The Broken Way

1 10 2016

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I know a teacher probably shouldn’t have favorites.

But the eager light in his eyes. That disarming smile. His quick mind and the way he asked the best questions. His presence in the classroom set a tone that infected everyone in the best way. Including me.

And he was only nine years old.

When he was no longer my student, our paths occasionally crossed, and he always acted as though nothing mattered more in that moment than talking to me and catching up on life.

Brilliant, kind, thoughtful, and extravagantly gifted, he grew up to become an accomplished musician and film editor. An artist with a tender and sensitive soul.

This week I found out that he took his own life.

He was twenty-seven.

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I’m sitting in this ache. Thinking of him. Thinking of his parents. Of their loss. He was their only child.

Who can carry grief this heavy?

We are broken. All of us. And we spend much of our time, energy, money, and prayer on trying to get ourselves fixed. We look to doctors, preachers, politicians, plastic surgeons — and yes, even God — begging to be made well, worthy, safe, beautiful.

We spend our lives grasping for wholeness and come away empty handed. But maybe we’re so busy trying to mend away or pretend away our own brokenness, we’re missing the point?

I’m currently reading Ann Voskamp’s new book, The Broken Way, which releases October 25. I signed up to be on her launch team — partly because I love Ann and want to help spread the word about this amazing book, but mostly because I didn’t want to wait until the end of October to get my hands on it. And can we just be real? Helping launch a book by Ann is like helping launch the sun into the morning sky. The book is going to soar, not because a team of advance readers successfully launched it. It’s going to soar, because it is desperately needed truth for right this minute.

Brokenness is crushing people. Broken hearts. Broken minds. Broken bodies. People like my former student — who may look great on the outside, but inside they’re dying. And I’m afraid, in too many cases, the church is distracted by lesser things.

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“By this we know love, that He laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” That’s 1 John 3:16.

And in John 13, after Jesus washes His disciples’ feet, He says, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

We see this pattern repeated again and again. What Jesus did, we are also called to do. But somewhere along the way, a whole lot of our western-culture theology became about “me.” My comfort. My peace. My purpose. My best life, and I want it now.

Jesus was always only about His Father’s will. He came for one reason. To be broken for us.

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“How do you live with your one broken heart?” Ann asks.

And God answers. “You give it away.”

So maybe it’s time to stop grasping for personal wholeness and embrace the truth that the only way others can see His light in me is through the cracks?

Maybe it is only in my brokenness that I am qualified to enter yours?

The Broken Way is the account of what happened when Ann said yes to God’s second dare.

The first dare? To count His One Thousand Gifts — to find Him in everything, and to let her perspective and her whole life be transformed by living fully aware and fully grateful. But gratitude is a beginning, not an end. At the Last Supper, Jesus didn’t stop with giving thanks for the bread. He broke it. And He gave. Then He told his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

Do this. Break as I am broken. And your brokenness will be made into abundance.

The second dare? Lay down your one life — the handful of moments granted you — and pour them out as an offering to Him.

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This book is a masterpiece painted with words — a stunning depiction of the upside-down, sacramental life my soul craves when I let the Spirit speak louder than the magazine headlines. I’m only four chapters in, and it has already spoken to the deeps in seismic fashion. Don’t be surprised if I have a lot more to say about it in the days ahead, but meanwhile, you can learn more and pre-order at TheBrokenWay.com.

How will you live with your one broken heart?

There’s a way to fullness of meaning, fullness of purpose, and fullness of joy. It’s the way Christ chose for Himself and the one He beckons us to follow.

Here’s my hand. Let’s go together.

 

 





This Many

10 09 2016

img_6416Yesterday I used the “I’m this many” photo above to announce my fifty-ninth birthday on social media. The responses were fun, enthusiastic, and appreciated. But there’s no getting past a simple fact. That’s a whole lot of fingers.

Have you noticed that a year is only twelve months, and a month is only a handful of weeks, and a week lasts about five minutes? At least it feels that way. Like I’m not just over the hill, but this hill is getting steeper by the second, and the brakes on my little red wagon gave out long ago.

The older I get, the more I can identify with those scriptures that say we are like grass, springing up in the morning, and mown down in the evening. The green is fading, and I can hear the mower engine cranking up in the distance.

