An Ethiopian Endeavor: Part 3 // Set Apart

joey and isaacSide note: This is Isaac. He is a ten year old habesha (meaning Ethiopian native, etc.) boy in the city, and I love him dearly. I’m really bad at names, so I call kids ‘baby’ all the time. At first he hated it, but we eventually came to an understanding that I can call him my baby if he can call me Mommy. And thus, I have been dubbed the ‘American habesha mommy’ to sweet Baby Isaac and his close friends.

Ethiopia was an interesting trip. I learned a lot. About our God, about missions, about different team dynamics, about myself. I came home with two very important lessons burning a hole in my heart:

I am, in fact, set apart for life as a vocational missionary.

Not everyone with whom I travel with is.

In a previous post, I talked about the comfort I found in this last trip to Swaziland. Being at Njojane was like coming home from college for the summer.  I’m just as comfortable sitting on a bench in the feeding center as I am on my parents’ couch. Half my team to Swaziland, our team leader and family, has a permanent, lifelong heart for the people of Njojane, just like me.  Ethiopia was an entirely different ballgame. For the first time, I was in the minority of people who were diving headfirst into a brand new experience. Of the eleven team members, eight of them had been to Ethiopia with this group before; a ninth had at least been to Ethiopia with another organization. The tenth team member was the teenage daughter of #9; I was number eleven. I was the odd man out, without any friends or family members on the team, and without experience on my side.

I was the odd man out in another way as well: I am dedicating my life to wherever the Lord might send me, and I am therefore prepared for the things the mission field can throw at me. I’m not wowed or shocked by the same things that other people can be. Climbing into and bouncing around in the backseat of and old Land Cruiser has lost the luster the once had. I no longer ooo’d and aww’d over the food; Swazi food (and now shirowat) has become my comfort food of choice. I am comfortable with children I have never met pulling at my clothes, crawling up into my lap, giving me sloppy wet kisses, calling me mommy. The discomfort associated with carrying around a child who is bare-bottomed, wearing no pants, underpants or diaper, is completely neutralized, though abjectly avoided by most. The illusion of living the glamorous life of missionary has been shattered–I’ve been doing this long enough to know there is nothing glamorous about sticky fingers leaving fabric paint on my favorite skirt and having my hair pulled painfully tight in braids, dishing out three hundred bowls of sticky rice and beans without a single thank you.

As a sweeping generalization, parents in the third world (particularly in African nations) don’t love on their children in the way parents in the first world (particularly in western nations) love on theirs. Children are to be seen and not heard, and preferably not seen. In many cases, the announcement of a pregnancy or birth is not one that evokes congratulations or excitement, but solemn understanding. One more mouth to feed, one more mind to put through school, one more dowry to pay or spouse to support. There is no one cheering that child on while he or she struggles with reading or memorizing times tables or dealing with self esteem. I love getting to be that cheerleader, for however short a time. I love it so much that I requested to lead the large group time during the part of the trip spent in Amharic territory. I love it so much that I begged the translators to teach me the Amharic for a list of the daily affirmations I have seen, heard, and lead on Swazi care pointes, so that I could teach our kids. I am special. I am important. I am pretty. I am smart. I am loved. I matter.

There was one specific instance while in Ethiopia that I felt distinctly, definitely, irreparably the odd man out on my team. It was one afternoon after vacation bible school in Amharic territory, and we were circled around the dinner table, talking about the day. People were complaining about the kids’ relentless behavior each time we try to depart. I sat in stunned silence as my team members said the following things:

“They [the kids] don’t have to crowd around the care at the gate. They know we’re leaving, why don’t they let us leave?”

“I can only hug one person at a time. You need to back off.”

“I’ve already hugged you like five times, I don’t need any more.”

One of my very favorite things in the entire world is a giant hug from a group of kiddos at the end of the day as we’re leaving. You know, the kind where I’m walking with hands full of smaller hands. One kid comes up and wraps arms around me, and slowly more and more and more kids are wrapping their little arms around me and weighing me down and pushing me over. It thrills my heart to pass out kisses on the cheek or forehead to an endless line of kids desperate for affection, and to get down on my knees to look kids in the eyes when I tell them they are important, that they matter, to hug them one on one so they know I mean it. Do you know why? Because these kids, like all kids, need someone willing to get down on their level and tell them they matter, to take the time to kiss them on the forehead, to hug them one on one.

