Magic Charms and Contingency Plans

“A few nights ago, Mama F came to me terrorized, begging and screaming for the basil plant in our yard.” 

I lived in Tanzania for 16 years, and this was one of the most extraordinary stories I heard.

I have a friend, an American I’ll call Allison, who has lived in a remote village in Tanzania for decades. Often when they visited the main city, they would stay with us. 

It was on one of these visits that she told me a story that sounded like it came straight out of the New Testament: mind-blowing to those of us from western, secular cultures, but not uncommon in the rest of the world. What struck me about this story was not just the supernatural aspect, but how at our heart-level, no matter our worldview, we cling to things that feel more certain than God. We idolize our contingency plans. 

But first, the story. 

One of Allison’s neighbors, Mama F, declared faith in Christ and started attending a Bible study. Allison praised God for this, not knowing that the story was just beginning.

This is how Allison told it:

“A few nights ago, Mama F came to me terrorized, begging and screaming for the basil plant in my yard. I saw that something had taken hold of her four-year-old daughter. She was clenched in her mother’s arms, writhing and gurgling, and foaming at the mouth.  

Hearing Mama F’s cries, other neighbor women gathered, and we all followed as she ran back to her house, smearing my basil plant on little F’s head. Baba F, the father, had run for the witchdoctor to buy emergency witchcraft to ward off the attack. Mama F would not accept my westernized offer to take them to the hospital.  

We women entered her home, everyone wanting to help. One woman shook and rubbed a live chicken over little F. Another brought a pouch with herbs to burn and handfuls of dirt to make a mud mixture to smear over her body. Mama F frantically gulped a liquid from a cup and spewed it onto her daughter. Then she placed knives under her armpits, wrapped F in banana leaves, and tied a black cloth charm around F’s wrist. The ladies burned weeds so that smoke filled the room. Meanwhile, F was writhing and foaming, enveloped in darkness.

As I walked that night with these women I love who were so fear stricken, so desperate to save this child in the only ways they knew of, I prayed out loud for His Light to shine in this living nightmare. He enabled me to speak simple, childlike words in this dark chaos of despair. ‘God is able to help and heal F. This witchcraft will not work. May I pray for her in Jesus’ name? I can ask for help from the Almighty God because I believe Jesus shed his blood to pay for my sin so I am forgiven. Please let me pray for her.’  

But I knew I needed to say more. ‘Mama F, because God is holy and only He deserves glory, you have to stop this witchcraft. He wants you to see it is by His power and grace alone that F is healed. Please remove the knives and the leaves.’

Miraculously, they agreed, and placed her in my arms.

I squatted down on the dirt floor, holding that precious, terrorized little girl in my arms and I prayed. I felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit that this was not just a physical need for healing, but spiritual. So, in Jesus name, I prayed against the powers of darkness over this little one; I rebuked Satan and told him to leave; I entrusted F into God’s arms of healing and protection.

God heard and answered! As I prayed, the convulsions and foaming and gurgling ceased, and F lay peacefully in my arms. I heard the women’s voices declare, ‘Wow! The prayer is working! Jesus Heals! God hears the prayers of Christians! Let’s go find more Christians to pray for her!’ 

We returned to my house where my teammates were waiting. With F still in my arms, exhausted but at peace, my teammates and I lingered with our neighbors in our front yard, praising God for His healing in word, prayer, and song.”

But the story was not yet over.

Allison continued, “Mama F attended the ladies prayer group again and gave praise to Jesus for his healing of her child. Then a few days later, F came to our home to play, wearing her charm necklace again.  

I spoke to her mama that God does not share His glory with another. F does not need the charms for her protection when we cry out to the one true God. She agreed, but the necklace charm remained. I told her there is no need to fear, nor appease the forces of darkness. But the necklace remained.”

Allison sat in my kitchen on a Wednesday and told me what happened just the night before:

“Tuesday evening, the terrors came again to F. Since we were here in the city when the attack came on, little F’s family sought the help of our teammates, who together prayed for her, but this time she was not responding. They agreed to take her to the clinic in the neighboring village.  

When I received word of this, I asked if she was still wearing any charms. She was. My husband called Baba F and exhorted him to remove the charms, as God will not share His glory with another. Meanwhile, the doctor was not able to help F. So they brought F to our local evangelist where they cut off her charm necklace and began to pray for her again. She was immediately restored to normal.”

When Allison finished her story, my reaction was to cry, “Glory be to God!” It is, indeed, truly a remarkable story–especially for those of us who assume that this kind of thing ended in the book of Acts. But it would be a shame for those of us from westernized cultures, who scoff at magic charms and witchdoctors, to think that God isn’t trying to teach us the same lessons that he was teaching little F’s family.

He wants the glory alone.  

And his glory is never evident in contingency plans.

I’ve thought about this often since I heard Allison’s story. How often do I have a contingency plan? How often do I say the words that God is faithful, but in the back of my mind, I agonize over solutions to worst case scenarios?

