The Warmth of Redemption’s Embrace

15 04 2014

IMG_3712When we made the decision to move to Dallas and buy a house across the street from the one where I grew up — the house where my dad was slowly losing my mom to dementia memory by memory, and where our son and his wife and their baby were also living, helping Dad navigate this heart-breaking journey — I wanted a visual representation of the season we were about to enter. Four generations living in close community, the old fading away even as the new blossomed, all inextricably connected by blood and God’s eternal purposes.

I wanted to anchor this moment in imagery, so I commissioned a painting from my friend, Emily Wierenga. A single branch extending through four seasons, with white winged birds blowing through it all like the breath of God.

Emily more than met the challenge. Using color, texture, and abstract form, she painted meaning, and it’s no surprise to me that she writes the same way. When Abingdon Press asked her to write a book about a quilt, the story’s structure itself became a patchwork — the past and the present intentionally interspersed, each piece a collage of characters and themes beautifully interwoven.

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I read the first half of A Promise in Pieces on an airplane flying to Detroit to speak at a women’s retreat, and I finished it on the flight home. As I closed the final page, I couldn’t help thinking of an illustration I’d used at the retreat:

If you drop a pebble in water, ripples are set in motion. But let’s say it’s not a pebble. Let’s say it’s a priceless jewel. Something you dearly love. Something irreplaceable. You’ve spent your life trying to protect it, and now, due to circumstances beyond your control, it’s gone. You stare in disbelief at the spot where it went down, a multitude of “if only’s” swirling in your head. You wish you could press rewind or wake up and realize it’s all just a horrible nightmare, but you can’t, and it isn’t.

At this point, you have a choice. You can keep staring at the spot where your treasure sank, or you can watch the ripples to see what God is doing.

Because He is always doing something beautiful. And your story? The one that feels like it just went desperately wrong? It’s not just yours. Your story intersects my story and a thousand other stories. The ripples set in motion in our lives touch other lives, and more ripples are set in motion. We’re not autonomous. We are members of one another, and all of our individual stories are part of God’s greater story. The story in which God redeems all that is broken.

A Promise in Pieces is a story about brokenness and redemption. It’s a patchwork of stories within a story within a story, all of it revolving around a quilt that has a life of its own, each of its squares a promise to someone whose story has been woven into the life fabric of one woman, a World War II army nurse named Clara.

It’s a book about what it means to be human — the search for significance and acceptance and love, and the fears and misunderstandings that often drive us to run from the very things we so desperately desire. It’s about loss and healing, frailty and forgiveness — the way life intersects life, and meaning finds us right where we are, especially when we’re searching for it somewhere else.

It’s light set against darkness, hope against despair, and the remarkable truth that God takes these contrasts and stitches them together into beauty, all of this told in the words of an artist — words that paint mental pictures: “seagulls dipping down and rising like washerwomen, pinning up the waves” and “the breeze lifted their hair and the edges of their spirits” and “I stepped off the train and fell into the arms of home.”

Emily has deftly pieced together loneliness and love, war and peace, life and death, and running through it all is one shining thread. God’s grace.

To read A Promise in Pieces is to be wrapped in the warmth of redemption’s embrace.

Maybe your life should intersect Clara’s, too?

 

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You can purchase A Promise in Pieces here, or at any major book outlet, or visit Emily’s webpage to learn more.

 

 

 

 

 





Compost

2 04 2014

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He turned fifteen the year his birthday became Earth Day. Not a bad association for a boy whose name meant “farmer” or “earth worker” — a boy who would go on to become a man, who would go on to earn a doctorate in soil ecology.

But that’s only a subplot in this boy’s story. Or maybe a framework. Because who he is goes much deeper than what he does. The why behind the what makes all the difference.

And the “why” in this case was beauty — a beauty that broke his heart in the deepest, best way, and filled him with longing.

These paths we walk are fashioned paths, no more haphazard than the artistry of the sunrise that broke over the Appalachian mountains one summer morning in 1973 and caused the boy to cry out, “Who are You?” It’s a question with an answer, and following the fashioned path he found himself in the book of John, where words adorned themselves with meaning, and beauty owned its Name.

