Hungry

Being back in medical practice has been so wonderful in so many ways, and so difficult in others. I love interacting with patients, caring for those who can no longer care for themselves, and bringing God’s love through the practice of medicine. The paperwork is horrific. I spend far more time doing paperwork than I do seeing patients. My decisions for care get overruled on a daily basis by someone behind a desk somewhere who doesn’t hold any kind of medical degree. And my patients suffer the consequences in front of me. I am the one who sits face-to-face with patients, wrestling through their problems with them.
Medicine has always been meant to be practiced in the context of relationship. For centuries, medicine was one of the primary ministries of the church. We still see remnants of this in our Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Catholic hospitals. It really wasn’t until less than a century ago that the church turned over the ministry of medicine to be practiced as a business. Insurance companies and the government dictate the way we practice, and I feel we’ve lost an important part of the practice of medicine when we’ve removed the context of ministry. I feel the dissonance on a daily basis.
I think our we often practice our faith without the context of relationship as well. Scripture talks about our relationship with God as something we should crave, not consult.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Matthew 5:6 NIV

“Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Luke 6:21 NIV

The trouble is that hunger is not a very comfortable situation to be in. I’ve often thought about wanting to hunger and thirst after God as something good, something pleasant. But hunger, by its very nature, is painful. There’s a big difference between a desire and hunger. Hunger goes beyond desire to a physical discomfort of craving. A piece of cinnamon and sugar toast sounds good to me right now. One could even say that I DESIRE to have a piece. But am I hungry? No. No hunger pangs. No stomach rumbling. But if I eat the desired cinnamon and sugar toast, I actually shortcut hunger.

Ken Gire speaks on the subject of spiritual hunger in The Reflective Life. “Because hunger hurts, though, we try to take the edge off it in any way we can. One of those ways is with religious activity. And that can include the activity of reading books, listening to tapes, or going to seminars. Through these things, which are often very good things, even nourishing things, we are fed the experiences of others. But they are not our experiences. I can read a psalm about David crying out from a cave in the wilderness, and I should read that psalm, but it is not my psalm. It is not my psalm because it is not my cave, not my wilderness, and not my tears.”

My pain. My cave. My wilderness. These create a true hunger. There’s no easy substitution for hunger.

In a world of self-sufficiency, my faith can be hampered by shortcutting hunger. Do I snack on the spiritual experiences of others, rather than working through and learning from my own? Probably more often than I’d like to think. In the same way that eating at the first desire for food without true hunger creates overweight people, feeding off of the experiences of others without allowing true hunger for God creates overfed Christians.

How do I create true hunger for righteousness rather than snacking on the experiences of others? Many times I find myself in stages of life in which I tangibly feel the need for God’s healing or provision. In my middle-class North American culture, that’s often not the case.

Nowhere in Scripture does it say, “Blessed are the self-sufficient, for they will not annoy God with their requests,” or “Blessed are those who do not need to depend on God, for God does not love His children.”
I think at times we have to carefully and prayerfully create vacuum of need that only God can fill, by stretching ourselves outside of what is spiritually, physically, or financially comfortable. Maybe by moving into a neighborhood that needs a spiritual light. Perhaps by supporting a ministry financially when we’re not sure how God will provide for our needs. Maybe by engaging in spiritual disciplines, like fasting, that remind us of our hunger for God. Perhaps by attempting something that without God’s help would be a sure failure.
Our faith is best practiced in the context of relationship, and in a culture where self-sufficiency is applauded, sometimes I need to be reminded that it is the hungry, not the spiritual snackers, who will be filled.

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The Day I Said Yes

campground

The Wesleyan tabernacle as it stands on the campgrounds outside Atkinson, Nebraska today.

The summer sun beat down on the roofs of the Nebraska Wesleyan District campground, with its white-washed structures randomly planted among the cornfields and cow pastures, surrounded by country dirt roads and barbed wire fences. Thousands of dogday cicadas softly hummed their weeee-oooooooo-weeeee-oooooo, welcoming the human intruders to their rural domain. Sand burrs lay hidden in the sandy soil waiting to impale bare feet. Any grass lay trampled by the feet of dozens of children gathered for church camp.