Sure, I say I believe in heaven and that life is only a shadow of what’s to come. But really, I want to enjoy that shadow with as much comfort as I can muster and as much pleasure as I can wring out–just in case this is all there is.

Sure, I know that God is the rightful king and sovereign over the universe. But I’d also really like to be under a government that is safe, powerful, and holds to all of my values–and I’m anxious if I don’t get that.

Sure, I believe that Scripture tells me that God will provide for all my needs.  But I cling to that steady savings account and regular income, just in case.

I know there’s a balance here, because God expects us to be wise and prudent with the tools for protection He gives us. God often chooses to care for us through the grace of life insurance, modern medicine, or social security. But when I go to sleep at night, where is the source of my peace? Where is the line between taking wise precautions versus tying my safety nets to my wrist like a magic charm? I must ask myself: Am I trusting in God, or am I trusting in my contingency plans?

I wonder if sometimes, God is just waiting for us to cut off the magic charm. Because He will not share His glory with another.

*A version of this post was originally published at Not Home Yet.

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.

When God is Disappointing

The disappointments just keep piling up like dirty laundry in a teenage boy’s bedroom. We were required to leave our overseas home of sixteen years three months early. We didn’t get to say proper good-byes. We finished out the school year in front of screens, including my job as principal. We lived out of suitcases like vagabonds for several months. We didn’t get the chance to reconnect with most friends in the States before we needed to move into a new life. Now that we’ve begun that new life, we’re forbidden to connect here also. The pools are closed, the churches are closed, the schools are closed. Roadblocks are preventing us from all the avenues we usually use to join a new community. Of course, they say I could join an online Bible study (with strangers). That sounds positively dreadful.

I know I shouldn’t complain, and yet I do. This was never what I envisioned as our departure from a country we deeply loved. Now that life is going on without us, our wounds stay open. This is never what I envisioned for our entry back into our passport country. Isolation, a life on hold, waiting and waiting and waiting for the day when it will feel like our new lives have actually started. “Build a RAFT,” they say. “That’s how you transition well.” If transition is supposed to be a raft, then ours has leaks, and we’re not even sitting on it, but holding on to the sides for dear life as we are thrown down the rapids. And we have no idea where or when the end will be.

I know it’s good to grieve, but often it’s turned to bitterness. There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on these days, and I find myself jumping on that bandwagon. I look for someone to blame. Someone in authority over me is making bad decisions and deserves to be vilified. Someone needs to be fixing this mess. And before I know it, I realize that I’m actually blaming God. And then I feel smugly justified in feeling irritated with God because I am prevented from doing good things. After all, my plans for how I was going to love people in my new community were really great. What were you thinking, God?

Yes, I realize how stupid that sounds. Reminding God how much he needs me is a great way to recognize how arrogant I really am. 

There are many things God routinely has to teach me, but the One Big Truth that he keeps coming around to is his sovereignty. He is running the universe; I am not.  

I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’

That means COVID was not an accident. Every single disappointment, from closed schools, to canceled graduations and vacations, to the roadblocks to ministry–all are meticulously ordained by a sovereign God.

I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (Is. 45:7)

Some say this belief means I think God is wicked. How can a good God allow so many bad things? Isn’t it obvious that human sin and supernatural evil are the causes of bad things? Indeed. But even evil must fall under God’s sovereign will. If it doesn’t, what would be the alternative? We would have a weak God who isn’t powerful enough to stop evil when he pleases. That’s not a God worthy of our worship.

Margaret Clarkson wrote, “The sovereignty of God is the one impregnable rock to which the suffering human heart must cling. The circumstances surrounding our lives are no accident: they may be the work of evil, but that evil is held firmly within the mighty hand of our sovereign God…. All evil is subject to Him, and evil cannot touch His children unless He permits it. God is the Lord of human history and of the personal history of every member of His redeemed family.’”

Some say this belief makes me fatalistic, that if God is calling all the shots, then where is human choice? Why would we work to make the world better? Why should we plan, vote, protest, strategize? But Scripture is clear that God’s sovereignty does not negate our responsibility. Yes, of course, we push back evil; we strive to extend grace; we fight to bring redemption. But at the end of the day, we rest in knowing that even when we (or those around us) mess up, fail, even destroy–even then, God has allowed it; God has a purpose in it. 

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

Sometimes we just need to remind ourselves that God is in control. It’s an easy platitude; we put it on t-shirts and coffee mugs. It can become stale and irrelevant if we say it and don’t mean it; if we write it and don’t live by it. Bitterness, complaining, and unrighteous anger are good indications that it’s time for another reminder. 

Living with the knowledge of God’s sovereignty means that when I’m disappointed, I can grieve the loss without becoming bitter. When I reach the end of my ability to change my situation, I can rest instead of fret. It means that when my plans go haywire, I can trust that God knows what’s best better than I do. He is master of my time, my money, and my health, so I don’t need to let the loss of those things cause me stress. And even when I am prevented from doing my version of good things, I can find freedom in remembering that God doesn’t actually need me. 

Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “You either believe God knows what He’s doing or you believe He doesn’t. You either believe He’s worth trusting or you say He’s not. And then, where are you? You’re at the mercy of chaos not cosmos. Chaos is the Greek word for disorder. Cosmos is the word for order. We either live in an ordered universe or we are trying to create our own reality.”

How do you praise God when your plans keep disintegrating?

by Alyson Rockhold

At the end of last year, my husband and I found ourselves unexpectedly back in the U.S. Our missions agency was in the middle of transferring us from Zambia to South Sudan when instability in the region forced us back home. We had left friends in Zambia believing God was leading us to a new country: had we misunderstood? During this time of uncertainty, I struggled with sadness over the death of our great plans. I wrestled mightily with being so reliant on family and friends to provide for us as we found ourselves without a home, a job or even a whiff of a timeline for moving forward. 

During church one Sunday, I realized that my mouth was forming the words of a praise song but inwardly I was singing a lament. Each word of praise I tried to force out of my mouth tasted like chalk: a dry, anemic thing with little belief behind it. I knew the sadness itself wasn’t the problem, because God has given us the full range of emotions and wants us to bring him out hurts and concerns. However, I had let my lament become so big in my mind that I had forgotten that God is bigger. 

That night I searched the internet for praise resources and stumbled upon a PDF entitled 31 Days of Praise. Each day included an attribute of God and  a short prayer. I started right away. Over that first month, I saw my vocabulary of praise strengthen in a way that also made my sadness and fears weaken. So I continued going through that document day by day over the last five months.

This vocabulary of praise was a lifeline for me when we eventually canceled our plans to go to South Sudan and began moving forward with a new assignment in Kenya. Reminding myself about the truth of who God is gave me the strength to continue trusting Him as we moved yet again into the unknown.  As our new plans begin to take shape, I realized we would have time to visit friends in a remote area of Tanzania before finally re-settling in Kenya. Our Tanzanian friends asked us to teach at their school while we visited. We were happy to comply! 

Little did I know that two weeks after leaving American soil, I would once again be stuck, jobless, reliant on others and have no idea when this will change. Yet, this time I feel totally different. Maybe a short overview of the last week will shed some light on why:

 

March 18: We learn that Kenya’s borders are closed for at least the next 30 days.  As a result, we are stuck in Tanzania. Also, with an unknown start date, we can no longer stay on our agency’s insurance. We scramble to find an alternative. 

           -Today’s praise: God of Peace: I praise you with all my heart  because you are the Lord my peace. You are the God of peace who will soon crush Satan under my feet.    (Based on Romans 16:20)

OK Lord, all I see around me is chaos, but I trust that you are the God of peace.

 

March 19: Tanzanian schools are closed for the next 30 days. Now we are not only stuck here, we are jobless. We finally get decent Internet access and are overwhelmed with reports about COVID19 around the world. 

            -Today’s praise: The God Who Heals: Father, I praise you because you are the God who heals your people physically, emotionally and spiritually. (Based on Exodus 15:26)

Heavenly Father, this virus is terrifying. What if it harms my family or reaches us here? Oh God, I believe you are the great healer!

 

March 20: The couple that was supposed to serve with us in Kenya has already returned to the U.S. We assess what we brought here when we planned on staying for a month (We left a big box of supplies for Kenya with friends in another city and only brought the minimum to this remote location.) Important things like cheese and chocolate got left behind and we really wish we had those now to comfort us!

          -Today’s Praise: The God of All Comfort: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Compassion and the God of All Comfort.” (2 Corinthians 1:3)

Father, my flesh is longing for worldly comforts. I praise you as the God whose very presence is comfort!

 

Since COVID-19 has trapped us here in Tanzania, our plans are once again moot! And yes I’ve definitely sung some laments. Yet, each time I have the truth of Scripture to re-center me and words of praise to refocus me. I can look back now and see how God used the struggles of last year to teach me how to bear with uncertainty and trust in His goodness no matter my circumstances. And I’ve discovered that praise can be the bridge between what my eyes see and what my heart knows to be true. Praise God!

Do you struggle to praise God when your circumstances aren’t exactly praiseworthy? I would love to hear what lessons God is teaching you during this challenging time. 

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Alyson has lived half of the last seven years overseas including time in Tanzania, Haiti, and Zambia. Her resume includes such diverse experiences as teaching English, assisting with C-sections and making weekly cookie deliveries to the elderly. She’s so thankful to have a grounded, wise, hilarious husband to share the adventures with.

I’m Tired of Asking You for Money

by Erin Duplechin

I’m tired of asking you for money. There. I said it. After almost 9 years of living off of missionary support, I have grown weary of the fundraising process.

It has never been easy. In fact, in the beginning it was downright terrifying. I remember sitting in my little girls’ room with a list of people on the floor and my cell phone in my hand, praying, asking God for the strength to just help me get through three phone calls that day — just three. Three phone calls to set up a time with people, letting them know that after we shared about our ministry we would be asking for money.

