Friday, August 31, 2012

Making Tents

Month's end.  Another roll of the calendar page looms.  Deadlines are weighing upon my shoulders, reports are due, students have returned to occupancy of the residence halls I oversee.  Daily my fingers furiously tap out instructions to repair personnel, sending email updates, and ordering materials as the academic year begins and summer construction projects still linger in their closing.  Life has accelerated into a dizzying pace in recent weeks and I long for the normalizing downshift.  I long for peace from the chaos.  In reflecting upon the last few weeks, I feel as if I have been swept downstream, back into my realm of work and responsibilities.  Closing my eyes, I can still hear African voices in song and they are an anchor to this undercurrent that threatens. 

I opened this month, on the first day, by nervously standing before nearly 200 African children relaying, through an interpreter, God's eternal faithfulness and love.  I shared from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 which states that our current troubles are momentary and light, but are working an eternal glory for us.  Oh how I have held onto that truth these past weeks.  Strange how in that setting, standing in front of children, many who were orphaned, impoverished, and fully dependent upon the resources of the care point for survival, the weight of those words was poignant and powerful and resounded in deep truth, yet in this setting of "first world problems", the temptation is to trivialize their meaning.  In the "daily grind" of the business of our lives, we are easily distracted from the depth of truth and the fullness of life that is God's Word.  On that far off mountainside, however, just as the bowl of rice that was daily handed to small hands, the utterance of scripture was life and was valued as such.   

I purchased a t-shirt that supports local ministry in Manzini that states "I left my heart in Africa".  For nearly a month now, I have lived out this statement meaning I have been disconnected and distant for several weeks as I untangle the myriad aspects of the sights and experiences I was exposed to and what further meaning they have for me here in my American "mission fields" of home, church, and work.  My bride and children have often found me lost in thought, not paying attention to those things/events that require my presence, and even cocooning within myself as I try to move through the frenzied stress that is my job during this particular time of the year, and the new challenges of a recently enlarged family by the addition of two beautiful children.  My contribution to these writings has been the overflow product of what the Lord is stirring within me, very often a challenge to myself as most of my writings are.  While in Swaziland I knew the fullness of joy in the daily pouring out of myself for others. What I have returned home with, however, is a deep dissatisfaction for my life prior to the journey.

I honestly do not dislike my employment, but these past few weeks, I am simply not interested.  After holding sick orphans half a globe away, it is difficult to hear a woman complain that she has to use the stairs for three flights to move her daughter into one of the residence halls I oversee.  After witnessing team-mates console the mother of a boy struggling for his final breaths, it is difficult to enthusiastically engage the numerous demands I receive to assist incoming undergrads on how to program their televisions to receive the full range of digital channels offered.  Entertaining the requests to find out "the status" on a new printer closet that will keep individuals in my office building from walking, literally, an extra 30 feet to pick up documents has lost a bit of its luster.  In seeing love in action, selfless giving in motion, it is difficult to return to the deadlines and demands of others when so many of these are self-serving.

My heart is aching for something bigger, far more in line with the work I was engaged in on a rugged mountainside half a world away, something more eternal than residence halls and construction projects.  Though many know I made the journey, few seem interested to the point that I can share the testimony of God's work, of God's love for each of us.  Though I am changed, the world and work around me is not and pecking away at work orders or attempting to wrap my mind around the new software systems I am tasked with learning has taken a backseat in my list of priorities.  God permitted me to make the Ludlati journey for a reason, right?  He wants me to do something with this heart knowledge, something that will change the world, doesn't He?  I get that this is my mission field, but surely a trip across the globe was simply the first step of bigger things, wasn't it?  I often catch myself silently strategizing how I can evangelize my work place, be that witness of Christ's love - the selfless love that was absolutely easy to share less than a month ago in a rugged landscape.  Quietly, I hear in my heart the soft voice "This was the first step, but it was the first step of my plans for you, not your plans for you."  I further hear "I know my plans for you and they exceed yours in both magnitude and longevity as I have the only true eternal perspective needed to bring you to your best glory in Me; to cause you to be the most effective in my Kingdom."