Life is short.

img_6470This aging thing is getting a little too real, but I have to say, yesterday was a good day right out of the gate. First I was greeted by these flowers and this commonest of birthday phrases, whimsically lettered by a hand that holds my heart in the most un-commonest of loves.

This is one of the best gifts, and one that only time can buy. It’s the knowing that comes with overcoming together again and again — choosing against all odds to believe that broken things can be restored, that pain is purposeful, and that love is a battlefield worth defending. It’s hundreds of forgiven hurts and thousands of shared joys and a belonging that no amount of wrinkles or gray hairs can threaten.

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It started with the flowers. Then he took me to lunch at a French bistro. Lobster bisque, and warm goat-cheese salad with walnut vinaigrette, followed by a delicious fluffy-mousse-with-fruity-drizzle complimentary dessert from our waiter, which we’d mostly devoured before we remembered to take a picture.

But the best part of the lunch was the conversation.

“So, I’m fifty-nine,” I said. “Got any advice to offer from the other side of sixty?”

I was sort of joking/not joking, but he paused and then answered seriously. “Actually, to be honest, turning sixty kinda messed with my head. There’s no stopping this train, and there’s no going back.”

And then, almost in unison, we expressed the same thought — the same sense of urgency to make the most of this gift of time, redeeming the moments, filling them with meaningful, eternal pursuits. Let’s be fully present, we said. Fully engaged, fully aware — embodying the hope we’ve been given, the goodness we’ve tasted and seen, the gospel we believe.

While we have breath, let us praise Him with our words and our lives.

Even the best French cuisine can’t compete with that.

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Then, after lunch, a visit from grandchildren, with hand-drawn birthday cards, and sweetly sung birthday songs, and — later by text because they forgot but meant to — recordings of angelic voices lisping birthday prayers for Emzee. Early faith, fresh in the bud, sure to be tested, God’s to keep and mine to pray for, to love, to listen, and to speak into, when we sit in our house and when we walk by the way and when we lie down and when we rise up.

Grandchildren. Another gift that only time can give. A treasured jewel in the crown of “this many.”

In the evening we walked across the street to my father’s house — the place where we spend most of our evenings, sharing a meal, telling stories, watching tv. Tonight George has planned a special dinner, and I’m not allowed in the kitchen to help.

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It’s pork tenderloin stuffed with mushrooms and spinach, grilled butternut squash, and buttery dark-grain toast, followed by FaceTime fun with far-flung beloveds, opening cards and presents, blowing out candles under the loving gaze of the tenderest daddy on the planet, and then a thick slice of ridiculously rich chocolate cake served with vanilla gelato. And I honestly want to know. What could be better than this?

I may be edging my way past middle age, but I have no inclination to mourn my youth and no need to resist the relentless march of time.

I’m this many. This many years of experience. This many memories of grace. This many songs sung, friendships grown, adventures shared, roads journeyed, and fears conquered.

This many selfish ambitions let go, simple gifts received, and dreams refined.

This many assurances that all things work for good, all things serve His plan, and all things will be made new.

I’m small, fading like the grass, seen, known, and so very deeply loved. My little red wagon may be flying down the hill, but the wind is in my face, and I know the One who sets its course and knows the way I take.

Happy Birthday to me, fifty-nine fingers and counting. Thank you, friends, for all the ways you’ve made this journey amazing. You’re a beautiful part of “this many.”

 

 





When God Answers With A Song

12 05 2016

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I can’t think of a better way to share this story with you than to simply copy and paste this conversation as it unfolded.

The first email arrived on January 11. The sender’s name was unfamiliar to me. The subject line simply said, “song.”

I opened it and read these words:

I just wanted to thank you for your insightful, convicting words that were featured on Ann Voskamp’s “Holy Experience” devotional last week. I was very touched and moved by what you wrote. It presented the familiar account of the “Good Samaritan” in a new light to me.

I’m a stay-at-home mom, but also a singer/songwriter, and, as so often happens when the Spirit stirs something within me, I went to the piano right after reading your article, and a song called “Mercy Calls” immediately came to me.  Most of it was written within an hour. I will share the lyrics here with you and hope to record it soon. I will send that to you as well, whenever I get it done.

So, much appreciation for your ministry, and for sharing what God put on your heart. I will continue sharing that message in this song.

Mercy Calls

Mercy calls, will I listen?
Mercy calls, will I hear?
Mercy calls, will I answer?
Will I serve or will I fear
When mercy calls?