My heart was so deeply wounded to hear team members complain about children acting out to find the affection for which they are so desperately starved. Could they behave better? Yeah. Could they listen better when we say, that’s enough, we have to go? Sure. In my mind, I was instantly quoting Jesus–“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 19:14). So maybe it’s time to go, but what’s the rush? We’re on no strict schedule. The whole evening is composed of free time. We can spend a few extra minutes loving on kids in need. That is a need I feel, I understand, I can fill. It took everything in me as all members of the team chimed in with some sort of agreement to not scream at the top of my lungs. Don’t get me wrong, I love these people and the work they do. We are brothers and sisters in Christ…but nonetheless, I was livid. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been so angry. Are you kidding me? I thought to myself. Do you understand that this is the purpose behind our mission? It was because I love these people that I had to take a deep breath. Okay, a lot of deep breaths. I had to complete about fifteen minutes of deep breathing exercises in order to make sure I was really in control of my mouth before I felt calm enough to talk. Love is patient, love is kind, I thought to myself. It keeps no record of wrongs. Before I could say anything, I remembered a conversation I had with Jesus a few days prior:

“But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.” Galatians 1:15-16

God has set me apart and called me by his grace. If I’m going to preach his name, my words need to show him, not my humanness. My mind jumped to other places scripture talks about being set apart:

“The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.'” Jeremiah 1:4-5

“Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him. Tremble and [in your anger] do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent.” Psalms 4:2-4

I love when the word of the Lord resonates within me and my circumstances, not just in one place, but repeatedly. I have no authority to point a finger; I am not blameless. He knew I would encounter this conversation with my teammates, and he knew the anger that would burn inside of me, but that his divine love would overcome. I waited awhile to write this to let that anger dissipate, rather than have this piece be a lashing-out against my team. Now that I’ve given it time, I have found that I am no longer angry, but rather, I hurt for my teammates. They don’t get to experience the same kind of messy, dirty, smelly, sweaty, sticky, unadulterated joy in which I have been called to thrive, and that makes my heart so sad for them. This is a joy that forces my cup to overflow, overflow, overflow. It’s something I know deep down in my soul, that Christians are set apart from the world–it’s that whole ‘IN the world, not OF the world’ philosophy–but it occurred to me that I have forgotten that I am set apart from other Christians because I have been called differently than other Christians. The passage from Galatians specifies that God has set me apart, called me by his grace, and demands that I live a life worthy of the Lord and that calling (Colossians 1:10, Ephesians 4:1). I have never been so happy to be the odd man out, because I was reminded that I was the odd man out for Christ. It’s a constant reminder that this fabulously unglamorous life I have been given is a rarity, and that I am blessed enough to live it.

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9 Days // Like No Tomorrow

I leave for Swaziland in 9 days, 6 hours, 59 minutes.

Quiet time with Jesus is always an interesting thing for me because this is what tends to happen:

  1. I start reading a passage of scripture.
  2. Jesus verbally punches me in the face.
  3. I sit there in shock for a few minutes.
  4. I keep reading.
  5. Jesus shows back up and empowers me.

I wrote the other day about how James 4:3 hit me hard and called me out in sin. Today, as I flipped to the bookmarked page in my bible, I returned to continue reading James 4 when I stumbled upon verses 13-17:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and so this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

In my crazy semester at school, I was working in a sushi restaurant. There was one Saturday I worked a painfully long shift—10:30 am to about 12:30 the next morning. Fourteen hours on my feet on the busiest day of the restaurant week, and I was ready to go home. My last table of the night was a group of four gentlemen dressed like serious hoodlums—baggy jeans, South Pole and Baby Phat sweatshirts, flatbills, grills in their teeth—and my programs of study came up in conversation. I was able to explain how much I love Swaziland and my upcoming trips and the overwhelming need that exists. The following conversation went a lot like this:

Guy: Aren’t you scared you’re going to get killed or raped?

Me: No. I could just as easily get killed or raped here in the US, and I wouldn’t be impacting people in the same way on Christ’s behalf.

Guy: What happens if somebody walks in and holds a gun to your head and asks if you’re a Christian?

Me: I’d say yes.

Guy: What if it were right there in front of your thirty kids?

Me: You better believe I’d say yes.

The guys erupt into laughter of shock. “You’re crazy,” says one of them. “You can’t protect your kids or save babies if you’re dead. Why would you do that?”

Me: The best way I can protect anyone, especially my kids, is to shield them with Christ. Philippians 1:20-21 says, ‘I eagerly hope and expect that I will in no way be ashamed, but that Christ would be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death (NIV). Alive, I am Christ’s messenger. Dead, I am his bounty. Life versus more life? I can’t lose (MSG)!’

