet you know you still have 16 months of this same horrible task ahead of you. And you wonder why you uprooted your happy, productive, meaningful life so that you could spend all of your time looking at meaningless squiggles on a piece of paper. 

Maybe you’ll hate it because your team leader seems distant or your co-workers are too busy for you, and you feel very alone. Maybe it will be because you are a woman in a country that demeans women, and you’ve never felt so insignificant. Maybe it will be because you didn’t anticipate how this new country would change your family dynamics, and it’s so hard and so painful to try to figure out new ways of helping your children find joy.

There are a million reasons why you could hate it. But one thing is for certain: At some point, it will happen.

Yeah, I know, just call me a dream smasher. I can hear you imploring, Do you have a point? Do you even want me to move overseas? 

Absolutely. Stay with me. I’m going somewhere with this.

Here’s my point: I want you to know what you are getting yourself into. When you get to the point of hating your country and your life and your calling, you need to know that this doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. Or with your country. Or with your calling.

There are three things you need to know:

Make your calling sure. Do this now, before you go overseas. Your calling to this country needs to be more than just a really strong feeling. It needs to come from hours of prayer, consultation with your pastor, soul-searching with godly friends. You need to know the reasons for why God is sending you to this country: What is the need? How are you uniquely qualified to fill that need? Write it down. Plaster it to your refrigerator. You will want to remind yourself of these reasons when you find yourself hating life. 

Make your faith sure. Do this now, before you go overseas. You must fully understand your worldview. Read a book on how to study the Bible on your own. Read a book on the theology of suffering. Read a book on the theology of poverty. Wrestle with the big questions before you go, so that when they hit you in the face and seek to destroy you, you will already be prepared. 

Perseverance is the whole battle. Not half the battle, not 90% of the battle. The entire battle. Do not give up. Do not give up. Let me tell you something: There will always be a reason to leave. Always. If you want to leave, you will find a reason, and it will be a good reason that will sound honorable to your supporters. 

I know, this is tricky. You are not going to live in this country forever; the right time to leave will come at some point, sooner or later. But make sure your call to leave has just as many prayer-filled, logical reasons as your call was to go. Because if not, then maybe you just need to persevere. Learn one more verb. Meet one more person. Go out your front door, one more time.

And here’s the part where I give you hope. You will not hate this country forever. I promise. Cross my heart; hope to die. If you stick this out and keep your heart open, a lasting love for your host country will sneak up on you. It might take 6 months, or a year, or even five years, but you will not hate it forever. There may be some things about it that you always dislike, of course, but your capacity to love this country will stretch and expand and deepen the longer you are there. One day, it will dawn on you that you don’t hate it, quite so much. And one morning, you will wake up and realize that you love this country. And you will never want to leave. 

An Empty Ocean and the 10 Things We Must Remember About Grief

Walking alone at a park, a friend of mine saw a woman busily walking towards her, dictating something into her phone. The woman looked earnest and concentrated.

She came closer and closer, and as her words became more distinct, my socially-distancing friend heard these slow, simple words:

“Sadness is an ocean with nothing in it. Period.”

Oh how I want to know that woman’s story. I recently googled those words and came up empty; apparently, she hasn’t published them yet. In any case, I’m guessing you resonate with her sentiment.

These are hard times. Whether you’re still abroad, whether you’ve had to leave the field and stay gone, whether you’re hoping to return, or returned already, or whether the future is murky, my guess is that at some point over the past several months, you could have written, “Sadness is an ocean with nothing in it. Period.”

Or perhaps you would agree with Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry’s famous barber of Port William, who said one bone-soaked evening, “It had been raining, and it was still raining. It was going to rain.”

It feels like that to me sometimes. “It had been raining, and it was still raining. It was going to rain.”

And so we come to this: Ten things to remember about grief.

I hope that you find something helpful here, whether a thought or a link or two seconds away from the folks you’re quarantined with.

Whatever you’re grieving, it matters: whether it’s a job, a family member, or the future you had planned. In each case, loss singes, and grieving matters.

So, shall we?

1. Grief is a process
It is messy, unpredictable, and gnarly, but whatever else it is, grief is a process. That means it is not its own ending; it’s going somewhere, leading to something. Author and theologian Dan Allender doesn’t mince words when he writes:

“Grief is similar to vomiting. At its deepest convulsion it exhausts, nauseates, and relieves. It empties us, weakens us, and prepares us for food that in due season will strengthen us. But in its immediate aftermath, we need rest.”

This meme pictures the “process” well.

 

2. Grief might not feel like grief
It might feel like discomfort, or generalized sluggishness, or even anxiety. Grief expert David Kessler describes our current situation:

[W]e’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

Read the full interview from the Harvard Business Review here: That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.

 

3. You don’t have to be sad all day to effectively grieve
Therapist Kay Bruner recommends the evidence-based time limit of twenty minutes. She writes:

“This is a research-based number:  journal 20 minutes per day when you’re working on a specific issue.  I recently had an adult TCK client tell me how much the 20-minute exercise has helped.  She’s not stuffing down her emotions any more, and the 20-minute limit helps her contain the feelings so they aren’t as overwhelming.”

Read her full article here: How do we process loss and grief?

 

4. The Dual Process Model allows for oscillations
It is pretty normal to bounce back and forth between “I’m OK” and “I’m not OK and I’ll never be OK and why would you even think I’m OK?!”

Researchers Stroebe and Schut described this as “The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement.”

It is totally normal to oscillate between the two, and actually, getting stuck on either side might be an indicator to get some outside help from a pastor or counselor.

 

5. People grieve differently, even if they’re in the same family
Some people grieve in giant waves. Some don’t. Some people show ALL.THEIR.GRIEF. Some don’t. Some people are vocal and some aren’t.

Some extroverts want the crowds to know all about it. Some introverts don’t.

The danger here is that you expect others to grieve the right way (read: your way), and instead of allowing them their own grief process, you try to stuff them into your box and they end up resentful or detached, finding solace far away from you.

 

6. Even if the loss looks the same, it isn’t
It’s just not. The loss I experienced when my dad died was terrible. It was also very different from the loss experienced by my younger siblings.

