Sustainable Gratitude

Sierra Leone in February, Mexico in March. Phew! To any of you who travel regularly for your job or even for fun, I applaud you. It’s valuable, but hard. I enjoy travel, but love home. So I’m thankful to be here, typing away at my own desk in my own bedroom.

After two missions trips in the last two months, I’ve heard a common comment from my fellow travelers. It came from my own mouth, too, after my very first mission trip in High School. By ‘it,’ I refer to this often repeated sentiment: Seeing how little they have makes me so thankful for what I have! Or some variation on the same tune. You’ve probably heard it or said it too.

But, for a few years now, this sentiment has bothered me. In processing my recent missions trips, a couple reasons for my unsettled feeling about this common response are becoming clear.

The first component of this response that bothers me is that it is based on comparison. But, should comparison be our source of gratitude OR dissatisfaction? Comparison is an unhealthy standard by which to perceive and approach the world around us. God doesn’t recommend we look around and itemize our possessions and other’s possessions and then, when we’ve found someone who has less than us, then and only then, give thanks. He tells us to look up to Him, the Giver of every good thing, and give Him thanks and honor and glory and praise!

That’s not to say that recognizing how much we, as Americans, truly have and enjoy is a negative thing. We MUST remember that we are in the extreme minority. We cannot become so accustomed to our ease of infrastructure and access to necessities that we lose sight of the blessing they truly are. We need to pursue a more complete perspective of the world around us so that we don’t take for granted what we experience.

I love that my youngest child, on our drive back from Mexico, kept asking me if it was OK to flush the toilet paper, or brush his teeth using the sink water. As a five year old, his eyes are being opened. Experiencing a different culture is a tangible and memorable way to remind him of the blessings of ease and comfort God has given us, even though we are undeserving.

So I guess what I am saying it this: comparison CAN lead to gratitude, but it cannot be our only complete source of gratitude. It is a shallow foundation upon which to build a life of thanksgiving.

“In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

1 Thessalonians 5:18

If comparison is our guide, what do we do with verses like, “in everything give thanks”? When trial or poverty come, is the answer to look around for others whom we determine to ‘have it worse’ than we do? It begins to sound a lot like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 who thanked God that he was so much better off than the tax collector. It is a slippery (and prideful) slope to bolster ourselves upon the debasement of another.

Another frustration I have with this over-simplified sentiment is WHAT is being compared. Riches, possessions, ease, comfort. Perhaps such evaluations reveal an idol in our hearts. Aren’t there vastly more important things to be thankful for? Aren’t all believers, regardless of income and possessions, abundantly rich with every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3)?! All things pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter1:3)?! My sisters, and fellow pastor’s wives from other countries, Coni from Mexico and Rachel from Sierra Leone, are equally as rich as I am. We are equally as rich because of our shared inheritance in our Savior! Praise and Thanks to God!

My sister in Christ and fellow pastor’s wife, Coni, in Tabasco, Mexico
More sisters in Christ! From Left to Right: Nancy, Samuela, Amy, Zainab, Esther, Regina, Rachel, Deborah, Florence, and Me. Most of us are also pastor’s wives, working together for God’s Kingdom.

“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.”

Ephesians 1:18-19

The command to give thanks in everything is universal. It is given to the family living in the dump in Mexico and to the Wall Street mogul earning $2000 dollars a day. It is given to the mother in Sierra Leone who has been abandoned by her husband because of her faith in Jesus, as well as to the middle-class, stay-at-home mom, typing out these words you read. Our thanks can, yes, arise from physical circumstance. But, this source is not sustainable. Our thanks must arise, in even greater degree, from spiritual reality. Money creates a false dichotomy that Jesus has abolished. Haves and Have-Not’s can all be rich in Christ!

If this isn’t a firm foundation upon which to build our gratitude, I don’t know what is. We must lift our eyes to greater reality, to God’s reality! We must Aim at Heaven.