A few were able to tell me right then on the phone that they couldn’t support us, but most agreed to meet with us and out of everyone we met with, around 90% chose to financially support us. God was incredibly gracious to us and we left every meeting feeling strengthened, and not just about finances. Almost everyone wound up praying for us and speaking encouraging words over us.

God always surprises you, too. The friends that you think will no doubt support you, don’t, and people whom you barely know, will. We had people tell us that God told them to cancel their cable to support us. Ultimately, financial support isn’t just about someone choosing to partner with you, it’s also about what God is doing in them.

After 9 years, it is expected that there will be ebbs and flows to support. People inevitably have to drop out or lower their support. Some do it when they encounter financial changes, some because they feel led in a different direction. Maybe some people no longer identify with what you do. It’s expected, but still difficult.

As we prepare for next year’s budget we ask ourselves again, as it has become an annual tradition, will we have enough to meet all of our needs this year? Some years we’ve had more than what we needed, some years not.

We often straddle the line between the poverty mentality and the prosperity gospel. Where we live, we are rich in comparison to most, if not all, of our friends and colleagues from our host country.

So we ask ourselves these kinds of questions, seeking God’s wisdom in the midst of money guilt and confusion: I’m close to burn out, but is it really okay for us to take vacation? I guess they can wear these shoes a little longer — I mean, the hole isn’t completely through the sole yet. If I drive the scenic route to the office that will cost me one more kilometer of fuel, am I being a good steward of my gas?

We wrestle with saving money when our friends don’t have enough to buy soap. Our sending organization requires you to budget for savings. This comes with the experience of many veteran missionaries who, after returning to their passport country, had no money to send their kids to college, no money to live off of — nothing. So, out of obedience, and using Biblical wisdom, we try to save when our finances allow for it.

We also deal with the pressure of marketing ourselves. Over and over again, selling ourselves to donors, praying that we’ll appeal to their hearts.. and their wallets. It’s hard and strange and vulnerable and honestly, I don’t want to do it anymore.

It hurts when people say they’ll support you and they don’t. It’s painful when people drop their support without explanation. It hurts when you contact people and they don’t even acknowledge that you have. It’s vulnerable and exposing and most of the time I just want to cover up and hide away.

And that is when I have to look to Jesus: my Provider, Comforter, and Strength. The one great gift from a lifestyle reliant on the money of others is the radical, humbling realization that we are absolutely, 100% dependent on God—not people. It brings me to my knees with desperate prayers on my lips: for provision, for courage, for open hearts.

The money doesn’t always flow in immediately; we summon God’s strength and continue to ask. We draw near to Him and allow Him to build up our character and reshape our hearts. We pull back our spending for ourselves and perhaps begin being more generous with others. And we pray and pray and pray.

For the supporters reading this: thank you. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you. We couldn’t do this without you. Thank you for the value you see in us and what we do. Thank you for partnering with what God is doing in the world.

For my fellow reluctant fundraisers: stay the course. God will provide for whatever it is He’s called you to do. Know that you’re not alone, that we feel it too. Embrace the closeness of God in the hours spent asking and waiting for answers. And trust Him.

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Erin Duplechin is a missionary wife and mom of three living in Papua New Guinea. She serves in missionary care while supporting her husband’s Bible translation with the Mbore people. Before moving overseas, she served as a worship leader and continues singing and writing songs abroad. When she can, she writes about God and jungle life at erinduplechin.com.

The Truth About Missions Is That It’s A Long, Hard Slog

by Jen Oshman

“I don’t know, Jen, are we even ‘doing’ anything there? Or is it just a thing to…feel like we are doing something?”  My dear friend emailed me those words last week. Our two families have been going each week to the apartment of a newly arrived Somalian refugee family. We drive across town every Sunday afternoon with cookies and board games, and we pile into their teeny apartment living room and spend an awkward hour attempting to bring levity to their otherwise very difficult lives. It’s been about six weeks and she’s right, it doesn’t feel like we’re getting much done.

Her question points to a deep truth, which is felt acutely amongst missionaries overseas: missions is a long, hard slog. But this reality is rarely discussed here in North America, where we have energizing missions conferences and provocative books that prompt us to consider going.

Many of these conferences and books do, in fact, send us packing for God’s glory and the joy of all people. My husband and I love these conferences and books. We need leaders who consistently point us back to God’s global purpose and our role in it. Without their enthusiasm and convicting messages we slide into self-absorbed monotony.

But here’s what every missionary experiences about six months into his or her stint overseas: a sinking feeling of, “Oh my goodness. What have I gotten my family into over here? This people group is not receiving us. They cannot understand me. I cannot understand them. I am exhausted. This is not what I signed up for.” Like my friend, they ask, “Are we even doing anything here?”

