30 June 2015

God-driven loss — those who are left behind (by Joshua S. Hill)

In my life I have lost all four of my grandparents, my youth, a pair of glasses, several cats that meant the world to me, and my father to divorce. Each loss has affected me in different ways. However, with the exception of Tabby (my cat who lived to be 14), nothing is as hard as losing my Mum to the missions field.

The Bible is full of global-worker verses that are intended to ease the pain of leaving and this separation:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14-15, ESV)

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30, ESV)

These verses are intended as balms of healing for those who leave behind family—children, parents, siblings. I love these verses for the peace and promises they provide my Mum. However, I sometimes find it difficult to find the same sense of calm and peace for myself from these verses, for I suspect God did not intend them for those who are left behind—not really.

This leaves me, once again, looking to God to soothe my heart in other ways. This is not because it is breaking or because I am fraught with despair at the thought of Mum once again returning to the field. If you have ever met Mum, you will know that there are very few so perfectly designed to serve God afield. Also, as an adult, the attachment is much different than it was when I first said goodbye to her as a (relatively) immature 19-year-old.

Now we have a different relationship which is built upon friendship, trust, and love. My understanding of Mum’s calling is wholly formed; my own independence not only exists, but it also is valuable and valued. Besides, who in their right mind would hold someone from God’s will—no matter the attachment?

Though all of this is true, I must take comfort in God’s words during those times when I realize that I will miss Mum while she is gone again—when I realize I will not be able to serve her, spend time with her, give her a hug when she needs it, and receive a hug when I need it.

At this time, when the future is the very definition of “up in the air,” I invite you to take a moment with me and look at what God has promised for those who are, for lack of any better way to say it, “left behind.”

Left behind
In my experience over the past twelve years, I have found significant differences between the various assurances provided us.

1. The assurance that comes from the knowledge and experience of others is valuable, but it does not always come with that heartfelt peace that is sought after. Any family, in any culture and at any age or situation, will invariably be comforted by those older and wiser with these true words of assurance: “God’s plan is sovereign, and He will look after your parents.”

2. Second, there are the internal assurances—the memory of verses that say God’s will is indeed sovereign and what happens is of His will. Where do we turn? In the dark? In the quiet? In the fear? What has God promised us? Beyond the quiet assurances of the Holy Spirit, what has our Father written for us to find? Where do we find God’s assurances - those assurances that do provide peace - the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7, ESV)?

The first step in my attempt to hear what God has written for me are His innumerable promises. Two of these promises in particular have been attached to my life from my very earliest memories, and to dismiss their relevance now would verge on the insane:
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9, ESV)

The God who is asking Mum to “go” has also promised me power, strength, and His presence. However, these promises mean nothing if they are not put into their proper place. Jesus, speaking to His disciples, made it very clear just how verses such as these should be viewed:
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:37–39, ESV)

3. Plainly put, as much as I love Mum, she simply cannot be my first thought. God has made it very clear, through His Son, and through His own words, that if I am to follow Him I must make Him first in my life. As much as the anxiety of saying goodbye to Mum once again weighs on my mind every now and again, that is not how God has called me to live my life. When God commanded Joshua not to be afraid, that was no idle comment that was “toughened-up” by an editor to appear stronger and more “promise-y.” God is not known for his off-the-cuff commands. God told Joshua—and me, and you—not to be frightened, not to be dismayed, and to be strong and courageous.

If I am to love Mum more than Jesus, then I am not worthy of Him, and I am not a valid recipient of His promises.

Harsh but strong
It sounds somewhat harsh (and for all intents and purposes, it is) but harsh is what we need.

Harsh was what I needed at three years old when I wanted to find out just what happens when you put your hand near the gas flame of a stove (yeah, I was that child). Harsh is exactly the manner I would expect my parents to be if they saw me trying to burn my hand. At the time, I thought my parents knew everything, so of course I would trust them when they told me to keep my hand out of the flame!

God, however, really does know everything—in a way my parents never did. I need to transpose that childlike faith from Mum and onto God, for two reasons:
  • It is what God has called us to do.
  • If I have faith only in Mum, then to whom can I entrust her? By placing my faith in God alone, I am able to place Mum in His hands and know her to be in His care.

God is for me
What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? (Romans 8:31-32, NLT)

God may not have provided me with a verse overtly-specific to my current experiences—saying goodbye to Mum as she heads back to the field—but to think that God has not provided me with promises of assurance is the height of arrogance. My situation might feel unique, but it is representative of hundreds of situations the world over and throughout history.

Romans 8:31-32 is my lesson in this time. Not only is God for me, but He spared not His only Son for me and offered His richest blessings as well. God’s willingness to provide for His children never slackens, never lessens, and most certainly never fails. The moments of emotion that I encounter over the next months will come—and to hope God will make them disappear is to dismiss their importance. God’s everlasting arms are always under me, and the eternal God is my refuge (Deuteronomy 33:27).

These are the promises God has made to me as I say goodbye to Mum—and to these promises I cling.

- - - - -
[I read Joshua's article on the Thrive website.]

24 June 2015

"I am a Missionary" - a great video!


God said, I need someone willing to -
say no to the status quo
no to the dream of wealth
leave their families to fly to a distant land
and learn a language they have never heard
ride in cramped buses, on backs of camels
someone who would sleep anywhere, eat anything
bear the heat and fight the freeze with a smile on their face
just to take the gospel to a people not their own.
So God created the missionary.

God said because the harvest is plentiful
I need someone ready to sow the seed
to plow the ground, water the seed
and reap the harvest which is ripe
someone to go and train, to multiply the crops
and to answer the call and pay the price.

