I had three jobs to do at the mom’s conference in Kazakhstan:
1. Speak four times.
2. Choreograph and teach a dance the moms would perform for their children at the final banquet.
3. Lead morning exercises on the beach. Every morning. Before breakfast.
I’ve already written stories about the speaking and the dancing. Both of those tasks presented certain challenges, but promised wonderful opportunities to connect with and encourage the women. They also required extensive preparation on my part, and I arrived in the country with a sense of purpose and anticipation, even though I had no idea how the talks or the dance would be received.
But the morning exercises? To be completely honest, I dreaded that part.
For one thing, I’m not a get-up-and-exercise kind of girl. On the contrary, I’m much more the get-up-and-shuffle-toward-the espresso-maker type. Exercise is great. In its proper time and place. As for me and my house, that’s a couple of hours after I’ve consumed a small breakfast and a very large latte.
But this trip wasn’t about me and my preferences, and those who were in charge of planning seemed to think these moms would be all gung ho about getting up and hauling themselves down to the beach, not to relax, but to stretch and tone for forty-five minutes or more. Oh, and this would happen a full two hours before breakfast.
Really? I asked.
Yes, they said. Really.
So, trusting their judgment (and not wanting to look like a total slouch), I agreed to do it. And I gave myself a pep talk and told myself that, even if only a few moms showed up, I would happily lead those few through a forty-five minute routine, which I would be making up as we did it, but hey, whatever, it’s just a bunch of stretching and toning, and did I mention I don’t usually do this before coffee?
Apparently my attitude and my pep talk skills needed adjustment.
God is patient. And merciful. He knows our frame and remembers that we are wimps. (Slight paraphrase. Work with me.) In His kindness, He provided my lovely friend, Catherine, who procured a coffee maker, prepared a fresh pot of coffee every morning, and even made sure there was milk and sugar on hand. And He also provided a staff meeting each morning before exercise, during which I could curl up in a comfy chair, sip my coffee, munch on a granola bar, and slowly wake up to the soundtrack of God’s children offering Him prayers and praises in both English and Russian — a tiny foretaste of what heaven might sound like. By the end of that meeting each day, I was ready to go, even if no one else showed up and I had to exercise on the beach alone.
But I wasn’t alone. They all came. They came because their normal daily lives are filled with stress and heavy responsibility, and they wanted to be stretched and toned. They knew exercise would strengthen them, increase their energy, and help them get in shape. They came because they already know what it’s like to suffer, and they want to do everything they possibly can to live well.
And I was humbled. Because, if I hadn’t committed to lead the exercises, I would have still been curled up in my comfy chair, slowly easing into the day.
I showed up at the beach every morning, because I had to. They came by choice.
And they worked hard. Without complaining or making excuses or asking for special treatment. After the first morning, I wondered if they would be too sore to come back again, but every day, there they were. Even if they’d stayed up late and slept only a few hours, they rose early and hiked down to the beach, some of them even beating me there. They believed in the value of the training, and they were determined to receive those benefits, no matter what it cost them.
I learned a lot from those moms in Kazakhstan. They’ve gone against culture by choosing to raise their disabled children, enduring the stigma of being thought cursed, rather than following their doctors’ advice and taking the “easy path” of placing their kids in an institution. Most live on a very small income, in apartments with no handicap access, and no one — from the government to medical services to their neighbors — sympathizes with their struggles or provides support. This is the normal they knew they were signing up for when they took their babies home.
Against professional advice, against cultural expectation, and against personal comfort, they did the right thing, because no matter what anyone else thought or said, somewhere, deep inside themselves, they knew it was right.
Over the course of the conference, I watched these brave women blossom under the simple truth that their children’s disabilities aren’t a curse or a punishment for sin. I saw with my own eyes as blindfolds came off and burdens lifted and they celebrated their children’s beauty and purpose in the world. They knew they would be returning to the same neighborhoods to endure the same hardships, but when we parted ways, they left with radiant faces, because their burdens had been transformed into gifts.
