Kocho, Part II

16 06 2016


One of my all-time favorite stories is the account of Joseph’s life, beginning in Genesis 37 when he was seventeen years old, and ending with his death in Genesis 50. The subtitles alone give an intriguing glimpse of the drama, conflict, betrayal, injustice, cunning, and ultimate triumph of his remarkable life. Check it out (with my mini synopses):

  • Joseph’s Dreams (in which he foolishly brags to his brothers about his dreams of future greatness)
  • Joseph Sold by His Brothers (in which their jealousy gets the best of them, Joseph is sold as a slave, and he gets his first taste of betrayal and injustice)
  • Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (in which he determines to be the best slave ever, gains favor and trust with his master only to be thrown in prison for the very thing he refuses to do, and gets his second taste of betrayal and injustice)
  • Joseph Interprets Two Prisoners’ Dreams (in which he determines to be the best prisoner ever, gains favor and trust with the warden, gives good news to one of Pharaoh’s servants and asks for a returned favor, is forgotten for two more years, and gets his third, all-too-familiar taste of betrayal and injustice)
  • Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dreams (in which thirteen years after he was first sold as a slave, he stands before the most powerful man in the world, calmly gives God credit for his gifts, interprets cosmically important dreams, and hatches a plan to save the known world from starvation)
  • Joseph Rises to Power (in which he gains favor and trust with Pharaoh and basically runs Egypt; no biggie)
  • Joseph’s Brothers Go to Egypt (in which his brothers come to buy food and don’t recognize him, so he messes with them a little bit)
  • Joseph’s Brothers Return to Egypt (in which they come back for more food and he messes with them again)
  • Joseph Tests His Brothers (in which the brothers humble themselves, and Judah confesses their sins and offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin)
  • Joseph Provides for His Brothers and Family (in which Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and says, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” BOOM!)
  • Joseph Brings His Family to Egypt (and then . . .)
  • Jacob and Joseph Reunited (and then . . .)
  • Jacob’s Family Settles in Goshen (and then . . .)
  • Joseph and the Famine (in which he exchanges grain for land and buys the whole world for Pharaoh, and then . . .)
  • Jacob Blesses Ephraim and Manasseh (aka, Joseph’s sons, and then . . .)
  • Jacob Blesses His Sons (and then . . .)
  • Jacob’s Death and Burial (and then . . .)
  • God’s Good Purposes (“. . . you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” MEMORIZE THAT and then . . .)
  • The Death of Joseph. (The End.)

Only not The End, really. Because there are ripples through history and will be until Jesus comes back again.

Kocho Ali

And all that to say . . . Kocho. When I think about Kocho, I think of Joseph. How sometimes life doesn’t seem to make sense, and injustice is real. And in those times, we have a choice. We can whine, complain, and give up. Or we can believe that the God who sent Joseph to Egypt and meant it for good is the same God at work in our lives today.

Last October I shared Kocho’s story. (You can read it here if you missed it.) Kocho is from the Nuba Mountains, lives in a refugee camp in Doro, South Sudan, and works as a nurse assistant for Doctor’s Without Borders — both to help others and to try to save money to pay his way through school. And it seems like every single step he tries to take into his future dreams is met with roadblocks, setbacks, and miles of pointless red tape.

He’s been trying to get a medical degree to return to the Nuba Mountains and help his people, who for years have been caught in the crossfire between the government of Sudan and the rebels occupying their territory. But, as I explained in my previous post, Kocho is a man without an official ID. He has no papers and can’t obtain them, because anyone from the Nuba Mountains is considered a rebel by association. And without papers, it’s hard to be accepted anywhere for study, or even to cross borders, for that matter.

Kocho is brilliant, gifted, and eager, but one after another, doors slam in his face. Just when it looks like a way has opened, rules change for one program, or random requirements are added for another one. And what does he do? Wherever he finds himself, he determines to be the best he can. Just like Joseph.

He smiles. He serves. And when you ask him how he feels about the delays, he says God must want to teach him patience. He also says that he prays he will never achieve any success that would shift his focus away from Christ and onto himself. And he means it.

So, Kocho is content. He continues to work as a nurse assistant. He also pastors youth, teaches and leads singing in his church, and is currently studying business — partly because it was the only program he could get into for now, and partly to pave the way for entrance into medical school in the future.