The morning breakfast of pancakes and syrup with a side of canned peaches had been consumed with a side of Tang, and the iron bell clanged its beckoning call to chapel. The air was musty and humid in the cement-floored tabernacle, which stood boarded up against the elements most of the year, until summer camp rolled around. Now it was filled with pre-pubescent mischief and energy, anxious to get on with the activities for that day.

The day I said yes.

Fowler familyI was sitting on the aisle at the end of the wooden pew in the right half of the building, a half a dozen rows back from the front of the platform. The breeze blew in lightly from the screenless windows through my permed towhead hair. My feet squirmed in the sandy dirt on the concrete floor beneath my feet. The pastor was preaching a compelling message, and though my eyes were fixed on his polyester baby blue plaid suit, I could not focus on his words.

Someone else was speaking to me.

“I want you to say yes, no matter what,” the Holy Spirit whispered.

“Yes, to what?”

“I want you to say yes, no matter what.”

The words reminded me of when Moses asked the name of the One who spoke from the burning bush.

“I Am Who I Am.” While obviously a person cannot tell God that is a lousy answer, I’m sure that Moses did a little shaking in his sandalless feet when he realized that was actually the answer God expected Moses to give to Pharoah. The Pharoah with the temper, and a grudge.

If I were in Moses’ bare feet, I would have thought, “Are you trying to get me killed by making me into a smart-mouth, ‘I Am Who I Am’?” Thankfully, Moses chose his words more wisely at that time.

“I want you to say yes to me, no matter what,” the Holy Spirit pressed again as if the wind itself were carrying the words through me.

“Jesus, I already have you in my heart, I don’t know what more you want from me,” I protested.

“For the rest of your life, I want you to say yes to me, no matter what. I have great plans for you, but I need you to always tell me yes.”

By the time the pastor gave the altar call, I was running for the front of the altar to pray with hot tears of conviction streaming down my face. My counselor, Tracy, followed me. I felt awful for her because I was sobbing so hard, all I could say was, “I just want to do what Jesus says.”

That day, I committed my life to Christ in what I now know is called sanctification — the moment when God got all of me. I had already experienced all of God’s forgiveness and love, but it took years before I gave God the right to overrule any of my decisions. That day, I knew that if God made His will clear, I would follow it, no matter what.

I was not saying yes to a project.

I was not saying yes to a profession.

I was not saying yes to a pursuit.

I was saying yes to a Person.

Jesus didn’t want my affection, my talents, or my plans, He wanted my YES.

He wants your YES too.

When I tell people today about God asking us to move to Ghana, I’m always a bit surprised to hear people say, “Oh, Africa? I could NEVER do that!” Saying “never” to God is not an option. For me, the choice was made more than 30 years ago on a sandy concrete floor in the front of a musty tabernacle.

The choice was made the day I said yes.

 

“But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.'” — Luke 9:62 NASB

God’s Purpose in My Imprisonment

photo (19)

Our family with friends and future partners from Ghana.

Everywhere I looked, there was someone from my past. My heart surged with joy with each remembered face, as I recounted the memories we had enjoyed together. A few faces from my childhood, some from my college years, and many from our years in ministry, all together to celebrate what God is doing. While it sounds like a vision of heaven, it was a conference. This week, Ken and I attended The Gathering, the clergy conference for The Wesleyan Church. Eleven years have gone by since we’ve been a part of The Wesleyan Church, but it didn’t seem to matter. We had dozens of meaningful conversations, hugged a hundred shoulders, and laughed about times gone by as if we were never gone.

As we told our friends over and over again how God called us to Ghana, and how we knew we were called, I repeated over and over,

“I knew that if God were to call us to Africa, He would have to heal my lungs. I spent over $50,000 in 2013 trying to get my asthma under control, but what modern medicine did not have the ability to do, God did. I’ve been off of all of my asthma medicines since August. I had previously not been able to go more than 2 days without steroids, now it’s been almost six months.”

Kyle Ray preached a message on the following passage at The Gathering.

Acts 16:23-33

After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized.

 

The miracle of the story of God’s deliverance of Paul and Silas and salvation of the jailer starts at a very different place: being flogged with rods for delivering a young girl from demon possession. They weren’t fake rods. It wasn’t an imaginary beating. They had real pain. Real bruises. Real blood drying on their torn skin as they sat with their feet uncomfortably stretched out in front of them and locked in stocks. Between the bruises on their back, the skin tears rubbing in the dirty walls of the prison, and their inability to move their feet, there was no way to get comfortable. There was no way to sleep.