I am reminded of an early morning conversation I was having with my pastor in referencing Paul.  "I'm just making tents" my pastor stated.  Even though most would consider Paul the greatest contributor to the Bible through whom God worked, we often have this mindset of him as modern-day evangelist, traveling, preaching, being blessed with God's provision through the local offering plate, and off to the next speaking engagement.  The truth, however, is that would Paul often set up shop and put down roots to establish the churches he helped to build.  Often this required him to creatively support himself through trades work or other means.  Despite the spiritual opposition and the tremendous victories and miracles he must have witnessed, he was still called to "regular" labor to support the work God was doing.  Paul was faithful to serve God completely, even working  as a maker of tents (Acts 18:2-4).  It is difficult for me to imagine Paul complaining about the intricate manner in which he had to sew fabrics, dye materials, or even cut support poles for the product over which he was laboring.  In fact, I tend to think Paul probably was engaging his work with thanksgiving for what it was permitting him to truly do that was of eternal worth.  Given that he, as a former "expert" in Jewish law, knew the Word backwards and forwards, I'm sure he relished the words of Solomon:

"And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God."
Ecclesiastes 5:19 NLT

Paul labored diligently, doing whatever was necessary and whatever God called him to to support the end-goal of building the Kingdom.  Was tent making the most spiritual thing for this scholar of Jewish Law, this man who had been blinded by the glory of the Lamb of God in the mid-day Middle-Eastern sun to be engaged in?  It was if God called him to it.  It was if God was using it to support a work.  It was if it was bringing God's man in contact with the people God had in store for him.  Too often I want to run the playbook and imagine I know the plan for my life but God's word in Jeremiah doesn't say "You know the plans I have for you" does it?  God permits us to walk through our experiences to grow us, to enlarge us, to teach us, to bring us in contact with the people and experiences that will cause us to be the tools in His hands He desires us to be.  I have no idea why God permitted me the desire of my heart to travel nearly 19,000 miles round trip to experience the love and the heartache of the people of Ludlati just to bring me back to a small office on a university in central Illinois.  But I am so very thankful for it and changed for it and if I'll continue to pursue Him fully, I will be changed for every contact I make, and He will use me to change others, to bring them in contact with His life-giving love. 

But I have a responsibility in this;  I have to be willing, diligent, and listening for whatever He calls me to.  I need to be prepared as well.  I once had the following scripture spoken over me:

"Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes." 
Isaiah 54:2  ESV

This verse admonishes us to prepare ourselves, to get ourselves ready.  Bolster our faith, find out what His Word says about our circumstances, start believing for what He has placed in our hearts based upon the Word, start walking out what He has called us to.  In doing this it is like enlarging our tent, building on a room, adding space.  We are preparing for increase in our lives; increased responsibility, increased provision, increased joy, increased works, bigger, better.  But it starts with menial, it starts with driving the stakes, shoring up the ropes, it starts with faithfulness.

So I'll go back to my reports.  I'll continue to absorb new software programming into this already overloaded mind.  I'll patiently listen to the incoming complaints of "first world" problems.  God has promised that even these are "working an eternal glory".  I'll enter into the work that God has called me to so that He can use me as He deems necessary.  As for me, I'm making tents.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Inside Out

Three weeks;  to the day, that is when my feet last stepped from African soil to be jettisoned across the continents and ocean to bring me back to the reality that is mine.  Purchasing a soda from a machine my mind begins to convert dollars to South African rand as I calculate how much of a baker's monthly income I'm about to consume.  Noting paved roads packed with vehicles and the obvious lack of people dangling dangerously from the side rails and tops of loaded trucks, anything to save a few miles of walking in the African landscapes, I am cognizant of our nation's overdependence on fuels.  Often I've heard the echoed statement from those who were with me that this existence, this "normal" isn't really normal anymore.

This sentiment comes from more than a cultural exposure to an impoverished nation.  It is born of a heart knowledge of loving others without restraint that occurred on a remote mountain side in rural Swaziland.  Twelve team members from different churches, backgrounds, philosophical viewpoints, and ages; all coming together under the banner of Christ's love for others - all giving of themselves.  Each of us was a contact point for the driving force of God's love representing the countless hours and dollars expended by our dear families, friends, and churches, without whose support - none of us would have built soccer goals, cleaned feeding bowls, prayed with hospital laden families, given food, or even stepped on care point soil. 

Three weeks ago this journey brought me back to my "mission field"...and I have failed.  I have failed to carry back and sustain the absolute selfless love for others above myself.  I have failed to continue to ignore circumstances and persevere under the power of God's grace and love for me and through me.  I have failed to fully permit that heart knowledge that still burns within to fully transform me from without.  The wrecked reality of "normal" that I am living within, is not the reality I had envisioned a month ago when my pants were filthy with red soil and I was daily wiping red dust from my face with wet-wipes before dinner. 