The hubris that says “my experience of loss is the gold standard by which all others shall be measured” is disgusting and antithetical to the heart of Christ.

 

7. Things will never be the same again
This is an indelible part of our story now.

And the grief of this season will bleed through the pages of our lives, marking the pages and stories that follow. Failing to acknowledge the COVID-19 chapters is to censor. To edit out. To delete plot twists and main characters. To murder history.

So we leave the pages as they are, splotched and imperfect. Because on every single ink-stained page, He remains. Comforter. Rock. Shepherd. God.

He remains the God who grieved.
He remains the God who understands.
He remains the God who comforts.
He remains. And He is enough.

So we keep feeling. We keep sketching out these life-pages, confident that He knows our stories. He loves our stories. He redeems our stories.

And we keep trusting that in the end, our stories are actually a part of His story.

And He’s really good with words.

 

8. Hope and despair can coexist in this space
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on prophetic hope, even in the midst of legitimate despair. He writes,

“Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. Thus…it is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously.”

Despair seems to be the crusty soil from which hope itself is born.

We need this reminder.

We need to remember that true hope is not just optimism. True hope is not a flimsy, fluffy thing. No, true hope, Biblical hope, sees it all. It sees the bad, the hard, the pain. It sees the depths and the darkness. It sees the world’s sin and my own sin.

And it keeps on seeing…all the way to Christ. In the end, deep hope must be securely grounded in the character and love of God.

For more thoughts on this theme, including links to a 21-minute podcast/sermon, click here. Or listen to the audio of the message here.

 

Magnanimous Despair alone

Could show me so divine a thing…

~Wendell Berry

 

9. While loss is personal, it’s not novel
Many faithful believers have walked hard roads before us, and many will after us. On its face, that’s not good news. But it is.

I wrote more about this idea in my article, What C.S. Lewis, Paul, and the Sword of Damocles can Teach us About Living in Terrible Times. In it, I quote my best friend, Elizabeth Trotter, who echoes C.S. Lewis’ call to do sensible, human things:

So what can we do when we’re confronted with all the darkness within, and all the darkness without? I mean, we know the end is good. We know the Bridegroom is coming back for us. But our eternal hope doesn’t always translate easily into our everyday moments and hours.

I think we need to chase the light. To DO something to help scatter the darkness. These days this is how you’ll find me chasing the light. . .

Singing a worship song.
Kissing my husband.
Chopping vegetables and preparing a meal for my family.
Reading a book to my kids.
Laughing at my husband’s jokes.
Going for a walk.
Drinking coffee with a friend.

These are the things that are saving my life right now. The small, menial acts that remind me that I’m still alive, that I’m not dead yet, and that the world hasn’t actually blown itself up yet.

No matter how sad I feel about everything on my first list, I can’t change any of them. But I can live my tiny little life with light and joy. With passion and hope. I can chase the light.

I chase the light, and I remember that this life is actually worth living, even with all the sadness in it. I chase the light, and I remember the Giver of these little joys, and I give thanks in return.

I refuse to let the griefs and evils of this world pull me all the way down into the pit. I will revolt against this despair. I will chase the light. I will grasp hold of the ephemeral joys of my itty bitty domestic life. And I will remember — always — the Source of this light.

 

10. Grief can be a gift
Grief is a gift that the Church needs to learn to deal with. Grief has the potential to refocus us on the Eternal, if we’ll let it. Grief and loss guard us against the temptation to degrade Heaven into a distant and entirely non-applicable theory, instead of the life-altering reality that it is.

“When hints of sadness creep into our soul, we must not flee into happy or distracting thoughts. Pondering sadness until it becomes overwhelming can lead us to a deep change in the direction of our being from self-preservation to grateful worship.” ~Larry Crabb

Grief can be an oxygenating reminder of Eternity. Grief is often the mechanism for drawing our hearts and souls back to God and the eternal intimacy he’s promised.

Read more on the gift of grief here and here.

 

Through it all, Jesus remains
Man of sorrows, giver of the Comforter. Holy.

He is still preparing a place for us, and if he’s still preparing a place for us, then we know he’s still planning to usher us in, one day, to paradise.

The future remains brighter than the past, more glorious, and more real.

Indeed, we live in the “now and not yet Kingdom.” And in this time, and in this space, it is right to mourn, it is normal to feel the pain, it is holy to burn for justice.

It is also good that we remember: he is coming back.

Amen.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Amazing Grace & a Prayer for the Human Family

Sunset over Cairo – 2011
Photo credit – Stefanie Sevim Gardner

I’m sitting at my desk in our guest bedroom when the bells from the church across the street begin to ring. They began at eight in the morning and they end at ten at night, giving us a full ten hours without being reminded of the time.

This is new for me. While hearing the call to prayer was a sound embedded into my childhood, I rarely heard church bells. These church bells also tend to peel out the tune of “God Bless America” a bit too often for my liking.

But this morning, as though sensing my despair, I heard the sound of “Amazing Grace.”

Amazing Grace – that hymn sung by believers and non-believers with its haunting melody and stunning truth.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see

John Newton

Most of us know the history of this song. John Newton’s past as a slave trader, his conversion, his stepping into grace and writing a song. But nothing is quite as simple as the short histories that we read, In fact, it took him three more slave trading voyages before he’d had enough. It took him even longer, 34 years longer, to write a “blazing pamphlet” called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade” – a publication used by John Wilberforce, a member of British Parliament, to put forward a bill to abolish the slave trade. Newton died six months after the bill was passed in 1807.

I relate with this history. We often take baby steps along our journey toward understanding better what it is to love our world and seek justice as Jesus would, only to look back in stunned disbelief that it took us so long. We look back at our excuses and they seem so pitiful.

And yet – Grace.

Most of us at A Life Overseas are deeply involved in organizations, projects, and with people around the world where injustice is a daily reality. I would submit that it is easier to face injustice in countries and places that we don’t legally belong to. We can see these and have an outsider’s view even if they are a daily part of our work. Turn the camera on our passport countries and suddenly it gets personal.

At least, that is how it’s been for me.

