But Even If He Does Not

I had a record scratch moment today, one of those pauses in time when my jaw drops, my head whips back for a double take, and the record playing in my mind comes to a needle-screeching halt along with everything around me.

Believe it or not, it happened while I was reading the Bible.

Can I let you in on a little secret? Those moments don’t happen often for me, certainly not as frequently as I’d like, most likely because I don’t read the Bible as often as I intend to. Maybe those moments don’t happen to you that often either. Maybe your Bible is a bit dusty or maybe you don’t even read the Bible. Would you hang here with me for a few minutes anyway?

So there I was poking around in Daniel, poking around half-heartedly because I’ve read Daniel a ton of times. I know the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, I know the story of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and his giant gold statue that he wanted everyone to bow down to, or else be thrown into a furnace of fire. I know this story, I can even recall the felt figures of the characters stuck on the black Sunday School felt board, while I listened and chewed mouthfuls of graham crackers and tried to figure out just who the hell this king was, thinking he could make everyone bow down to his statue.

In case you weren’t indoctrinated with graham crackers and felt board Bible stories, the basic story is this. King Nebuchadnezzar is power-hungry and wants everyone to worship his gods and bow down to this particular hulking gold image he’s had made. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse because they’re Jews who love God. They’re summoned before the king who succinctly orders them to bow down and worship the statue.

We pick up the story in Daniel 3:16.

16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and He will deliver us from your majesty’s hand. 18 But even if He does not, we want you to know, your majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Did you catch that? They recognize God’s ability to save them from flames, but the record scratch moment for me comes in the next verse. “But even if He does not, we want you to know, your majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

image courtesy of reversingverses.com
image courtesy of reversingverses.com

But even if He does not.

I’m overcome by this phrase. I’m not sure how I’ve missed the magnitude of it all these years.

As we enter the Christmas season, my FaceBook feed isn’t filled with holiday cheer. I wish it were different, but right now my feed is stitched with posts from broken mothers who lost their children too soon, posts from friends who are helplessly watching their parents slip into the fog of dementia, posts from friends undergoing massive amounts of chemo and radiation treatments so intense that it’s all they can do to cross off another treatment appointment on their calendars.

I don’t struggle with knowing God is able to deliver us. I know that down to my bones, that God is able to deliver kids from death, to deliver parents from dementia and friends from cancer.

I know He is able.

But sometimes He doesn’t.

And that’s the part that tangles me up in my sheets at night and leaves me awake in the quiet company of only the low hum resonating from the refrigerator.

Sometimes He doesn’t deliver us.

And no crappy platitudes of “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” can stop the bleeding out from the knifing pain that sometimes He just doesn’t.

I don’t know why. People who pretend to know why God does or doesn’t sweep in for the rescue, well, those people make me want to say strings of bad words.

I will never know why God does or doesn’t step in. In the absence of that knowledge, I’m left with only one choice.

When I’m being scorched by life, I can determine my response. I ache to be like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, to stand with fire licking at my toes and still be able to say that I know God is able to save me, that I believe He will save me, but even if He does not, my heart will remain steadfast.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s response infuriates the king, who demands that the furnace be cranked up seven times higher than usual and that the three men be bound before they’re burned to smithereens.

Once they’re tied up and thrown into the furnace, King Nebuchadnezzar has a record scratch moment of his own. He looks into the furnace and sees a fourth figure that looks like God in the fire with the three men. And the four of them are walking around in the fire, completely impervious to the flames. The king calls Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego out of the furnace and, get this, not a hair is singed. They don’t even smell like fire. The king changes his tune and recognizes that God is God and that it was God who saved the three men.

And while that part is great, the thing that always thrills my heart about this story is that these guys remained with each other their whole lives, including the worst moment. They stood together before the fire, in the fire, and back out of it again.

This season some of us will sit down to dinner and fight back tears looking at an empty chair. Some of us will lay with parents and grandparents and sing sweet lullabies into threads of their memories. Some of us will breathe in and out every day during treatment and breathing alone will be hard enough.