In my 17 years as a missionary I have been to retreats and heard women in Japan cry out to God for mercy in the hard soil to which He has called them. I have gathered in small groups and seen the anguish on the faces of women in Tibet whose children are paying a very high price for what they perceive to be little or no payoff. I have shared coffee with women in Europe who wonder if they’ve dedicated their lives in vain to the people in their host countries. They each ask, “Are we even doing anything here?”

Two years ago when our mission agency had a Europe-wide conference, hundreds of church planters from across the continent (which has a total Evangelical Christian population of only 2.7%) gathered for refreshment and training. As various regional leaders stood before the crowd to share updates, they literally repeated one another over and over, “Missions is a long, hard slog.” We had been in one of the world’s most atheist nations for over a year and we couldn’t have agreed more ourselves.

At missions conferences, on the field, and even here at home, we who are in Christ need to remind each other that while we are called to be faithful, it’s up to the Lord to produce the fruit. 

With all authority in heaven and earth, Jesus asked us to go and tell all nations about Him in Matthew 28:16-20. He asks us to be faithful and He promises to be there (v. 20). In Acts 1:7-8 He promises to provide us with His power through the Holy Spirit as we go out into every neighborhood here at home and abroad. As we go, He goes. We carry Christ in us into every context whether it’s in our home countries or overseas. Not only does He promise to be with us and to provide the necessary power, but He promises that our efforts will not be in vain. Revelation 5:9 tells that people will indeed believe from every tribe, tongue, and nation. There will be fruit, produced by the Lord Himself, through our faithfulness.

God’s redeemed people are God’s means for redeeming people. 

I’m looking forward to sharing a cup of coffee with my friend this week and telling her that I completely understand her apprehension—I feel it too. But, yes, I believe we are really doing something there. Because when we walk into that apartment, so does Christ in us. Though our attempts at connecting with our Somalian friends are feeble at best, Christ in us is present. Jesus fills their apartment at least once a week. As we obey Him and sit with them on the very rug from which they pray to Allah, Jesus asks us to trust Him that His power is present and He will bear fruit according to His will.

The truth about missions is that it’s a long, hard slog. More often than not, I think missionaries feel ineffective. Crossing cultures in Jesus’ name is downright painful. But we are God’s means for His ends and we must step out in faith, trusting His presence and His power, and that He will bear His fruit in His time.

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Jen Oshman is a wife and mom to four daughters and has served as a missionary for 17 years on three continents. She currently resides in Colorado where she and her husband serve with Pioneers International, and she encourages her church-planting husband at Redemption Parker. Her passion is leading women into a deeper faith and fostering a biblical worldview. She writes at www.jenoshman.com.

So You Want to Cross Oceans and Cultures. Are You Ready?

Is your passion for the glory of Jesus Christ stronger than anything else?  Do you believe in the depths of your soul that he is the greatest treasure of the universe, and that heaven and hell are real?

You may envision the glory of adventure, you might be full of noble good works, and maybe new challenges thrill you.  But all of this will be crushed under the magnitude of the difficulty of learning another language, the isolation of being away from your home and culture, and the tears of your parents….or your children.

It’s got to be about Jesus, not you.  Not your fulfillment.  Not your vision.  Not your success. Ultimately, it’s got to be just about him.

If you are married, is your spouse steadfastly unified with you in this passion?  In work such as this, there is no such thing as a spouse that is along for the ride.  After Jesus, prioritize your spouse.  If God wants you to do this, he’ll make you united in your vision.  Or at the very least, he’ll give your spouse the willingness to humbly seek after that vision.

Are you willing to submit yourself to stringent accountability?  Hundreds of people will be keeping you accountable.  Every church who puts your picture on their wall.  Every person who writes a check each month.  Every child who prays for you at bedtime.  All of them will expect you to live a life of integrity and humility.  All of them will be expecting to hear from you regularly.  Are you—or are you willing to become—a good communicator?  Are you willing to vulnerably share with people beyond your group of close friends?  Are you even willing to share your life in front of large crowds?

Are you adequately trained?  Good intentions are great, but they are not enough.  You can have the most willing, servant-like heart, and yet be more of a liability than a help overseas. Do you have a valuable skill to share?  Education, business, agriculture, linguistics?  If you are planning to be a leader, administrator, or church planter, have you proven yourself first in your home country?  Are you an avid, dedicated student of the Word of God?  If not, then now is not the time for you to go.  Get trained first.

Are you willing to be more teachable than you ever have been in your life?  Forget everything you thought you knew about people. Be ready to reconsider what church looks like, what productivity looks like, what wealth and poverty look like. You’ll be starting from scratch with an entirely different worldview, and even right and wrong won’t seem so black and white anymore. Think every aspect of your theology is set in stone?  Get ready to have your world rocked.

Are you ready to be patient and to persevere?  There certainly is a place and a purpose for those who serve overseas for just weeks or months. But real fruit and lasting change?  Be prepared for it to take much longer than you ever expected. Years longer. Know that God will need to do some serious work on you first, before your impact will be measurable.