You see, Ludlati was very literally the "mountaintop experience".  My amazing bride held our lives together at home.  Many of my team-mates would recount similar support.  Together, we were able to simply be the "hands-and-feet" of Jesus as we daily interacted, prayed over, and loved on others without external concerns.  Our efforts, our energies, our lives were focused to laser precision as the totality of our days and nights were consumed with the work and relationships that were the very reason for our presence two hemispheres from home.  This was the epicenter of spiritual energy and of being in God's will.  We were covered over by countless prayers and our hearts were daily humbled and amazed to have the opportunity to partake in the smallest of parts in this unfolding work of the Lord's. Words will never adequately capture the experience, even if each of us writes dozens of blog posts on the subject. 

Then something truly spectacular and amazing occurred:  we returned.  We returned to families, we returned to responsibilities.  We returned to our comfortable homes where kids are not starving, have plenty of clothing and have to be reminded to brush their teeth, where bills have to be paid, where the lawn needs mowed, the dishes need washed and the dog occasionally poops on the floor.  We returned to jobs and reports and deadlines.  We returned to obligations to extended family and friends and the organizations and churches we support.  We returned to heartache as friends suffered attack from the enemy on their families.  We returned to redefinitions as my particular family unit was altered shortly after through the process of foster-care and the addition of two precious, yet wounded hearts.  We also returned to apathy as eyes glazed over when we attempted to recount our experiences to some.  We returned from the mountain, and found ourselves right where God called us - in our own lives.

I am confident that most of my team-mates have handled this return with Godly grace and poise.  All of us have been affected.  Some, including yours truly, have been channeling their thoughts and reflections through blog posts and I have been blessed by the writings of others.  I am prayerful that for each, that they are able to transform the world around them with what God has brought to their hearts and minds during a twelve day journey.  For myself, I am feeling the attempts of the enemy to encumber me and encase me within the cares of this life. 

What I am realizing is that my "best self", the "self" God desires of me, was fully present picking his way through thorn strewn rocky paths, carrying beans to home-visits, and silently feeling the heartache with team-mates over death's infiltration and influence over a people.  Likewise, my best self was fully present to rejoice in the miraculous as God continues to breathe life into a community that is growing; a community that is having traditional superstitions and demonic cultural influences wiped away by the simple powerful truth of His word as it is taught and shared - bringing life and healing.  My best self was fully present to lift my voice in song with those heavenly voices of the children harmonizing acapella as they praised Him.  My best self is actually always present - he never leaves me.  He is the inner man, the true man that God re-birthed through salvation. 

But so often, I treat this person as a long lost child; someone I wish would come around more often.  This is because I, like most, often fall for the delusion that this flesh, this outer man, this body, that this is my real self.  As a result, when my day at work is unreasonably difficult and I'm working overtime and I'm sporting a headcold and my children are fighting and my bride doesn't fully see my opinion as the perfect logic that I view it - then I permit my flesh, this outer man, to sit in the driver's seat and I become responsive to circumstances rather than living according to the spirit, my "best self".  Here's what the Word has to say about this:

"So we're not giving up. How could we! Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace."
2 Corinthians 4:16  MSG

But what happens to this inner man?  He becomes encased, weighted down and crusted over with this fleshly outer man.  Like a prisoner trapped within, ignored he slowly fades into the background of the noise and business that is our lives.  Unfortunately my family has had to put up with the writings of the inner man on this blog while I have simultaneously been struggling to readjust and re-acclaimate to my "normal" life with sickness attacking, family pressures, new children in our home, and workplace stresses - all attempted in the strength of the outer man. Two words:  Epic Failure.