So they might as well sing praises.

The earthquake came. The chains fells off, not only them, but off the other prisoners too. The jailer came to salvation, as well as his whole family.

But the miracle for Paul and all those around him came only after the beating. The chains. The shackles. The skin tears. The bruises.

Would the jailer have come to know Christ if Paul hadn’t sung throughout his misery or stayed in spite of his freedom? If there hadn’t been something radically different about the attitude of Paul and Silas, would the jailer have asked what he needed to do to be saved?

Sometimes God wants to accomplish His purposes through our pain. Sometimes our pain is not about us, but what He wants to do in someone else. Sometimes the purpose of our pain only comes in hindsight.

I think about the last eleven years that I’ve spent struggling to breathe because of my asthma. The massive doses of steroids that I’ve taken. The relentless coughing. The days I spent suffocating, unable to walk even across my living room to get a glass of water. I never stopped to ask God why.

Now that I am breathing freely, and after hearing this Scripture anew, I think I may know why. My asthma wasn’t just about me. The misery I experienced pales in comparison to the joy of talking about His healing. I would not have been able to experience His healing if there was nothing to be healed from. Would our family believe in God’s healing power in the same way if I had never had asthma or been delivered from it myself? Would I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God has called us to Ghana if I had never had asthma in the first place?

If my former suffering can bring people to see the power of God to heal, than then every strained breath was absolutely worth it. If my release from the suffocation gives me more enthusiasm to serve Him, the suffocation was worth it. If my eleven year imprisonment to my lungs confirms my calling in its freedom, than the prison sentence was worth it.

Sometimes prison is exactly where God wants us. For now, I’m breathing in the fresh air of freedom.

A Christmas of Questions

I scratched my head in frustration as I tried to make a Christmas list this year. With our upcoming move to Ghana, I’ve realized that tangible gifts are a bit silly. A new sweater? What will we need sweaters for? We’re going to be living at the edge of a desert! New roller blades? There won’t be paved roads to use them on there. A new panini press?  Are we really going to pay to ship a panini press all the way to Ghana? When I’m about to give up the vast majority of our worldly possessions, why buy more?

As I’ve looked for Christmas gifts, or even around the house, I’ve realized that we have a lot of “stuff.” I feel a bit nauseated not only what we have, but how much we have to get rid of in the next year. Knick-knacks, decor, furniture, electronics, books, toys, bicycles, clothing, shoes and on and on.

All these are things we cannot take with us to Africa.

Ultimately, none of us can take tangible things with us into eternity either.

photo (18)How is it that the season of celebrating the Divine descent of humility has ended up a celebration of excess? Spending too much, accumulating things we do not need, trying to find the perfect gift for that someone who has everything. While Christmas certainly celebrates the greatest Gift of all, would not a more appropriate celebration be expressions of humility rather than gifts of extravagance?

In celebration of Christmas this year, I’m reflecting on the humility of Christ by asking these questions:

  1. Do I consider myself better than others?
  2. Am I joyful that all of my possessions, physical health, and vocation belong to Christ and are merely on loan to me?
  3. Do I feel pride when I help someone poorer, less educated, or in a lower socioeconomic status? Do I use the misfortune of others to feel better about myself?
  4. When I have a misunderstanding with another person, do I find it difficult to apologize for my part?
  5. Do I feel annoyed when I do something nice for someone else, and no one notices?
  6. Do I face hardship, failure, and challenges with an attitude of resistance or with  submission?
  7. Am I able to admit to and laugh at my flaws, or do I try to hide them from others?
  8. Am I seeking God’s will earnestly in daily reflection in His Word, or do I find myself too busy for Scripture in order to avoid its challenges to the way I want to live my life?
  9. Do I meet God’s call to be generous to others with hesitancy or with joy?
  10. Do I care more about what others think than what God thinks, especially when He asks me to do things that others would consider foolish?

In Matthew 11: 28-30 NIV, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

I’ve never quite understood how being humble of heart would give me rest for my soul until I began to look around at all of the things that I have to rid myself of in order to follow Jesus to Ghana. I’ve heard it in the voices of others around me as well. People say to me every week, “I could never do what you’re doing!” or “Better you than me!”