As we stand on the edges of furnaces that feel more than seven times too hot, could we stand together? Could I stand with you and you stand with me? I won’t have any sage words to say or words you might find in a Hallmark card.

I hope to God my words will sound more like these. God is able to deliver. I believe He will. But even if He does not, let us keep standing with truth in our hearts. And if you don’t mind I’ll stand here with you because I know that God is walking in this fire, too.

A Ragamuffin Story

Vigilantes, I really hope you find this story as funny as I do. Some stories are just too good to keep to myself.

Last evening after our Night of Vigilante Kindness Stories, I walked to the help desk to turn in the form the library requires to ensure all is as it should be in the room they generously let us use for free. With all of my bags of Ugandan treasures weighing me down and the library closing in one minute, the sweet librarian mistook me for a homeless person and kindly let me know where the local nearby shelter is located.

Mind you, knowing that public speaking is not in my comfort zone, I’d put on an outfit I feel great in: tall boots, cute skirt, favorite color shirt, 2 paper bead necklaces and 7 paper bead bracelets because 8 is too many, obviously. I thought I was looking okay, but apparently after hanging with you guys for an hour and a half, I looked TORN UP. After sweating through my talk, I probably smelled torn up, too.

I handed the librarian my form and explained that I’d been speaking in the community room. Her face turned a quick shade of pink and before she could say anything else, I said, “Have a good night!” and hauled my bag-laden self out.

With my self-esteem skyrocketing, this afternoon I opened an email from a woman who attended our Night of Stories. In her e-mail this gentle soul felt free to confirm that I am indeed AWFUL at public speaking. I had to laugh at her list, yes-her list, of my inadequacies.

Now, Vigilantes, I thought I’d made it abundantly clear last night that public speaking is NOT my gift. I did say that out loud, right?

Here’s the thing, dear Email Woman, I warned you at the start of my talk that public speaking cripples me and that it wouldn’t be pretty. You decided not to heed my warning and instead you stayed through my whole talk and then some. So, in my mind, that’s on you.

I’ve thought about these two encounters a lot this evening and this is the good news. God delights in using people like me who have a little bit of a lisp and a paralyzing fear of public speaking. It’s that whole “in our weakness, He is strong” thing.

Paul, my favorite writer in the Bible, the guy who knocks my socks off every time I read Ephesians and Philippians, had a speech impediment and I imagine public speaking wasn’t his most favorite thing either.

As for looking a little torn up last night, John the Baptist looked torn up all the time, eating bugs and wandering the wilderness, stinking to high heaven I’m sure, oh and, by the way, preparing people for Jesus.

I’m not saying I’m a Paul or a John the Baptist, far from it. What I am saying is this: God doesn’t need perfect people. He’s already got perfection covered, thankyouverymuch. He needs imperfect, ragamuffin people who need Jesus like we need air or water.

People like me.

People like you.

Even on the days when we feel, and let’s be real maybe even smell, like a complete disaster.

It takes a lot for me work up the guts to speak in public. It’s hard to stand up in front of people and talk about this very personal and incredibly rewarding work you and I get to do together.

I used to wish I were more poised, that when I spoke, my pores wouldn’t all simultaneously decide to sweat out all the perspiration I’m allotted for the remainder of my life. I used to wish my voice flowed with smooth assurance.

I don’t wish that anymore.

I kind of love that when I get up to talk, my voice will shake and my pits will be extra pitty. As I stand up there swallowing bundles of nerves, I stand knowing that my most paralyzing weakness is on display for you.Microphone

I stand there also knowing those are the moments when God is bursting with fatherly pride.

One of my favorite things about God is that He doesn’t use us in spite of our weaknesses, He uses us because of our weaknesses. I don’t know about you, but that floods me with all kinds of relief.