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Kocho’s grades in business school last fall

And even as he smiles and serves and works hard at whatever his hand finds to do, he has no idea how he will pay for the education he needs to be able to eventually return to help his suffering people in the Nuba Mountains.

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Cathy and Ruth in Doro, South Sudan

So his friends (and mine), Ruth and Cathy, set up a fund. And you’re invited to give. And to pray. You’re also invited to share Kocho’s story, because the only way anyone will know about this fund is if people like you and me help spread the word.

And someday? When all God means for good in Kocho’s life bears its fullest fruit, we will have the joy of knowing we were part of this Joseph story — a story setting ripples in motion that I believe will continue to spread, bringing salvation and healing and hope to many, until Jesus comes back again.

Because it wasn’t a government or a war or rebels or armies or chance that sent him here.

It was God.

 

P.S. Whatever you choose to do,
Thank You, friends.
You always amaze.

 





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.





Give and Take

2 05 2015

Let’s play a game. Try to find at least three differences in the following pairs of photos. You’re going to have to concentrate, but don’t give up.

Ready? Here we go:

water-truckwater delivery truck

water delivery truck2water delivery truck in South Sudan

classroomclassroom

classroom2classroom in South Sudan

waiting-roomhospital waiting area

waiting room2hospital waiting area in South Sudan

produceshopping for produce

grocerystore2shopping for produce in South Sudan

bedmy bed at home

bed2my bed in South Sudan

kitchenmy kitchen at home

kitchen2Ruth and Briana’s kitchen in South Sudan

So, how’d you do? Okay. I confess. It was a trick game. The differences are obvious.

I think it’s safe to say most of us living in North America consider ourselves blessed — not only with the common graces God so lavishly supplies to all people everywhere, but with an exceeding abundance beyond the basic necessities. We point to our freedoms, educational and occupational opportunities, material wealth, system of government, financial institutions, medical resources, overstocked grocery shelves, reliable utilities, instant internet connectivity, drivable roads, and a thousand other goods and services at our fingertips.

If we ever take the time to pause and consider how much we possess compared to most of the world, we may wonder why God would single us out to show us such abundant favor. In our best moments we admit: we don’t deserve all this.

Or maybe we do.

Maybe we’re getting exactly what we deserve. And maybe it’s also time we reconsider what constitutes a blessing from God.

childan American child

happychilda refugee child in South Sudan

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m thankful for clean water, nutritious food, a car that runs well, a closet full of clothes, and a comfortable home. I’m glad I can worship freely, receive medical attention when I need it, and call the police if I’m in danger, expecting a quick response. I also believe it pleases God when we receive every gift with gratitude and enjoy His material blessings.

But is it possible my possessions and conveniences have robbed me of far better blessings? Am I truly aware of my utter dependance on God? Or am I blinded by all the glitter and gold, benumbed by the constant bombardment of images and advertisements telling me I’m worth it, I need it, and I can’t live without it?

Am I cruising along in a fog, mostly oblivious to the realer Real — that nothing I achieve or own is actually mine, and every breath I take is a gift? That God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble? That “control” is a delusion, and none of my idols — the things I value, pursue, and trust — can save me?

Have my possessions taken possession of my heart and hardened it toward the better treasure?

sanctuaryAmerican sanctuary

IMG_1333sanctuary in South Sudan

In Revelation 3:17-19, Jesus spoke these words to the church at Laodicia:

Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.

This wasn’t a message to pagans. It was written to people who professed faith in Jesus. The same Jesus who says He reproves and disciplines those He loves. The same Jesus who doesn’t say He gives His favorites fancier stuff.

Like stepping out of a cave into noonday sun, all of this became clear in Africa. For two weeks I left my over-stuffed closet behind and lived out of one small suitcase. Conveniences varied from place to place, but in South Sudan, we had no air conditioning, no indoor plumbing, no running water. We washed clothing by hand in a tub and hung it to dry, hiked to an out-house, and showered using a bucket system. I slept on a screened-in porch under a mosquito net, ate whatever was placed before me, and got around on foot.

And I don’t know when I’ve felt a greater depth of peace, joy, and the presence of God.