There are so many needs
If I open up my eyes to see
Where should the light that’s in me shine
For it’s in the darkest place
That we need God’s gift of grace
To live the Truth and make it come alive

Like the Good Samaritan
Mercy had a cost for him
But he paid it anyway
What’s done for the least of men
We are doing unto Him
Is the price too high for us to pay?

If we would receive God’s mercy, mercy we must give
Blessed are the merciful, that’s how we’re called to live
Dying to ourselves and laying down our lives
Sharing the love of Jesus Christ

Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God
Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God

© Cyndi Aarrestad, January 8, 2016
Immediately after reading devo about mercy by Jeanne Damoff

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I wrote back the same day:

Oh, Cyndi! Wow! This is absolutely beautiful. I can’t wait to hear the recorded version.

I can’t begin to express how humbled and encouraged I am that God used those words to quicken this gift in you. I’m bowed low in awe and gratitude to Him, and THANK YOU so much for sharing it with me!

Really. I’m speechless. Just thank you again and again.

Cyndi: Thank YOU so much, Jeanne.  It always amazes, humbles and encourages ME how God uses the members of His body to minister to one another in a beautiful, ripple effect.  As we faithfully give what God pours into our hearts, He uses it to create an ever-widening circle of blessing.

I’m in the middle of having to upgrade some of my recording programs, so I’d appreciate your prayers that I can get past all the “technical difficulties” and on with sharing the songs!  Thanks!

Me: Amen! I too am amazed by God’s kind, beautiful, interwoven ways. Praying for you, Cyndi, that the Lord will bless your ministry through song and give you grace, patience, and insight as you navigate the “wonders” of technology. 🙂

I visited your website. You have a lovely voice and delightful style, and I’m more excited than ever to hear Mercy Calls once you’ve recorded it!

Thank you again for being His instrument and a gift to me.

Cyndi (mid-February): I FINALLY was able to get my system all working and have time to record “Mercy Calls.”  (I still have some glitches to work out, but I’m so thankful to the Lord for His help, wisdom and strength!)

So…I’ve attached the song here for you.  You’re the first one to hear the finished product!

I hope and pray it will be a blessing to all who listen to it, and encourage them to show mercy!

Thanks again for the inspiration!

(Friends, listen to this! Yes, I mean right now. You’re welcome.)

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Me: Oh, Cyndi. I have no words. And by “no words,” I mean I’ve started typing several sentences and then deleted them, because I honestly can’t express the wonder of hearing this beautiful gift God gave you, knowing He used my words to inspire you, and feeling this humbling sense of His kindness to His body, giving us to each other that we might speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, spurring each other on to love and good deeds and a holy urgency to love Him and all people well–especially the least of these.

Thank you for the honor of hearing this first. Please let me know if I have permission to share it. I would love to put it on my blog, tell this story, and direct people to you and your music, but I don’t want to run ahead of what you have in mind for the song.

I’m so grateful to our good, gracious God that He has crossed our paths in this way. You are a blessing to me, and I pray He takes this song and makes it a blessing to many.

Cyndi: Thank you for your beautiful reply!  It is so precious how God is working in and through each of His vessels for His purpose.

By all means, you can feel free to share this song. It would bless me to know it is reaching a new audience. I have been praying about what God wants me to do with it….and am thinking of somehow making it available as a download connected to some kind of outreach donation.  I’m just not sure exactly how to go about doing that. Maybe you have some ideas?

For now…rejoice with me in God’s goodness!  I too am grateful for the way He has orchestrated the meeting of two hearts seeking to do His will.

(Then in a separate email):

I almost a forgot about this….

Several days after writing “Mercy Calls,” I was looking at your site, and read the blog article on the clay pots.  This song came from that inspiration!  It’s just a little chorus, but it kind of sums up what I think you were expressing. I’ve been singing it quite often.

So…thank you twice over for your insightful writing!

Love,
Cyndi

Chorus

Humility, not I but Christ
Dying to self, Christ magnified
Humility, my pride dethroned
All glory given, to Christ alone
Let Him increase, let Him be seen
And let there be less and less of me
A servant’s heart, a willing mind
Till Christ in me, alone is glorified

© Cyndi Aarrestad, January 18, 2016
After reading Jeanne Damoff’s writing on her blog

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Me: I love this! What a blessing you are! Thank you for your beautiful and encouraging ministry. I’d love to hear this one, too! 🙂

Cyndi (mid-March): Hello again, dear sister!