Guy: But why would you put your kids through watching their mom get shot?

Me: Because there is no greater example to set for my children. My job is to model the best example of Christ that I can for my kids, and really, for anyone I come in contact with. “There is no greater love than he who lays down his life for his friend.” I hope and pray that I was a good enough mother and leader to those kids that they understood that Christ-like love, and that those kids would follow suit and claim their faith in the face of danger.

I heard this somewhere, not sure where, awhile back and it changed my outlook on things:

The Jesus I know wants us to go dangerous places and love dangerous people and live our lives so dangerously for the Kingdom that we become a hazard to everyone around us who is trying to play it safe.

God has called people to dangerous places to do dangerous things almost exclusively throughout history. You have Abraham, who left behind everything and everyone he knew, simply because God asked him to. He was even willing to kill his own son to follow God’s command. There’s Jochebed, a Hebrew woman living in Egypt, who hid her newborn son from guards with orders to kill baby boys before floating him down the Nile in a basket—without her, we wouldn’t have had Moses, who liberated the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. There’s Noah, who built a gigantic ark while being mocked and threatened by his community. There’s Mary, who bore the shame of pregnancy before marriage so that she might bear the Messiah. Paul, who spoke out on behalf of his encounter with God, knowing that he might lose his life. The disciples, who followed Jesus despite his reputation and seemingly heretical teachings. Rahab, who risked her life to harbor Israelite spies. Jonah, who [eventually] went to Ninevah to preach a warning over the people. Lot, who left behind everything he knew, and never looked back. Peter, who built the church despite persecution. There is Jesus, who came to earth knowing he would be mocked, ridiculed, abused, and killed, simply for proclaiming his title of King of king, Lord of lords, the Son of God.

Millions of people all over the world who hide their faith on a daily basis from family, friends, coworkers, neighbors…but would claim Christ, even in the face of danger. Especially in the face of danger.

Some of those millions of people are my brothers and sisters in Ethiopia. About a month ago, 30 of those brothers and sisters were taken from this world at the hands of ISIS, because they refused to deny Christ. They understood that tomorrow is never promised, and so they lived dangerously, by harboring a forbidden faith, a salvation relationship with Jesus so they might live their lives for their Creator in the way they are called.

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

I have not been given long on this earth. None of us has. None of us has even been granted a tomorrow…so why do we waste our today trying to play it safe?

Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and so this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

People ask me why I would go to a closed nation like Ethiopia, where my faith could sign my death sentence. The reason I am going is that I am not promised a tomorrow. I refuse to waste any more time by not doing exactly what God has called me to do. The reason I am going is that Matthew 28:19 calls us to make disciples of ALL nations…not just the easy ones. The reason I am going is the very fact that my faith in the Creator of the universe could sign my death sentence, and that is not okay.

It is the Lord’s will that I go; if I know that I should go to Ethiopia and then I don’t go, it is like telling God my safety is more important than His plan. His divine and perfect plan to save all of mankind—if I have any saving faith at all, how could I refuse to be part of that plan? If it is God’s plan for my life that I die for my faith, I will die for my faith at the appointed time, whether I am in Ethiopia or Swaziland or the US. If I know this to be true, how could I possibly turn God down?

17 Days // at the foot of the Cross

17 days. There are only 17 more days until I leave for Swaziland.

The word ‘transparency’ is a big church buzzword that has a tendency to get thrown around casually in conversation without, unfortunately, always being demonstrated or explained. People like me, meaning those of the Jesus generation who want more on Sunday morning than a mega-church with an awesome light show during worship, tend to shy away from this type of word. It is overused, and thus loses its meaning; however, there is something to be said about transparency in the proper use. When a person is transparent with another, he or she is giving full disclosure, typically about things done wrong, failures, shortcomings, etc., to another for the biblical purpose of confessing one’s sins to another, in order to be held accountable (yet another church buzzword) and continue to grow. In my opinion, it is one of the most crucial responsibilities of anyone who desires to work in ministry, whether voluntarily or vocationally, because it does more than keep us honest–it forces us to deal with our own mistakes and grow through them, while our coworkers do the same, so that we all grow together and there is no comparison of dirty laundry because everyone has it. This being said, I need to be transparent with you, to confess an area in which I fall short.

First, it is important you know that I am struggling to fundraise for my trips this summer. Ethiopia will be paid off after I transfer some money out of my savings account, but I still have a large sum to raise for Swaziland. Even after nearly 150 letters sent out, very little has come in. With only 17 days left until our team departs, I am getting very nervous.

