The Small Tunnel

It has been an exciting month and a half getting adjusted to life in my new place. Learning where to get my essentials, where to pay bills, and how to get there (short cuts and long).

There was one particular short cut someone taught me that, at first, didn’t seem to be worth the effort. My friend called it the “small tunnel,” and it is really small. It takes only one vehicle at a time.

Going through that tunnel was so stressful to me (I kept thinking I would lose a side mirror or worse) that I said I would never pass there again. My friend told me I just might change my mind when the traffic built up.

She was right. I have to go to that part of town quite often, because most everything can be found that side. And since there has been some construction adding on to the regular traffic, it cuts a whole lot of time and aggravation to pass through the stressful small tunnel.

Our small tunnel doesn’t really compare to the river crossings I go through on the other side of the city for ministry.  For a while, my route was pretty fixed. I passed the long way when I had to go by myself, because it brought me over the river by a bridge, and on to the site by walking down a hill. It was a difficult walk, but it was more reliable than the unpredictable river.

Crossing the bridge

During rainy season, that way gets muddy and slippery. Thankfully, some residents built a bridge of stones and bamboo, so people could pass through the river with some ease (good sense of balance required).

Recently, the waters have risen, and the current has gotten strong enough to carry the bridge away. It called for some days of crossing by a boat (with some holes that let the water in), or, if the water was calm and low enough, by foot.

So you see, my small tunnel didn’t really compare at all. At least the only variable there would be the number of vehicles passing or waiting at any given time.

It’s my first instinct, when something gets in the way of my comfort, my schedule, or the work I think I should do, to pray that that something would go away. It takes some time to realize that these obstacles, uncertainties, or trials, are exactly what I need, even more than my comfort, or my ministry,

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet various trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4

What happened to me when I passed through that tunnel, or when I had to change my route to the ministry site? Well first, I saw my anxiety. It was a blessing because it revealed something in my heart that needed to be addressed.

How better to address an issue like this than to pray? And the promise attached to prayer is that the peace of God, which passes understanding, will guard my heart and mind (Philippians 4:7)

The way this peace comes upon me, usually, is that my memories of God’s faithfulness in the past kicks into full gear. If God did THAT for me, will he not keep and protect me now?

And when the uncertainty, or trial, is past, it gives me more ammo in that memory bank of mine. I have more things to remember when I go through even more uncertainty, or trials… because, really, life will throw you curve balls, no matter how comfortable you are at the moment.

You know how, during earthquake drills, people tell you to drop, cover, and hold? Today, my note to self when I experience anxiety is: pray, remember and stand fast. Stand fast on the promises of the God who never fails.

Remind us today, O God, of your immutable character, and your wonderful works in the past, that we may stand fast through trial and come forth from it as gold.

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Beautiful Feet

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Isaiah 52:7

There is a small reef in the place where I spent a lot of my childhood south of Manila. My siblings and I used to either swim or walk to it, and explore the nooks and crannies for strange creatures. I found it was easier to walk barefoot through the rocks, so that I could feel them better, and prevent slipping. This was learned from years of experience slipping into the water and getting hurt during our adventures.

18057220_10212246512816244_8347100882979597882_nLast Saturday, as I visited a remote church plant area, I was expecting to walk over a makeshift bridge of dry rocks (and some bamboo) with my trusty less-slip sandals. But it had rained, and the bridge was now partly overflown with water. I decided to take my shoes off, especially since some of the rocks were covered in slippery moss.

I was praying that I wouldn’t fall into the river, while moving very slowly, checking every step. I didn’t fall, but my foot gripped a wobbly stone so hard that I bruised the sole of my foot. I don’t know about you, but that has never happened to me before.

It got me thinking about this verse, and how upside-down this Christian life can be. “Beautiful feet” in print or TV ads are flawless, without cracking dry skin, callouses (and bruises). But if our feet become more beautiful as we bring the good news to people who are unreached, it means they become more beautiful with more wear and tear. The most beautiful feet are the ones that have traveled the farthest, through the roughest roads, for the sake of the gospel.

Yet oh, how I love my comforts, my “softening things,” as Amy Carmichael once wrote.

I would shy away from these rough places but by the grace of God. Those hard places are where some of the Lord’s beloveds dwell. Since it is the Lord’s love that compels us to follow Him, we follow Him to those hard places. We are beggars showing our own kind the way to true treasure. I haven’t even scratched the surface of “hard” in my life,

From prayer that asks that I may be
Sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fearing when I should aspire,
From faltering when I should climb higher
From silken self, O Captain, free
Thy soldier who would follow Thee.