Why is it so hard for us to follow God’s leading into hard places?

I now realize that the houses, decor, furniture, and knick-knacks we possess often shackle us to our own plans for our own lives. Indeed, I see the truth of the statement that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God. The humility of allowing God to say, “Go,” or “Give,” or “Tell”–without having to worry about the logistics of how to make our lifestyle accommodate what He asks of us — should be liberating. When we love Jesus more than our stuff, the burden of worrying about how we will follow His call is light. Saying yes to His call becomes easy.

The most difficult part of following God’s will is exchanging what we want for what He does. And that is the heart of humility– the obedience exemplified by the Son as He said, “Not my will, but yours.”

May God bless you this Christmas with the feather-light yoke of humility, questions to challenge your heart, and the freedom to say yes to whatever He asks.

Matthew 11:28

A Glimpse of Heaven From a Corduroy Recliner

Celia* cowered in fear in her chair as I walked in the door. She had seen people in white coats with stethoscopes dangling around their necks and she knew what that meant: something was going to hurt.

The tragic irony in seeing Alzheimer’s patients is that the rules are very similar to seeing pediatric patients. Slow. Cautious. Take the focus off of the doctor-patient interaction. Harmless as a dove. Wise as a serpent. The healing serpent that symbolizes the medical profession. The serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness for the healing of God’s people.

I looked around the room that Celia now called home. Pictures of her and her husband and children graced the dresser next to her recliner. Poinsettias for Christmas. A happy birthday balloon hovered over her head.

I sat on the bed on the opposite side of the room and waited to earn trust. I asked about the handsome man in those photos, the man who now came in the evenings to lovingly feed her so that she would continue to eat. Everything is better coming from the hand of someone who loves you.

Celia told me a story about her handsome husband in the photos in what only could be described as word salad– a mixture of intelligible half-words with unintelligible expressions of passion. Though the words were incomprehensible, the sentiment was not. They were still in love after all of these years.

As her eyes and mouth danced through the memories of years gone by, I approached quietly on my knees to the side of her corduroy recliner and sat and listened. I responded as if I understood every word she said, because in a way, I did. The years had been hard, but good. Her husband meant the words of his vows more than 50 years ago, when he promised, “In sickness and in health.” She hated what her body had done to her, but his tender love still carried her through the darkness and confusion.

I took out my forehead thermometer, and showed it to her. I made it dance like a puppet, then touched it to my forehead. The puppet thermometer danced again and touched her forehead.

Beep. No fever.

My O2 saturation monitor was the friendly alligator who danced and hugged my finger. The O2 sat then danced and tried to hug her finger. She pulled back in anger.

I had violated her trust. How could I let an alligator bite her finger? Shame on me.

I recoiled, and sat back down on the floor next to her recliner, knowing how much physical exam I had to do, but also understanding our relationship was still fragile.

“Silent night, holy night” I began to sing. Her eyes darted around her mind. This was familiar. Was it good? Was it bad? What was she feeling?

“All is calm, all is bright . . .” Her darting eyes met mine and locked on. Her mouth made chewing motions but was silent.

“Round yon virgin, mother and child . . .” Her mouth began to form the very words I was singing — the first intelligible words of the visit.

“Holy infant so tender and mild . . . “ Her eyes darted away from me. The vulnerability was too much.

“Sleep in heavenly peace . . .” Her eyes came back to mine. There was something in that phrase she liked.

“Sleep in heavenly peace.” With her eyes still locked on mine, she reached up and caressed my cheek.

“Yeeessssss,” she muttered. Sleep in heavenly peace. Yes, that does sound good, Celia, doesn’t it? Life on earth is hard. Heaven is close, but still just too far away.

I sang Silent Night to her again as my hands examined her. I paused between phrases to listen to the sounds of her heart, lungs, and abdomen. And the friendly alligator stayed on her finger long enough to read her oxygen saturation and pulse. When I sang the final line, “Sleep in heavenly peace” again, she was resting, holding my hand, and looking at me with a tender love that can only come from God. And I loved her right back. Everything is better coming from the hand of someone who loves you.