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IMG_1123Ruth and her team leader, Bubba

In Kisses From Katie, Katie Davis wrote about her attempt to return to her comfortable life in Tennessee after a year in Uganda:

Many people asked the same question: “Isn’t life hard in Uganda?” Of course it was hard, in certain ways, but they didn’t seem to understand that what was even harder was being back in the States . . . . I hadn’t realized what a transformation had taken place while I had been in Uganda, the spiritual richness I had experienced in material poverty and spiritual poverty I felt now in a land of material wealth.

She goes on to say, “Brentwood didn’t feel like home anymore. Frederick Buchner writes, ‘The place God calls us to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’ I had been more than happy all my life in my home in Brentwood. But my deepest gladness and the world’s deep hunger met in Uganda.”

IMG_1466Ruth approaching the market

IMG_1459preparing a young mom to take her baby for surgery in Kijabe

If you hear me trying to shame the North American church for its material blessings, you’re missing my point. What I’m really trying to do is give a glimpse of a truth that I’m praying will take such deep root in my own heart, it will bear fruit a hundredfold and then some for as long as God grants me breath in this world.

My prayer for me and for you is that we will wake up. The fog will clear, and we’ll realize more stuff isn’t ever going to satisfy our heart’s hunger. We don’t need bigger or better or more. We don’t need applause or reputation. We need to pour out. To empty ourselves. To give away. And when we do, our joy is going to explode exponentially.

Katie also wrote:

“The truth is that the 143 million orphaned children and the 11 million who starve to death or die from preventable diseases and the 8.5 million who work as child slaves, prostitutes, or under other horrific conditions and the 2.3 million who live with HIV add up to 164.8 million needy children. And though at first glance that looks like a big number, 2.1 billion people on this earth proclaim to be Christians. The truth is that if only 8 percent of the Christians would care for one more child, there would not be any statistics left.”

This is what we have to give. And what do we have to take?

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If you’ve ever bought the lie that the impoverished and oppressed have nothing to offer, you haven’t attended a Nubian church service in a straw-thatch sanctuary in a refugee camp in South Sudan.

They come in their tattered clothes and bare feet — old and young and everyone in between — stooping to enter the low doorway, filing into rows of rough-hewn benches. Their voices rise with an urgent and contagious joy, and like David before the ark, they dance — clapping, jumping, worshiping with complete abandon.

There are no distractions. Instead of laser light shows, sunlight filters through the roof. Instead of a snazzy band, children play drums and tambourines and maracas. And the Lord is here, blazing with grace, pulsing with peace, igniting our worship with glorious intensity and purpose.

They don’t doubt His goodness. They don’t rush His timing. They don’t question His plan. They simply give themselves to Him.

Oh, friends. They have so much to teach us. So much that we desperately need. Gold refined by the fires of suffering. Garments washed clean from the stains of pride and self sufficiency. Eye salve to clear our vision and show us there’s a fountain of living waters, and the broken cisterns we run to again and again will never slake our thirst.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Jesus won’t force us. He simply invites. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”

As for me and my house, we’re flinging the door wide. Come, Lord Jesus. Everything on this table belongs to You. And thank You, thank You, thank You for the better treasure. May we never be too easily pleased again.

* * *

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

Thank you!





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!





Led forth in peace

4 04 2015

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If we’re allowed to have a favorite chapter in the Bible, I’m pretty sure mine is Isaiah 55. I love the combination of imagery, poetry, and promise — how God is set apart as holy and higher, yet He calls us to come and eat what is good, to seek and find, to forsake our wicked ways and run into His arms of compassion.

I can almost hear the mountains breaking forth into singing, see the trees clapping their hands, and feel the earth stirring with purpose as His word succeeds in all He has planned.

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This has been a profound Holy Week for me, my senses more fully alive, and my heart more deeply moved by the price Jesus paid for our redemption. I think this is true for a variety of reasons, but surely one of them is the fact that, after I gather with the Body of Christ on Easter morning to celebrate how life once and for all conquered death, I’ll get on an airplane and fly across the ocean to the Horn of Africa. Lord willing, I’ll spend the next two weeks visiting friends who work in that region. Two weeks listening to their stories and hearing their hearts. Two weeks meeting the beautiful souls they serve and seeing the image of God in their faces. Two weeks walking among people whose hardships are heavy and whose daily lives bear little resemblance to mine, and yet whose hearts cry out for the same love, hope, peace, and purpose.

