When we don’t recognize the answers to our prayers

11 11 2016

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To state the obvious, there’s a lot of pain, confusion, fear, and disappointment in the aftermath of the election. We’re all processing what happened and trying to predict what it might mean for the future. Tensions are high and words are often harsh and accusatory. And I’m not even referring to the general populace. I’m talking about those who identify as believers in Christ.

So, I thought it might be good to preach a little gospel to myself and anyone else who wants to listen in. Feel free to grab a cup of tea and get cozy.

Our culture may be saying a lot of things about us, and we may be saying a lot of things about each other, but God has also said some very specific things about His people. Here are a few of them:

We are created in His image, covered by the shadow of His wing, held in the palm of His hand, fearfully and wonderfully made, created for His pleasure and glory, chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, taught by the Holy Spirit, known, protected, shielded, shepherded, disciplined as beloved children, grafted into the vine, loved, cherished, set apart, adopted, His workmanship created for good works that He has foreordained for us to walk in.

Exhale.

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One good thing I already see happening post-election is that Christians in America are distancing themselves from political affiliations and reexamining their identity. As believers, we’re called to be in this world, but not of it. We may be citizens of a nation, but we’re called to live here as citizens of God’s upside-down kingdom. No earthly ruler is responsible for accomplishing what God has commanded His church to do.

God is calling His people to deep, meaningful, and powerful community. Can you imagine what would happen if we really believed all the truths God has spoken over us — if we walked into our inheritance and united our hearts, our creativity, and our energies in loving this broken world?

We need to own our identity as God’s sons and daughters and co-heirs with Christ, because the kingdom we live in determines the lenses through which we see all things, including the promises of God.

Consider Psalm 84:11-12. “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!”

When you read the words, “the Lord bestows favor and honor,” what comes to mind? Or what about the phrase, “no good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly”? If we view this promise through the lenses of the upside-down kingdom, we remember that “favor” from God may look like loving discipline of His child, and “honor” may look like bearing reproach for His Name, and the “good thing” He won’t withhold may be the suffering or persecution He knows we need to be conformed to the image of His Son.

The more we look through the lenses of the upside-down kingdom, the less God’s Word becomes about our personal or social agenda and the more it becomes about His glory and His kingdom.

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The only way to accurately see God’s promises and commands is through the right lenses, and when we do see clearly, life becomes a glorious adventure with Him. When we don’t get our way, we can still give thanks, because we believe in His sovereign plans and purposes and power. We trust that, whatever He chooses for us, it is an indication of our Father’s favor and His faithfulness to give good and perfect gifts to His children.

God is always only good in what He gives, and always only good in what He forbids. Therefore, the only true freedom is found in absolute submission to Him.

So, how do we live in submission to this King? What are the principles and laws of this upside-down kingdom?

They’re the exact opposites of the principles of the world or the so-called law of the jungle.

Jungle law says it’s every man for himself.
Kingdom law says consider others as more important than yourself, and the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all.

Jungle law says might makes right.
Kingdom law says the weak confound the mighty.

Jungle law says kill or be killed.
Kingdom law says turn the other cheek, go the second mile, if someone asks for your coat, give him your shirt as well.

Jungle law claims that only the fittest will survive.
But kingdom law says become as a little child, the meek inherit the earth, and the pure in heart see God.

And here’s the secret to freedom and the unexplainable joy of God’s children. We know that the best gifts He gives are actually the ones that bow us the lowest, because God resists the proud and draws near to the humble.

God’s ways are higher than ours. He knows what we actually need (as opposed to what we think we want), and He is willing to crush us if that’s the way to resurrection. We see this imagery again and again in scriptural word pictures.

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Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and the Father is the gardener. He prunes us according to His wisdom. To us it may look like He has cut away what was most beautiful in our lives, but He always prunes with purpose, that we might abide more deeply in Him and that we might bear much fruit.

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He is the potter and we are the clay. We feel the pressure and we want to squirm out of his grasp, but He is shaping us, molding us for His purposes. We can trust God’s love to be behind every painful stroke of His hand.