The problem here is that God did not rebirth this outer man (yet) to handle this world, its pressures, its attacks, its current that steadily pulls at us to sweep us away with the rest of humanity towards a Godless end.  This flesh is not equipped for this, but our inner man is.  Our inner man is the joint heir with Jesus, through whom we are more than conquerors.  But we must first recognize the priority the inner man has over our flesh, our comfort, our extra 30 minutes of sleep, our uncomfortable feelings in dealing with others' needs - and we must actively live this inner man's or "best self's" life.  It is only through the spirit, that God can utilize us to transform the world around us.  If we could do it in the flesh, we would have figured out how to do it without God long ago.  I like what Paul prays over the church at Ephesus, something that is applicable to each of us:  

"I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit." Ephesians 3:16  NLT

Catch that?  When the inner man, the spirit man is alive and well, we can be plugged into "unlimited resources" of inner strength.  But what does that mean for us?  For me, I have to be less responsive to how my circumstances are affecting me and more responsive to what His Word says about me and my circumstances on a minute-by-minute basis in my home, in my work, toward my family, towards everything around me.  This puts the inner man, the spirit man, the rejuvenated reborn man in contact with the circumstances and when he is in submission to the Word, only God's best can happen in my life.  The outer man can't handle them anyway; he doesn't have the resources of wisdom or guidance.  It is only in living through the inner man, that we, as followers of Christ, can effectively engage this world, effectively take up our cross, effectively walk where he beckons.  It is only in the inner man that God can move through us to use us as His hands and feet to a lost and dying world around us, right here around us.  But we must be willing to live in reverse - something that sounds absurd to the world around us.  We must be willing to live inside out.

"But the natural, nonspiritual man does not accept or welcome or admit into his heart the gifts and teachings and revelations of the Spirit of God, for they are folly (meaningless nonsense) to him; and he is incapable of knowing them, of progressively recognizing, understanding, and becoming better acquainted with them, because they are spiritually discerned and estimated and appreciated"    1 Corinthians 2:14 AMP

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Heart of a Father

The van pulled into our drive at about 5:30 in the evening.  This was it.  After over a dozen false alarms of "They're here!" shouted by my children at every vehicle that passed my home, we finally had to tell them "Unless you see someone pull into the driveway, don't yell that!".  We simply couldn't take the continual leaps our hearts were making with each exclamation.  Now, my children were excitedly chanting "they're here" and my bride and I were nervous.  We opened the front door and stepped outside for the final time from the home we had known.

The two social workers introduced themselves and immediately began "thanking" us, something we were not prepared for nor did we feel deserving of.  Then at the back of the van, a small face appeared.  Deep eyes studied us.   They belonged to a small girl, not much bigger than my Lydia.  She was wearing a backpack and carrying a stuffed animal.  As if on cue, another small face appeared at the front of the van, eyes wide, ascertaining the situation.  This one, only four, was dwarfed by his surroundings as he took them all in.  He noted a scooter in the front yard and made for it.  The social workers called them by name and asked them to come and meet us.  They quietly complied.  Wide eyes met generous smiles as we sought to reassure them and speak with them in gentle tones.   Soon, my bride had them by the hand and was leading them inside.  Thus began our redefinition of "family". 

Plastic totes with the children's names on them were brought in - the sum total of all of their earthly belongings.  Clothing, underwear, shoes, special items, and toys.  After brief conversation as to appointments and setting up a schedule for visits, the social workers left and two little people gazed at their new surroundings in wonder and curious apprehension.  My children took immediately to their new "siblings".  My daughter has found her "soul-mate" in the discussion of shoes, nails, clothing, and ponies - all from the perspective a six-year old.

My eldest has made me proud in the manner in which he has taken our newest little one under his wing.  They have become inseparable.  Repeatedly my eldest has approached my bride and I with a smile as large as his face and simply stated "Aren't they the best, mom and dad?"  I am blessed to see my son walking out love and compassion and reaping the immediate reward.  Likewise, a quick bond has formed between our newest "daughter" and my bride.  Anticipating months of work and building of trust and relationship, we are both caught off guard when this precious one reveals the depths of her heart far into the night and only ceases as exhaustion overtakes her. 

She is a protector of her young brother, wise beyond her years.  She desires to please and surprises us both when she asks when the "cleaning would start"?  She informs us she is particularly good at cleaning microwaves.  She has carried weight and responsibilities that have impeded her ability to simply be a child and this has produced an unnatural maturity in one so young.  She is, however, afraid to fall asleep alone and regularly seeks the comfort of a hug, a soothing caress.  We are blessed as we seek to become respite to this wounded heart.

Now just days into this process, we are witnessing the opening of the flowers of these two small souls.  Where restraint and punishment seem to have been ever-present previously in their lives, the new found freedom to be a child that we are encouraging has permitted the weights of care and uncertainty to roll off of them and we find a quick attachment and rapid love for these beautiful children.  Certainly the aspects of child tantrums have already presented themselves and we have had to lovingly explain boundaries, house rules, and the behavioral corrective specter of "the time-out chair".  But these are few and far between as we witness two small ones caught up in the joy of simply being, without limitations. 