If you , like me, are mourning and longing for a better world; if you, like me are praying for your passport country, wherever it is, and the injustices you see there; if you, like me are longing to do more, longing to fight injustice wherever you see it, feeling guilty about not doing enough yet completely overwhelmed with all that life has brought you in the past weeks – displacement, death, sickness, loss of friendships, goodbyes, uncertainty, inability to plan for the future – I offer you this prayer today.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us
through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole
human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us;
unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in
your good time, all nations and races may serve you in
harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ
our Lord…..

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer – Prayer for the Human Family and Prayer for Social Justice

In closing, may you soak in these words from Eugene Cho:

Chaos ensues. Anxiety rises. Lament is in the air. Yet, Christ is our anchor. Hold tight. Be steadfast. Resist the empire. Be compassionate. Pursue justice. Stand with the oppressed. Fight for the vulnerable. Seek God’s Kingdom. And keep pointing people to Jesus.

Amen. Come quickly Lord Jesus.


Posts on A Life Overseas that focus on Racism

Hope as the Church’s Long Game

by Jacob Sims

March 21, 2020 – It’s a beautiful morning as the sun rises over Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The predictably sweltering heat and sticky humidity are not quite yet descended on the city as I make my way across Sihanoukville Boulevard just east of Independence Monument. 

In a mere 10-minute walking commute to work each morning, I pass the icons of affluence in a rising capital city — the towering, rapidly proliferating skyscrapers; the dramatic open parks; the army of ultra-luxury cars swerving around aging rickshaws. I pass state power in abundance as well — one of the world’s few North Korean embassies; the US Ambassador’s French-colonial mansion; the fashionable and imposing EU and Singaporean consulates. 

These temples of modern wealth and power sprinkled amidst crushing poverty are particularly perplexing this morning in a world gone mad with COVID-19.

In Cambodia as elsewhere, the poor are disproportionately affected by the crisis. Furloughs and lay-offs hit low income jobs first and hardest. Poor families are forced to choose between food and safety. Quarantining itself is impossible for millions of the most impoverished.

Regardless of economic status, fear is rampant and people are looking for a scapegoat. It is widely believed in Cambodia that western tourists and NGO workers are spreading the disease. The theory that the US Army planted the virus in Wuhan back in December is commonly accepted across the sub-continent. New visas from the United States and Western Europe were indefinitely barred several weeks back.

During my brief walk, I am eyed suspiciously as people make a concerted effort to keep their distance. Small children point at the westerner and mothers hurry them into a 20-foot bubble of extreme outdoor social distancing. 

Later this morning, the State Department issues its unprecedented Global Level 4 warning. Shortly thereafter, I find myself evacuated home. 

The situation here is no different. 

The open, interconnected, globalized world which this country helped create and seemed unassailable just a few weeks ago now feels very fragile, our future unknown.

Unemployment in the United States is at a record high. The stock market plunges in historic fashion. The country is on lock-down. Isolation-based anxiety is palpably boiling over.

Year-to-date, coronavirus is the leading cause of death in America, claiming more lives per hour than heart disease, all forms of cancer, the flu, or any other cause. 

Yet, the country visibly aches for rapid return to normalcy in a characteristically American prioritization of economic expediency over human life. We are paralyzed with fear. Our ability to control the illusory bubble which is modern American society is wholly upended.

And on and on it goes. Day after evolving day, the one constant in this ever-changing crisis is a persistent reminder of how earthly power yearns to protect itself above all else. As chaos looms and life becomes increasingly unpredictable, our world reveals its true nature. In our utter terror, we rampantly stoke prejudice; blame others for loss; and deny reality. 

— 

With so much uncertainty, so much division and fear, the key question posed in Stanley Hauerwas’ and Will Willimon’s 1982 ethical classic Resident Aliens remains prescient. What tools do we have as a global Church to ‘show the world what it is not’? 

On the surface, the global Church is impacted the same way as the rest of the world. Congregations around the world met virtually this Easter Sunday. In Jerusalem, for the first time in over 600 years, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (built on top of Christ’s tomb) cancelled its Easter ‘Feast of the Resurrection.’ The last cancellation came as the bubonic plague was gripping the world and another wave of social distancing to curb a pandemic was required. 

But, we find our hope, ‘our difference,’ apart from our ability to meet freely and openly together. Historically, as a body of believers, our hope is directed at the unreasonable result of unbelievable suffering. As we celebrated Easter last month, we remembered this hope. We recalled that even as our church buildings were empty, the tomb is empty too.

If the Church is to distinguish itself, it must do so via this divine and historic gift — a perseverance in suffering well. 

We live in a society — particularly in our place as expatriates among the global powerful — which doesn’t often recognize the need to suffer. It is all too easy for us to resist suffering; blind ourselves to loss; delude ourselves into pushing away grief. 

We do this when we blame others for the unblameable. We do this when we foster or accept lies which deny the inconvenience of reality. We do this when we look for human solutions — when we look to our wealth, our power, our egos, our ability to travel and move freely — as barriers to the inescapable reality of pain. 

Yet, today, we find ourselves in a rare moment where our ascendant world is vulnerable to admitting that it is indeed suffering.

As David Kessler (coiner of the famous Five Stages of Grief typology) notes in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “we are feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed…and it has.”

As post-modern humans, we lack the tools to respond to grief effectively. Since we lack hope in the eternal, we seek to rid ourselves of suffering via other means. We deny. We become angry and blame others. We ‘bargain’ or try to use our own powers to correct the uncorrectable. 

Languishing in a German prison cell nearly eighty years ago, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer noticed a similar trend. He pondered the tremendous grief of mortal death and dashed aspirations and unfulfilled human potential as a decimated continent suffered the virus of Nazi occupation. While recognizing the enormous loss, he also saw a larger gain. “That which is fragmentary may point to a higher fulfillment, one which can no longer be achieved by human effort. Strive though we might, the only work that matters was done by grace alone.”

As members of the historic body of Christ, we are offered this other path to the ‘fragmentary’ energies of ‘striving’ and ‘human effort.’ We are offered the very building blocks necessary to deal with suffering well. We are offered a chance to embrace pain as a catalyst for a meaningful life in a fallen world. As Paul states in Romans 5: 3-5, “…suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. Hope does not put us to shame. For God’s love is poured out into our hearts through the given Holy Spirit…”

— 

Beyond mere present pain and suffering, Kessler also notes the current prevalence of “anticipatory grief” — the feeling of uncertainty and despondency about the future when outlooks are grim. 