More than 2000 years after God Almighty wrapped Himself in the flesh a tiny Jewish baby boy, the songs inspired by that night allowed me to share a holy moment with my sweet patient Celia. Thank you Jesus, for connecting our hearts and minds. And thank you Celia for reminding me that even though our earthly bodies may bring us to the brink of hellish suffering, heaven is just a song-glimpse away.

“Dearest Lord, may I see you today and every day in the person of your sick, and, whilst serving them, minister unto you.

Though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting, the unreasonable, may I still recognize you, and say:

“Jesus, my patient, how sweet it is to serve you.”

Lord, give me this seeing faith, then my work will never be monotonous. I will ever find joy in humoring the fancies and gratifying the wishes of all poor sufferers.

O beloved sick, how doubly dear you are to me, when you personify Christ; and what a privilege is mine to be allowed to tend you.

Sweetest Lord, make me appreciative of the dignity of my high vocation, and its many responsibilities. Never permit me to disgrace it by giving way to coldness, unkindness, or impatience.

And O God, while you are Jesus my patient, deign also to be to me a patient Jesus, bearing with my faults, looking only to my intention, which is to love and serve you in the person of each one of your sick.

Lord, increase my faith, bless my efforts and work, now and for evermore, Amen.”

— Mother Teresa

*Name changed to protect her privacy

Cacophony of Christianity

The police flashlights swept quickly through our vehicle — over our faces, into our laps, into the back of the vehicle. I held my breath as the all-too-familiar scene of being stopped by police in Africa played itself out.

And then they waved us on.

And then it happened again. Police skimming our vehicle with flashlights. Identifying the foreigners.

And they too waved us on.

Finally I asked Rev. Ocran why we kept getting stopped.

“They are making sure we are not coming into the neighborhoods to rob houses. And we are not, so they are letting us continue. They just like to keep the streets safe at night.”

I realized that my mind had gone too quickly into “Congo mode,” and that Ghana was a new game. My previous concept of Africa was based on the expectations I had developed in Congo, and I needed to adapt to a new country and new expectations. Perhaps more sleep and more daylight would bring greater perspective.

Morning came all too early the next day. We had to travel to another town for church, where Ken would be preaching in the morning service.

Daylight quickly warmed the humid air left behind by the heavy rains the night before. We rode the still rough but now well-lit roads through Tema, Accra, and into Medina on the way to church. The urban neighborhood streets leading to the church were washed out by the rains the previous night, and we had to call for help to get us to the church — just in time for the end of worship.

We were quickly ushered to the front of the open air service, facing the cheerfully singing congregation. Though the songs were not familiar, the spirit was. The air was filled with not only the sounds of praises from our church, but 5 other churches in the immediate area. The cacophony of worship wafted to the heavens in a dissonant melody that was grotesque and  glorious at the same time.

Ken preached an moving message with the help of Rev. Ocran, who translated into the local language of Twi. The pastor of the church, Rev. Kwame Frempong closed in prayer. After the service was over, we were greeted with hugs and handshakes from our Ghanaian brothers and sisters in Christ.

The next 24 hours would be filled with conversations and meetings regarding the state of The Wesleyan Church, especially in southern Ghana. While we had seen a beautiful example of God’s people worshiping together, the church overall is experiencing growing pains. Of the dozens of Wesleyan Churches in Ghana, there are only four ordained ministers. There is no Bible college for Wesleyan pastors in Ghana, so creative methods have been employed to train pastors as quickly as possible.

One pastor pulled us aside after one of the meetings and quietly asked, “Do you have a study Bible? Next time you come would you bring me one? I need help preparing messages.”

At another point a different pastor asked for Sunday School curriculum. “We don’t have any Wesleyan curriculum, and we struggle to know what connects us to The Wesleyan Church as a whole.”

Another reminded us that since he had an open air church without walls, his congregation would leave when the rainy season came, to attend one of the neighboring churches that provided more shelter from the rain. “Some walls would protect our congregation from getting wet during worship while it storms.”

Their requests and wish lists were not complex.

A study Bible. I knew that I have at least 5 sitting at home on my shelf.

Curriculum. Ken and I are curriculum collectors and writers. My first job out of college was writing curriculum for The Wesleyan Church. Ken has written or adapted his own curriculum for the past two decades. They had none.