Jesus. This Beauty had a name, and it was Jesus.

The boy would never be the same.

And so, to this day, he makes things grow. It’s his therapy, his joy, and a very real part of his worship. Because life is parable for those who have ears to hear.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone.

First the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

The boy named Farmer believes, and he does what he can.

He makes compost.

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In autumn he rescues bagged leaves from the side of the road and wood chips from the landfill. He feeds kitchen scraps to earthworms. He layers grass clippings and leaves into bins, douses them with water and tosses them like a giant salad, and then come spring — when time has had time to do her thing — He takes the rich black compost from the bottom of the bins, and into this good soil, he plants seeds.

New life from death. It’s the law of the kingdom.

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We live in an age of entitlement and instant gratification. We order our flowers online, and we buy our organically grown, pesticide-free vegetables from tidy displays on the produce aisle. We don’t want to wait, and we don’t want to get our fingernails dirty. We want our food, our entertainment, our comforts, and our spiritual enlightenment served to fit our personal timelines and preferences.

We don’t want to wait. We don’t want to suffer. And we certainly don’t want to die. Why lay down our lives when we can have it our way and have it now?

Well, fact is, we don’t have to. We can skip the process. We can keep our fingernails clean, our self-esteem well polished, and our opinions unchallenged. We can stand up for our rights and pursue our happiness.

Or we can lay it all down and be living sacrifices. Because when Jesus talked about seeds and soils, he was really talking about truth and hearts. And we have a choice. We can be those who trample the path and make it harder, or we can be those who, like the early and late rains, soften the soil with kindness and grace. We can be those who throw stones or those who bow low to remove them, making room for roots to spread and go deep. We can be those who weave a crown of thorns, wounding with harsh and mocking words, or we can be those who weed out the thorns and make room for struggling roots to breathe.

We can let Beauty crush us into purpose, surrendering to the seasons He sends, knowing the pressure and pain promise a harvest. We can be a safe place for tender souls to stretch out tentative shoots toward the Son.

We can be compost.

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It’s counter-intuitive in a culture where most people spend their lives trying to climb higher and achieve more. But in the upside-down kingdom, this is the secret to joy. We decrease that He might increase, and the less we become, the more He shines.

And one day? We’ll look up and gasp with wonder.

Because Beauty will blossom and flourish and fill the whole land with fruit.

 

 

 

 

 





What our new puppy is teaching me about God.

22 01 2014

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Adoption. When I was a kid, I don’t remember hearing that term used in reference to animals. But it’s common now, and I rather like it. Adoption is a strong word that suggests belonging and permanence. Dedication. Commitment.

We adopted a puppy right before Christmas.

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She’s a schnauzer-yorkie mix that was seven weeks old when we got her — a trembling little ball of fur, missing her mama and siblings, and unsure of her new home and family. We cuddled her and cooed soft reassurances, and we supplied everything she could possibly need for comfort. In fact, we probably went overboard. But we had our reasons for each item we bought. A crate for training, a pillow bed for sleeping when she wasn’t confined to her crate, her own blanket to snuggle into, her own dishes for food and water, and a variety of toys for chewing and play. We bought the same healthy puppy food the breeder was using and some yummy treats for rewards. And we bought a collar, tag, and leash for identification, control, and protection.

We also bought a playpen, which is really just eight 2′x2′ panels of connected fencing that can be attached at the ends to make an enclosed play area. Right now we use it to confine the puppy to the kitchen until we can fully trust her to behave unattended on our rugs and furniture.

And of course, we gave our puppy a name. Willow.

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A month into this relationship, I’m pleased with how well we’ve all adapted. Willow has learned that outdoors is the place for doing her business, and she has also learned to ring a little bell near the door when the urge strikes. She knows the word “no” and (mostly) responds appropriately when she hears it. She likes to snuggle and doesn’t show any interest in trying to escape. When we take her outside, she stays close, and she comes when we call her.

For our part, we make sure she’s up-to-date on her shots, has food and fresh water, gets plenty of exercise, and enjoys lots of loving attention. We don’t expect more from her than is reasonable, don’t blame her for accidents if we failed to take her out, and don’t punish her for behavior she doesn’t know is wrong.