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He is the refiner and we are His gold. Left to ourselves, we would remain dingy lumps of metal with dirt clinging to our surface. His fire cleanses, purifies, strengthens. He knows exactly how hot the fire needs to be to burn away all our dross until He can see His face reflected in our lives.

We want these things in theory. We may even ask Him to prune our dead branches, to shape us into useful vessels, to burn away our dross. But when it happens in real life — when the sheers cut deep and the pressure feels unbearable and the fire burns hot, we can easily lose sight of God’s purpose and forget that the suffering is not only for our good and His glory, it’s the answer to our prayers.

Have you noticed that we never fathom the fullness of God’s ways? There’s always more than we can see. We look for physical healing and God heals our hearts. We ask for blessing and He sends pain that splits us wide open, because He knows that’s the only way our souls will ever learn to breathe.

Right now the people of God in America have an opportunity to be salt and light for such a time as this. May we welcome His working in us and trust His ways. And may we recognize the answers to our own prayers, even when they come disguised in the most surprising and unexpected packages.





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.”

 

 





A Word for 2016

9 01 2016

Small

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.





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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.





The Real Problem

28 05 2015

thinking

I’ve been thinking. Forced to think, really. Because some things touch our lives that can’t be ignored. As much as we may want to simply dismiss them, they aren’t going anywhere and must be faced head on. So I’ve been thinking and soul searching and trying to find clarity in the midst of so much accusation and innuendo, and in the process, I remembered this 2012 clip from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. Before you watch it, let me assure you, this blog post has absolutely nothing to do with politics and everything to do with human nature. And this video is a brilliant case study in human nature, well worth a few minutes of your time. Please watch it. Then come back, and let’s talk.

We love to draw dividing lines, don’t we? It makes everything so simple. We are good. They are evil.

This is by no means a political problem. It’s a human problem. And the church is not exempt. From our cradle days, we who claim to follow Jesus formed our camps. “I am of Paul” and “I am of Apollos.” So it began, and it has only compounded with the passage of time.

Oh, how we love our labels! They make us feel smug and superior, and they make judging others such a tidy process. The problem, after all, is the Evangelicals. The Fundamentalists. The Literalists. Or it’s the Progressives. The Emergents. The Revisionists.

It’s the Calvinists. The Arminians.
The Conservatives. The Liberals.

The problem is Patriarchy. The problem is Feminism.
The problem is Proof-texters (and we have the verses to prove it).

We are the inclusive ones. We love everybody. We are the remnant, the enlightened ones, the true believers.

They are “destroying everything.” They are the blind leading the blind. They are clueless, unteachable, deceiving and deceived. They are “always this” and “never that” and their condemnation is just.

We’re the party of tolerance and acceptance. Yes, we are. And from the security of our encampment, surrounded by walls we’ve constructed from our scars and fears and pride, we hurl prayers toward heaven for judgment on our evil, intolerant enemies (often the exact same prayers they are hurling about us), convinced God is on our side. He has to be. Because we’re right.

Like I said, I’ve been thinking. And praying. And you want to know the conclusion I’ve come to?

I am the problem.

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You see, God has taken me from Point A to Point B to Point C to Point D. And now that I’m here at Point D, I see everything clearly. The things that I suffered at Point A taught me who I could trust and not trust, and the things I learned at Point B gave me a theological and spiritual edge, and the community I embraced at Point C confirmed all my opinions and applauded all my insights, and I think it’s safe to say that I have arrived. Never mind that I’m still a long way from Point Z. What could there possibly be left to learn? My intuition is flawless. (I can feel it.) And my discernment is a finely tuned instrument. I’ve got the big picture now. Which means when I perceive that you’re in a place very similar to my Point A, I’m not only in a position to judge your words and deeds, I can also judge your motives. I know why you do what you do.

After all, no one can believe what you believe, say what you say, and do what you do, and not be evil. So I’m pulling out my broad brush and applying your label, and there you go. Case closed and court adjourned. Now, please do us all a favor and go burn in hell, and the world will be a better place.