Our God is so awesome and amazing! I just wanted to share what has happened with Mercy Calls lately.  As I mentioned to you, I have been thinking of perhaps using it as a download connected with donating to a charity.  Well, God had other plans first! I guess He was reminding me that charity/mercy are needed just as much close to home as across the globe! Very sadly, several weeks ago, our dear friends and neighbours (a family of 6), lost their home and belongings in a fire.  Thankfully no one was home and so they were all unharmed.  Our surrounding community has come together in amazing ways to support and help them, and God is already working the situation out to bring blessings.

They are a musically talented family, and Darryl, the husband, has been a huge part of the recordings I have done for many years.  It seemed only natural to have a benefit concert for them, which we are in the process of preparing for.  But then, the one day I just felt that familiar nudge of the Spirit, prompting me to compile some songs for a benefit CD for them.  Guess what the title is?!? Mercy Calls, of course!  All the songs center around the theme of helping/caring/serving others, and being instruments of God’s compassion.  I can already see how God is using this…many people whom I wouldn’t have expected (and who don’t usually listen to Gospel music)…are buying it (to support the family of course), but I am praying that God will really speak to their hearts through the messages of the songs.  It’s just created a really neat opportunity to minister!

Anyways…I just thought I’d let you know how the ripple effect from your writing has touched us here.

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Me: Oh my goodness! Cyndi, you are such a blessing and encouragement to me! THANK YOU for sharing these ripples, and thank you for listening to the Lord and for using your gifts to serve others and magnify Him. You inspire me.

I plan to post Mercy Calls and the story behind it on my blog, and I’d love to include a link to the benefit CD if that’s okay with you. Could you send that to me?

Cyndi (April): The “Mercy Calls” CD is now available on iTunes and here is the link:

https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/mercy-calls/id1099291007

I appreciate your offer to share this, and I truly hope it blesses and inspires all who hear it.

Me (mid-May—not in an email to her, but right now to you):

Most of the time we never know what our small offerings stir in others — the kind, supportive word to the frazzled mom of three children wrestling her way through the grocery store aisle; the plate of fresh cookies to a neighbor; a handwritten note to a friend; a bold act of sacrificial faith that quietly emboldens others to do the same.

And maybe we think our voice doesn’t matter. What difference will it make if I add more words to the cacophony of noise clattering around in the cybersphere?

It makes a difference. Your offering matters. Share your words — your small, brave, healing, selfless words.

And don’t be surprised if God answers with a song.





A Word for 2016

9 01 2016

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A clay jar is a made thing, imagined and crafted by its maker. He determines its capacity and purpose, and expects only that it do what it was made to do.

In Perelandra (the second book in C.S. Lewis’ amazing space trilogy), the central character, Ransom, accomplishes a magnificent feat. He travels to a world inhabited by its first man and woman, and — by speaking truth to lies and ultimately defeating a demon-possessed tempter in hand-to-hand combat — he prevents a Genesis 3-type fall and secures a curse-free existence for all future inhabitants.

Before Ransom returns to Earth, he stands before the crowned king and queen of Perelandra, and the weight of what he has just accomplished begins to sink in. What will this mean for him in the future? What kind of fame, reward, and legendary status await one who rescues a whole world from brokenness, sin, destruction, and death?

An angelic being quickly reassures him with these words:

“Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad.”

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Not only does Ransom return home without trophies and accolades, he takes with him a wound on his heel that will remain a painful reminder of his battle with evil for as long as he lives. In a very literal sense, he is conformed to the image of Christ.

He receives the better reward.

And in his smallness, he is comforted.

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I think it’s safe to say that the wedding guests in Cana never gathered around the six stone water pots and lavished them with praise. The pots weren’t set on pedestals, festooned with garlands, and worshiped for the miracle of water into wine. Most likely, those water pots continued to function as ordinary water pots and the servants who’d filled them as ordinary servants. Except for what they knew. Which changed everything.

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But there is something in me that wants more. Something entitled. Something desperately selfish.

I say I want my life to be hidden in Christ, but I’m quick to bask in the praise of men.

I say I want to be dead to self, alive to God, and content with the portion He chooses for me, but I still find myself comparing, competing, envying, and resenting.