Willow has been adopted into our family, and as such she enjoys the benefits of a safe home, a healthy diet, protection from a variety of dangers, and daily companionship. She has frequent access to a comfy lap (like right now as I’m typing), and is always greeted with smiles, caresses, and kind words.

I’d say she has a pretty perfect life for a dog, and she seems to agree. For the most part.

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But every once in a while she stomps her furry little foot and pitches a puppy fit. She may weigh only four and a half pounds, but in those moments there’s no mistaking her determination to rule her kingdom. She refuses to come or lets out a low growl when forced to comply. She nips at our hands and other objects she knows aren’t for chewing. She struggles to break free of our grasp, snarling her disapproval at being restrained. Or she barks her offense when locked in her crate or confined to the kitchen.

We know there’s not a thing this puppy thinks she wants that would be better for her than the abundance we’re providing. And every barrier, every leash, every boundary we place on her is only for her protection and good. We train her and restrain her because we want the best for her.  Because we know more than she does. Because we love her.

And suddenly, I look at her and see me.

How many times do I doubt God’s wisdom and strain against His will? How many times do I whine and whimper, oblivious to my abundant blessings, convinced that the one thing I don’t have is the only thing that will make me happy? I cast a defiant glance or let out a low growl — so completely self-absorbed in my rebellion that I lose sight of the reality of who He is and who I am and how ridiculous I’m being.

I wonder if, like me with Willow, He laughs at the absurdity of such a small, limited creature defying One who is in every way superior.

And yet, even when I’m an obstinate child, God holds me in His strong arms and invites me to trust Him. He never turns away when I call, but He loves me too much to give me everything I think I want. The leash is for my protection. The restraints are for my good.

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Willow may assert her will, but she won’t get her way. Not because we’re harsh or cruel or unkind, but because we want her to be a happy, healthy member of this family for many years to come.

Adoption. It means having everything we need provided by a loving Master who always only trains and restrains us for our good. And when we resist and rebel against Him, He still loves us, because we belong to Him.

But when we obey? When we trust Him and follow Him and submit to His will? Oh, the delightful freedom and pure, uninterrupted communion we share.

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We adopted a puppy named Willow. And I’m learning all over again what it means to belong and be loved by God.





A Word for 2014

19 01 2014

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Once upon a time, a long time ago, a man named Jeremiah wrote a letter. But it wasn’t actually from him.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel,” it began, “to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” And right off the bat, two important things were established: The letter was from God, and so were their circumstances. Though Nebuchadnezzar had taken the people of Israel captive, God plainly says He sent them to Babylon. And not only that, He goes on to tell them to put down roots there. Build homes. Plant gardens. Marry and give in marriage. Seek the welfare of that city. Pray on its behalf.

To a people whose identity was inextricable from the promised land, all of this must have sounded absurd. But the letter from God also explained that, in His time, He would bring them back to Jerusalem. And then? This wonderful, glorious promise:

“I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

And I imagine that those who believed were filled with joy, just as countless others through the centuries have read these same words and rejoiced. No matter how hard, confusing, or heart-breaking things may be now, there are better days ahead. Such comfort!

Sure, some might caution that this promise was written to a specific people for a specific time, and they would be right. They might go on to say that believers today can’t “claim” this promise, because it wasn’t originally intended for them. And in the narrowest sense, they would be right again. But in their strict adherence to context, they would risk losing sight of a big glorious truth that applies to every believer in every place in every generation.

And that truth?

God knows.

Our God is a God who makes plans for His people, knows what those plans are, and can be fully trusted to accomplish them.

You and I may not be natural descendants of Israel, but if we’ve trusted Christ, we’ve been grafted in. Jeremiah’s God is our God. We are His adopted sons and daughters.

And we are known.

A friend of mine once wondered aloud if perhaps a Psalm 139 level of intimacy was reserved for the King Davids of the world, and my whole soul recoiled at the thought. No, I insisted. That can’t be. The whole of scripture reveals a God who knows. He has written our names in His book, numbers the hairs on our heads, and notices when even one sparrow falls to the ground. He knows our thoughts and words and ways every bit as well as He knew King David’s. He knit us in our mother’s wombs, and ordained our days, and His thoughts toward us outnumber the sand.