I don’t know what these two weeks will hold, but as I think about going, I hear a Voice, urgently calm and fiercely tender:

Come! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

I know that my thoughts are not His thoughts, and my ways are not His ways. I know I’m utterly insufficient in myself to strengthen weak hands or feeble knees, but I also know the word that goes forth from God’s mouth will not return to Him empty. Like the rain and snow that water the earth, it will accomplish His purposes.

And I know that I will go out in joy and be led forth in peace — that no matter what happens, in the realest Real, the mountains will be singing and the trees keeping the beat. That all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

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How do I know this? Because Easter happened. Because even though Jesus could have called down a legion of angels to take Him off the cross, He didn’t. He stayed there. And it wasn’t the nails that held him. It was love.

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Friends, will you pray with me over these next two weeks? I’d be so grateful. And have a beautiful, worshipful Easter! Jesus is risen. He really is. May we never lose the wonder.

 





You’re Invited!

13 08 2014

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“Oh, goody,” you say. “What are we invited to?”

I’m glad you asked. And I’ll tell you. But first I want you to fall in love with these people.

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I could jump right into a long list of admirable character traits to describe Ruslan and Zhanna, but let’s start with a true story instead.

We were walking up the resort’s main road toward a meeting room. But not just any meeting room. This was the room Zhanna and Ruslan had spent most of the day preparing, because tonight was the last night of camp, and that meant a big celebration. They’d set up a stage for the talent show, computers and a projector for screening videos filmed by four teams of special needs campers, and sound equipment for microphones and music. Tables had been adorned and food prepared to serve a lovely meal for the fifty campers, their buddies, the moms who’d attended the conference, and all the camp staff and volunteers. There was a dance floor where professional dancers would entertain, the moms would perform a dance for their children, and a gloriously chaotic dance party would break loose at the end of the evening.

Everything was ready to go right on time, and the wait staff was standing by to serve the meal. We’d all just finished taking pictures on the beach, and we were walking up the hill to begin the evening festivities, when we saw the director of the resort walking down the hill to meet us.

I watched as the conversation unfolded in Russian, but couldn’t understand a word.

The director said something to Zhanna and Ruslan. Her tone and expression were serious, so I was surprised and relieved when they both reacted with a chuckle. A series of questions and answers followed, but for all I could gather through vocal and visual cues, the topic couldn’t have been too significant.

Finally the director walked away and I asked what was going on.

“The power is out,” Zhanna said calmly. “It may not be back on until tomorrow.”

We interrupt this story for a brief Pop Quiz:

Question: If I’d been in charge of this camp and had worked all day to prepare for its culminating event, for which 100+ people were at this moment dressed up and waiting with growling tummies and high expectations, would I have responded to this news with a soft chuckle and a quiet discussion about options?

Correct answer: Um, no.

IMG_4849But this is who they are. And this is the sort of challenge they deal with on a regular basis. When you meet this couple, with their infectious joy, their playful personalities, and their unobtrusive yet unshakable faith, you’d never guess how much responsibility they carry. Ruslan is the head of Young Life for all of Central Asia, and Zhanna is the head of Young Life Capernaum (Special Needs) for the former Soviet Union.

Go look at a map and then come back and read the previous sentence again.

10483995_10152597931543809_5621075135951472153_nOn top of all that, they’re raising two happy, rambunctious boys on a shoestring budget, made even more challenging by the fact that the local currency recently lost 20% of it’s value. In other words, that’s like working hard to save $10,000.00, and then waking up one morning to discover it had shrunk to $8,000.00.

And now? Zhanna is pregnant. With twin girls.

When she told Ruslan, she smiled and said, “God has a sense of humor.”

Right now, their family of four lives in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. They would like to sell it and buy a three-bedroom, but just adding one small room increases the price of an apartment in Almaty from $80,000.00 to $120,000.00. That’s a big chunk of change, especially when you live off of two ministry salaries and one of them may soon diminish. Zhanna has juggled motherhood and ministry great so far, but adding two infants to the mix? She’s not even trying to predict what that will look like.