Walls for their church. Not marble floors, nor a baptistry, nor a giant spinning globe to prove how missional they were, nor air conditioning for the awful heat. They wanted walls to enclose them and protect them from the rain during the rainy season.

The remark, however, that challenged me most was being asked, “How much does it cost Americans to convert one person to Christianity?”

I didn’t know the answer. I was afraid of the answer. Since I’ve returned to the States, the answer has been more disappointing than I had anticipated.  Research has shown figures as high as $1.5 million dollars spent by churches per baptism in the United States. Not that we spend that number directly on each person, but others studies show that of all of the money spent by The American Church, there are relatively few converts. Statistically speaking, if a church is older than 10 years, it takes an average of 85 people to win one person to Christ. The vast majority of church budgets are spent on staffing and maintaining the church, not reaching new souls. For years, I have wrestled with church dinners, youth group all-nighters, seasonal children’s parties, ski trips, even mission trips where not one new person is reached with the gospel. We have become master maintainers, instead of master soul winners and disciple makers.

“I tell you,” he contrasted, “that it is very inexpensive in Ghana to reach people with the gospel. Here, people are coming to know Christ for the first time, not merely changing churches. People of other religions are calling on the name of Jesus, and we are struggling to support them. If a Muslim converts to Christianity, and he is seen meeting in a Wesleyan church under a mango tree, or in a church without walls, his life is in danger. Even if he does come, do we ourselves have the ability to disciple him in his growing faith without curriculum?”

Another pastor continued, “Our dilemma is this: Should we stop reaching out to people with the gospel if we cannot support them after they surrender their lives to Christ?”

The dissonance of the Western culture of Christianity and the dilemma of the church in Ghana was just as cacophonous as the melody of worship on Sunday morning. While we are all worshipping God simultaneously, we were doing so in such different ways. I had defined the activities of the church according to cultural Christianity in the United States, rather than having the global perspective of The International Church.

When in America had I ever been a part of a church that considered stopping evangelistic efforts because the church could not support all of the newly converted Christians?

Just as I had to redefine my expectations of the police in Ghana versus Congo, I had to begin to rethink my expectations of Church and my role in God’s Kingdom.

What is the purpose of The Church? If I have but one life to live, where would God have me invest my life? Where will I be most effective accomplishing the mission of The Church?

Was God calling me to change my tune?

Six Months Home

It’s hard to believe that so many months have passed since our incredible journey to the Congo and back with our children. We barely got out of the country with both kids, and arrived on American soil exactly six months ago today.

There are so many things that are so much different from six months ago: our kids are speaking (mostly) English, the daily Palmer-tantrums are gone, the incessant Addie-belches are gone, we know that they are significantly older than they were alleged to be, and the incredible fear that resulted in bizarre behavior has relaxed as our kids are learning to trust us, and maybe even love us.

I knew one of the hardest things about adoption is awaiting love to be returned. One thing I didn’t anticipate was how hard it would be for me to love them in the first place. Oh, I had adored every picture, memorizing every crumb on Addie’s face, every time Palmer lost a tooth, every flash of a smile. But truthfully, I only loved the idea of them — the idea of rescuing two orphans from a miserable plight, the chance to introduce them to Jesus, the chance to live out the Gospel in such a tangible way.

Suddenly I had to transition from admiring two pictures to raising two children.

I didn’t realize how hard it would be to love two children who really only loved each other, who weren’t interested in communicating with me or being affectionate, who bristled at my touch and glared at me with hateful eyes.

“Do you not know how hard we worked to adopt you? Do you not know the expense, the hours of praying, the paperwork, the torment of just trying to bring you home?”

No, they do not. We were some strangers who suddenly and mysteriously entered their lives in the Congo, carried them away from everyone they ever knew, and planted them in a country where they are the minority, no one else speaks their language, and forced them into school that is much beyond their capability.

“Adoption is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful.” — Reverend Keith C. Griffith

It’s a wonder we’ve survived at all.

But this is the awesome nature of living out the Gospel. The Incarnation was not a pretty process either. Sometimes we tend to want the glory of the resurrection without the suffering of the cross, but we cannot experience the fullness of the Gospel without each.

As we wait for our children to return our affection, and accept themselves as part of our family, I can only recall what my Savior did for me, and wonder how many times He has waited patiently, crying out, “Do you not know the torment I went through just to bring you home?” How many times do I still bristle at His touch, or only love what I have here-and-now more than eternity? Meanwhile, He is inviting me to a deeper and more rich relationship where I see His Kingdom through His eyes instead of my own.