In spite of our denial, this feeling is natural today. This world of our own design feels a good deal more chaotic and less welcoming than it did just a few months ago. 

But again, as Christians, we are offered something more. In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard defines hope as “a joyful anticipation because of who we know God to be.” 

Through scriptural revelation and the inspiration of the living Church, we know God to be merciful and powerful and just beyond our ability to fathom. 

As the world attempts, with increasing desperation, to escape and deny its suffering and grief, we have an opportunity to accept these realities with hope.

Our hope then flows from faith in a force, a God, beyond our comprehension — beyond rational proof . This transcendent God desires union with us who are beyond love, and through that love, redeems us who are broken beyond redemption.

Without grounding in this sort of unbelievable faith, human existence — including a supposedly Christian one — is based on nothing more than illusions and rationalizations.

But, if we base our faith in the only realistic hope for humanity’s redemption — a God beyond our comprehension who loves us beyond our ability to receive it — we can start afresh the humble, courageous journey as travelers in the greater adventure of His glory instead of our own.

Perhaps then, we will confront the sin we see in the world with prayer instead of policies of further oppression.

Perhaps then, we can begin to hold our plans and even our very lives more loosely in an uncertain ‘fragmentary’ world.

Perhaps then, we will learn what it truly means to live by faith: a “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we cannot see.” Hebrews 11:1

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

Jacob works for an NGO fighting modern slavery in Southeast Asia. From 2015-2020 he led an international development consulting practice and served as adjunct faculty at the College of William & Mary — teaching and guest lecturing in courses on Education, Human Rights, Migration, and Global Health. He previously led humanitarian programs in northern Myanmar and co-founded a social justice organization in eastern Uganda. Jacob holds a Master’s degree from LSE and is currently preparing to publish his first book, WanderLOST: stories from the winding road to significance.

Despair is Where Hope is Born

Sometimes I get tired of talking about sad things. Sometimes I want to talk about peace and love and joy.

So recently, when I was asked to join two other speakers in presenting on the theme, “Emotions in the Psalms,” I asked if I could do something on the happy side. I’m tired of talking about grief.

But the more I got into it, the more I heard Admiral Ackbar declaring, “It’s a trap!” Turns out you can’t talk about hope without dealing with despair.

I started coming across words like these from Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann: “The prophetic poet asserts hope precisely in exile.”

I listened to the amazing new song by Andrew Peterson, Is He Worthy? The song ends with a beautiful proclamation about the Lamb and the Throne and all peoples gathered around, but it starts with these questions and congregational responses:

Do you feel the world is broken? (We do)
Do you feel the shadows deepen? (We do)
But do you know that all the dark won’t stop the light from getting through? (We do)
Do you wish that you could see it all made new? (We do)

 

And again, Brueggemann:

“Hope expressed without knowledge of and participation in grief is likely to be false hope that does not reach despair. Thus…it is precisely those who know death most painfully who can speak hope most vigorously.”

 

We need this reminder.

We need to remember that true hope is not just optimism. True hope is not a flimsy, fluffy thing. No, true hope, Biblical hope, sees it all. It sees the bad, the hard, the pain. It sees the depths and the darkness. It sees the world’s sin and my own sin.

And it keeps on seeing…all the way to Christ. In the end, deep hope must be securely grounded in the character and love of God.

So if you’re not really feeling it, if you’re not feeling happy-clappy-Jesus-is-alive-and-all-my-problems-are-fixed, then take heart, because that’s precisely where hope is born.

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For more exposition on these themes, including a look at the magnificent Psalm 130 and the role of imagination in hope, check out the audio of my message here or via the trotters41 podcast.

 

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Psalm 130 (A song for pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem)

From the depths of despair, O LORD,

I call for your help.

Hear my cry, O Lord.

Pay attention to my prayer.

LORD, if you kept a record of our sins,

who, O Lord, could ever survive?

But you offer forgiveness,

that we might learn to fear you.

I am counting on the LORD;

yes, I am counting on him.

I have put my hope in his word.

I long for the Lord

more than sentries long for the dawn,

yes, more than sentries long for the dawn.

O Israel, hope in the LORD;

for with the LORD there is unfailing love.

His redemption overflows.

He himself will redeem Israel

from every kind of sin.

On Fundamental Sadness and the Deeper Magic

Some call it pessimism. Unspiritual. A sickness best treated with peppy music and cliché-riddled Christianese. They caution and guard against sadness, considering it a rabbit hole (or a worm hole) leading nowhere good. Others call it holy. Jeremiah-ish. Defending it with the label of realism – open eyes that see things as they truly are.

It is Fundamental Sadness.

Do you know what it feels like, this fundamental sadness? The sadness that seems to be part of all things?

Sometimes the sadness is very personal; it’s the loss of a sister or a father or a good friend. Sometimes it’s the loss of a country or long-treasured plans.

Sometimes the sadness is more global. It’s the emotional darkness that comes after you hear about Las Vegas, Mogadishu, the Yazidis, Paris, the Rohingya, or Raqqa. Sometimes its triggered by hashtags like #MeToo or #BringBackOurGirls.

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It is the blazing sunset that sears, not because of who’s present, but because of who’s absent.

It is the baby’s cry in a mother’s arms that taunts your empty ones.

It is the background sadness, fundamental, and seemingly underneath all things.

It’s the threat of miscarriage behind every pregnancy.

It’s the one who sees the beauty of the dawn, but feels deep in his gut that the dawn comes before the dusk – that sunrise precedes sunset.

It is the lover who knows, at the beginning of a beautiful kiss, that it will end.

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“…of all conceivable things the most acutely dangerous thing is to be alive.”

— G.K. Chesterton

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For me, this foundational sadness is not necessarily depressing, but it is always pressing: exerting force, demanding to be heard, demanding to be observed.

Do you know this feeling?

People get scared when I talk like this. I sort of do too. What will people think? This doesn’t sound right. Or mature. Or Holy.

And yet Jesus wept.

“And yet.” A powerful reminder, hinting at the deeper magic.