We are known. 

And this changes everything. Because the God who knows us also loves us and redeems us and welcomes us into His kingdom. When we come to Him, we realize we are not our own. We’ve been bought with a price. We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

It’s not my dream, my career, my ministry. I’ve been crucified with Christ. Mine is to walk in what He has already prepared — the plans He has for me. The plans He knows and has always known.

The more I think about this, the greater my joy grows. The King of the Universe, creator and ruler of all things, knows me and has plans for me. And if this is true, then obedience to Him is my fulfillment. Submission is freedom. When I walk in the good works prepared for me, His light shines, His body is strengthened, He advances His kingdom, and He receives the glory. When I embrace His plan for me — however grand or humble it may be — then I’m free to celebrate His plan for others without envy or competition.

When I know I am known, I long to love and worship and seek Him more. To cease striving and know that He is God. To rest in His sufficiency. To be pliable in the Potter’s hands, a useful vessel for Him.

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2014 is shaping up to be a full year, and I’m grateful for every opportunity to declare and celebrate God’s goodness and faithfulness. I’m also grateful for this humbling, amazing truth. I am known. Fully known. And the One who knows me is able to sanctify and anoint and fill with His grace and power to do His work in His beautiful name to His glory.

And the same is true of you. Isn’t it a wonder? Friends, we are known. May we lean into this truth and go forth to do His will rejoicing.





Why She’ll Always Love the Word

18 10 2013

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She was sixteen, and her world had been washed clean, and the wonder hadn’t begun to wear off. He had found her in the wilderness and spoken words of comfort, offering everything and requiring only that she believe His love had created her and really truly saw her, and His plans and purposes for her would bring far more joy and peace than any she might devise for herself.

There was no sinner’s prayer. No aisle to walk. It was a private transaction. A real counting of the cost and a total surrender to grace. She’d wrestled with the what-ifs, and Love had prevailed, and she’d let go of everything else to place her hands firmly on this unfamiliar plow. Now she was trying to wrap her mind around what it meant. All she knew for sure was that she’d never been this free or known a peace this deep, and the delight had lifted her so high, she sometimes had to check to make sure her feet were still on the ground.

But how to proceed from here was one big unknown. What now?

Then she saw it.

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She was driving her ’65 VW bug down a busy road in Dallas, and there it was in the turn lane. A large brown volume, sprawled unceremoniously, its pages splayed across the cement. Someone lost a dictionary, she thought as she sped by, but hours later when she returned home by the same route, it was still there.

So she did what any sixteen year old would do. She veered toward the book and — easing her speed ever so slightly — opened her car door, leaned out, and snatched it off the ground. Then she tossed it in the back seat without looking at it, because, you know, it wouldn’t be safe to examine a book while driving. Ahem.

By the time she got home she forgot about the book, but several days later a friend noticed it in the back seat.

“Where did you get this?” she asked.

“Oh, that? I found it in the road. I think it’s a dictionary or something.”

Her friend laughed. “This isn’t a dictionary. It’s a really expensive New American Standard Bible. Leather bound with gold leaf pages. I would love to have a Bible like this.”

Obviously, they agreed, someone had placed it on top of their car, and it had slipped off into the road. But there was no name in the front. No way to find the owner (who probably felt extremely annoyed and frustrated and never imagined that their precious, expensive Bible had landed in the hands of someone who didn’t even know how desperately she needed it).

And so a love story began.

He had whispered simple, tender words, calling her to Himself. That hint of a glimpse was all she knew of Him. But now He had given her The Word – had literally dropped it in her lap.

Now she would see Him.

And she remembers holding that book, and it felt so heavy, so full, so vast, and her longing was so intense, she wished there were some way she could consume it, digest it, and own it all at once. This book felt like life, meaning, mystery — all at her fingertips, but she knew it would take a long time to read it, and much longer to grasp its depths. So she did the only thing she could.

A portrait of her Beloved sat before her, and there was only one way to see Him.

One word at a time.