I may have acute stage fright that leaves every layer of my clothing dank with sweat. Sometimes I may look and/or smell wrecked, but I’m still going to keep talking about this wild adventure in Vigilante Kindness we’re on together.

Some stories are just too good to keep to myself and ours is that kind of story.

 

Kijumi is Coming

I woke this morning to the welcome voice of thunder and the syncopation of rain. I drew back my curtain and breathed in the relief. It hasn’t rained in Gulu in a month and a half, leaving everything and everyone parched and jacketed in ruddy, red dust.
I threw on some clothes-okay, I really just yanked a skirt up under the nightshirt I’d peeled off and thrown on the floor. I didn’t bother with shoes or anything else. I grabbed my camera and iPad. I tiptoed to my mom’s room to see if she was awake to watch the storm with me, but the crack under her door was dark. So with my camera and iPad in hand, I scrambled back down the hall to the balcony outside of my room. The sun wasn’t up yet and I knew I was in for a spectacular lightning show across the dark sky. I sat on the balcony writing and snapping photos.

The storm was behind me, so I didn’t see the fingers of lightning pointing from the sky and touching the ground. Instead the whole of the sky would go from pitch black to electric pinks and yellows all at once, like a camera flash to the face. As my retinas recovered from each flash, I’d count the seconds between the turbulent thunder and the blinding flashes of lightning, counting the miles separating me from the storm, just like I do with my students at home when a thunderstorm rumbles in. To my delight the increments quickly shrunk from five seconds to one second and then the thunder and lightning were stacked on top of each other, a thrilling assault on the senses.

Not to be outdone by the thunder and lightning, the wind rushed in as well, a welcome reprieve from the stifling, still humidity. The wind whipped at my skirt and splashed my bare feet with rain. My balcony overlooks the once grand Pece stadium and I watched the field puddle.

During my first two nights in Gulu, sleeping was a near impossibility. My jetlagged body struggled to adapt to the correct clock and to the humidity that always sucks the life out of me at the beginning of my trip. At night I’d lay naked under my mosquito net, not the sexy kind of naked, the ugly, sweaty “peel everything off to survive” kind of naked. Mosquitoes buzzed around my net and I laid there sweltering.

I can only imagine what the last month and a half in Gulu have been like. I’ve seen the parched, brown crops and can imagine the utterings from cracked lips praying for rain in this unexpected dry season.

The morning of the storm, I watched the sun peek her pink face from behind the clouds as the spaces between the thunder and lightning counted back up to six, then seven, then ten miles away until the storm held its breath altogether. The soccer field drank the puddles and they vanished almost as quickly as they’d formed. Just when I thought the storm was through, a fresh slashing of rain fell, and a second helping of thunder and lightning filled the sky until the ground was sodden and swollen with rain.

Later that morning, I sat downstairs talking with an old musee. He taught me the Luo name for thunderstorm (mwoc pa-kot) and the Luo names for different kinds of rain. There’s ngito, meaning a drizzle. There’s kot paminilemu, an unexpected rain. But my favorite kind of rain is kijumi, a long, hard rain.

The musee talked about the parched crops and how this mwoc pa-kot and kot paminilemu vanquished his worries of famine. 

Famine. 

And here I was complaining about the heat because it made it hard to sleep. Fear of famine had never even crossed my mind. I’ve never known the worry pangs of impending famine. Hang on, I need to add that to the list of things I’m thankful for so I remember it the next time I pray. Be right back.

While I’ve not known physical famine, I have known the feeling of famine in my spirit, the ugly nakedness of feeling bereft. I know about waiting and praying with dry, cracked lips for some relief, any relief to fall from Heaven. I also know the reprieve of rain and the joy of hearing the cool whisperings of God blow into my life.

Vigilantes, it’s a privilege to know so many of you in person, to know your stories well, as if they were my own. Some of you are impossibly parched right now, famished down to brittle bones, praying desperate prayers from cracked, dry lips. I don’t have any pretty, pious words for you, but I prayed for you today, prayed that you’d be absolutely sodden with a first and second helping of rain. I want to encourage you to hold tight, dear ones, in the midst of your dry season keep praying. 