Jesus knew Jerusalem would destroy the prophets, and he knew Rome would destroy Jerusalem.

And yet.

Though the sadness feels fundamental, the deeper magic is there, waiting, pulsing. It absorbs the sadness, bearing it, transforming it, then re-birthing it.

 

The Deeper Magic
“‘It means,’ said Aslan, ‘that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.'”

Witches never know the deeper magic. They know only winter and death, sorrow and pain. Half-truths all.

But the deeper magic persists, refusing to be overwhelmed. It is older than death and wiser than time. The deeper magic knows that there is more.

There is hope.

And when hope is born (or reborn), the thaw begins. Without the deeper magic of hope, we might stop our story at the table of sadness and end up with an eternal winter and a dead lion. And that truly is horrible.

But the deeper magic must be got at, not through escaping sadness or loss, but through fully embracing it. Through laying down. I don’t think we need less lament, I think we need more lament, more tears.

So I invite you to the paradox of life bittersweet. Life’s not EITHER bitter OR sweet. But it’s also not neither. It’s both.

I invite you to make room for the person who is totally happy and deeply clappy.

I invite you to make room for the person who is frozen in sadness and depressed.

And I invite you to make room for the person who feels all of those things at the same time.

 

Why do we forget?
I sometimes wonder why others don’t see it or feel it. Life is sad. People are hurting. Why aren’t more people sad? But sadness doesn’t sell well, and it doesn’t seem to preach well either. But it’s there. It’s there in our families and ministries. It’s there in our churches and friendships.

Truth be told, it’s much easier to be angry. And so instead of being sad, everyone is angry. All.The.Time. And anger does sell well. (It seems to preach well too.)

Maybe you don’t believe me, maybe you don’t think sadness is there. But do you think that anger is there? That it’s in our families and ministries? That it’s in our churches and our friendships?

As a pastoral counselor, I see a lot of anger. But anger’s just a fire alarm, alerting us to the real problem. People don’t have an anger problem. People have a pain problem. And that pain is most often unlabeled, unwelcomed, unprocessed sadness.

Of course, sadness by itself isn’t the solution. (That’d be depressing.) But insofar as sadness prepares us for Hope, it is the solution.

And although I do not like it and I wish it weren’t so, deep sadness is often the mechanism for drawing our hearts and souls back to God and the eternal intimacy he’s promised.

When we’re unwilling to hold space for sadness, when we can’t handle the unwieldy truths of mystery and paradox, we block the very pathway that leads to hope. And hopeless people are dangerous people, willing to hurt themselves and others without measure or limit.

If we stop at sadness, without digging deeper, many terrible things become imminently rational. But the deeper magic shouts out and ushers in what only it can. Hope.

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I know the Lord is always with me.
I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me. 

No wonder my heart is glad, and I rejoice.
My body rests in safety.
For you will not leave my soul among the dead

or allow your holy one
 to rot in the grave.
You will show me the way of life,
granting me the joy of your presence
and the pleasures of living with you forever.
(Psalm 16:8-11)

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The Shock of Magic
The beautiful and shocking deeper magic meant that, in the near future, “the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”

Hope still means that.

The instrument of pain, the actual place of loss, which seems so strong and immovable, will move. It will be redeemed and transformed by the deeper magic; what has broken us will break, shattered by the love of the Lion.

There is Hope!

The altar will be cracked, and where blood and sadness once flowed, will soon be sunrise and Aslan’s roar.

May we never forget.

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photo credit

When God is Too Late

By Erica Mbasan

I spent a lot of time thinking that I somehow missed something, because I was single longer than all of my family and friends. I had a failed engagement and I lived in such an obscure place, I thought that it was too late for me. I was looking at others, comparing myself, when I should have trusted God that His plans for me are unique and beautiful.

Have you ever thought that you must have missed the bus? Maybe all of your friends were married and you were “left behind.” Maybe children come easily for some of your loved ones while you and your spouse have cried, struggled, and lost hope over the years. Maybe your prodigal child seems like they will never come back to the Lord, and you feel like there is no more hope. Maybe you expected more fruit on the mission field, or quicker language skills, or stronger disciples.

Maybe, just maybe, we have at some point in our lives (or multiple times), wondered why God was ignoring our prayers or taking too long in His purposes.

We thought God would act, we thought He would swoop in and intervene; but time went by and we saw no answer. Sometimes years or decades pass and we think God has forgotten about us; or maybe we heard Him wrong; or we have done something wrong to mess up His plans.

We don’t understand God’s ways or His timing. 

Sometimes we think we do, and then we are left disappointed, feeling abandoned. That is how Abraham must have felt (you can read his story in Genesis chapters 12-25.). God gave him a promise that he was going to be the Father of a great nation, and even of many nations. His wife was going to give birth to a son. The problem? They were both way too old. His wife Sarah was barren. Everything pointed to God being too late. After God made the promise, years went by. They thought they should “help” God fulfill His promises and ended up making a mess. They lost sight and they lost hope. (It NEVER works out well when we try to help God fulfill His promises.)

Jesus had a friend named Lazarus. When Lazarus was deathly ill, Jesus delayed in coming to visit his friend. Lazarus died, and his sister Martha basically told Jesus: God, You’re too late. You should have come sooner. Now there’s no hope.

Over and over we see this in the Word of God. God’s people get tired of waiting, thinking God was too late. In the case of Abraham, God would fulfill His promise and show His sovereign power. In the case of Lazarus as well, God would show His power over life and death and would resurrect his friend from the grave.

Time and again, God is faithful

…just not always in the way, or in the timing, that we expect. God’s plans are different from ours. Our expectations are sometimes smaller than what God actually desires to do in our lives. He allows us to go through times of waiting in order to develop our faith and prepare us for what’s ahead.

Don’t worry, He hears your prayers. He hasn’t forgotten about you. He has a bigger plan than you know.

He is not always going to give us what we want, but He will give us what is best. He is our Heavenly Father who knows what we need before we ask Him.

Keep trusting in Him. He is never late.

 

In what ways has God kept you waiting?

How has God used times of waiting to strengthen and prepare you for what was ahead?