From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
(Not thus are spirits fortified,
Not this way went the Crucified)
From all that dims Thy Calvary
O Lamb of God, deliver me.

Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay
The hope no disappointments tire,
The passion that will burn like fire;
Let me not sink to be a clod;
Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.

—Amy Wilson Carmichael

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Heart Surgery

Green peas will never look the same again. That’s what they looked like, the stones that came out of and with my swollen and infected gall bladder on the day of operation.

Funny how those few words could probably never mean the same to you as they do to me. Like everything God uses to speak to us and sanctify us, it is deeply personal.

I’m sitting in bed, in a bit of pain after surgery. For this and other reasons I can’t put into writing, I feel that God has set me aside. I feel like he has closed everything to me except Himself, which, of course is a good thing, even though it doesn’t feel like it at the moment.

For the past few months, I’ve been asking God for direction, laying before him open doors and opportunities—good ones, to my own limited understanding. I declared my trust in him and my willingness to wait. I waited, even when he slowly said “no” one by one to the open doors, even when people kept asking, “What next?” It’s a normal question, but potentially stressful when you’re the one waiting and you haven’t received your answer.

A few hours before surgery, I prayed, “If You would take my life on that operating table, Lord, all would be well. I am ready.” Apparently, God didn’t want to take me home, he wanted me to continue living this life to his glory.

Here was my answer:

1 Cor. 6:19-20 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

Acts 20:24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

Along with that surgery, I needed heart surgery, a change of heart that only God can give. After the doctors explained how close I was to suffering great pain or death, I understood. I have work to do, and I must take better care of this borrowed vessel if I am to do it well. All the working out, and the attempts to eat well, they were never for vanity. They are only truly to allow me to finish well the task God has put before me.

With my track record this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible. Trusting God today for all that I need for the next step. And that next step will come in his time, for his glory (just in case you were tempted to ask).

Let both physical and spiritual surgeries have their desired effect on me, O Lord.

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Luke 1:38

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Help My Unbelief

But as I  told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. John 6:36

It wasn’t an ordinary night. I had  to stay with a friend while my (spiritual) parents left the country. While gone, they left their vehicle with us, but because it was a rush to the airport that night, the car was left just outside the garage.

I tried to remind them to leave the key, but we all forgot. Thankfully, there was a spare somewhere accessible to us. I took it and moved the vehicle into the garage. Then I realized I had left the window open. When I tried to turn the key in the ignition to close it, the key wouldn’t turn. Great, I thought, I broke the key! Or maybe the car!

The next day, I tried again and was able to get the window up. But then, the car wouldn’t start. I prayed, and my friend tried to do some things that could have helped the car start. Nothing.

I told my parents what to expect when they came home, and we made plans just to call Triple A to get the car moved if needed.

When they came home and I told them all the details, a light bulb seemed to turn on in both their faces. “It’s the spare,” they said.

Apparently that key wasn’t really an original that came with the car. Technically, there was only a MINISCULE chance that it would even start the car!

When we finally got the original key, the car started on the second try–and it has been driving well since then. It was the KEY, not the car.

As I pondered this, I excitedly told Mom, “God just allowed me to turn on that engine to get the car into the garage!” He made it work that one time to make it do what was necessary, even if it normally COULDN’T do it.

And really, I didn’t need to worry, because He knew it all.

Why, oh why, do I fall so easily into doubt, when I HAVE SEEN HIM? I have seen him do the impossible in me and through me, as well as around me. I have seen Him accomplish His purposes regardless of the odds. I have seen him not just in my life, but in the lives of others as well.

Why do I insist on trying MY methods with MY tools, when I know they are only as useful as that spare key?

Making a spare key work? That’s really nothing to God. If He can make that spare key work, don’t you think He has other things, big or small, under His control?

How many things in my life am I not seeing right now that God is accomplishing without my help? How many things is He preparing while I wait, clueless? Everything that He wants to, my soul, and all that He wants is for my good and for His glory.

Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD. Psalm 27:14

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Traveling has always been fun for me, because I love the stress of it. My love of turbulence began when my brother took me and my mother up on a four-seater plane over Amsterdam. He did dips and turns to make our stomachs leap into our hearts. And I was kind of addicted.

The excitement over catching connecting flights began in that same year, when my mother and I misread the gate in which we were to board. We were tarrying at the wrong gate, and had to sprint to the correct one, which, at the time, seemed to be at the other end of Schipol airport.