The more I know adoption, and the more I reflect on spiritual things, the more I realize that the model of the Incarnation — dwelling INTO suffering, not standing outside of it, is the key to knowing more of the heart and mind of Christ. I cannot stand outside of our children’s lives and merely wish them well or pray about them. No, I must whisper admist the tantrums, wade through impossible homework, wrestle through language barriers, and wipe the snotty noses of these children. My children. They will never know that I love them otherwise.

If we’re not intentionally wading into the suffering of others — the poor, the widows, orphans, the trafficked, the enslaved, the foreigners — how will they ever know our love, and ultimately, God’s love? This is the heart of the Incarnation, and the incarnational life: intentionally loving, even when it means that the mess of others splashes onto us.

And I do love them. I adore Palmer’s wit, his funny faces, his wild and adventurous spirit, his disciplined nature, and his tender heart. I adore Addie’s genuine giggle, her willingness to help at any task, her happy spirit, the way she plays with my fingers during prayer time, and her insistence that even the worst of times can be survived with a wistful sigh and the bat of an eyelash. My love for my children is love not born out of labor and delivery in the physical realm, but in the spiritual realm.

I cannot love them because they look like me. I love them because they look like Him.

There are no shortcuts to the glory of the resurrection. And even though incarnational living has been exceptionally painful at times, I’ve experienced God in an entirely new way in the last six months.

What could be more magnificent than that?

Palmer reading a bedtime story tonight.

Palmer reading a bedtime story tonight.

Uncle. Ebenezer.

When I was growing up, my brother loved to pin me to the ground in some hideously uncomfortable position until I cried out in pain, “Uncle!” Then he would set me free, defeated.

This week has felt like a game of “Uncle” with God.

  • Our kids aged 2-3 years overnight.
  • Pneumonia.
  • In a matter of days, my boss was suddenly diagnosed with a brain tumor, announced his resignation, and has surgery tomorrow morning. My heart absolutely breaks for him and his family.

All of this was in less than 7 days.

“Uncle! Uncle!” I’ve had enough. This week’s events are on top of a fraudulent adoption last year, a horribly delayed international adoption, and a traumatic in-country experience that I’m still trying to deal with, on top of two kids who live under my roof, but don’t speak English.

I. AM. TIRED.

It’s times like this when I cry out, “God, am I doing something wrong? Am I not doing what you wanted me to do?”

And God always takes me back to my Ebenezers.

An Ebenezer refers back to the Old Testament in I Samuel 7, when Samuel set up a stone as a marker where the Israelites defeated the Philistines to remind them where the Lord was their help in providing victory.

There are times in life where God does something so spectacular that you can always look back to that moment and know that you were on the right track. For instance, when I applied to Trevecca, Ken was interested in being an RD. I had pestered him for weeks about calling Trevecca about an RD position, and he finally did, the week of my interview. What they said stunned us, “Well, we only have one men’s RD position.” Our hearts sank. “But he resigned yesterday. Why don’t we interview you this week when your wife is here to interview?” He got the job, and I was accepted to the PA program. I can always look back to that moment and know exactly when it was that we knew we were supposed to go to Trevecca.

Last fall, we needed $17,000 for adoption fees and we had not even begun to fundraise. But God provided, miraculously.

When I prayed for years for God’s intervention in our family, He provided the answer through Ken.

Even now, the letters, emails, and cards I get from current and former students are my Ebenezers, reminding me that God has called me to Trevecca and that what I do makes a difference. I keep them posted on my dresser at home, on my desk at work, and in a bright yellow file labeled, “Rainy Day File.” I would have quit 4 years ago, had it not been for these visible Ebenezer in my life.

Time after time, there have been Ebenezers in my life, marking the times when God has shown that I was on the right path, reminding me of the times when He has sent help in time of need, and spurring me on toward the next Ebenezer.

When I cry, “Uncle!” God answers right back, “Ebenezer!”

Uncle. Ebenezer.

 

 Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
mount of thy redeeming love.

Here I raise mine Ebenezer;
hither by thy help I’m come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood. 

O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above.