“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”

James 1:17

If you’ve never had the privilege of going on a short term mission trip, I strongly encourage you to bump it up to a higher spot on your list of priorities. You will be challenged. You will grow. You will be changed. It is awesome, in the literal sense of the word, to be a witness of God’s diversity and creativity among people as well as His undeniable involvement in the hearts of people all over the world. When you go, I pray that gratitude will be one of the outcomes of your experience. Gratitude for your tangible blessings, yes. But more importantly, a deeper gratitude for all God has done, is doing, and will do in you and the whole world.

God brandished His rich beauty through this glorious Mexican sunset!

Questioning My Answers

Do you ever end up in the same place you’ve been a hundred times? You kick yourself because you feel like you should have learned? You condemn yourself because you shouldn’t be here yet again?

Me too.

For me, that place is a place of uncertainty, indecision, anxiety and fear. I want to figure life out, for God to give me a detailed blueprint of His specific plans for me. I want a formula. But all He wants from me is faith. Why is faith so hard?

Walking with the Lord isn’t about believing once and calling it good. It’s initial belief and continued day by day, moment by moment belief. And, well, I hate how terrible I still am at this faith walk.

About two years ago I was in that same familiar place of anxiety and uncertainty, draped over the side of my bed, calling out to the Lord for even a speck of direction, an ounce of certainty. I felt lost. I felt abandoned.

It was in that moment that God answered me in an unexpected way. The Holy Spirit stirred in my soul and implanted these words in my mind: Fast from all input but Me.

This may sound odd to you, but I knew exactly what He meant. You see, I am an information hoarder. Some people collect coins, or figurines, or antiques. My collection is less tangible. I love to collect ideas. I get a thrill from learning something new and enlightening. With that also comes the propensity to stray from what is True to what is mentally tantalizing. I get curious about what experts have to say about topics I’m interested in. I begin to look for advice and wisdom from people rather than God.

So when the Lord gave me the gift of these words – fast from all input except Me – I knew He wasn’t answering my questions, He was instead questioning my answers. It was as if He was saying, “You want direction? Then you need to start looking my direction. Stop looking around; look up.”

From this challenge and conviction came a personal practice that continues to transform my mind and heart. It is the peace amidst my anxiety, the rest against my striving, the clarity in the cloud of uncertainty.

I call this practice my Input Fast. Once a week, I commit to saying NO to all input (think TV, social media, books, etc…) and say YES only to input from the Lord (Scripture, prayer, time with His people). It has been more of a challenge than I’d like to admit to say NO to the input of the world. BUT, through this practice I have tasted a joy and peace that I wouldn’t trade for a million likes on Instagram. I’ve experienced a fullness that comes only from the Bread of Life. I almost crave my Input Fast days now.

Practicing my Input Fast has been such a life-giving endeavor for me that I want to share it with you. I know many of you feel that anxiety or uncertainty that I struggle with. I wish I could wave a wand and take it all away for us all. But that wouldn’t allow for growth. It wouldn’t allow for an ever deepening faith. So, I want to offer you something else instead.

I have created an Input Fast Guide that I am excited to share with you! I want to offer you a taste of what has been changing my life. In this guide you will find:

~ A brief overview of what Scripture has to say about fasting

~ A preparatory worksheet

~ A four week reflection and contemplation guide

For those of you who might still be vacillating about if and what to give up for the Lent season this year, give the Input Fast a try! If Lent isn’t part of your tradition, give the Input Fast a try! This is for anyone longing to connect more intimately with the Lord and experience His peace more fully. Who knows? After four weeks, you may decide to make it a year round practice like I have. Whatever you decide, I pray the Lord will bless your commitment to draw nearer to Him.

To receive your free printable Input Fast Guide, click HERE.

I wait expectantly to hear how God uses this practice in your life to grow your faith, bring you peace, and provide clarity of mind.

“Like stillness, fasting reveals to us how much time and thought is taken up by transitory matters. Fasting can involve much more that food. We can fast from television, radio, movies, or certain types of food, desserts, meats, and the like … To make sure these things aren’t controlling us, we may need to give them up for a short period of time.”

Gary Thomas

Moonlit Sierra Leone

How Was It?

As jet-lag is leaving my body, my mental faculties are beginning to awaken once again. And I need all my faculties right now.