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Erica Mbasan has served as a missionary in Northern Uganda for over ten years. In 2014, she married a wonderful Ugandan man. Together they serve the Lord and the people through discipleship, literacy training and practical assistance. In her “free” time, Erica maintains a blog and has written several books.

Hope Chases Us

More than a decade ago now, my husband, Mike, spent almost two years working in Uganda. During that time, Mike was shadowed for a week by a National Geographic photographer as he went about his work.

When the issue came out, the online feature was titled Hope in Hell: The reach of humanitarian aid. One of the photos illustrating this article features Mike. In it, he is a six-foot-tall white beacon surrounded by dozens of children all reaching for him. He has his arm out, passing something into one of the waiting hands while scores of others clutch at him. The sea of cupped palms is very dark against the pristine blaze of his T-shirt, and Mike’s expression is difficult to read. His eyes are fixed on the one hand he’s grasping, but his forehead is lined, his eyebrows tipped up toward each other in a small, worried salute.

Representing hope in hell did not look like an easy gig.

I first saw this photo before Mike and I ever met–back when he was living in Papua New Guinea and I was living in Los Angeles, when we were taking the first, cautious step towards a long distance relationship by writing dozens of letters to each other.

“I’ve been circling back to this topic of hope a lot lately, but I haven’t even come close to figuring it out,” I wrote to Mike after reading his letter about the National Geographic article.

“What is hope?” I wrote. “Can hope exist independently of something to place that hope in, some larger external source, or framework? Joy seems simpler to me, and being joyful in life is something I feel I have a better handle on than being hopeful. But hope – it’s a puzzle.”

Then I sent Mike an essay I had written called Hope Chases Us, a piece about a benefit dinner I had recently attended in LA.

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What do you wear when you’re going to spend the evening learning about sex slavery?

This was only one of the many important questions in life that I didn’t have a good answer for on Saturday. Two hours before I was due at a benefit dinner for International Justice Mission, I was staring into my closet at a loss.

A black dress and boots doesn’t work. I love these boots. They’re the most extravagant pair of shoes I’ve ever bought – knee-high, buttery, black leather with mini-stiletto heels. But leather-clad calves and dark draped curves feel too vamp to me. A suit and jacket seems too clinical. What I really want to wear, jeans, is too casual. In the end I go for international eclectic – a blue cotton shirt from India over black pants, embroidered platform shoes from Malaysia, and a silver Orthodox cross from Ethiopia…

It’s been two hundred years since the first abolition act was passed that made it unlawful for British subjects to capture and transport human beings, yet there are still about twenty five million people in the world today who are being held as slaves. That’s almost twice the number trafficked from Africa during the entire four hundred years of the transatlantic slave trade. The buying and selling of people is now the world’s second-most lucrative illegal profession, outranked only by the global trade in illegal arms.

Twenty five million is a number so large it defies comprehension. It’s more than the entire population of Australia. Who are they, and where?

They are Cambodian men trafficked to Thailand to work on construction projects. They are Yemeni children smuggled into Saudi Arabia to work as street beggars. They are children from Mali working on cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast.

To bring this slightly closer to home, the Ivory Coast holds forty-three percent of the world’s market in cocoa, and the USA is the world’s largest chocolate consumer.

To bring it closer still, the U.S. government estimates that about fifty-thousand women and children are trafficked into the United States every year for sweatshop labor, domestic servitude, or the sex trade.

…I pull up behind a shiny Corvette at the Millennium Biltmore and hand my keys to the valet. I am ashamed that after several recent stints in airport parking lots my car is filthy, and then proud that I do not own a Corvette. I’m ashamed, again, at the self-righteousness I recognize shadowing this thought. Then I am proud of my own humility.

I am only distracted from these mental gymnastics by the grandeur of the hotel lobby – acres of marble, ornate columns, and gilded ceilings…

The program that I am handed as I enter the event informs me that, for this evening at least, I am a 17-year-old girl named Panida from a hill tribe in Thailand. When I was twelve, my family sent me off with a man who visited my village and promised that if I came to work in his cigarette factory my earnings would be enough to support the rest of the family. He lied. I ended up in a brothel, where I worked for three years before I was rescued.

…I sip an apple martini. It is cold and sweet against my glossed lips – the bite of spirits cloaked by gentle green. A maraschino promise glows red from the bottom of the glass. I wonder whether Panida likes martinis. Then I remember she’s still too young to drink…

The walls of the ballroom are lined by carved pillars. An enormous chandelier hangs like an inverted wedding cake from the ceiling, four tiers of crystal falling toward the floor like a ballet of raindrops. At our table there doesn’t seem to be enough space for all the cutlery and accoutrements: two wine glasses, bread, individual pats of butter, our own personal dessert platters, and salads of braised pears and honeyed pecans.

Staff members from International Justice Mission mount the stage. They speak of modern-day slavery with a facility honed by years of witnessing what generally happens when power operates for too long in an accountability vacuum. Laws are just words on paper, the speakers say, until they are made reality in the lives of the vulnerable. And the vulnerable are just statistics until there are faces and stories to put to the violations.

Grainy black-and-white footage of brothel raids taken from hidden surveillance cameras is projected onto a large screen behind the stage. We see dozens of Panidas in seedy rooms, awaiting customers. A ragged toy perched neatly on a bed is a heartbreaking symbol of one little girl’s attempt to preserve some tattered remnant of a stolen childhood.

…Dessert taunts me all through dinner and in the end I don’t know which to start with. The small round of raspberry cheesecake, the brandy-snap basket filled with cream and strawberries, or the chocolate truffle? My carefully chosen black pants feel too tight…

It is too easy to simply showcase the irony of dining on steak and chicken while these videos play. Too easy to only raise an eyebrow at the fact that a mere twenty-one percent of my expensive ticket for the event actually went to the charity. But I am reminded of a familiar biblical admonition to look first to the log in my own eye. I am the one who owns so many clothes that I can spend half an hour deciding what to wear. I am the one with enough disposable income to afford the ticket in the first place. And I’m now the one responsible for how I respond to the information that’s being served to me on a silver platter right alongside three types of dessert.

The statement that catches me most off guard during the night is spoken near the end of the evening. It isn’t the shocking statistic that the trafficking of women and children for sex brings in more money annually than the entire Microsoft empire. It’s just six brave words.