I got up early this morning to take my younger sisters to get donuts before dropping them off at school. Afterwards, I came home and sat down at the kitchen table to work on a blog post for today and hit writer’s block. I decided to skip ahead to my pre-Swaziland mission devotional, a fantastic book by Jack Hempfling called, ‘Before You Go.’ I’ve read the book before, but we read it annually as a team, and today’s devotional hit me right between the eyes: today’s devo was entitled ‘Losing to God Will Help You Win,” paired with a passage from James 4. It is not a long chapter, so I pulled out my bible and read the passage in its full context. By verse 3, I felt as though I’d been slapped in the face.

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

Ouch. It stings to hear read such things, especially when you are hopeful of being filled up and encouraged. I read over Hempfling’s devo for the day, and sat back to think. Have I really been asking for financial provision with the right motives? In my heart, I want to answer yes, because the money I have been trying to raise is for a philanthropic purpose. It’s so I can go out into the world, to see my place, my people, my babies in Swaziland. .

Even as I type this now, I flinch. MY place. MY people. MY babies. I know that I am not the most humble person in the world; I think it may be a common misconception that missionaries don’t struggle with the same sins that everyone else deals with. After all, I take pride in the work that I do and the things I am passionate about, because God has gifted me in ways that call me and set me apart, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking pride in that. The problem comes when I am prideful in that. I have concentrated my focus far too much on the necessity of ME going to Swaziland, not the gift of GOING to Swaziland. I think back to last year’s trip, and realize that my pride got in the way then too. I was so excited that  got to go back, that I lost a small part of the joy that comes in serving. I took a step back to let others, those who had note been before, serve first, experience first, love first, which I thought was the right thing to do, seeing as how I have had the chance to experience this before; let the newbies do it. If they need help, I can step in like the pro that I am to bridge the gap. Only now am I realizing how wrong this thought process is.

It hurts my heart to think that I missed out on some of the joy, but, as much as it stings, I am glad God has called this to my attention now, rather than a month from now when it is too late. I refuse to let my pride get in the way of the joy God has in store for not only me, but my team as well. Instead, I will cling to the words of Paul, at the start of Ephesians 4.

Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called with all humility and gentleness.

So there you have it. I have removed the plank from my eye, confessed my sinful nature, admitted defeat. I ask for forgiveness from God and from you, for not properly conveying the joy that lies in a cheerful heart with the right motives. I am on my face at the foot of the Cross, praying that Christ might change my heart in order to prepare me for the experiences that lie in wait.

17 days. I go home in 17 days.

Debunked: Loving Yourself First

We have all heard the saying, “You can’t love until you love yourself.” I had someone tell me that when I started volunteering.

I hate that saying. For several reasons.

The first is that I’m sassy and I don’t like being told what I cannot do. The second and primary reason is that it couldn’t be further from the truth.

I am not the type of person that grew up with the ability to love myself. In fact, it took until long after my first mission trip to learn what it means to love myself, and even longer to actually begin loving myself.

Why? Because it took loving other people to be loved in return to learn to love me.

My very first mission trip turned my life around. I had not been living a Christian life; I was not very loving and I was not very lovable. As an 13 year old contemplating the idea of ending my own life, I went on an urban mission trip as a last-ditch effort to find some sort of purpose for my life–any reason to go on living.

And I did.

It was on that very first trip that I made several discoveries:

  1. I serve a great and powerful God who made me and loves me, who will never leave me.
  2. I was doing life wrong, and that I needed to do better.
  3. The mission field is where I belong.

For one week, it was my sole purpose to love inner city kids and teach them about the love of Jesus. At first, all I saw was a huge socioeconomic gap–by the end of that first trip, I felt more loved and needed than ever before in my life. Having the unconditional love of kids defined by poverty, abuse, trust issues–it is crazy. It made me want to do more, give more, love more. I went back to those kids once a week, as part of a tutoring program, and once a year as part of an annual summer camp for the duration of my high school career. It took a long time to learn to love myself, but the fact of the matter is that I needed to love others first. It’s just how I work. 1 John 4:19 states “We love because he first loved us.” Christ came to earth, lived a sinless life and died a sinner’s death to demonstrate his love for us before we loved him.

Loving others before yourself is the most selfless kind of love. It is honest and real and raw, with no agenda. If that isn’t the greatest earthly love, I don’t know what is.

11 days. 17 hours. 42 minutes.