Processing two weeks of life in a place like Sierra Leone requires it.

Since many of you faithfully supported our team in your prayers, I want to be sure to share our trip with you in a timely manner. I have some thoughts and ideas percolating, but not well enough thought through to publish. So, for now, I want to share with you a brief overview of our daily activities in Sierra Leone.

Come along with me!

We landed in Freetown at about 7PM on Tuesday, February 12th. The red African sun set quickly after that. Here we are being helped by some men to load our luggage into and onto our ride. It was a tight fit, and Cyrus hung out the window at one point during our drive to fix a loose strap. We arrived safely, about three hours car drive later, at the Campenero Hotel in the city of Waterloo – our  accommodation for two nights. 

The next day, we were able to wake and breakfast at a leisurely pace. Then, it was off to the sight of our church’s (Willamette Community Church) sponsored water well. The process was in it’s beginning stages and the guys in our group even got to help dig! We went from there to lunch and from lunch to Grace Village Orphanage where we had time to chat with the Sheriff’s (missionaries in Sierra Leone) and meet some of the children. It was back to the Campenero for dinner and a fairly restful night’s sleep.

Thursday, the 14th, was the day I began to become more intimately acquainted with Sierra Leone. Many hours on ‘bumpy roads’ (this is an understatement) provided ample time for conversing with our driver, JB, and accompanying pastor, Ben Margai. We made our way to Moyamba, but stopped first in Mile 91, a bustling, dry and dusty, primarily Muslim community, and met Pastor Francis and his wife, Marion. We were able to bring the good news of our church sponsoring a new well to be installed on their property. This well is a crucial need to the area as Muslims who have access to water are not often willing to share. Pastor Francis hopes a community well on his property will be a testimony of God’s love for all.

After this stop, we arrived in Moyamba and got settled in our accommodations. I met Pastor Patrick Coker for the first time and his sweet daughter, Mary. The other team members gave me a run through of toilet and bathing protocol. We ate a relatively late and, for me, an uncomfortably spicy dinner of rice and sauce with some meat. All of this occurred under the watchful gaze of dozens of curious children and adolescents peering in through windows and doors.

Friday began with a walk down to the river and the baptism of a local young woman. Next, we loaded up in our vehicle for another long and even bumpier ride to a village by the name of Gondama. This was probably the most ‘National Geographic’ location we visited during our stay. It was such a remote little village of maybe 200 -300 people that the road to get there was only wide enough for a motorcycle. When we arrived we met the chief and then helped put on an impromptu church service in the school/church building. After the service, they fed us what was probably my favorite meal of the trip – yams with a lightly fried fish and delicious, non-spicy, sauce.

The rest of our day was spent back in Moyamba at Willamette International School’s inaugural Sport Meet. We would call it a track meet here in the states. But they include some extra events like tug-of-war and musical chairs. It was incredible to watch the talent of the students. Almost all of them ran in socks. I think I saw maybe one or two pairs of spikes, but that was it. They were grouped into Houses for competition. Cyrus and I supported the Yellow House.

There were too many events to complete the Meet in one day, so things came to a pause close to sunset. 

The following day, Saturday, we spent the morning with the children that Pastor Patrick has taken under his wing – vulnerable children in the community. These are children our church congregation is devoted to praying for.

That afternoon it was once again time for the Sport Meet. A few of the events later in the day were open to the community. This drew a massive crowd. My guess is that there were probably 500 -600 people completely encircling the track. The energy was palpable. We returned to our house after the meet was over for another spicy dinner. 

Sunday was a day I had been looking forward to. I was excited to experience the worship service of another culture. I was not disappointed. The music was like nothing I’ve ever heard before. Simple in instrumentation, yet so full. It was here I first felt what I call the pulse of Africa – the strong, almost enchanting rhythm of its music. Video doesn’t do it justice because video only allows you to hear the music. When your’e in the midst of it you can actually feel it vibrating through your whole being. After the music, Cyrus preached a message on the importance of preaching the gospel to ourselves.