Your kijumi is coming.  

My Right Ear

It was my right ear that heard the voice in my bedroom.  We laid in bed with the cool of night tucking in the corners of our sheets.  It was that blissful period of silence when all the words of the day had been said, when his fingers curled around my hip and the only sound was the syncopated rhythm of our breathing keeping track of the seconds that tiptoed by as we edged into sleep.

My left ear-my good ear-was pressed against my pillow when my right ear, the ear marred with scar tissue from countless childhood ear infections, the ear that struggles to hear anything, heard the voice whisper in our bedroom.

“What did you say?” I rolled toward my husband.

“I didn’t say anything,” his words were thickening with sleep.

“You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I heard a voice.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“I swear I heard a voice.”  I sat up in bed and looked out the window into the backyard to see if it had come from there.

Nothing.

Even the blackberry bushes that scratch along the fence were still.

My husband patted my hand.

“I’m not saying you didn’t hear a voice.  I’m just saying it wasn’t me and I didn’t hear it.  What did it say?”

“It was a whisper and it said, ‘Let go.’  I swear I heard it.”

“Maybe you’ve watched Frozen too many times,” he laughed.

“I haven’t seen that movie yet.”

“What did the voice tell you to let go of?”

“I don’t know.  It didn’t say anything else,” I shrugged.

He rolled over and I laid back down and tried in vain to close my eyes and rest.

His breath fell into the familiar pattern of sleep and I slipped from bed into the living room where I flicked a blanket over my legs and stretched out on the couch.

“Okay, I’m listening.  Let go of what?  And when am I supposed to let go of it?”

I felt silly talking out loud, but I figured if the voice was going to audibly speak to me, then I’d better say something back.

I waited to hear the voice again.

I waited all night, my arms goosebumped with anticipation, but the voice didn’t speak again.

Now here’s where you and I might have differing opinions, but I hope you’ll hang in here with me anyway.  The most rational explanation I have is that it was God speaking to me.  Believe me, I know how crazy that sounds.  Like ‘Go Build An Ark, Noah’ kind of crazy.

I believe God still speaks today.  I really do.  But the truth of the matter is often times, most times, really, I think I don’t hear His voice because I don’t listen.  I don’t take the time to get still and earnestly listen.

So it’s no surprise to me that He waited until the rare moment that I was quiet and spoke into my scarred right ear, the ear that is constantly a beat behind and causes me to pepper conversations with, “What?  What did you say?  I’m sorry, but I didn’t hear you.”  The ear that causes me to utter the geriatric phrase, “Speak into my good ear.”

Since the night I heard the voice, I’ve continued to ask what exactly I’m supposed to let go of and when I’m supposed to let go of it.  God hasn’t spoken to me again, at least not audibly, which is equal parts relief and disappointment.  I really don’t want to be the crazy lady who hears voices, but I also, with every fiber of my being, don’t want to be the girl who misses out on hearing God.

I heard God whispering on a Thursday night.  The following Sunday morning we sang a song in church and part of the chorus was, “You are God.  You are God.  Of all else I’m letting go.”

Maybe that’s it. God is God and I should let go of the rest because in the light of God being God the rest really just doesn’t matter.  If only it were that simple to put into practice, right?  Right.

It occurs to me now as I lay here under my mosquito net in the early morning hours, with the sounds of Gulu waking up filtering up though my window, that maybe there isn’t one particular thing that I’m supposed to let go of, but maybe the point of God whispering to me in my bedroom that night is that now I wake up each morning and ask, “Ok, what do you want me to let go of today?”  Maybe it’s not about letting go of one thing, but about being willing to let go each day and focus on the fact that God is God.

Even still, I go to bed each night and lay on my side with my left ear-my good ear-pressed against my pillow, leaving my scarred right ear at the ready because if God wants to speak into it, I don’t want to miss His whisperings.