Loss still hovers in the background, however.  Hours have already been spent listening to detailed recounting of hardships, family missed, and ugly truths that are far too precise to be the fiction of a six-year-old girl's imagination.  But hope is ever present as families continue to work through mandated programs and visitation schedules with diligence and have shown persistence in affection towards these small ones.  And laughter is present.  It resounds throughout my home continually no matter where I turn.  Often I am confronted by small hands attempting to lead me to another room to assist in the setting up of some game or to obtain a newly discovered toy high upon a shelf or simply to lead me to the refrigerator for yet another snack.  It is difficult to say "no", even when meal times are close. 

It is evident, too, that loss will also be in someone's future in this new found family equation we are living: either the children's or ours as one of two scenarios unfolds before us.  For we have fallen in love with these children and would gladly accept the honor of raising them in the ways of the Lord.  Yet, we know that the tremendous love they have for their parents is a tie that cannot, nor should not ever be broken and we hope the best for their efforts to reclaim these small ones that we are so blessed to rear for a season. 

"Why walk this path, then?  Why expose your family and yourselves to this?"  Already we have faced opposition from others in our decision to open our hearts and our home.  Already, the enemy has moved against us in health, relationships, and security.  Stress has been present and prayer has been our constant companion as continually we are seeking God's face.  We are simply trusting God's omniscient wisdom and seeking to follow His will, to be His hands and feet.  He never promised it would be a path free from potential heartaches.  Parenting never is.  But we look to our Heavenly Father as example. 

Our Heavenly Father tells of the shepherd who leaves his flock to save the one.  He tells of a wealthy man running down a dusty road to throw a robe over the shoulders of his rebellious prodigal.  He is moved with compassion and stirred by the masses.  He shares the heart of His Son who wept over a chosen nation's refusal of Him and was moved tears at the sorrow of grieving friends.  His Word reveals a Father's tender heart for His children. 

Want a picture of what God sees when He looks at us? Look into a child's eyes.  Want to walk out the Father's heart?  Search out a child to love, be it your own or a child in need.  This was brought home to me in a very tangible way in my recent time with the Ludlati care point.  Though I have often taken it for granted, I have recently been reminded of it with my own children.  I am thankful for the further opportunity to walk this out with our newest family members; thankful and blessed to pursue the heart of the Father.

"But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side and said to them, 'Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.' "
Luke 9:47-48

Friday, August 10, 2012

Beauty in the Thorns

I am drawing near the end of my first week back from Ludlati.  At home, with my bride, I have an understanding heart and a listening ear.  I love this woman.  She "gets it".  She understands.  After all, though she might not have personally stepped foot on African soil, she was there in spirit with me, there in prayer.  She loves these people, these children as much as I.  She was literally holding together our lives here making it possible for me to be present with eleven others to reach across the globe to our Ludlati friends.  She had no less a part in this story than I.  I will be forever grateful to her.

What I encounter in the world, particularly at my work is another story altogether.  I have been greeted with many a "Welcome Back! How was Africa?".  Most making this statement assume I have been on some sort of organized charity work with a great many tales to tell of wild animals and exotic foods.  Most are still unaware of where Swaziland is, knowing only it is on that "dark continent" but not quite north enough to be near the middle east.  They are interested in the sights and sounds and sensationalist details of extreme poverty, but if I start to provide too many details, most start to shift uncomfortably or look around indicating they need to get back to work.  This saddens me.  It grabs at my heart because I know if they only knew what I knew they would be forever changed.

There is a scar on my left arm that is healing.   It is about six inches long and was obtained while I was trekking the perimeter of the care point fence praying one morning.  This was not a leisurely walk for the thorns; small shrubs heavily laden with two to four inch barbs throughout.  They are everywhere.  Continually they grab at your clothing, snagging you, holding you back, attempting to puncture the layers.  Even with my good clothing, long pants, socks, good shoes and the like, it was work getting through the tangle and I failed to do so unscathed. 

The older boys have cleared this scrub from the soccer field area but it is present just beyond the goal posts.  I noted early in the week some of the boys who did not have shoes would share a pair, running up and down the field with only one shoe on.  When the ball went wild and into the thorns, they would hop, one legged on the foot with the shoe, to retrieve the ball.  Sad, but smart at the same time.