Do you feel inadequate, weak, and overwhelmed with this task?  If so, then that’s right where God needs you to be in order to use you. Open your hands, your heart, your plans. Be willing. Be weak. Be okay with failure. You don’t need to have strength, or super-spirituality, or even courage.

You just need to trust.  Trust, obey, and be faithful.

Missions Means Choosing the Desert

Earlier this year, I went through a season of insomnia.  A chaotic furlough, a new job, and lots of life change brought on anxiety, which bred sleeplessness, which bred more anxiety, until I was a mess.

I lay awake many nights and begged God, “You know I need to sleep.  You know I can’t function without it.  I believe you want me to be productive.  So why won’t you help me sleep?”

And the Word of God spoke to me through Deuteronomy 6:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.

There I was, wandering in the desert, feeling desperate, crushed, and abandoned by God.  Until I remembered that the desert is the very best place for God to meet me.   

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna….to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

God caused you to hunger.  Just like sleep, bread is necessary for life itself, yet God wanted his people to remember that their very existence depended on God and his Word.

Thousands of years later, our Savior voluntarily went into the desert, and learned for himself that man does not live by bread alone.  And not long after that, he stood tall and declared himself to be our Bread of Life, sent down from Heaven.

Unlike many in the world, I’ve had the incredible privilege of never needing to worry about my daily bread.  Perhaps that’s why God allowed me to be deprived of my daily sleep.  And there are a myriad of other ways we can be sent into the desert involuntarily—cancer, hurricane, betrayal.

As insomnia helped me to understand the value of the desert, I realized that choosing missions is one of the ways we voluntarily choose the desert. 

In choosing missions, we leave behind our support structures:  family, church, friends.

Choosing missions means learning new ways of survival:  how to communicate, how to care for our children, how to provide for our basic needs.  Most of the time, we give up many of the comforts of home, whether it be as simple as McDonald’s Playland or as complex as feeling understood by the people around us.

Missions sometimes means we find ourselves in a spiritual wasteland:  a city where we are one of only handful of believers.  Where the oppression, whether seen or unseen, lies heavy on our shoulders.

Choosing missions means choosing the life of a stranger, an outsider.  We are often misunderstood.  We often feel alone, and as time goes by, we often feel disconnected in our “home” countries as well.  Like it did for our Savior, the desert brings on temptation strong and thick.  But unlike our Savior, we often cave to it.

So why, why, why do we choose this life?  Why on earth would we choose this desert? 

Because man does not live by bread alone, or cream cheese, or even Starbucks.  Man does not live by running water, or air conditioning, or indoor heating.  He is not sustained by paved roads, or fast internet, or stylish clothes.  He even does not live by English education for his kids, by real turkey on Thanksgiving or by cold Christmases and the smell of pine trees.

No.

We live by every Word that comes from the mouth of God. 

This desert will humble us, and test us, and we will see within our hearts whether we are truly keeping his commands.  But the hunger and the thirst we experience in our chosen wilderness will enable us to have a greater, fuller understanding of our true Bread of Life.  Our manna from Heaven.  The gift of his presence, the knowledge of his suffering, the tremendous depth of grace—all of these things are worth more than anything the world has to offer.  More than home.  More than sleep.  More than bread.

Just as he promised, God fed me with himself during that season of insomnia.  And I was reminded:  The knowledge of God’s presence is more important to him than my productivity, than my comfort, than my health.  How often has he taught me that in this chosen life overseas.  In the great mystery of the universe, I lose my life to find it.  I choose the desert and find the Bread of Life.

Dear New Missionary

Dear New Missionary,

I spent last week with about 40 of you, helping with your training.

I saw the fire in your eyes and the urgency in your prayers but heard the waver in your voice. 

I saw myself in you, 16 years ago, when it was I who sat in your chair with the same simultaneous passion and anxiety.

What do I wish I’d known?  What do I wish I could tell you now?

 

It’s going to be hard.  Really hard.

And it won’t just be the things you anticipate will be hard.  Sure, there will be the bugs and you might hate your kitchen and driving might terrify you.  You might cry because the potatoes are just not cooking right and you accidentally insult someone and no one speaks to you at your new church.  Your kids might get a strange rash and you will buy the wrong medicine and you’ll wonder what on earth you were thinking to bring your family to this strange place.

Then there’s the fear.  You won’t let your kids play outside without you; you’ll hold your purse a lot more tightly; you’ll worry about the pollution affecting your lungs.  You’ll sleep a lot less soundly and get up at night just to check out the windows, one more time.  It might feel like everyone is smirking at you behind your back.  And you’ll wonder why you ever thought you could have an impact on this new place. 

But then there will be the things you didn’t anticipate would be hard.  Your sin won’t stay in your home country, in fact, it will seem to ooze out of you in buckets.  Your team leader won’t have enough time for you, and you’ll feel left dangling, high and dry and bewildered.  The poverty surrounding you will hang constant guilt around your neck.  You will communicate like a two-year-old.  You’ll lose your sense of self-respect.  You won’t feel good at anything anymore.