I say I want to be small in my own eyes, but my heart betrays me. When I don’t get credit for something I did? When I’m overlooked or excluded? When he answers my prayer for humility by actual humbling me? Then I see how far I have to go before I’m satisfied in Him alone, no matter what.

 

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Before John the Baptist was born, he was set apart to be the forerunner for Christ, and he fully embraced that calling in spite of the fact it largely meant a life of seclusion and eccentricity. And when the multitudes actually listened to him and redirected their attention to Jesus, John’s disciples were indignant for his sake. But he said,

“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

Stunning. But then? We get this glimpse at a tiny crack in John’s armor. He hears of all the miracles Jesus is performing, while he remains imprisoned in Herod’s dungeon, hidden, set aside, seemingly forgotten. So he sends messengers to Jesus, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

And Jesus skips the question asked and answers the implied one.

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

Jesus said this knowing that John would remain in prison, and Herod would behead him at the request of a dancing girl and her vengeful mother.

But I believe He also said it tenderly, knowing what we don’t know and seeing what we don’t see.

We don’t know what transpired between John and his Father in the moments before and after this seemingly senseless and humiliating execution. We don’t see what he saw or hear what he heard — the “well done” and “welcome home” of the One he devoted his life to serve. Every question at last answered. Every longing finally fulfilled. His joy once and for all truly complete.

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So, my word for the year is “small.” And I want to be like these little ceramic jars, made by a potter friend to be left in random places at Christmas time, each one unique, and each with a note explaining to the finder that the jar is a free gift, given because of all Jesus has given him. Given for the joy of giving joy. No credit sought, and much gladness received.

And I pray I’ll embrace this sacramental smallness not only with words, but with my life. That I will mean it when I tell God I want to be a living sacrifice — one clay vessel among His many, cleansed, set apart, ready for Him to fill and use however He chooses, whether anyone ever notices me or not.

This is my prayer — for freedom from selfish agendas, freedom from entitlement, freedom from offense, freedom to be small.

To be comforted in my smallness.

To receive and be glad.

All for Him.





Like Leaves Falling

22 12 2015

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Creation understands. Birth. Life. Withering. Dying. Returning to the dust.

The leaves don’t cling to the green. When winter whispers her soon return, they explode in a colorful psalm, embrace the outstretched hand of the wind, and dance their way to decomposition. There’s no competition. No argument over which leaf left the more lasting impression or legacy. As one, they sink into the earth, and their memory vanishes.

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I need to learn from the leaves. Because I don’t want a life of “clinging to the green.” I want to be okay with Isaiah’s declaration that all flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, and — as much as I believe in wisely stewarding it — this body is breaking down.

So I’ve been thinking. About how to live the autumn of my life well.

I’ve been searching for the secret of the leaves, and I believe I’ve found it.

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I’ve been thinking about Jesus, and how all power belonged to Him — how He could have had everything this world has to offer (and was tempted to take it), but was pleased to do things His Father’s upside-down way.

He was formed in the womb of a poor, unwed teenager, and born in a stable. His birth was announced to shepherds — rough, disreputable men whose testimony wasn’t allowed in courts of law. As a toddler, His life was threatened by a murderous king, and His parents fled to Egypt as refugees. As a man, he never married or had children, and had no place to lay His head. He enlisted house servants to both assist and witness His first miracle.

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He left His glory to enter His humanity and our brokenness fully.

For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
    a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Isaiah 53:2

He welcomed the outcast, dined with tax collectors, healed the sick and oppressed, and fed the multitudes. He spoke in veiled parables, redefined the Sabbath, and invited the condemned to repentance. He was silent before false accusers, allowed mere men to mock and humiliate Him, and willingly absorbed the wrath of God on the cross.

All because He knew. He knew that three days later He would rise. That the grave isn’t the end. That death doesn’t win.

For the joy set before Him, He laid aside everything that was His right, and took on everything that was our due. And even now, He knows my frame. He remembers that I am dust. And when I don’t understand His ways, He gently lifts my head and asks me to look beyond this withering grass to the steadfast love that never ceases, to lay down my life and be caught up in His immeasurably more, that I might join in the triumphant song of the saints through the ages.

Birth. Life. Withering. Dying. Returning to the dust.

But that’s not the end. Because a Baby was born in Bethlehem, we rise up laughing, swept into the beautiful, dancing purposes of God, where it’s grace upon grace upon grace.

Just like leaves falling.