The thorns in this place, do not detract from the beauty of Ludlati.  They do not impede the persistent care of the bomake.  In fact, they do not even seem to impact the attendance nor the play of the children.  They are simply part of the fabric of this place.  There is a harshness in the jagged rocks and barbed thorns, but it is all woven together with the warmth of the smiles of children and the sounds of laughter, the bleating of passing goats, and the smell of the cook fire.  Even among the thorns, there is a simple clean beauty in this place.

When I see the thorns, I am reminded of something else.  I am reminded that though life is full of entanglements clutching and grabbing at us as we pass through, and though we will lose blood, sweat, or tears as we engage them, though we will feel the penetration of those barbs as we move through this world, we are not to shy away from them.  If we do, we will miss out on the greatest of treasures.  If we only love safely, if we only risk little, if we only live sparingly, if we only stay on the "safe paths", then we will lose the beauty of what God has in store for each of us.

When I see these thorns, I am also reminded of another picture. I am reminded of a woven crown of thorns, pressed down upon a bloodied and bruised head hung in exhaustion. I am reminded of a Savior, whose blood lost upon that crown was shed so that I, like my brothers and sisters at Ludlati and at home, would know true life forever with him.  I am reminded that the One who beckons me to follow Him, to follow His example often leads through paths that are not "safe" or "comfortable" but rather through paths that yield worth and return in the effort.  According to 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, His goal is not my comfort, but rather my greatest glory in Him.  The great comfort is that He will always be with us. 

The scar on my arm is fadingI pray that the manner in which I obtained that scar does not fade from my mind.  I pray the conviction and the heart knowledge that burns within will forever remain and not be lost in time or distance.  I pray that I will be able to share a portion of that knowledge for God to move on people's hearts as He will.  As for me, I have found beauty in the thorns.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Corduroy and Trust

Another sleepless night, another restless hour before dawn.  I have the suspicion that this trend is beginning to exceed the normal adjustments imposed by jet lag and global travel.  Though this morning, my bride has joined me as our youngest has awoken weeping with continual pain in her teeth.  This occurs from time to time as a result of some of the blood abnormalities that she was born with that affected bone and teeth development when she was an infant.  As a result, her teeth are brittle, some have crumbled.  Our physicians all desire that they should come out naturally to provide proper spacing at the base for her healthy permanent teeth, so this is the end result; a little girl with tooth pain crying in the night.  And as for me; a 4:00 am trip to the local store for meds and children's pain killers because we ran out.

I am kneeling in the sandy African soil facing a brilliant sun.  He stares at me uncertain as to my intent.  This is it.  "First Contact" so to speak.  I have been waiting a long time for this opportunity and here it finally is.  A small child from our Ludlati care point, cautiously eyeing me as I attempt to interact, attempt to show love. 

He is a serious little one, with serious eyebrows and a piercing gaze.  He stares at me, ascertaining my dress, my movements, my body language.  I speak in soft light tones to him and he does not respond.  He only studies me.  He is wearing a pair of small yellow sweatpants that have a hole in the knee and a white t-shirt with blue and green stripes.  His small feet are adorned by crocs and I marvel that these small rubber and plastic shoes would endure this landscape.  He is holding a yellow soccer ball.

It is evident that English is not going to work and sign language and body motions are limited so I engage in the next logical language I know:  play.  I motion to this little one to roll the ball.  Doubtfully he studies me and never taking his eyes off of me, rolls the ball towards me.  I exclaim my delight in gentle tones as I roll it back.  His eyes never leave my face as he rolls it again.  Again I gently reassure him, praising his aim, his strength, anything to encourage.  Again, he solely focuses on my face as we continue this back and forth.

For an hour our game continued.  Occasionally a ball would go wild and I would chase it down or he would, likewise, run after it on small legs.  Every so often his piercing gaze would drift off into the distance and he would sigh.  Never a word was uttered by his lips, never a smile was raised by the corners of his mouth.  Yet in this silent game a bond was forged that carried through the week.  I had found my first little friend at Ludlati.  He came to me and I was blessed to hold him and carry him to the food line.  Again, never a smile, never a word.