Counting the Cost of a Coat

Two Thursday mornings ago, I pulled out my old embroidered suede coat out of the back of our coat closet. I had bought that coat my in PA school when I realized that I needed something that could be both warm, and semi-professional looking.  It had since been relegated to the back of the closet by newer coats. “I need to donate this to Goodwill,” I thought, and put it on for what was probably going to be the last time.

That afternoon, I wore the coat to Mercury Courts, where our students do weekly health workshops for people who are transitioning out of homelessness. We’ve been going there every fall and spring semesters for 3 1/2 years. I’ve learned a lot of names, hugged a lot of shoulders, answered a lot of questions, and learned more about poverty than any book could ever tell me. The most important lesson that I’ve learned is that poverty is not primarily economic, but lack of resources is often symptomatic of other problems– poor relationships, poor health, inability to delay gratification, and especially a lack of self-esteem.

As people start coming to our weekly workshops, it takes them a while to warm up to us, and this has been a difficult semester as we’ve had an influx of many new people scattered amongst the residents who have been with us for all three years.  So I work hard to learn their names, to know their stories, to hear their fears, and to love with no expectation of anything in return. I want to be the face in their life that lights up with joy when they enter the room, and over time, their faces light up right back at me. I may not be able to help them each financially, but I can offer my time, my respect, and be a conduit of God’s love. And I do love these residents dearly and consider them some of my favorite friends.

On that suede-coat-wearing Thursday, the room where we hold our workshops was especially warm, so I laid my coat on a side chair. After the workshop was over, I helped the students load out the room, and then I returned to retrieve my coat.

But it was gone.

Half of the people from the workshop were still in the room, so I asked them where my coat was.

Silence.

“Come on folks,” I thought, “I have been coming down here for almost 4 years and you know that I would give you anything just for asking. But don’t steal from me!” Threats from the administration of Mercury Courts went unanswered, and I went home without a coat.

More irritated at the loss of trust than the loss of a soon-to-be-donated coat, I drove home exasperated.

“I can’t believe they stole my coat!” I whined.

“Was it really YOUR coat?” the Lord whispered.

“No, it wasn’t. It’s your coat.  Everything I have is yours, Lord.”

“Sometimes I call you to places where your coat — and a whole lot more– will be stolen. But that doesn’t mean that you weren’t called to be there.”

God and I have been reminiscing about that old coat, and about lots of other areas of loss that I’ve experienced in the last year. Even the current yearning to get our kids out of the Congo reminds me that Kingdom work is dangerous work. 

In Matthew 5 in the NIV, Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount:

   3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
   for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
   for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
   for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
   for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
   for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
   for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
   for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

   11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Poor? Mourning? Persecution? Being insulted? Lied about? None of this should be unexpected in Kingdom work. In fact, if we’re not putting ourselves in positions of some sort of danger to our possessions, jobs, time management, pride, etc., perhaps we should question whether we’re really doing Kingdom work to begin with.  After all, if we’re not stretched beyond ourselves, do we really need God?

God calls me to the perilous path to bringing people to Himself, rather than safety and comfort found on my red microfiber couch, making a difference to no one, or even to bless the already-blessed. God has asked me to weekly plant myself in a community where I am the outsider. He’s asked me to pursue a less-profitable career than I could. He’s called us to adopt from the world’s poorest country. It’s not about me, it’s about helping others to hear the call and know the love of Jesus in their lives.

Jen Hatmaker in her book “7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess” says,

“I don’t want to consume the redemption Jesus made possible then spur the methods by which He achieved it. Jesus’ kingdom continues in the same manner it was launched; through humility, subversion, love, sacrifice; through calling empty religion to reform and behaving like we believe the meek will indeed inherit the earth. We cannot carry the gospel to the poor and lowly while emulating the practices of the rich and powerful. We’ve been invited into a story that begins with humility and ends with glory; never the other way around.”

When I returned to Mercury Courts last week, one of the regulars whispered in my ear, “I heard your coat got stolen. I’m sorry. Please don’t stop coming ‘cuz someone stole from you.”

Stop coming? I’d never dream of it. The fact that someone stole my coat lets me know that there is more work to do. Someone at Mercury Courts doesn’t know that God and I love them so much, all they’d have to do is ask.

In fact, I may need to show up all the more.