“Hope chases us in this work.”

During the last eight years of my life – in prisons, in orphanages for abused children, in villages gutted by war and studded with landmines – I’d been granted glimpses into lives where cruelty, desperation, and grief had become normal. If you look too deep into the heart of that reality for too long, it is profoundly overwhelming. Over time it’s easy for cynicism to become a habit, even a refuge. It is tempting to rest in the numb embrace of a fatalistic paralysis.

…That night I dream of Rwanda, a place I haven’t yet been. After the benefit dinner I was up until one reading a book with the unforgettable title of Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. I know better than to read this sort of stuff late at night. The tale is as raw as the title – three former U.N. workers detailing the savaging of their humanitarian ideals by successive missions to conflict zones. Their increasingly desperate disenchantment as the story unfolds is mesmerizing and excruciating, and the dreams this story grants me are black and white and full of mass graves and machetes…

Hope chases us.

Sometimes it seems that hope could do with a lengthy course of steroids. Perhaps then it might stand a fighting chance in the footrace with despair.

But on a good day I can be anchored by remembering the story of the good Samaritan. In the instant the Samaritan walked past the wounded man lying in the ditch, he was not being called to hire and train a police force to escort travelers, hunt down the brigands and see them bought to trial (complete with defense attorneys) or single-handedly transform the entire Jericho road into a bastion of safety. He is lauded because he stopped to help the one.

My namesake for the evening, Panida, had lived within the borders of Thailand her entire life, but because she came from a hill-tribe minority group, she had never been recognized as a citizen. Two years after she was rescued from the brothel she finally received a Thai passport and, with it, some legally defensible rights. Her smile as she was pictured holding up her passport spilled joy and hope into a ballroom eight thousand miles from where she lived – hope that it is worth trying to make a difference one life at a time.

I’ve been in California this past week, not the brothels of Thailand or the hills of Rwanda. Stopping for one wasn’t climbing into the ditch to haul out the wounded, rescuing a Panida, or picking up a scalpel. It was meeting a friend for breakfast, returning a phone call, and writing a check.

Cynicism is the wide path of least resistance, and hope never seems to find me when I’m on that track. But when I’m most often surprised by hope’s companionship is also not when I’m trotting full speed down the road to Jericho. It’s when, by my all-too-human standards, I’m not really making much progress at all.

It’s when I pause to see others’ love in action, helping liberate people from slavery and its usual breeding ground, poverty.

When I’ve stopped for beauty – flowers, music, mountains, sunsets, great stories, amazing food, and the peaceful hush of a summer evening.

And when I’ve stopped for one.

***

“Hope chasing us,” Mike wrote to me the day after I sent him the letter.

“What a beautiful, precious image. Thanks for the reminder about guarding against cynicism. I really like how you didn’t cheapen it into the standard ‘I feel guilty because of all the ironies’ essay,” Mike replied.

“Do you feel chased by hope?” he continued. “I don’t most times. But I think that sometimes hope sneaks up on us when we’re wallowing in a dark, dark place and bursts into the room holding a giant candle and says, ‘Surprise! You forgot about me. But I haven’t forgotten you! I found the ending a bit abrupt, but I don’t know how I’d end it.”

“Frankly, I’m not sure about the ending.” I wrote back. “It’s interesting that you said it was abrupt. My main problem with it is that I’m not entirely sure I understand or mean what I’ve written in those last couple of lines. I know they’re beautiful and all. But do I really feel hope when I’ve stopped for one? Or am I more often feeling impatient because my schedule’s been thrown off, or helpless because I’m not sure how to help that one, or simply feeling … nothing … because I’m looking too far forward and haven’t stopped to notice the moment?”

“I love the image of hope chasing us, love it,” I finished. “But putting into words what that actually means for me – that’s different. I think I partially succeeded in that essay, but only partially…”

[excerpted from Love At The Speed Of Email]

I share this here today because, eight years later, this is still something I think about. And I suspect I am not the only one. A life overseas forces you to confront many ironies, injustices, deprivations, and desperations. It can clarify your hopes, and the source of those hopes. It can also cloud and confuse.

So I would love to hear from you on this.

Do you find it easy to feel and hang onto hope?
What gives you hope?

 

When the Mission Field Comes to You

While rounding a corner on a run in the United States the other day, I came across a Muslim women clad in a headdress and robes. I could see her cower off the sidewalk a bit as this white, American man came plodding her way in middle America. You could sense her apprehension and read her thoughts of “here we go again.”

I greeted her warmly, commenting on the beautiful day. You could visibly see her relax and the tension leave her body.

I’ve been in her position before. I too have been the foreigner in a land and culture which is not my own. I can relate to wishing I could change my nationality or accent in order to blend in. I wouldn’t wear my USA soccer jersey because of the perception of my nation in South Africa.

There are many foreigners in South Africa who have a much rougher go than an American not wearing a soccer jersey.

South Africa is a land of opportunity for the rest of Africa. I have met doctors and lawyers who clean houses and wash cars to escape a corrupt government or hope for a better life.

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With immigration and refugee issues we actually have the mission field coming to us in both South Africa and the United States.

In the past, persecution of Christians caused the gospel to spread in the book of Acts. Now the persecuted and displaced are often not believers. Today, we have nations with bad presidents and horrible conditions. People are fleeing for a better life. The mission field is coming to us.

I recently learned of an Egyptian friend moving to the United States. For the first time in my life I was quite nervous to hear of someone moving to my country. I fear for the welcome she will face as a person of Middle Eastern descent even if she is a Christian.

The Bible speaks often about hospitality,  devoting 2 books to this (2/3 John) as well as making it a requirement for leadership (1 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:8).

We often define hospitality as having guests our house or making meals for our friends. The true definition is doing this to people you do not know. What does this love of strangers look like today?

Jesus told us to love God and our neighbors. In the classic parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10), the entire story is told based on the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Who is our neighbor that we are to love? Those who look and sound just like us? The kingdom will not advance unless we go to those who hail from different places. Without bridging these divides we will merely build up our local Christian bubbles.

Hospitality is love of the stranger and those who are different than us. Perhaps instead of us going to the mission field, today the mission field is coming to us!