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Forty years ago this month, that sixteen-year-old girl first opened the gold leaf pages that revealed to her the heart of God. And forty years later the longing is still there, an abiding ache she now recognizes as a gift from Him. She has read and re-read, studied and memorized, and the well of mystery never runs dry. The depths she does grasp lead her deeper still, and this portrait of her Beloved grows more dear the more she’s willing to see.

She’s older now, and educated, and she understands rules of interpretation and literary forms and the difference between “descriptive” and “prescriptive” passages. But she also knows this Word is alive, and it’s the only true portrait of Jesus she has. The only portrait anyone has. Every word is like a tile in a mosaic. Every page is a piece of the puzzle. The dark and messy, the jagged and hard — they’re just as essential as the lovely and uplifting. (If the dark and messy aren’t part of Jesus, how can any of our stories fit into His?)  And sometimes she wishes Jesus would just walk up beside her like he did with those disciples on the road to Emmaus, and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He’d interpret to her in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Because she knows He’s there. In all of it. Every tile in this mosaic matters. Every single tile, from “Let us make man in our image” to “Surely I am coming soon.” And she wants to see the real Him, not a construct of her own or someone else’s imagination.

So when a Word goes hard against her grain and even harder against the culture she lives in, she prays for grace to approach it with humility, remembering those first words He whispered — that His love chooses well, and His plans always, only lead to joy and peace. He is good in what He gives, and good in what He forbids — the same yesterday, today, and forever.

And just like that, she’s sixteen again, and the wonder is back. This beautiful book — so heavy, so full, so vast — it is her life, and she won’t let anyone diminish it or argue it out of her hands.

It’s the only true portrait of her Beloved. The full revelation of His heart. And she won’t take anything less.

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One Step

5 09 2013

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When George and I got married, it wasn’t like we made a conscious decision to take people into our home.

They just kept landing on our doorstep.

A student arrived at university to discover his dorm room had been double booked. Another student’s apartment burned down. A steady parade of others have needed places for a year or a semester or a summer or a couple of weeks. We’ve officially fostered once, and unofficially adopted dozens of times. And, without fail, we always receive at least as much as we give. God has a way of using these people to stretch, teach, convict, bless, encourage, test, and inspire us. It’s one of the secrets of the upside-down kingdom. Give the glass of water, He says. Just do it. You won’t be sorry.

So, when someone needs a place to stay, our default answer is yes. We look at the calendar, consider the situation, and pray. But if there’s an empty bed in the house and no clear reason to say no, we say yes.

And that’s how we found ourselves hosting Tomoki.

Tomoki is a nineteen-year-old baseball player and university student from Japan who wanted to come to the US for two weeks and stay with a family. An acquaintance of his posted the request on our church’s message board, and our son Luke (who hopes to take his family and the gospel to Japan one day) asked us if we’d consider it.

Empty bed? Check. Works with the calendar? Check. Prayer for direction? Check.

Konnichiwa, Tomoki.

We’re halfway through Tomoki’s two-week visit, and so far he’s seen Yu Darvish pitch for the Texas Rangers, visited two universities, the Dallas World Aquarium, Jubilee Farm, the Sixth Floor Museum (where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots that killed JFK), the Dallas Museum of Art, Northpark, and the Galleria. He’s attended a large American church service and a lively prayer meeting, held a baby for the first time, and taken lots and lots of pictures. He’s experienced a live concert at a coffee house, a pot-luck dinner on Labor Day, eaten his weight in Tex-Mex, and will try to consume his first Texas-sized steak tonight.

Still to come? A high school football game, the Fort Worth rodeo, wake boarding at a local lake, and more.

Meanwhile, we’ve juggled schedules, re-learned what flexibility looks like, and tried to hold all agendas loosely. Luke has been a cheerful and tireless tour guide, and Sarah has generously sacrificed Luke’s presence at home much more than usual. Yes, we are stretched, but it’s doable, and Tomoki is deeply grateful for every experience and opportunity.

Even if he wasn’t a dear, eager, polite guest, I’m convinced we would be blessed in this giving. But he is a dear, eager, polite guest. And we are definitely blessed. In fact, I think I may have already received my greatest gift.