And when you ask them how they’re going to handle all the changes and make ends meet? Their response is as calm as the one they gave the camp director when the power went out. They don’t know. But worrying about it won’t help. So they pray. And smile. And keep on tirelessly pouring out their lives and their love on these kids and their families.

I’ve never known anyone I admire and respect more than these two. Seriously. If the dictionary had an entry for “Salt of the Earth,” I’m pretty sure their pictures would be beside it.

So, I’ve been praying for them and asking God to provide, and in the midst of my praying, I had an idea that makes me downright giddy when I think of the potential blessing it could bring to them.

Which brings me to the title of this post.

 

You’re invited!

What? A Virtual Baby Shower for Zhanna’s Twins
When? Right Now
Where? Your Computer Screen
And here’s how you RSVP:

First click here. Fill in the personal information. Scroll down, and check “Partners in Asia.” In the “Select from List” bar directly below your checked box, select “Kazakhstan Young Life,” then in the box below, write, “Virtual Baby Shower for Zhanna’s Twins.” (See screen shot below.) Add the amount you want to give and your billing info, then click “submit donation” and Voila! Congratulations. You have become the gift.

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If you prefer to give by check, make it to Orphanos, write “Kazakhstan — Zhanna’s Baby Shower” in the memo line, and mail it to Orphanos Foundation, P.O. Box 1057, Cordova, TN 38088-1057. I’ve been assured that every single dime we give will go directly to Zhanna and Ruslan, so don’t think of this as a ministry donation. Think of it as a baby shower gift, and then give whatever you would spend to buy a baby gift for someone you love. It can be fifty dollars or five. No amount is too small. If we all give a little (and then invite our friends to this shower, too), we could buy those baby girls their very own bedroom.

Oh, friends. Just typing those words made my heart swell with the sweetest joy!

 

So, will you come? I hope so. And I hope you’ll spread the word and invite all your friends. Let’s sip virtual punch and munch on virtual cookies, and bless a beautiful family in ways that reach all the way to eternity.

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Oh, and the end of the camp story?

Since the food was ready to serve, they decided we’d eat by candle light and then move the rest of the party to the cavernous, much less intimate dining hall. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it was the only building on the grounds with power. So they lit candles on the tables and lined the stairs with them, and we all entered a twinkling wonderland. As we enjoyed our delicious dinner, the power flickered back on. Everyone cheered, and the party proceeded as planned.

Only it turned out even better than it would have been. Because God has a wonderful, purposeful, amazing sense of humor.

When I grow up, I want to understand that as well as these two.

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Rising From the Ruin

10 07 2014

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“For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.”

C.S. Lewis

If I asked you to define a “good gift,” what would you say?

Feel free to press pause on this blog post to ponder that question for a while. It’s an important one. Your answer colors the way you view God and His promises and everything in life that is out of your control. (Which is, by the way, everything in life.)

At this point I could ramble for a few paragraphs about what generally constitutes a good gift, but I hope you won’t mind if I cut to the chase. Because I’ve come to believe with all my heart that God is sovereign over all His hands have made, He is always only perfect love, and everything He chooses for His children is a good gift. Every. Single. Thing.

Suppose He has closed every door you so desperately wanted Him to open. He has pruned your branches with such fury that you look in the mirror and see only the raw stubs of what was once your pride and glory. Your body aches, your wallet is empty, and your relationships are a mess. Your dreams have shattered into a million tiny pieces, and you hold no hope for their restoration.

C.S. Lewis would say now is the time to bless His Name.

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We can’t help it. We love comfort, we crave acceptance and approval, we long for success, security, and safety. We view the events of our lives through the grid of our expectations and desires, and we assume the “good and perfect gifts” God promises to give will line up with our personal longings and agendas.

But He loves us too much to give us what we think we want.

In the days and weeks that followed Jacob’s near drowning, I struggled to understand what good purpose God could possibly have in the devastation of his body, brain, and potential. I knew God was right there when Jacob went down, and I knew He could have prevented it. I knew He loved Jacob and had created him for His pleasure and glory. But I didn’t see how any of this could possibly fit into “plans formed long ago with perfect faithfulness.”