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Wishing you a glorious Christmas, my friends, and the freedom to soar with Him into the New Year. With much love.





Fragrance

17 10 2015

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In New Testament times, foot washing was both practical and hospitable. People wore sandals, walked on dry dusty roads, and arrived with grime clinging to their skin. Cool water on hot, dirty feet not only cleansed and refreshed, it expressed a host’s desire to honor and serve his guests.

In our day and culture, we no longer require or expect a foot washing when we enter a friend’s home. But that doesn’t mean we’re clean. We go through our day collecting the “dust” of every influence we encounter, and it clings to us every bit as much as the grime Jesus washed from His disciples’ feet.

We just don’t notice it. Until we have to.

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I first met Diana through email when Liz, a friend and minister at our church, asked if I’d be willing to encourage a sister who is isolated due to illness and craves real community. I was happy to. But once our correspondence began and I glimpsed this dear soul’s heart, I quickly discovered that Diana would be as much a gift to me as I could ever be to her.

Diana suffers from an Environmental Illness that began in 1992 and has progressively worsened since then. Her condition is controversial and misunderstood, forcing its sufferers to endure skepticism from some in the medical community, and leaving them to grope in semi-darkness for answers and help. At one point, unable to tolerate food, she dropped to 88 pounds. And no one knew how to help her. She plunged into deep depression.

Diana believed she was dying.

She and her husband, Mark, heard about available treatment and chemical-free living facilities in Dallas, and packed up to move from Indiana in 2013. Even so, her health continued on a downward spiral and her despair deepened. She took an overdose of sleeping pills, believing it was the only way to protect others from her apparently unsolvable problems. But she woke in the hospital surprised to still be alive. Perhaps God was pouring out His mercy on her? Hope flickered.

Not long after this, Diana came to faith in Christ, and her despair turned to joy. Her illness remained, with all its restrictions, but her spirit was no longer locked in its prison.

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Currently, Diana can tolerate 20 foods and owns half a dozen garments she can wear without reaction. She doesn’t go anywhere except to her doctor’s office, which is kept as “clean” as possible for patients like her. Even so, she often reacts to those visits.

I asked Diana what she experiences when she has a reaction. She said it starts in her head, which feels like her brain is swelling and pressing against her skull. The inflammation then spreads downward until, eventually, her whole body feels like it’s on fire. Her thoughts also become confused, which makes it hard to think, much less to pray and recall God’s promises. These episodes can leave her incapacitated for weeks. It’s no wonder she chooses to remain home.

Since moving to Dallas, there have been two events that motivated Diana to risk an extreme reaction. The first was her daughter’s wedding last June.

Wedding. Preston, Rachel, Dad, Mom

Wedding. Rachel, Dad, Mom

And the second was her baptism.

Diana knew she could be baptized privately, even in her own bathtub if it came down to it. No one compelled her to do otherwise, and pastors from our church offered to do whatever was best to accommodate her. But after months of intense prayer, soul searching, and Bible study, she was convinced. She wanted to make a public testimony — to share with the body of Christ what He has done and is doing for her. She was willing to count a very real cost to declare to the world that she has been buried in the likeness of Christ’s death and raised to walk in newness of life with Him.

Diana knew it would be impossible for the church to detox itself. Every fabric — carpet, upholstery, clothing — is treated with chemicals. Every person is unknowingly tainted. Soap, shampoo, deodorant, lotion, make-up, hair products. They all contain fragrances, and all fragrances are taboo. But Diana had instructed Liz how to wash her clothes multiple times in fragrance-free detergent, how to best cleanse her hair and body of any contaminants, how they could at least make the person who would be entering the baptistery with Diana as clean as possible. And Liz was ready.

But then they realized Liz would be out of the country on the date Diana planned to be baptized.

So three days before the scheduled service, she asked me if I would be willing. And of course, I was delighted to say yes.

I was deeply honored. And humbled. And I was also afraid. I didn’t want to make her sick, and I only had three days to cleanse myself. Three days of purification. Three days of trying to set myself apart.

It was a three-day journey to try to eliminate every clinging aroma, and it became a three-day journey into a deeper understanding of how desperately we need God’s grace.

Because I couldn’t do it.

The aromas in my home were suddenly magnified to me. I noticed them everywhere. The essential oils I diffuse, my favorite soap, candles in almost every room — their scents permeated the furniture, my hair, everything. I capped and put away candles and stopped using oils, but I could still smell them.