You will, in essence, lose yourself.  And it might feel like dying.

But, in that losing, you will find yourself.  And in that dying, you will live.

In the hardness, you will find that you are capable of enduring more than you thought possible.  You will find that you actually can drive in that traffic, that you can make a pumpkin pie from scratch, that you can say something intelligible in another language.  You will look back after a year, two, three years and be amazed at all the things you can do that you never thought you could do.

You will experience the astonishing joy of realizing that different does not have to be scary The woman behind the veil is more like you than you would have guessed; the foreign pastor has the same worries for his congregation as you do.  The alley that looked so dark will one day feel familiar; the words on billboards will start to make sense.

You will find that having less means that you find more joy with less.  A can of root beer will make a great Christmas present; sticks and rocks will entertain your children far more than Toys R Us ever did.  The poverty surrounding you will build a deep and abiding sense of gratefulness for what you do have.

And the sin and loneliness and conflict and fear?  They will give you daily invitation to press into the One who is your refuge.  In deeper ways than you ever realized, you will come to know the One who emptied himself and left heaven for a foreign land.  Names like Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace will find new and rich meaning.  The saving power of the gospel will not just apply to those you are preaching to, but daily to your own heart.

The longer you stay, you will find that this journey has been a whole lot more about what you needed to learn than what you had to give.  Maybe, just maybe, you’ll wake up one day and realize that you have made an impact on this new place.  But in the same moment, you’ll realize that this place has had a far greater impact on you.

And you’ll find you have experienced the biggest privilege of your life.

Godspeed, New Missionary.  It will be hard, but it will be worth it.

 

How Do I Make Goals for 2017 When I Know I Can’t Meet Them?

Missionaries are experts in high expectations. 

I mean, who else has a job like this?  Most of us went through a stringent interview process just to get here.  Pages of applications, hours of interviews, weeks of training, our references were asked for more references.  We are held up as examples of godliness.  We have high expectations of the kind of people we will be.

And then, once we are accepted, our pictures are placed in the foyers of churches and on family refrigerators all over the country.  We are paraded around like celebrities.  Not only are we expected to write strategic plans every year and submit them to our supervisors and our supporting churches, but then we are required to write monthly reports to hundreds of stakeholders.  If it feels like they have really high expectations for how we will perform, well, our own expectations are probably even higher.   After all, if we are going to sacrifice so much, if we are going to ask others to sacrifice so much on behalf of us, then we better see results.

Based on our yearly goals (or you could call them glorified New Year’s Resolutions), and the amount of accountability we receive, missionaries should be the world’s most productive and healthy people.  And really, the world should be saved by now.  Right?

On one hand, I’m thankful for this aspect of missionary life.  I am a goal-oriented person, and I like the accountability.  I think it’s a great thing to think long-term about how we are going to accomplish what God is calling us to do.

On the other hand, we just never reach those expectations, do we?  We move overseas, and it brings out the worst in us.  As a spouse.  As a parent.  As a friend.  As a minister to others.  And as for our ministry?  What we felt called to do?  What we felt called to be?  Well, that just never goes as we planned.  And sometimes it’s even a total disaster.

So how do we find that balance?  How do we set goals for ourselves, for our ministry, when we have experienced disappointment and failure?  When we’ve been betrayed by too many friends?  How do we temper the anxiety of not being able to reach the expectations of those who are holding us up?

After 15 years as a missionary, it’s true that my early idealism was smashed a long time ago.  You know those times of wonderful rejoicing, when all is going the way it should?  Well, it just takes one stumble, one new piece of information, and suddenly it all falls apart.  What seems like a happy ending can still turn tragic in the end. 

Does this make me cynical?  It can, sometimes. But I’ve also been around long enough now to learn that sometimes the worst things—when I feel like all is lost—well, sometimes in the end they weren’t such a big deal after all.  Or even if they were, God can beautifully redeem them.

I have learned to just trust.  John Piper writes, “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.”  So yes, we do need to plan, we do need to dream big, we do need to work hard towards God-centered goals.  But in the end, we must remember that this is God’s work, and He will do as He pleases.

I love these words by Andree Seu Peterson:  “Only God sees around corners, and therefore it is very wise to not try to figure out our own way to happiness and safety by relying on our own understanding and worldly wiles. The wise person will trust in God’s ways and stick to them, knowing that life can get messy in the middle, because the person who makes God his trust, the story will turn out well in the end, in the very, very end.”

Maybe you’re looking at 2017 with dread.  To you, I say:  Be faithful.  Keep getting up in the morning.  Keep doing what God has called you to.  Keep walking out your front door, even if it’s terrifying.  Keep showing up, because that’s often the most important part.  Or maybe you’re looking at 2017 with great anticipation.  To you, I say:  Be humble.  Be excited, but hold it all loosely, knowing that things aren’t always as they seem.