This year, I made a significant trip that turned the page on the latest chapter of life. I left the school I had helped re-open and establish, to begin a furlough in which I will seek direction for the next mission field.

There was one particular leg of the journey that caused much anxiety: I was flying into Chicago where I needed to claim my baggage, pass customs and immigration, and re-check my baggage before boarding. And I had two hours and five minutes to do it.

Now, if you are a non-American, you know how LONG those lines at immigration can be. Many times it’s a serpentine stretch of humanity with crying babies, cranky travelers and anxious first-time arrivals. It’s fun to watch, but extremely stressful to go through when you have minutes to board your flight.

Our departure from Brussels was delayed by thirty minutes. Now I had only 1.5 hours to do all that I needed to do. I started fretting. Then I prayed. “I TRUST You, Lord. You have done so many wonderful things in my life (insert memories of God’s providences here). I KNOW I’m going to get to my destination, but I cannot control any of these external circumstances. What I can and must do is trust You. So I do. And I will. I decide, by Your grace, that I will just rest on Your sovereignty. Amen.”

First answer to prayer: My heart is now at rest for the remainder of the eight hour flight.

Second answer to prayer: The pilot recovers the 30 minutes we lost at Brussels.

Third answer: My baggage comes out among the first (thanks, United!)

Fourth answer to prayer: I meet a new friend who is Rwandese–he’s on his way back from vacation in Rwanda and we talk about things that distract us from our rush.

Fifth answer to prayer: The immigration section is close to empty at this time of day! I cannot even believe my eyes. Thank You, Lord!

Sixth answer to prayer: I am sent to one lane in which a man delays me because “I’m still talking to this officer.” I pray again. “I trust YOU, Lord, and this man cannot steal my joy.” So another immigration officer (a much kinder looking one) calls me over. He delays, too, but stamps the usual six months on my passport.

Seventh answer (this is actually the TEST of whether I would really trust God): I get pulled in to be patted down at the security check, and for some reason, the machine beeps when the lady tests my hands. She sends me over to a discreet room to be searched again. There is no nervousness in one who has nothing to hide, and there is no fear in someone who trusts. And so I decide to tell them afterwards, “Thank you for keeping us safe.”

And finally: I am through, and I have enough time to get some coffee (and drink it!) before my flight.

Thank You, Lord, those who put their hope in you shall never be put to shame.

Decide to trust in the Lord NOW. You are not able, so pray, “Lord, give me grace to trust You right now. I am anxious, but I want to rest in You. I remember all your mighty works. If You have done those things, can You not do for me now, according to Your will? Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Nothing is too difficult for Thee.

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He Will Guard, I Will Obey

I was singing, as I often do, while coming down the stairs. She looked at me and said, “Oh, Anna, are you happy?”

I answered tentatively, “Yes?” Wondering what prompted that question.

“Is it so easy for you to leave us? Are you happy to leave us?” I was surprised at the seeming hurt in her voice. I was in Kampala, and this was not one of the women I work closely with.

I don’t even remember how I responded. At first, I was simply confused, then I was mortified for my lack of sensitivity. Those words kept ringing in my ears throughout the next couple of days. In my heart was a mixture of hurt, indignation, a desire to defend myself, a desire to prove how much I have given up for the love of God, his people and his work.

In other words, I was struggling with an injured pride.

I didn’t realize it, but I had been carrying this in my heart for some time. Most of the time, when I say goodbye to different people, I am asked the same question, “So, you want to leave us now?” To some who are closer to me, it includes the unspoken words, “Don’t you care anymore?”

I do care. And I do love as Christ has put it in my heart to love. It is tearing my heart apart, but this is not about me. I must go because this is how I understand God is leading me at the moment. No matter how I try to explain it, some will still misunderstand. My pride says I should keep trying.

“O Lord, deliver me from this lust of always vindicating myself,” prayed Saint Augustine.

Whatever happens, I must point people back to Christ, reminding them that He loves them more than I ever could.

I AM happy to leave, but that doesn’t mean I am not also heartbroken in doing it. I AM happy to leave because I know it is God’s will for me. I SHOULD be happy to go because “I delight to do Your will, Oh my God” (Psalm 40:8). I delight BECAUSE it is your will.

In the end, I will have served best when I have served God first. Perhaps, when they come to a point where they have to make the hard decision, they will remember this time, and also choose to follow Christ. With joy. Even when it hurts them, or the ones they love. The hurt will be temporary, but the spiritual growth will be worth it.