When church was over, we had our final meal in Moyamba and prepared for the long and bumpy ride back to the Companero in Waterloo.

Monday, the 18th, began phase two of our trip to Sierra Leone. Cyrus began his week long course on the Gospels at Grace Bible Institute. I began the first of two days meeting with and teaching pastor’s wives (and wives to be).

I covered topics such as loving God and loving others, the three enemies of believer and how to respond to them, and what to do with suffering. This was by far the most uncomfortable teaching I have ever done. Between the oppressive heat and humidity, the lack of knowing my audience, some of the women’s lack of literacy and Biblical understanding, and the cultural differences; all of these made for what should have been a disaster, yet for what turned out to be a show of God’s work and not my own. On a fun note, Amy and I taught the ladies the sign for I Love You 🙂

I suppose that sums up Tuesday as well, so I’ll move on to Wednesday.

Cyrus continued his class on Wednesday, while the rest of our team (Chris, Amy, and I) headed toward Freetown with Ben Margai for a Worship Leaders seminar. A few dozen worship team leaders and participants gathered to hear from Chris (our church’s worship director). Following his message, several of the attendees performed some of their music for the entire group. It was a pleasure to observe this group of people and to enjoy their gifting.

Wednesday evening we braved the outdoor Waterloo market with Emily, one of the missionaries hosting us in Waterloo. We bought fabric for matching team clothes and followed Emily down the cramped and noisy food aisle/road while she picked up a few things she needed. It was so crowded and required such attention to move through that I didn’t have as much opportunity to observe the vendors or diverse food offerings as I had hoped.

On Thursday morning, Amy and I went back to the Grace Village Orphanage with another missionary, Rachel. We did crafts, and read books, and sang songs with the children who weren’t in school at the time. Later in the afternoon, Amy and I worked on a project sorting clothes for these rapidly growing children!

Friday was test day for all the Bible Institute students and our whole team pitched in to help Cyrus grade exams. After lunch and a little time back at our lodgings, our trip came full circle. We went with Peter Sheriff, Emily’s husband, back to the sight of the new well. It was finished. Chris, Cyrus, and Peter spoke to the community about the Living Water only found in Christ, the lock on the well pump was removed, and clean water began to flow!

Saturday was a leisurely day spent partly at the beach and partly packing up to head home. At times the beauty of the beach caused me to forget that I was actually in one of the poorest countries in the world. Money cannot buy beauty that comes from God alone.

Sunday we went to church with Peter and Emily in Waterloo, had lunch, and then hit the road for the airport. All our hearts were longing for home by this point. From the time we left Waterloo until we arrived back in Albany, nearly 43 hours elapsed. It was a long journey home from which I am still recovering. 

I hope this gives you a small glimpse into our trip. There are feelings and experiences I still can’t quite put words to, but I hope to get there soon. Until then, if you have any questions, please ask! I don’t know what everyone would like to know, so let me know. That was a fun sentence 🙂

Thank you once again for all your prayers and support! 

Call Me Jonah

Many people have asked me, over the last couple weeks, how I’m feeling about this trip to Sierra Leone. Excited? Yes. Nervous? Yes.

But feelings are something I’m not so great at, so those two options seem only partially true. I have a hard time answering the ‘how are you feeling’ question in normal situations. And in this abnormal one? Sheesh! I have almost no idea where to begin to discern all the emotions welling up inside. Sadness when my kids cry as they say goodbye. Fear when I consider how little control I have over all that is to come. Angst when I contemplate the fact that safety and ease are not promised by God – in fact He often uses trials to bring about our growth and His good. Anticipation for all the new sights and sounds and smells. Curiosity about a drastically different culture. Uncertainty regarding who and what and how I will be teaching next week.

I’m sure there are more feelings in there that I have yet to realize.

But last night I discerned, in the midst of all these feelings, there hides an underlying thread of reluctance. Maybe even resistance. I know it’s God’s desire for me to go, He’s made it abundantly clear. But a lot of me still doesn’t want to go.

Call me Jonah.

Maybe not quite like Jonah, because I have no animosity toward the people we go to see. But there are so many compelling reasons for me to stay. Kids, home, ministry, safety, comfort.