And in all of it, trust the God who sees around the corner.  We might try to write our story, or at least figure out the ending, but He is the one who already knows it.  And He knows how He wants to get us there.  Set your goals, keep your eyes on Him, and find joy in the journey.  In the very, very end, we know the story will turn out well.

When It All Blows Up In Your Face

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Sixteen years ago, my husband and I were all of 24 years old when we arrived in Tanzania for our first term.  We had only been married nine months, and we were passionate and dedicated, but incredibly naïve.  We had absolutely no idea what we were in for.

We were working in youth ministry in a local church plant, and my husband was coaching sports as a way to get to know young people.  One young man came into our lives with a real interest in the gospel.  He was earnest and really seemed sincere, and it wasn’t long before he made a profession of faith.  Since he was from a religion that is usually opposed to Christianity, we were thrilled.

Over the next year and a half, this young man dominated our time and our prayer updates.  He was in our home almost every day.

Then, six weeks before we left the country, we found out he had been regularly stealing money from us.

We returned to the States utterly shattered.  For many other reasons, it had been an extremely difficult two years.  This young man had been a bright spot, and when that blew up, we were completely demoralized and totally disillusioned.

By the grace of God, a couple years later we were back in Tanzania, older, wiser, and a lot more wary.  Yet even the loss of our naiveté didn’t really prepare us for everything we would see and experience over the next ten years.  Like the ugly split of the indigenous church we attended.  Or the married missionary of multiple children who ran off with a woman from the village where he was church planting.  Or that time when the national leader who was raised up by missionaries ended up being a narcissist who abused his team.  And the worst?  A local pastor—discipled, installed, and supported by missionaries for over ten years—was discovered to have an incestuous relationship with his adult daughter.

Boom.  And just like that, everything worked for, everything believed in, goes up in flames.

Though we weren’t intimately involved in any of those situations, we were close enough to feel the shockwaves.  And they shook us to our core.

Disbelief.  Despair.  Disillusionment.  We can handle the loneliness, the inconveniences, and the bugs that come with missionary life, but not this.  Not this.  Many missionaries would say that they would rather be persecuted or deported than have their ministry blow up.  How could this have happened?  Where we did go wrong?  Why are we even here?  What are we possibly going to tell our supporters?

Of course, these kind of life-altering situations happen also in our home countries.  But I think that for missionaries it is especially devastating.  I’ve given up everything for this ministry, and there are hundreds sacrificing so that I can be here, we think.  And this is all I have to show for it?  Blown up bits of carnage?  And then there’s that sinking feeling that maybe we should have known better.  That maybe it’s our fault.

So what do we do?  How do we possibly recover?  Move on?  Start over?

We start by humbling ourselves.  Even if we had no responsibility for what happened, we must do the hard work of searching our souls.  Why am I so devastated?  Only because of the sin, or because this event toppled my idols of reputation and success?  Could my own sin have blinded me to the warning signals I was trying to ignore?  Is this public sin bringing conviction on my own private sin? 

We do the messy work of cleaning up.  This is not the time to gloss over sin or shove it under the rug, despite the temptation to do so.  That doesn’t mean that we must share every sordid detail with the world, but ignoring the problem won’t make it go away.  Go through due process.  Ask hard questions.  Find out who all was affected.  Examine the width and breadth of the shockwaves, and get help for those who need it.  Take personal responsibility when necessary.

We ask for help when we need it.  Out of fear for our reputations, let us not neglect to ask for help.  This is the time to call upon pastors and trusted friends.  Missionary counselors are there, ready and waiting, for times like these.  Let us not foolishly assume that we can handle it on our own.

Most importantly, we do not lose hope.  The great king Solomon was born to the adulterous David and Bathsheba.  Samson was a moral disaster, yet God used him to avenge Israel’s enemies.  Peter denied Christ three times, but went on to be a leader of the Church.  God does not measure success and failure the way we do.  He sees men’s hearts; He knows the beginning and the end, and He can use even the most horrific situation for His good.

In Trusting God, Jerry Bridges writes, “If we are going to learn to trust God in adversity, we must believe that just as certainly as God will allow nothing to subvert His glory, so He will allow nothing to spoil the good He is working out in us and for us.”

Remember that young man who stole from us?  After we left Tanzania in shreds, we lost contact.  It was the age before social media, and we heard through the grapevine that he had emigrated out of the country.  The betrayal so devastated us that for years we rarely talked about it—even between ourselves.  But time and God’s grace heals all wounds.  We forgave him and moved on.

Then, just a few months ago, out of the blue, he contacted us.  He was visiting Tanzania and wanted to see us.  Of course, we were happy to agree.  We spent a few hours together, reminiscing about old times and catching up on each other’s lives.  After all, we had a lot of great memories together.

Just before we said good-bye, he got quiet and emotional.  Very simply, he apologized for what he had done to us fourteen years previously.

It was a holy moment.

We’re still not sure what God is doing in this man’s life, but we do know for sure that He is not done.  We serve a God of grace and redemption.  We cannot possibly imagine what He has in store.

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