Night before last, Luke was home studying while their children slept, and Sarah and I were sitting in my kitchen, visiting with Tomoki. He doesn’t know much English, but he carries a digital pocket translator, and asks a lot of questions, and somehow we muddle through communication.

In the course of our conversation, Sarah asked what it’s like to follow Jesus in Japan, where fewer than 1% of people are Christians. Tomoki’s mother is a Christian, and he has attended church his whole life, but he told us he doesn’t know any other believers his own age. Not one. This revelation led to a discussion about bravery and boldness — all accomplished through hand gestures and quickly typed searches on his translator — and before we knew it, we were considering how hard things can be gifts from God.

I told Tomoki about Jacob’s near-fatal drowning and how we’d seen God work in so many beautiful ways, and it was a powerful, worshipful experience for me to distill those truths into their simplest form to share them with him. In the telling, I reminded myself once again that God only gives what is good, and as soon as I turn to Him, trusting His goodness and thanking Him for His faithfulness, my suffering becomes a blessing.

He listened intently and nodded his understanding, and then he got excited and asked for a paper and pen, because he wanted to show us something.

First he drew this:

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Then he drew this:

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And to the side, he drew this:

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He pointed to the first drawing and said, “This is Japanese kanji for . . . .” He tried to think of the English word, then shook his head and typed furiously on his translator, showing me the words that appeared on the screen: “bitter” and “hard” and “rough.”

I read them aloud, and he nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! Yes!” Then he pointed to the second drawing. “This kanji for ‘happiness,’ and this –” he pointed to the drawing of the single line, “means ‘one.’”

Sarah and I both leaned in, not yet grasping the point, but smiling our encouragement as he struggled to complete his explanation. He picked up his foot and deliberately planted it in front of where it had been, pointing to his foot, and saying, “This? What is this?”

We laughed at our own confusion and tried to guess his intent. “A foot?” . . . “Stomping?” . . .  “A step?” He typed again, then said, “Yes! Step!”

Then he pointed to the drawings again, and suddenly we saw — how adding the “one” line across the top of “bitter” turns it into “happiness.”

“It is one step from bitter to happiness,” he said, exultant, and we gasped and clapped our understanding and delight. In that moment, stories and cultures collided, and a Texas kitchen erupted in celebration.

One step — one cross-shaped, trusting step of faith in a loving, good, and sovereign God — gives purpose to pain, turns mourning into dancing, and transforms everything (yes, everything) into a gift.

We’re hosting Tomoki for two weeks. And I have a visual of grace that I will never, ever forget.

Who is receiving the most? You tell me.





The Stories: in which a Snickers Bar represents God’s Protection (and a thief leaves her calling card)

23 08 2013

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Sometimes God’s idea of “success” is that we suffer well.

I went to Kazakhstan fully aware of that fact, plus a few others provided by the travel advisory on the State Department’s website.

Regarding terrorism:

Extremist tactics, including the use of suicide bombers, were used for the first time in Kazakhstan in 2011. Because of increased security at official U.S. facilities, terrorists may also target “soft” civilian targets such as commercial or residential areas, clubs and restaurants, places of worship, hotels, schools, outdoor recreation events, resorts, beaches, maritime facilities, and aircraft.

Regarding crime against tourists:

The most common crimes foreign tourists encounter are purse snatching, pick pocketing, assaults, and robberies. Be wary of persons representing themselves as police or other local officials. It is not uncommon for U.S. citizens to become victims of harassment and extortion by impostors, genuine law enforcement, and other officials.

Yes, that list of criminals includes “genuine law enforcement and other officials.” And just to underscore that possibility:

Corruption by public officials, including law enforcement, has been reported frequently, especially at the airport in Almaty. Some foreigners have been told by customs or border guard officials that they must pay a $50-$500 fine for violating an undisclosed local regulation, despite the fact that the foreign citizen has fully complied with local laws. Some U.S. citizens have reportedly been asked to pay a large fine upon exiting Kazakhstan. When encountering such irregularities, U.S. citizens are advised to seek clarification from supervisory airport officials or contact the U.S. Embassy in Astana or Consulate General in Almaty before paying.