Timing, Tetanus Shots and Hakuna Matata???

When I was in Uganda last summer, Colin and I went on safari. We were joined by, Mikayla, another girl working in Uganda. Mikayla celebrated her 21st birthday while she was in Uganda. She’s a champion fencer and has the energy of a hundred people. When on safari, Mikayla was absolutely delighted to see so many animals from The Lion King. She sat in the car joyfully snapping pictures and singing ‘Hakuna Matata’, which, of course, means, “Don’t worry.”

Today I want to tell you a story about listening to God’s voice, the humor of God’s timing and, yes, ‘Hakuna Matata’.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been yearning to return to Uganda since the day I got home last July. This year, several trips to Africa were planned and then fell through or were cancelled for reasons beyond my control. In the midst of being brokenhearted by all those undone plans, I’ve been trying to hear God in the quiet spaces and to heed what He’s telling me to do.

A few months ago I felt prompted to call the Public Health office and schedule an appointment to update my tetanus shot and get a prescription for malaria pills. Both are things I’d need before returning to Uganda.

Here’s the thing though, I didn’t have a departure date or a plane ticket or a plan or anything. It can take months to get an appointment with a travel nurse and so I wasn’t surprised when Public Health told me that they needed to give the appointments to people who knew for sure when and where they’d be traveling. It makes a lot of sense and I completely understood.

A month ago, Public Health called me and asked if I still wanted an appointment. Due to budget cuts, the travel health office would be closing its doors on June 30th, but one person had cancelled their appointment and I could have it if I still wanted it.

Mind you I still didn’t have a departure date or a plane ticket or a plan, but I heard that voice again and I took the appointment. The logical part of me reasoned that tetanus shots are good for two years and I could just hold onto the prescription for malaria pills and fill it when my return trip became a reality.

Almost a month passed and I still had no new information or plans. Holding onto hope of returning was becoming so painfully hard.

The day before my appointment with the travel nurse, I got a surprising phone call and before I knew it my trip back to Uganda, back to the children I love, unfolded before my eyes.

Of course it did. And of course it did the day before my appointment with the travel nurse. I should have known.

As hard as I try, I so often still miss the voice of God, but He patiently speaks to me, often in unconventional and even humorous ways.

The morning of my appointment with the travel nurse, I couldn’t help but laugh when the nurse came out wearing a scrubs top made of material with The Lion King’s Timon and Pumba romping all over it. I laughed out loud when I heard him sing a line of ‘Hakuna Matata’.

I left the Public Health office with a sore arm, a prescription for malaria pills and ‘Hakuna Matata’ running through my mind.

Okay, God, I got it. You’re timing things out in ways I can’t even dream of and I don’t have to worry.

Hakuna matata, indeed.

The End of the Dry Season

This year has been a season of waiting. I am awful at waiting, even worse at waiting patiently. Since the day I returned home from Uganda last summer, I’ve been yearning to go back. Yearning is a powerful word and for that reason it’s a word I don’t use often, but it’s the only word that fully captures this visceral longing I have to return to the children and to the place I fell in love with last June.

It’s strange to love the people and the life I have here, but to have that same depth of love for the people I met in Gulu. It’s a wonderful kind of strange though, to feel at home in two such different places.

It’s the place where I had the privilege of facilitating students in writing stories of their lives, stories that both broke and mended my heart. It’s the place where I continually found unexpected beauty, so much so that nightly I dream memories from my time there. It’s the place where I first met my sons and began my surprising journey into motherhood.

All year my sons have been asking when I was returning. Each time they asked, I swallowed back the lump in my throat and responded that I didn’t know when, but I would return.

Each time I thought I had a return trip to Uganda planned, it was cancelled or fell through for reasons beyond my control. And each time the trips fell through I thought of my promise to my sons. I thought of how they have lives built upon the painful shards of other broken promises. I vowed not to become one of them.