In the current climate, this has become a very political discussion.

Let’s lay our politics aside and have a gospel discussion about loving our neighbor, showing care for the stranger, and sharing the gospel with whoever God brings our way.

This week, let’s take a step in the direction of inclusion rather than exclusion.

  • Let’s do something kind for a stranger
  • Greet someone who looks or sounds different than us in a warm manner.
  • Be aware of our stereotypes, our words, and our thoughts to the “foreigner” in our midst
  • And most of all – let’s extend the kingdom of God.

Photo credit: Qiqi via photopin (license)

When the lights go out

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I want to do all the things. All the very good things there are to do in this world. So I overcommit myself. I don’t say “no.” I say “yes” instead, and spread myself too thin. Then my soul suffers. My work suffers. My sanity suffers. My family life suffers. My spiritual life suffers.

I suffer in silence, thinking I’m all alone. I’m the only one failing at everything. I’m the only one who can’t pull it together. I’m the only one who can’t catch my breath, who can’t catch up on work, who can’t catch up on school, who can’t catch up with friends, who can’t catch up with the God I say I love so very much.

And I, insecure missionary blogger that I am, am afraid to tell people.

To top all that off, the heat in Southeast Asia has been crushing me. The past two months have held record highs here, and we get a lot of power cuts. I echo Ramona Quimby in Ramona the Brave who shouted out “Guts! Guts guts guts!” when she wanted to say bad words. Instead, I yell “Cuts! Cuts cuts cuts!” and very nearly lose my mind.

After one particularly grueling 12-hour all-night power outage, something inside me broke — flat out broke. I lost my hope. I began to question everything. Why are we here? Why can’t we live in America? Why exactly do I serve this God of mine? And where the heck is He when I can barely sleep or even breathe in this heat?

I was struggling under the weight of all the expectations I had for myself: be a good mom, be a good wife, be a good home educator, be a good missionary, be a good team leader’s wife, be a good friend, be a good writer, be a good editor, be a good Christ-follower. And I couldn’t do any of it.

(If there’s one thing that overnight power outage taught me, it’s this: I am not nearly as good a person as I thought I was. Cuts cuts cuts: bad words all around.)

Finally, finally, I asked for prayers. I asked my closest friends and family in the States. I asked my teammates. I asked a few women in my organization. Then I confided my struggles to some other home school moms in my city.

I was met on so many levels by “me too.” I went from being alone to being supported. I went from drowning in my despair of cross-cultural servitude to feeling supernaturally upheld.

The next time the power went out in the middle of the night, I didn’t curse this land or this life or this electrical grid. I didn’t panic. I stayed calm and waited. I sang a worship song (which shocked even myself). I retained my sanity and my faith — something that could only have happened because people were praying for me.

The next day I remember waking up and thinking, seriously? Seriously? Is that really all I had to do? Ask for prayer? Why did I keep my struggles to myself for so long? Why did I think I had to hide? What kind of appearance did I think I needed to keep up anyway? Why did I think I couldn’t ask? Help came fast when I asked.

I spun my hopelessness wheels for too long. But I’ve learned again that I can ask. I can ask for prayer sooner rather than later — and so can you.

So today, if you’re spinning your hopelessness wheels, if you’re afraid to confide in someone or ask for prayer or even for practical help, can I encourage you to ask? Just ask. The God of the universe is here to help. The Body of Christ is here to help. Help is right here waiting, even when the lights go out and we find ourselves in the dark.

All we have to do is ask.

I Believe, Help My Unbelief

In work, ministry, and life we all experience frequent seasons when things don’t work out quite the way we had hoped.

In missions, our internal dialogues consist of “Am I making a difference?” or “Will these things ever change?”

When we are trusting for provision, for a breakthrough in our health, or seeing a life changed, there is very fine line between losing hope or accepting the limitations of the change that will happen, all while still believing in a God who could do the unexpected.

We’ve all heard the stories where people are told to “just have faith”. I personally have seen a friend who was told her father died because of a lack of faith.

Is that the answer? More faith?

This year has brought several of these challenges to our family. Ministry disappointment, divorce of those close to us, and various health related issues.

We found ourselves wrestling with the delicate blend of serving an all-powerful God on a broken and imperfect planet. Sometimes this process results in times of throwing up your hands, wondering what is happening.

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A passage of Scripture has been in the forefront of my thoughts for a few months. It seems to reflect this very tension.

In Mark 9:14-29, Jesus heals a boy with an unclean spirit. In the dialogue which preceded the healing, Jesus asked the boy’s father how long this has been happening? The fathers respond with,

“But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

Jesus points out the key word in the father’s statement.

“IF”

“And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.”

How many times in the depths of frustration do we catch ourselves uttering “If?”

We almost feel guilty for this. Of course Jesus can do it. He is God after all.

Yet in our humanity, we utter that two letter statement of doubt, often in fear of getting our hopes up.

“If.”

Not so much if you are capable, but if….

  • You will do this for me, not just others.
  • The provision happens in my bank account, not always my neighbors’.
  • The healing we see working in our communities will find its way into our own homes.

Yes, He can,…but will He break into a broken and fallen world and touch MY situation.

The father in the story utters a phrase which is so profound.

“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

I believe…..help my unbelief.

I believe in truth, I believe in principle, I believe in the unchanging character of the one I serve.

But…

Help my unbelief, which comes with emotion, fear, doubt, and weariness

As we turn to the New Year, it is good to do two things.

Acknowledge and be honest about…

  • the fears that our ministry will never achieve all we hope,
  • the doubts that God will answer OUR prayers (not just those of others),
  • the weariness which can border on frustration, tempting us to pack it in and go home

These are areas where we cry out to God to help our unbelief.

At the same time, we need to remind ourselves of what we DO believe.

  • I believe in the unchanging character of a good God.
  • I know God is on my side and working for my benefit.
  • I trust Immanuel, God with us, is not leaving us alone in this journey.

Acknowledge the unbelief and ask for help.

Remind ourselves of the truth which forms our foundation. (Preach it in the mirror!)

Take some time as the year wraps up to reflect and reset. We all need it.

I Believe….Help My Unbelief

 

Photo by Tiago Muraro