Well, at least this problem is mostly confined to one specific city.

Which just happens to be the city we went to.

Oh, and then there was that other small matter. My plans to speak at the conference and a church:

U.S. citizens have been fined and deported from Kazakhstan for addressing a congregation, leading prayers, and performing religious music without proper religious worker registration.

The good news? It’s not illegal to tell one’s story or share one’s experience. The bad news? I can’t tell my story or share my experience without putting God and scripture right in the big middle of it.

And if all that wasn’t enough to produce anxiety, my bank informed me that I wouldn’t be able to use my ATM card in Kazakhstan.

Why? I asked.

Because it’s a “high risk” country.

“High risk” for what? I asked.

Fraud. Apparently.

This being the reality, those of us going prepared our hearts and minds for the possibility that God might allow us — or, let’s just say it, intend for us — to suffer. Meanwhile, we recruited an army of prayer warriors to surround us with prayer. We also asked the Lord to give our team unity, wisdom, and peace, and to show us how to embody His grace should we encounter injury or injustice.

And then we went, with sober but willing hearts. And everywhere we went, there was no mistaking that God had gone before us and was with us, covering, protecting, hiding, and providing. Every day, in new and wonderful ways, we were amazed by the evidence of God’s favor and keeping.

Every morning I woke up wondering if this would be the day something hard or bad or, at the very least, uncomfortable would happen. And every day, as I’ve hopefully revealed in my previous stories, the proof of God’s power and mighty purposes increased.

It was without a doubt one of the most humbling, faith-building, awe-inspiring experiences of my entire life.

And then it was time to go home.

Since we had to leave our hotel around 1:30 AM, we decided not to sleep that night. We arrived at the Almaty airport on time, received our boarding passes, made it through passport control without incident — grace upon grace — and had nothing more to do than to stand around (all the chairs were taken) and wait for our 4:30 AM departure.

And that’s when it happened.

Knowing I still had 700 tenge (about $4.66), and wanting to purchase some water for the flight, I made my way to a bar area in the corner of the large, open terminal, and located a case of water bottles against the wall. I didn’t see a price, but they were small — probably about 12 ounces — and not cold. Guessing a bottle would cost a couple hundred tenge, I carried one to the bar and placed it on the counter.

I purposefully didn’t say a single word, but the girl behind the counter sized me up as American anyway. She looked at my small water bottle and said, “600 tenge.”

I hesitated. I knew that was way too much, but I didn’t want to make a scene, and I certainly didn’t want to attract the attention of any “corrupt officials.” I was tired and thirsty, and I wasn’t going to have any use for tenge after I left the country anyway. So I handed her my only bills, a 500 and a 200.

She put them in her cash drawer, then reached over to a candy dish beside her, selected a snickers bar the size of a small tootsie roll, and offered it to me.

I still hadn’t spoken a word, and I didn’t take the candy. I just looked at her with a confused expression.

She pushed it closer, pasted a condescending smile on her face, and with a heavy accent said, “No change.”

I raised an eyebrow. Then shook my head.

“No change,” she said again, more firmly.

Granted, the 100 tenge she owed me was only about 66 cents. But I knew she’d already over-charged me for the water, and now she was flat out stealing from me.

I realized in that moment I shouldn’t have attempted this transaction alone. If Catherine had been with me, she would have known what to do. But she was halfway across the terminal, oblivious to my situation.

I also realized I’d gotten comfortable. Lazy. Things had gone so smoothly and so remarkably well, I’d let down my guard.

I took the snickers bar from her hand and turned to leave.

Behind me I heard a sarcastically sweet, “Thank you!” and I’m ashamed to say I turned back and shot her a dirty look.

So much for offering grace.

But the truth is, I wasn’t feeling any grace. And when I told Catherine and the rest of the team, they felt as indignant as I did. And then, when one of them found the same water bottles in a vending machine for 300 tenge, our sense of offense increased.

No, it wasn’t a lot of money. That wasn’t what bothered me. It was the open disrespect and disregard for fairness. It was brazen dishonesty, without secrecy or shame. I imagined her bragging to her supervisor about how easily she had cheated the clueless American. I felt the sting of her resentment toward everything she assumed I represented, and I also felt bad for reinforcing her stereotypes with my unkind reaction.