I saw all these things in Kazakhstan, and then I came home, my heart overflowing with the goodness of God, the power of the gospel, and the mysteries of the upside-down kingdom. I came home full of love for Jesus and His ways. And, then, not too many days later I read an article about how some people are leaving “the church” because it doesn’t offer what they want. Changes in style aren’t enough. They want a change in substance.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard the same complaints, but this time, because of where I’d been and what I’d seen, it hit me harder.
I read the article in light of the immeasurably more I’d just seen Jesus doing in Kazakhstan, and I thought about Who He is and what He has called us to — that “the church” never has been about what any one person or group wants, but it belongs to Him and exists to advance His kingdom and accomplish His purposes in the world. In all its factions and denominations, in all its imperfections, the church is the blood-bought people of God, with a story that began when the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world, and continues into eternity. The church is not ours to manipulate or change.
They say they want a change in substance? What does that even mean? The church is Christ’s body. By His grace — and only by His grace — we can be grafted in. Mere humans can’t change the church’s substance any more than a branch grafted into an apple tree can demand it be allowed to produce whatever it pleases.
The church is about God’s plan and God’s glory. If, by His merciful invitation, we do come into His kingdom, we come empty handed — with nothing to offer and everything to gain.
No matter how foolish or outdated we sound, we have no choice but to preach Christ and Him crucified. And when we do? Everything else follows. The substance of the church is the gospel, alive and shining in a dark, dead world.
We are commanded to love God first and then our neighbor, but loving like Jesus has nothing to do with making people feel good about their brokenness and pet sins. Jesus came to redeem us and rescue us from our blind, foolish selves.
So how do we love like Jesus?
We lay down our lives (our preferences, our labels, our entitlements) to do His will.
And what is His will? The very last thing Jesus told His disciples was, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
In other words, go plant my church. Make disciples, and then tell them to obey Me. Be evangelical, and I’ll be right there with you.
No one goes to a personal trainer expecting to be told he can continue practicing the habits that led to his pathetic physical condition. He goes to a trainer to be trained.
We don’t come to God to be affirmed in our lifestyle preferences or intellect or bias or for any other self-gratification, but to die to our own pathetic versions of ourselves that we might be recreated according to the perfect plan of our Maker. God disciplines us for our good, that we might share His holiness. He can’t affirm sin. But He can deliver from it. And when Jesus commands that we deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Him, He does so because He knows it’s the only way to life.
The church can’t change its substance, but we humans can exchange ours. We can abandon our comfy chairs, and submit our over-indulged, self-important souls to Jesus. Those whom He loves He reproves and disciplines, so be zealous and repent. The kingdom of God is not about you or me or our preferences, no matter what those preferences may be. If we want Jesus, we can only have Him on His own terms. Like those precious moms in Kazakhstan who knew what was right and did it in spite of their culture, being part of the church may mean we endure the stigma of being thought outdated or anti-intellectual. Or, for some of us, it may mean we give up our decorum and long-cherished religious traditions to get our fingernails dirty serving the least.
The bottom line? We don’t call the shots. He does.
But, hey. If we can trust anyone, can’t we trust the God of the universe who created us and knows us better than we know ourselves? He won’t give us any special treatment, but everything He demands is for our very best good. When we sign up for His training, we become servants with a perfect master. Children with a perfect father. We find true freedom in obedience, and quiet, unshakable joy in His discipline.
Sometimes a comfy chair is really a cage. But we won’t know it until we quit pampering our absurd vanity, quit trusting man’s word over God’s, quit demanding that God conform Himself to our ideals (as though we can see any issue or need more clearly than He does!), and trust Him enough to meet Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. Yes, He knows our frame and remembers we are wimps. He takes us just as we are, but He doesn’t leave us that way. Our part is simply to come believing in the value of His training, and pressing on to receive those benefits, no matter what it costs us. His power in us does the rest.
Will the world mock us? Will we be tempted to give up and leave? In other words, will we be stretched?
But if we stay? Afterward, His discipline will yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
The church can’t change its substance. Thank God for that. But each one of us can exchange our sin for His righteousness, our blindness for His sight, and our death for His life. And that’s good news.
See you at the beach?
* * *
It’s not too late to donate to this beautiful
and worthy work in Kazakhstan.
Gifts received before September will help
cover summer projects.
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(With all my heart.)
photos courtesy Catherine Burns