For now, we say with Paul, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day” (2 Tim. 1:12). As I simply obeyed when I came here, I am simply obeying with joy as I leave. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

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Delighted to Decrease

“As you wish,” is one of the most memorable lines in The Princess Bride. The narration goes,

Nothing gave Buttercup as much pleasure as ordering Westley around… ‘As you wish’ was all he ever said to her…

She was amazed to discover that when he was saying ‘As you wish,’ what he meant was, ‘I love you.’

Actions speak louder than words, as they say, and it is the same with our love and devotion to God.

In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3).

In other words, because we love God, we say, “As you wish,” to all his commands.

John the Baptist had a very specific, but brief and transitory ministry. He was to prepare the way for the Messiah. He knew that and took it to heart. When Jesus came, he spoke these well-known words, “He must increase, (and) I must decrease (John 3:30).”

When John was imprisoned, he sent men to ask Jesus, “Are you the One…?” Jesus sent word back, “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of me (Matthew 11:5-6).”

Apparently those last words were all John needed to hear. He would count himself blessed because he would not be offended in whatever circumstances he faced in the course of his ministry: whether it would be longer imprisonment or death. He should not be offended because in his suffering or death, God’s purpose for his life was being accomplished, and God would be glorified in it.

As you wish, Lord.

Jesus knew that he, too, would have to face death. And when he did, he also surrendered his will to his Father, “Not my will, but Yours be done (Luke 22:42).”

As you wish, Father.

Jesus knew that his death was necessary, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat fall to the earth and die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).” That is the Saviour with whom we identify. That is the Saviour we follow.

When God gives us a ministry, we say, “As you wish.”

When he chooses to give us another assignment, we repeat, “As you wish.”

When he says it is to end, whether by illness, persecution or death, we say again, “As you wish.”

In our hearts, we are actually saying, “I love you because you loved me first.”

May we be delighted to decrease, as God increases in our ministry and life. May we choose to be that grain of wheat. May we desire, like Paul, that “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:20-21).”

As you wish, Oh Lord.

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No Matter the Cost for the Greatest Cause

I love action films. I love the ones where the cause is great and the odds are stacked against the good guys, but the good guys still win. I love the chases, the excitement, and the rush of adrenalin.

Many times, missions is not like that—but then again, it is. Missions is just living your normal, everyday Christian life in another context—a more challenging context.

For example, buying groceries is a very normal chore. But add: a foreign language, unfamiliar streets, different driving etiquette, confusing currencies, unavailability of familiar brands—and what do you have? A recipe for stress just to buy food supplies.

And then there is a lot more to deal with that doesn’t go into newsletters—having to deal with corruption and bureaucratic red tape just to get your work permit or driver’s license, dealing with cultural nuances that you just can’t explain to people who have never been to this country, learning to talk to the local official who is drunk about 80% of the time, and so forth. Those are just some of the things we don’t write about (some things I am even reluctant to write on this blog, obvi).

Once in a while, though, you will experience something shaking, something huge enough to make you question yourself. Those are the least likely to go into newsletters, except perhaps as an “unspoken prayer.”

I’ve been posting about a fellow missionary on my Facebook timeline for some weeks now. He was removed from life support and is most likely waiting to go home to his Creator in a matter of days (You can read more about him here). The last time I spoke to him, he was joking around as usual. I heard him preach on a passage on Matthew 5. Nothing seemed off. I never knew that would be the last time I spoke to him.

When they told me that he had gotten brain damage while staying in the hospital, I cried like he was my own family, because he is.

And then yesterday happened.

It was the day after a failed rescue attempt for a prisoner in the local police station. There had been a gunfight. The next day, everything seemed normal. Until it wasn’t.

While we were at school, we heard gunshots. We tried to take a roundabout way home, but heard more gunshots on the way, very close to where we were passing at the moment. The only words that came to my lips were, “Dear Lord, please help us!” Then I just tried to drive us home as quickly as possible. We are safe, as safe as God wants us to be at the moment.

Safety is not why we came here. Safety is not why we chose to serve in Gulu. When we signed up as missionaries, being willing to die for this was part of counting the cost. We are missionaries because we want to declare the excellencies of God in places where his Name is not yet known. Many times those places will be difficult. Otherwise, more people would have already gone there.

Signing up for missions is signing up to be a soldier for a country at war. You understand that it may come down to losing your life. You submit to your Commanding Officer.