The whole thing left me feeling nettled and unsettled, and I was amazed by how much it continued to upset me, especially given all the marvelous things I’d just seen God do over the past ten days.

After I got home, I was sorting through the stuff in my backpack and I found the snickers bar. It instantly rekindled annoyance, and I almost tossed it in the trash, but something stopped me. As I stared at the tiny treat I’d essentially purchased for $2.66 against my will, I realized it represented something far more important than being ripped off by a young Kazakh woman with a blond pony tail and a resentful smirk in the Almaty airport.

It actually represented the exact opposite. It magnified the supernatural covering and protection our entire team had experienced from the moment we arrived in Almaty to the very last moments before we left. It was a peek into what might have been, had God not hidden us under the shadow of His almighty wing. It was a reminder that we are kept from so many dangers and abuses we never even know exist — guarded by His power, surrounded with His angels, guided like heedless sheep through a minefield of lurking evils, our Good Shepherd allowing only those things to touch us that He intends to use for our good and His glory.

That snickers bar became a picture of God’s goodness, and it remains on my desk, a daily reminder that He is doing much more than I ever imagine.

But that’s not all.

Last week I had lunch with my friend, Joan, and she wanted to hear all about my time in Kazakhstan. When I told her the story about the snickers bar and how it came to represent God’s protection, she said something that made me realize for the bazillionth time how desperately I need God’s people in my life to help me see deeper and more clearly into His ways.

She said, “Oh, I thought you were going to say something completely different. I thought you were going to say that the snickers bar would be a constant reminder to pray for that girl. It was like she handed you her calling card with her name on it and said, ‘Please pray for me every day.’ And isn’t it amazing? She has no idea that cheating you actually meant she will now be an object of intercession, your prayers releasing God’s power into her life.”

Bam! Nothing like going straight from smug to humbled, convicted, and repentant. And deeply grateful.

“Wow,” I said. “That’s beautiful. I should be praying for her. Obviously, I took a much more selfish meaning from it, but from now on that little snickers bar will mean both things to me. Thank you.”

And just like that, we come to the end of the Kazakhstan stories.

Only it’s not the end. Because there’s a precious little flock of God’s beautiful children who live there day after day, pouring out their lives for the gospel, praying, serving, preaching, loving, and believing to one day see their dear neighbors among the multitudes from every tribe and nation worshiping around the throne.

And maybe they will also see a girl with a blond pony tail there. A girl who once cheated an American out of 400 tenge at the Almaty airport, but for some reason she couldn’t explain, she had a change of heart, and now she loves Jesus and wants nothing more than to love and worship Him forever.

It could happen.

After what I’ve seen God do? I would even say it probably will.

* * *

Dear friends, will you join me in praying for that girl?
And please pray for these precious brothers and sisters, tirelessly loving Jesus in a difficult place:

IMG_1115Stepa and Zhanna Velilyaevy (and their sons),
directors of Young Life Central Asia and A Friend at All Times

IMG_0633compNurmat and Dina Eshaliev (and their children, Daniel and Abby),
serving with Campus Crusade for Christ

IMG_0872Marina Chikacheva, lovely and lovable sister in Christ, translator, mom, and tireless servant of Jesus

Please also pray for Arman and Marina Arenbayev, serving the Almugal Church in Almaty;
and Azim Janbakievs and his family, serving their sister church in the city;
and the faithful members of their congregations.

Thank you so very much, dear, dear praying friends.

And now, for one last appeal (share as you feel led):

It’s not too late to donate to this beautiful
and worthy work in Kazakhstan.

Gifts received before September will help
cover summer projects.
Donations can be made by check or credit card.
Please send checks to:

Orphanos
P.O. Box 1057
Cordova, TN 38088
901.458.9500 ext 223

Include a separate note indicating the gift is for
“A Friend at All Times, Kazakhstan Young Life”
This category is not available for online giving at Orphanos,
but you can give by credit card at the phone number provided above.

Any amount is greatly appreciated.
Your gifts are tax deductible.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comment section.

Thank you!
(With all my heart.)








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