Exaggeration? Maybe a little. But not much.

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True confession: There’s a popular blogger with a wide following. She’s intelligent and articulate. And I strongly disagree with her on some pretty serious issues. From where I sit, here at Point D, I believe she is damaging the body of Christ in these particulars, and it grieves me deeply. But here’s the deal. Sometimes she also writes beautiful things I agree with. And you know what? Instead of celebrating those things, I’m annoyed. I don’t want to agree with her. I want to categorize her.

A while back I felt like the Lord was convicting me to pray for this woman, so I obeyed. My prayers for her went along this line: “Lord, please reveal to _____ that she is leading a lot of people astray with these stands she is taking. Please draw her into Your Word and show her the ways of Your upside down kingdom. Rescue her from her deception, and convict her of her sin.”

I felt pretty good about that — praying for “my enemy” and all — until the Lord showed me that my prayer wasn’t actually for this woman. It was against her. And she’s not my enemy. She’s my sister.

So yesterday I prayed differently. It went more like this: “Lord, you created _______ in your image and for your glory. You knitted her in her mother’s womb and numbered her days. You know her heart, and I don’t. You know her whole story — everything that has shaped her and informed her world view — and that story is not over. You are the Good Shepherd. You know your sheep, and your sheep hear your voice and follow You. You are able to make your voice heard in her life as clearly as I believe You are in mine. Pour out your joy, your peace, and your presence on her today. Accomplish your purposes in and through her, to the glory of your Name.”

A remarkable thing happened when I prayed that way. Probably for the first time ever, I felt love for this woman.

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It’s a step in the right direction. But only a step. Because I’m still human, and I always will be. Until I stand in the presence of Jesus, I will only know in part, and yet the temptation will be to think my way is the right way and to take it upon myself to expose the wrong.

It feels good to be right, and we can always find a tribe to cheer us on — an “increasingly isolated echo chamber of agreement” where we can sound off and hear a chorus of Amens. But I’m pretty sure, if Jesus came back today, He wouldn’t point to any one of our factions and say, “Nailed it!” Nor would He turn to the rest and say, “You losers should have listened to them. You ruined everything.”

waterOn the night He was betrayed, Jesus laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He washed the feet of Peter, who would deny Him, and Thomas, who would doubt Him, and all the others He knew would soon abandon Him in the garden. And He washed the feet of Judas. The man whose heart was already filled with the devil’s purpose. The man who would betray Him.

Afterward He said, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

Even the feet of those who would crucify you if they could.

Can we all agree, that’s just plain hard?

It’s easier to form camps. It’s easier to venture into our neighbor’s territory only long enough to gather ammunition against him. It’s hard to listen. To try to understand. To see people as people and not as labels. To see them as the image bearers of our God. To serve the ones who hurt us.

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It’s easier to assign evil motives to people who don’t see things the way I do. To grab on to every shred of evidence that proves I’m right while ignoring any indication I might be at least partly wrong. To take my spark of indignation and stoke it into a blaze, fueled by the kindling of my equally enraged friends, while we all fume ourselves into a fury and boldly curse people who are made in the likeness of God.

And so our tongues boast of great things, and how great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! Add the internet to the mix, and the whole world goes up in flames in a matter of hours. And the damage is irreversible. Once it’s out there, we can’t get it back. No wonder James says the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

It’s easy to react. To lash out. To defend our position. But it’s hard to be quiet. To be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. To let God be the judge. To forgive as we’ve been forgiven. To strive, as much as it lies with us, to be at peace with all men.

It’s hard to really love — the 1 Corinthians 13 kind of love that is patient and kind, that does not envy or boast, that is not arrogant or rude. The love that does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful, does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. The love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I haven’t loved this way. Far too often, I’ve taken the easy path, and left a smoldering swath of charred remains in my wake.

I am the problem.