I washed the clothes I would be wearing three times in fragrance-free detergent and dried them without fabric softener. But I could still smell my tee shirt. Years of exposure to who-knows-what in the environment had woven itself into the fabric.

And then there was my body. Not only would it be a challenge to eliminate fragrances, I had to battle pride as well. Stand in front of the church, my face magnified on the screen, with no make-up? No hair products to tame the crazy? No lotion or deodorant? This was a true stripping down. A laying bare. And God, as He is so very kind to do, spoke into my struggle.

Unmasked
We walk through this world — maybe not in sandals gathering physical dust — but we pick up its clinging scents wherever we go. We begin to smell like the world, look like the world, and before we know it, think like the world. We’re called to be an aroma of Christ, but are we? Do we have any idea how saturated we are with the stench of the world? Or how powerless we are to remove it?

Isaiah 64: 6 says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”

I couldn’t completely rid myself of fragrance. And, no matter how hard I try, I can’t cleanse myself spiritually either.

I’m contaminated, even sickening, and I desperately need Jesus.

As I considered these things, I thought about Diana — how she has trusted God and allowed Him to teach and sanctify her in her illness. She has been reduced to the simplest of existences and still suffers extreme pain, yet her hope remains in Him and her faith is radiant and blazing. The agonizing fire that spreads through her body has refined her to the core, and all her purposes are reduced to a single goal. She lives to give glory to the One whose mercies meet her new every morning.

And her husband, Mark, has willingly entered this world with her.

I met them both in person for the first time outside the church an hour before the baptism, and for that one hour, I had the amazing privilege of witnessing the way Christ loves His bride.

There I was, in all my no-make-up, frizzy-haired glory, but I soon forgot all about myself as I observed and listened to these two.

Wedding. Dad and Mom
Mark’s love for Diana is fierce and protective. It’s sacrificial and tender. It’s a wonder. I watched him take care of her practical needs, and I watched his eyes fill with tears more than once as he witnessed his brave wife’s joy.

We sat outside the building until almost time to enter the waters, and I felt like I’d been invited into a rare space. A sanctuary. A picture of Home. This beautiful, shining woman and the man who literally lays down his life to make her life possible.

When the time came, I stepped into the waters with Diana and listened as she shared her story with the church — a room full of people who will never get the chance to hug her like I did, or physically sit at her feet for an hour, or eye-witness the beauty of this marriage, but who are nevertheless her family — brothers and sisters who will one day see her whole and well. And the glory then? Eye has not seen nor ear heard.

Diana gave her testimony with a depth of joy that only a few present fully understood. Afterward, she plunged into symbolic death with a huge smile on her face, and rose up laughing.

She knew she would react to all the exposure, and by the time she got home, she was exhausted and in so much pain, she could only manage to shower and crawl into bed. But two days later in an email, her confession in the midst of severe suffering was still joy in obedience and gratitude for His sustaining mercies.

2 Corinthians 2:14-16 says, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”

The aroma of Christ to God. A fragrance from life to life.

Last Sunday I baptized Diana. And the fragrance is still clinging.





Kocho

13 10 2015

Kocho AliKocho

When you meet Kocho, the first thing you notice is his deep, abiding joy. You’d never guess that, in many ways, he’s a man without a country.

Kocho is from the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, which means the Sudanese government considers him a rebel. According to this June 2015 article in the New York Times, “A rebel army with many thousands of soldiers . . . governs the Nuba Mountains. The Sudanese government bombs the rebels and periodically attacks them, but the majority of its attacks seem to target civilians, apparently to make the area uninhabitable so that no one is left to support the rebels.”

The article goes on to explain, “The Nuba Mountains have no strategic value and neither the United States nor other governments have made much of an issue of the bombings, or of the lack of humanitarian access.”

Kocho’s people live in constant fear and endure unspeakable suffering, and no one seems to care. This alone would be enough to fill a man with indignation and fury.

But not Kocho.

KochoPreachingKocho preaching at the Hai Nuba Church in Doro

KochoBaptizingKocho baptizing

Version 2Kocho in the Doro refugee camp, with Richard, a member of our team

I met Kocho last April in a refugee camp in Doro, South Sudan, and I was immediately struck by his smile, his intelligence, and his peaceful strength. He exuded radiant grace. We attended a service in the small, thatched Hai Nuba church, and Kocho not only led the joyful singing, he preached a powerful sermon in perfect English and interpreted into Arabic for himself. I remember thinking that, were he to show up in a college classroom in the US, he would fit right in. No one would guess his history.