Later in the week during colder mornings, my little friend wore a corduroy coat and as we had a tendency to do, when we could not or did not have names for some of the children, we began referring to them by distinguishing characteristics or clothing.  We had "Batman" and "Topknot Girl" and "Backpack Girl".  And then there was "Corduroy Boy", my little friend.  In the days we were at the care point, my friend continually sought me out and took my hand.  Often he simply wanted to be held.  Sometimes, he led me to a ball.  Never, did he speak a word.  On the next to the last day, I garnered my very first smiles from him as we played and I leaned him backwards and tickled him. 

Our last day, "Fun Day" as it has been dubbed, I did not get to play with him.  We were all so busy and there were so many children.  We helped in distributing the chicken dust lunches and gift bags, ran games and put the new soccer goals up.  It was not until the very end of the day when the children were all heading home and we were saying our final goodbyes to the bomake and children that I crossed paths with my little friend.  Much like our first meeting, he had a ball.  I motioned for him to roll it.  Studying me with that same piercing gaze, he proceeded to do so and our game commenced...for a few minutes.  Then his older sister came to lead him away home.  I said goodbye to the two of them.  His sister said "bye" and then Corduroy Boy turned and waved and said "bye" and walked away.  This was the only word he ever spoke to me in my entire time with him. 

I happen to know that these children go into a home of need as their family was one of the families visited by our home visits.  Lack is present and my little friend is in a home that is in need of food, income, and other basics.  This Ludlati care point is a very literal lifeline to my little friend who walks to the care point daily.  And though in my last post I promised not to follow the comparative, I cannot help but ponder the fact that these little ones are not afforded the luxury of mom or dad running to the local store in the middle of the night when they are sick or hungry or in need.  In Africa, they don't say you have a cold, they say "you've caught flu" as every slight illness is "flu".  Many of these kids had caught "flu", walking around with runny noses, sniffling all while singing praises to God, playing, and being loved.  All of them live in unheated homes and the nights were getting down to as low as the mid/upper 30s.  As a trip to town on public transportation costs 10 rand one way and a baker at the local market is making only 150 rand a month, one can guess how often trips to town are made for "necessities" and whether or not that list includes medications.

As I check on my daughter, now nestled in with my bride asleep, I cannot help but wonder if my little friend experiences the same love and compassion in an environment where hardships are continually present.  Where existence can be difficult, even brutal, is my little friend able to find comfort in the arms of a loving parent?  Many of these children are not, and are somewhat hardened for the realities of their existence in the process.  Difficulty and struggle promote ruggedness and strength, even at a young age and these children are far more self reliant and inventive than most children I know near my home.  However, this process of hardening is not without scars.  Many of these children are too wise too young and are hurting as a result.

One of the recurring themes in our teaching through the week was trusting God, even when life is difficult.  My bride enclosed daily notes of encouragement to me while I was away and on a very specific and needed day, I opened one with the following scripture:

"For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!  So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever"   2 Corinthians 4:17-18

I am convicted in the writing of this passage as I also shared this scripture with the children during my teaching.  The children of Ludlati walk this out daily, with hope for a better future because, very often, God's promises are all they have.  To tell children who have recently lost their parents to AIDS "your problems are momentary but they are producing an eternal glory" is hollow if I cannot carry that back to my life.  To hear of a young man at the care point echoing these words to one of my team-mates and letting them take root in his heart is an amazing testimony, but it is fruitless to me if I cannot walk them out myself.  God's Word requires a paradigm shift when witnessed in action, particularly by the "least of these".  Even in the midst of lack, the children and families of Ludlati have given me far more than I ever gave them.

Peace has returned to my home.  Toothaches have been chased away, the sun is rising and my family sleeps.  I will continue to pray over Corduroy Boy and all of the children of Ludlati and trust in God's plan as he continues to breathe life into the midst of desolation on a remote Swazi mountainside.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Re-entry and Wreckage

I've been dreading this entry; dreading what this post will mean, what I would be feeling when it would be written.  My body aches as I am still recovering from a seven timezone jet-lag.  My heart aches as a part of it has been broken off and left two hemispheres away, yet there is joy that I cannot describe.  There is new found connection with brothers and sisters in Christ across this sphere that previously did not exist.  I struggle to recall the spices in the South African and Swaziland air that are not present in the central part of this nation.  My dreams are filled with small faces and red soil kicked up by arid winds and on those winds a song; "The Lord will bless someone today..."  This is the painful process of re-entry and frankly, it hurts. 