C.S. Lewis wrote in his glorious sonnet, As the Ruin Falls: “All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you. I never had a selfless thought since I was born.” Guilty as charged. And how can I judge your motives when my own heart is deceitful above all things? Selfishness mars everything I do. To quote another favorite poet, Rich Mullins:

We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage
And with these our hells and our heavens, so few inches apart
We must be awfully small and not as strong as we think we are.

It’s true. I’m awfully small. Much too small to see the big picture. And I’m tired of choking on the fumes — of spewing my selfish and self-righteous rage on people whose hearts I can’t see and whose stories I don’t know. Life is too short for this.

So I’m asking you to hold me accountable. I know perfection isn’t possible this side of heaven, but I want to let Jesus break down the walls in my heart. I want to erase dividing lines instead of drawing more. And I invite you to call me out when I fail.

If we are members of His body, we are members of one another, and I want to see you (whoever you are) as made in the image of my God. And even though we may not agree on everything, I will trust God’s plan for you and His power to bring it to pass.

I don’t want to be the problem any more.

Jesus is coming back for a spotless bride, and when He does, I want to be found bowed low, washing her feet.

 





Thirsty

23 04 2015

IMG_1344“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

~ 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

I spent two weeks in the Horn of Africa. By the numbers, thirteen flights landed in ten different cities at eleven different airports in six different countries. From jumbo jets to prop planes on dirt runways, every flight was on time. No connection missed. No piece of luggage lost.

Our small team got along great. No one got sick. (Or kidnapped or robbed or murdered.) No one even got cranky.

We found favor with visa and customs officials, received unbelievable hospitality, enjoyed a wide variety of local foods (including camel, goat, and a few dishes I couldn’t identify), slept well, and drank deeply of the wells of grace God supplies when His children connect around His faithfulness and eternal purposes.

We were sustained, protected, led, and encouraged, and I have no doubt we were upheld by thousands of answered prayers.

We received mercy upon mercy, and we are grateful beyond words to express it.

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IMG_1358I promised stories upon my return, and there are plenty of stories to tell. But one is burning like a branding iron in my soul, and even though it happened near the end of our adventures, I need to begin right here.

Our God is kind. Much too kind to let us walk in pride. And sometimes when we think our obedience is just about as complete as it could get, the kindest gift He can give is to expose the true condition of our hearts. Like Peter at the last supper, we declare our allegiance. “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death,” (Luke 22) and Jesus simply sets us straight. No, He says. You will deny me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I promised you a story, and a story you shall have.

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IMG_1406The small village of Doro is located on the northern border of South Sudan. What was once the undisturbed home of the Mabaan people is now a refugee camp housing 130,000 people from a wide variety of tribes — people who’ve fled across the border from Sudan to escape violence, many of them leaving all their possessions behind. There are a number of agencies and NGOs working in the area, and one of them is SIM.

Ruth is a young, single nurse practitioner, an SIM worker stationed at the Grieve Memorial Clinic in Doro, serving the medical needs of the refugees. We traveled there to see her world, bring some requested supplies, and spend time hearing her heart and speaking into her life. Ruth being Ruth, we also ate well, laughed a lot, and played a card game or two. And there may or may not have been a late-night dance party in the hotel room Ruth and I shared in Juba. You’ll have to ask her.

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IMG_1301Ruth with a Nubian child

One of the highlights of our time in Doro was a feast held in our honor and hosted by Nubian refugees. Ruth attends the Nubian church and has gotten to know many of these dear souls well.

IMG_1359Ruth walking past the Nubian church building

The women began cooking early in the morning, preparing mountains of their traditional sorghum bread (like very thin injera). Working over open fires under a massive baobab tree, they also prepared various sauces for dipping, including a goat-and-potato dish, noodles in oil with tomato, a green leafy vegetable/herb concoction, and another thick sauce that I believe contained lentils.

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IMG_1379When we arrived early in the afternoon, they began serving their traditional beverages. First we drank hot tea poured over sugar. A lot of sugar. Then, after they roasted and ground fresh coffee beans, they mixed the thick, strong coffee with a generous infusion of ginger and another shock of sugar. It was delicious, but intense. A few sips went a long way.