Whether God sees fit to use your family’s testimony while you lay brain dead in palliative care, or he miraculously raises you back to perfect health; whether he chooses to show his protection over you while bullets are fired in the air, or lets a stray projectile take your life; whether he asks you to serve as a pastor until the age of one hundred, or ends your mission while you are in your twenties—you say, “Thy will be done.”

That is because we live for the greatest cause anyone could ever have, our enemy is fierce, and the odds are stacked against us, but we already know the victorious end. We know there is a real happy ever after.

Press on in the grace of God!

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I am in the process of booking my ticket for home assignment. Prior to this, the plan had no shape. It was simply an idea in my head. Now that I am considering actual dates, it feels like plans are solidifying; becoming more real, if you will.

This morning, as I looked at my travel itinerary and was trying to arrange payment for my ticket, I suddenly felt a little leap in my heart. I thought about the people I would see and the places I would go, and of course, the food I would eat. I counted the days: 88 to go (as of yesterday).

Usually, I don’t allow myself the luxury of thinking about people, places and food I miss because when I do, it’s torture. It doesn’t help fortify my soul, either. Rather, it has the potential of distracting me or worse, causing me to complain. So I keep bringing myself into the present and forcing myself to focus on the task at hand.

For a few minutes, while looking at my itinerary, though, it was a blessing to think of what lay ahead. It was something wonderful to look forward to. In only 88 days, I could find a respite.

You see, God gives grace for this life. It’s a difficult place to live in, Gulu is. Not everyone who has come has found it the easiest place to adjust to. But I believe that if God calls you somewhere, he will give grace for thankfulness and even joy in the midst of the difficulties.

This place has become my home. Here, I learned to live without electricity (most importantly, how to live without a refrigerator or iron), how to conserve my solar battery power, how to save, stock and carry water from the borehole, and so many other day-to-day things. These all have the potential of stealing one’s joy, of making one impatient under the hand of the sovereign God.

But now I can think that in 87 days, Lord willing, I will be in a cooler place (colder, is more like it), I will have electricity, and consistent running water, and a refrigerator (not to mention good food to put in it). Thinking about it this way doesn’t steal my joy. It actually brings a spring to my step and an eagerness to finish the work God has in store.

I’m looking forward to something. I can endure these hardships for 87 more days! I can say yes, if God asks me, while I am on home assignment, to return to Gulu. I will have been refreshed by my time at home.

That makes me think of looking for the city with sure foundations. When I think of heaven, I will be able to endure, because this is not forever. Soon enough, I will be there, where there is no more weeping, no more sorrow, no more sickness, and no more night.

God has been so gracious to let us know how it all ends (spoilers: every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord), so that we can look forward with anticipation to a joyful reunion with him and our loved ones in Christ who have gone ahead.

What rejoicing awaits those who have endured hardship for His name! What joy there will be for those who endured sorrow in this life. What comfort there will be for those who have suffered loss. What honor there will be for people who were rejected for the sake of Christ’s name. What everlasting rest there will be for those who toiled and labored for his kingdom.

Oh, heaven! It’s something that brings much more excitement to our hearts than any earthly homecoming can bring! Oh, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight!

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Shadows of His Love

Fairy tales and television series will never survive without a love interest of some sort. Whether the genre be drama, action or comedy, there will always be that couple that people are rooting for. And not only are we giving these couples nicknames (by merging their names), but we are also “shipping” them. As in “worshipping;” as in adoring them and their love story.

I got to thinking today, as I was looking at photos from our last week of school. I felt a wave of something incomprehensible in my heart. I knew it was love. But I was staring at a whole bunch of people, not a handsome man whom I could “call my own.”

I knew my heart would break for any one of these teachers, aides, staff or pupils if anything happened to them. I knew my heart will break at an inevitable goodbye. I knew that all that I did in obedience to God knit my heart to theirs.

I read somewhere that every foster child deserves a foster parent whose heart will break when they have to leave. My heart will definitely break when I have to leave. Love hurts. It hurts because we give a piece of ourselves every time we love. And when we love many, the heart is shredded into tiny little pieces with parting.

But God.

Look at his love. He so loved the world that he gave his only Son. He gave his Son to those who would mock him, spit on him, beat him, reject him. He gave his Son for his church. His church that still sins against this great love.

That is love. Any love we experience here will only be a faded shadow of that true love.
May God give us a heart to love like Him. Amen.

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