But God says go.

God sent a giant fish to course correct Jonah. God is sending me in ‘Air-Whale.’

Obedience is complicated. Ideally, I would always obey with enjoy and enthusiasm. Ideally, My kids would too. 😉

But my reluctant, self-motivated heart sometimes holds too much sway.

And it begins to become too much about me.

Jonah, it wasn’t about you and your comfort and your desires. It was and still is about God and His glory and His Loving-kindness.

It’s not about me; this trip, this life. It is and always will be about God and His Glory and His Loving-kindness.

As my feet obey, Lord, gather up my heart to joyful participation.

Hope to check in here again sometime soon!

Blessings

Our UNword for 2019

It’s partly the expression of my inner rebel; partly the rewards reaped from such an endeavor. This thing Cyrus and I did last year, having an UNword – a word we were diligent to delete from our vocabulary – well, we’ve found it to be a positive, beneficial, forward moving practice for us each individually and as a family.

Our UNword for 2018 was the word busy. I lost count of how many times I was on the brink of using the word in everyday conversation and had to bite my tongue. Not for the sake of an arbitrary challenge, but in an effort to think more precisely, better understand the motives of my heart, and to communicate more clearly. If you’d like to read more about how we decided on the word busy, click here.

We will continue to be careful in our use of the word busy. And since we valued this challenge so much, we’re at it again for 2019!

So, drumroll please, our UNword for this new year is the word bad.

Yep. Bad.

This short little adjective, we’ve come to recognize, can do a lot of harm to our thought processes, our perspectives, our attitudes, and our relationships.

Our kids are quick to label foods they don’t care for as bad.

We call circumstances bad and color the whole day bad because of a few moments.

We judge others as bad, attempting to remove their speck before we remove our log.

We name ourselves bad, in direct opposition to the names God has given us.

This word, bad, is a dangerous word because it covers a multitude of issues with one vague, imprecise, gray colored brush stroke.

Using the word bad doesn’t help us to get to the real problem, and therefore it prevents us from getting to the real solution!

If I am having a bad day, what else is there to do besides wallow in my circumstances and seek some sort of temporary relief? But what if, instead, I more precisely declare: “Today I was hurt by someone’s untrue and harsh words towards me.” I can do something with that! I can seek restoration in the relationship, or I can pray for that person, or I can bolster myself by renewing my mind with what I know IS true according to our Heavenly Father. Calling a day bad will never bring me to this place.

Bad can be an adjective that leads us to cowardice, apathy, and having an unhealthy victim mentality. It doesn’t acknowledge responsibility. If it’s that thing or person or situation outside of me that is bad, then certainly I have no responsibility toward it.

When I use the word bad, it tends to reveal a heart that elevates myself above the Living God as judge and determiner of value. I see pain as bad, while all along God is using it for my good! Some of my kids view a bedtime as bad, but it is ultimately for their benefit! Throwing around this label of bad onto things and people, skews my perspective and can harm my desire to Aim at Heaven.

I believe that a healthy and God honoring perspective seeks to be honest and to bring all things into the Light. I can do that by being specific rather than vague. Instead of calling things bad:

I will call sin, sin.

I will call hurt, hurt.

I will call pain, pain.

I will call conviction, conviction.

I will call sorrow, sorrow.

I will call injustice, injustice.

I will seek to call all things by their true name so that the truth of God may minister precisely and effectively in my life. I will seek to do the same in the lives of those He has placed before me to minister to. To Him be the glory!

These are a few of the reasons Cyrus and I are choosing to UNword bad for 2019. Truth be told, I’ve already said it a number of times accidentally. This is going to be a much harder word to remove than busy! But, we look forward to how this practice will refine, challenge and teach us this year.

Do you think this is a practice from which you could benefit? We invite you to join us in UNwording bad. Perhaps this has sparked an idea for a different UNword for your year. Ask someone to join you and give it a try! Let me know if you do, and what your UNword is for 2019 if it’s not bad. I’d love to hear from you so that we can encourage one another in this goal!