Last night I made my first venture out since my bride picked me up from the church where our team arrived home to meet their families on Sunday.  The surreal process of simply going to Walmart to pick up supplies for my daughter's birthday party was alien.  I felt like a man out of time as we walked through the store.  Walking behind my family down aisles stacked and laden with every conceivable good and product that we don't need, listening to my youngest children plead for every treat and confection that we came across, I felt disconnected while simultaneously feeling tremendous thanksgiving and love for the blessing that they are to me. 

Listening to them pine for candy, flavored yogurts, sweetened drinks, and candied cereals, the temptation was present to contrast them against the small ones I had just held just days previous on another continent.  I quickly dismissed this as it was a useless path to follow and I realized I was now present in another world with only pieces of the previous world residing in me.  Yet I now realize I am broken for this world, this American existence.  I cannot continue forward in this life on the path I have previously known and this bears analysis and explanation.

Guilt is not present.  There is no "children across the world don't have...." complex.  I will not impose this on my own family either.  This comparative is fruitless.  It is the comparative that we, as Americans, have hardened ourselves against when we turn the channel during the commercials pleading for our $1 a day donation to feed children in foreign lands. 

What is present is the knowledge of what it means to lay down your life for another.  I now have some reckoning of the meaning of Jesus' words "If you want to gain your life, you must first lose it".  I have seen it in action to the fullest.  I have felt the joy of it.  There is no more rich life than the life laid down for His service, for serving others, for saving others.  This is our sum-total purpose on this sphere and it brings a rich joy that cannot be reproduced in a family vacation or purchased goods, or entertainments.  It is the infusion of worth from yourself to another, a gift that somehow reciprocates to the giver as well as to the recipient.  It is life-to-life, love-to-love.  It is simply following Jesus' command found in John 15:12-13:

"This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you.  There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."

Catch that?  It's not a suggestion.  It's not a good idea.  It's not even a next step to a more fulfilled life.  It's a command for every one of us; "the same way I have loved you".  Jesus laid down everything of himself for every single one of us.  He gave of himself for us.  He sacrificed himself, put himself down, lost his life for each of us.  He looks to us to follow.  But the life we gain so far exceeds what we are laying down, the contrast is often difficult to describe.  Those who have experienced this transformation often find themselves speaking to polite smiles and pleasant head nodding as they attempt to share the fire that now burns within. 

This is the wreckage of realization that most people in our society, even within our churches simply acknowledge Jesus' words as good ideas without acknowledging Him as the Lord who is commanding obedience to follow His example.  His love, grace and mercy are abundantly present as His spirit continues to plead with us to know Him, to follow Him, to lay ourselves down for Him.  Our greatest potential and fulfillment is in Him, we were created by Him and for Him and only in Him will we ever know the fullness of joy and purpose.  Yet somehow this idea doesn't translate to most and those who do capture it are at odds with a sin laden world.

I was speaking to one of my Swaziland team-mates and we were discussing how we were ever going to be able to tell the story of Ludlati and we came to the realization that we were never going to be able to fully tell it.  That in the visiting of the care point, the holding of children, the greeting of the bomake, the rolling in the dirt with the small ones and the tears of seeing a mother next to her son's deathbed, we had within us a possession that could not be fully shared.  We each possessed it, but we could not fully give it, no matter how much we desire to.  This possession has changed us, wrecked our hearts for life.  The encouragement in all of this is that ultimately, this is God's story.  Because of the obedience to Jesus' command by others, I was able to witness and partake and God is breathing life into desolation.

But here is the great thing.  Jesus' command does not require a visit to far off nations.  I have the great gift of being able to walk out his command daily, right here in my home, in my work, in my day-to-day routine because my "routine" can be divinely appointed by God.  We saw this time and time again as God continually had us crossing paths with people to whom we were able to witness to and tell about our Known To Me and Ludlati communities and the Word.  Each of these were divine appointments whether they were the woman I sat next to on the flight who was coming back from AIDS assistance in the Bahamas or the man we stood next to in customs who was, likewise, on a mission trip to South Africa and with whom we rejoiced in God's work.  God doesn't do "routine" and if we'll open ourselves to Jesus' command, He'll provide the opportunities for us to fulfill our destinies in Him.  We'll know the richest, most joyful life imaginable. 

Today I return to the "routine".  Thankfully it promises to be anything but as I am so grateful for re-entry with a wrecked heart.