From where I sat, the future looked unbearably long and hard. But the ripples had already begun.

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* * *

For a year and a half after Abby’s birth, Dina and Nurmat kept her condition a secret, even from close friends and ministry supporters. They were both mature Christians and had served as long-time staff with Campus Crusade in Kyrgyzstan. Their faith assured them their daughter was a gift from God, but they knew all too well what other people would think. Even their doctor suggested they place her in an institution. She would only be a burden, he said, and isolate them in a culture where disability is considered a curse or a punishment for sin.

Abby’s birth plunged Dina into a long, dark season of confusion and depression. She and Nurmat had spent years building a ministry in this country — establishing relationships and nurturing trust. Why would God complicate their lives and cripple their ministry by giving them a child with Down Syndrome? It made no sense.

No doubt many well-meaning believers would ask the same question. After all, Dina and Nurmat are uniquely gifted and qualified for the work they’d been doing. He’s a native of Kyrgyzstan and she’s from Kazakhstan. They know the culture and language. They’re intelligent, creative, passionate, and friendly. Years of training, prayer, and discipleship had prepared them for a lifetime of fruitful service.

And then Abby happened.

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If we believe that God is the Author of our stories, we must believe that He writes each page with purpose. We may think we know what He is after — why He gave us certain abilities or blessed us with certain opportunities. We may think we know why He calls us into a certain profession or lands us in a certain city. But God is always doing much more than we can begin to fathom. And sometimes the very thing that appears to be our destruction is God’s gracious provision to steer us out of ourselves and into His higher plan.

Abby wasn’t a curse. She was the key to the next door.

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And this is where stories collide, and God gives a glimpse into mysteries, and we fall on our faces with the wonder of it all — for His goodness, His grace, His unshakable purposes, and the crazy beautiful way His upside down kingdom busts wide open the narrow confines of our expectations.

Last summer Dina came to Kazakhstan to translate my messages to mothers of disabled children. And as she spoke to them, she spoke to her own soul. Chains fell off. Faint glimmers of hope burst into flame. God ignited a fire in her soul that she carried back home. She’d already begun to seek out other families with DS. Now she took her search to the media, appearing in print and television interviews, providing her personal phone number and welcoming calls.

More than a hundred families have contacted Dina and Nurmat in the past year. They’ve hosted seminars and provided helpful information and resources. The entire thrust of their ministry has shifted to this particular community — many of them Muslims or atheists — all united by a love for someone with Down Syndrome and a desire to make their lives as healthy and happy as possible.

And so, this year when we made our plans to return to Kazakhstan for another special needs camp and mom’s conference, several of us tacked on a few days at the beginning of the trip, and we crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan to conduct a two-day seminar for Dina’s families.

I shared our story, and Lindley — a precious young mom from Memphis whose fourth and youngest son has DS — shared hers. We also spent a lot of time listening to these dear parents and answering their questions. Lindley even had the opportunity to pray with one mom who battles extreme fear for her child’s future. They all received Russian copies of Parting the Waters, and many had begun reading it before our time together ended. Two of those moms followed us back across the border and attended the conference in Kazakhstan.

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10449191_10152264014694385_3505579048671367080_nThe two Kyrgyz moms who came to Kazakhstan, Dina, Abby, and Lindley (Lindley’s photo)

And once again Dina translated. In Kyrgyzstan to the dear families she has come to love, and in Kazakhstan to a new group of moms whose stories are yet to be told. Once again she spoke to them, and once again she spoke to herself, and God continues to work as only God can. Doors open, branches thought dead explode with fruit, and the shards of old dreams take new form, pieced by the Master Artist, lovingly set according to His design, catching His light and scattering it like stained-glass laughter on a gray and weary world.

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Before we left to return to America, Dina handed me a mug with a map of Kyrgyzstan on it. “From Abby to Jacob,” she said. “Tell him the ripples continue.”

And so they do, quiet, relentless, crossing oceans and language barriers, laden with good gifts from a good God.

Let the ruin fall.

* * *

(Lovely friends,
Please click here if you’d
like to make a donation to
Dina and Nurmat’s ministry.

Thank you!)








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