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IMG_1388As we sat sipping hot beverages in the 100+ degree heat and visiting with the women, we were surrounded by a couple dozen children, at least as many pigs, and the occasional chicken or dog — a sort of happy chaos as babies were passed around, toddlers squabbled, and older children played games or sang and danced.

Everything was dust and sweat and pots boiling on hot coals and chatter in a language I didn’t understand.

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IMG_1310Ruth and her teammates cuddled babies and conversed with mamas. Pigs were shooed away from food. I sat on a bench, taking it all in, when I felt a small presence crowd in beside me and looked down into a dusty little face.

I asked Ruth if she recognized the boy, and she said no. She also said that a feast like this is rare in the refugee community, and it’s not unusual for uninvited guests to wander in and partake.

The child didn’t look well. The whites of his eyes were thick and yellowed, and his clothes exceptionally tattered. He reached out his hand and pointed to my water bottle.

During my entire two weeks in Africa, I was never without my water bottle. And this particular afternoon, I knew it contained the only water I would have to drink until well after dark. I instinctively pulled it away and said, “No.”

Then I looked at him again. His eyes locked on mine, and he simply opened his mouth.

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I don’t even know how to describe my internal reaction. It was surprise, revulsion, and perhaps a small twinge of guilt. But I still shook my head no. Undeterred, he reached across my lap, placed his hand on the bottle’s mouthpiece, and opened his mouth again.

Now I was annoyed. I wouldn’t be able to drink any more until I got a chance to wash it. But I still didn’t give him a drink. I suppose I subconsciously equated it to awarding misbehavior — like letting one of my children go ahead and eat a cookie they’d grabbed after I’d already said no cookies.

So I simply turned away and ignored him until he left.

IMG_1285I didn’t think much about it again until a few days later when we were making our way home. Our return journey included five flights spanning 36 hours, and I decided to pass some of those hours reading the remarkable and inspiring book, Kisses from Katie.

If you’re not familiar with Katie Davis’ story, the short of it is that Jesus captured her heart for Uganda at the age of eighteen, and she never looked back. Not yet twenty-five, she has adopted fourteen daughters, founded Amazima Ministries (a nonprofit providing sponsors for other needy children), and lives with an open door and heart, welcoming and serving whomever God brings to her. Her philosophy in a nutshell is this: love the one God has placed in front of you right now.

I was reading along, feeling moved and blessed, when I came to this:

“…for me, the whole situation could be reduced to one question: Did I believe that Jesus was serious? Did I believe what He said was true? The answer was yes. I believe He was serious when He said to love my neighbor as myself. . . . I kept going back to Matthew 25, where Jesus said, ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats . . . . Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink . . .whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

And there it was. Like an arrow to the heart, almost knocking the breath out of me. In an instant and with perfect clarity I saw that boy’s pleading face. I knew Jesus had asked me for a drink, and I in disgust and irritation had pulled my water away.

I said no to Jesus.

I knew this beyond doubting, and my heart was crushed. “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” It was grief like that.

Any sense of self-righteousness I might have been feeling after our two weeks in Africa evaporated. I was a noisy gong. A clanging cymbal. And for a horrifying moment, I wondered if Jesus would forgive me.

IMG_1394In the days following Jesus’ resurrection, Peter was restored and commissioned. He received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and preached a sermon that launched the newborn church. But no matter how many visions he had, souls he reached, or miracles he performed, I wonder if he always kept the memory of Jesus’ face the night he denied Him.

I think he probably did. And, like me, I expect he came to consider it a gift.

My broken-hearted prayer on that airplane was simple. “Please, Lord. Please forgive me. I never want to say ‘no’ to You again.”

IMG_1235I returned from the Horn of Africa with many images seared on my mind, but one stands out, and I’ve asked God to keep it front and center.

By God’s grace, a refugee child in South Sudan will help me keep my promise to say yes.

* * *

You can support SIM’s work with refugees in South Sudan.
Click here for more information.

Thank you!








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