Last year I went to Uganda with the words of Isaiah 30:21 as a guiding thought for my trip. The verse says, “Whether you turn to the right or the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’

As bad as I am at waiting, I’m even worse at waiting and listening for God’s voice. Then there’s the whole issue of hearing God’s voice and choosing not to be obedient.

Can I be honest with you? Even the word ‘obedience’ makes my spine prickle. It is a word and a concept that feels as easy and as appetizing as swallowing rocks.

But I love God.

More than anything else.

And here’s the great part, He loves me, too, and wants to work in me despite my impatience and disobedience. Because God is a good parent, a good Father, part of His love means helping me move beyond impatience and disobedience. Part of that love means giving me time and space to practice patience and, gulp, obedience.

So this year, I prayed and tried to listen for God’s voice telling me what to do. I don’t really relate to pious prayers filled with thees and thous. Wanna know the prayer I prayed most this year? Six simple, but not so easy words, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Sound familiar? It’s the prayer of a father who had a son inflicted with a spirit that gave him such massive seizures that on more than one occasion the boy seized so violently that he fell into burning fires and deep waters. The father brought his son to Jesus and the father said, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responded, “If I can? All things are possible to him who believes.” And this is the part I love, the father doesn’t pretend to be pious. He doesn’t pretend to have faith that he doesn’t actually possess. The father says, “I do believe. Help my unbelief.” Jesus healed the little boy, which I think is the bigger reason that particular event was recorded in the Bible, but it’s not why the story captivates me.

What captivates me is the desperate honesty of the father who looks into the face of Jesus and admits he both has faith and lacks faith and then he asks for help. Now that’s a guy I can relate to.

Each time my return trip to Africa collapsed beneath me, I was left brokenhearted. I felt like a failure and a liar and it was hard not to lose hope of returning. So many times in the middle of the night, those words ‘failure’ and ‘liar’ looped in my head. In the middle of the night, with the sounds of the quiet house around me and my sleeping husband snoring next to me, I’d pray that father’s prayer. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

And each time I prayed, the words of Isaiah came back to me. “You will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’ I listened for that voice, listened with such desperation that my heart sometimes felt like it was going to pound out of my ears. Do you know that kind of desperation? I imagine you do. It’s the kind of desperation that comes when we are broken with such acuteness that praying six words and then being quiet enough to listen is all the faith we can muster.

I needed to be broken this year. I needed to learn to wait, to wait and cling fiercely to the promise of hope. I needed to learn to have faith that there is so much more happening than I can see. I needed a year to learn to listen for the voice behind me guiding my steps.

I listened and it was how I knew that I was supposed to begin getting my classroom ready for the next school year in June instead of waiting until August like I usually do. It was how I knew that I was supposed to book an appointment with the travel nurse and get the one last shot I needed for my trip, even though I didn’t actually have a departure date.

Last Wednesday my waiting came to an end when plans to return to Uganda came to fruition. Last Thursday I had my appointment with the travel nurse and booked my plane ticket. Last Friday I gave my sons the exact date I’d be returning. I leave in a little under two weeks and am counting down the days until I get to hug my beautiful sons.

This is one of my sons, Geoffrey, and I last summer.
With my son, Geoffrey, last summer.

These seasons of waiting, these times of fervent yearning for things that are yet to come, are sometimes called dry seasons. They are desert times when my spirit feels parched through to my very bones.

Here we have four seasons; winter, spring, summer and fall. Did you know that in Uganda there are only two seasons? There is the dry season and there is the wet season. The dry season ends in June, giving way to the beginning of the wet season in July.

After a year of walking through my own dry season, it is only fitting that my return to Uganda, my return to my sons, coincides with the start of the wet season when the rain in Uganda falls heavy and hard onto the parched earth.

Today I prayed a different prayer. I’m sure there will be many times in my life to come when I again pray, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” But today I was able to honestly pray three beautiful words, words that have been a long time coming, words that have never rung more true for me.

“Lord, I believe.”