Kocho’s father had four wives, and he has many brothers and sisters. Though his parents were both Muslims, he went to a school mixed with Muslims and Christians. When he was in 7th grade, his Kenyan teacher took him aside for Bible study. Kocho wasn’t interested, but he didn’t want to disappoint his teacher. So he studied the Bible. And, in his words, “I met Jesus.”

At the time he was living in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. His father had a good position and sent money to continue his next level of education. Then he received a Lost Boys Scholarship, and in 2010 he completed high school.

After that, Kocho says, “I prayed with all my heart” for a chance to continue schooling. Many of his buddies from the refugee camp were able to go to universities in the USA and Canada. Some of them had lower scores than Kocho in school, but he was stuck. He couldn’t say he was South Sudanese, and he couldn’t apply for papers from the north because they would see he is from Nuba and brand him a rebel. He worked a bit as a teacher, then returned to South Sudan and applied for University in Juba.

His application was denied because he’s from Nuba.

From there he went to a refugee camp in Unity State where he worked for Samaritan’s Purse for about a year. Friends then told him about possible job opportunities in Doro, so he moved there to work as a nurse assistant and save money for school.

His friends ask him, “What are you doing these days? You are probably finishing up university by now?” When he tells them what he is doing, they say that he is “wasting talent,” and those who are not Christians say, “God has forgotten you.”

But he says, “God is not done with me yet,” and he looks to Biblical examples of patience. Abraham waited 25 years for his promised son, he recalls. And David waited 15 years before he became a king.

And now? It looks like Kocho’s days of waiting may be coming to an end.

Missionary Care Trip 2015 - Jeanne 1176Cathy and Ruth with a refugee child

Enter Cathy and Ruth, nurse practitioners with SIM at the Grieve Memorial Clinic in Doro, who knew Kocho wanted to further his education, but weren’t sure how to help him. They approached African Mission Healthcare Foundation (AMHF) about setting up a support page for Kocho, and then they began the process of getting him to school.

None of this is simple. Kocho has no official ID or passport, and obtaining one will not be easy. But they managed to get him to Kenya, where he is enrolled in a business school now, completing his biology requirements on a temporary visa, and praying the official papers will come through before this term ends.

Kocho’s dream is to become a doctor, but not so he can get a good job, earn money, and make a comfortable life for himself. He said, “I can see how, when God puts His love in you, it is different than just being a medic and doing a job. With God it is not about the job or about getting money. I have prayed that if any gift is a stumbling block to me in my relationship with God that He would take it away from me. I want this gift of medicine to draw me close to God not further from Him.”

When asked if he wants to return to Nuba to practice medicine and alleviate the suffering there, he answered,“That is a big ‘Yes!’ But I want to follow God’s leading and go wherever His name is not known.”

Kocho may be a man without a country or an official ID, but he knows where his true identity is found. Galatians 2:20 is one of his favorite verses:

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

He also points to Ephesians 5:15-17.

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”

Kocho’s friends couldn’t have been more wrong. What the world may see as “wasting talent,” God receives as a life laid down, waiting for His timing, delighted to do His will.

God hasn’t forgotten Kocho. On the contrary, Kocho has been swept up into His holy purposes, adopted into His family, granted citizenship in His kingdom, and sealed as His own. And no one can deny him those credentials.

Will you pray with me for Kocho? Pray that God opens doors of opportunity for this hard-working, beautiful soul. And that he will be able to get the documents he needs to proceed to medical school when his biology course is finished.

And will you pray that the funds for his education come through?  At Cathy and Ruth’s request, AMHF set up a support page, and enough money has already been raised to cover his first year of medical school. Praise God for this wonderful provision! If you know of anyone who might want to pray for Kocho or help financially, will you share his need?

For his part, Kocho isn’t worried. His beautiful faith never wavering, he presses on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Ruth had the opportunity to speak with Kocho last week. Even as much of his immediate future remains uncertain, she said one of his biggest prayer requests was for the Hai Nuba Church in Doro, that they would grow, be strengthened, and “eat solid food, not desire milk like babies.”

Grant it, Lord. And may we, his brothers and sisters in the land of plenty, do the same.








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