So God created the missionary.

God said, I need someone who is a radical servant of all
taking the loneliest job, washing the feet of the poor
caring for the sick and cleaning their wounds
I need someone to visit the prisoner, care for the widow and the orphan
to sit in the dust with a child and tell them that they are loved.

So God made a missionary.

God said he needed someone who would believe that
blind eyes could see and lame feet could walk
and that the dead could live again
someone who would brave long hours
and intercede through the night with wordless groans and petitions,
so that one soul might be saved.

God said, I need someone honest and brave
full of grace, mercy, and compassion
free from fear and passivity
walking in true identity
someone burning with love and girded with truth
someone who radiantly reflects God's glory.

So God made a missionary.

God said, I need someone who would say yes before they were asked
someone who would go to distant islands, barren deserts
inner-cities, closed nations, next-door neighbors
and prestigious universities to reach the unreached
who would climb any mountain and endure any obstacle
because how will they believe in Him of whom they have never heard
how will they hear unless someone preaches
how will they preach unless they are sent.

So God made the missionary.

18 June 2015

Who is Deb Smith, the missionary?

God dramatically interrupted my life in 2001.

I was so riveted during a sermon that I stood up throughout its duration. The very next day I applied for a passport.

Through a series of other rapidly unfolding events, God clearly revealed that he was sending me to Kenya, East Africa to serve him.

I am now in my 14th year there.

Interestingly, when God called me there, I knew absolutely nothing about the country, the culture, or the people of Kenya. I didn't even know what God had in mind for me to do. But like Abraham, I obeyed and went - not knowing where I was going.

Once I was there, God slowly revealed to me the niche to which he had called me as a missionary. He wanted me to simply love my neighbor, the 2nd greatest commandment. The neighbors God has specifically called me to love are a handful of single parents and their children. It wasn’t a new assignment, just a new location. God basically relocated me, as I was already doing this in Omaha, Nebraska.

In many ways, these friends live on the margins of society. They are overlooked and down-trodden. They work hard to feed their children on a daily basis and struggle to send them to school.

Each of these relationships span well over a decade. These friendships are up-close and personal. We share life together - the good, the bad, and the ugly. We laugh together and we cry together. I challenge them to faithfully read God’s Word and encourage them to follow God’s will for their lives. I also help out financially, by paying school fees or providing start-up capital for small businesses.

I, myself, become a single mom after an unwanted divorce in 1986. God’s plan in sending me to Kenya is a perfect example of 2 Corinthians 1:4 -

God comes alongside us when we go through hard times, 
and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else 
who is going through hard times so we can be there for that person 
just as God was there for us. (Message)

In a similar vein, Frederick Buechner says, ‘The place God calls you to, is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.’

Can I let you in on a secret?

I am not a super-Christian or a spiritual giant.

“All God’s giants have been weak men and women, who did great things for God because they reckoned on His being with them.” 
~ Hudson Taylor, missionary to China for 51 years (1854-1905)

It’s not easy living in a foreign culture. Kenyans have a radically different way of thinking. They process all of life through a different filter, a different lens than I do as a Westerner.

This different world view affects every aspect regarding how they approach life. Even after all these years of interacting with my close friends, I am still learning the various nuances.

It’s also not easy to live in a third-world country. The various systems and infrastructures are often dilapidated or not functioning. I can’t take simple things for granted - like the consistent availability of electricity or running water in my house.

After the Westgate and Garissa terrorist attacks, people sometimes ask if I'm ever afraid in Kenya.

My response to this concern is that, in addition to terrorist attacks, there are many other issues and dangers in Kenya.

In fact, I have weathered many storms and difficulties during my time serving the Lord in Kenya:
  • Two of my houses were broken into several times, including my mud hut in a rural village
  • In 2003, I was very sick in the hospital with malaria
  • Various bouts of typhoid, amoebic dysentery, food poisoning, etc.
  • Pick-pocketed several times on public transportation. Had another attempt last month. Fortunately they failed.
  • In 2007, I was hit by a car and badly injured in a very congested area in downtown Nairobi. It took months to recover
  • In 2008, along with everyone else in Kenya, I was devastated by the post-election violence throughout Kenya. There were almost daily reports of more horrible atrocities!
  • There was a time I suffered for months with burnout – physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion.
And in the context of personal relationships, those to whom God has specifically connected me to befriend and love:
  • A close friend stole from me on several occasions
  • Another friend continually lies and manipulates, makes accusations, and shows complete ingratitude

"Moses had his eye on the One no eye can see, and kept right on going."   
~ Hebrews 11:27 (Message)

What I know, without a shadow of a doubt, is that when God called me to Kenya, he literally stood me up on my feet. He told me to love a handful of folks to whom he supernaturally introduced me.

Like Moses, I maintain a steady focus on the One no eye can see. My intention is to continue obeying God's calling on my life.

[NOTE: I prepared this as an introduction when I spoke at a church in the US. Please see the following post for an abbreviated version of my talk and the audio recording.]

17 June 2015

Bedraggled Sheep; it is impossible to weary God's love

"Jesus has some extraordinarily funny sheep, some bedraggled, dirty sheep; some awkward, butting and pushy sheep; and even some sheep that have gone astray.” ~ Oswald Chambers

Bedraggled isn’t a very common word.

It means dirty, scruffy, unkempt, or in a mess. Generally speaking - not pretty.

‘God loved you not because you were lovable, but because it was His nature to do so.  He will bring a number of people around you whom you cannot respect, but you must exhibit his love to them just as he has exhibited it to you.’ ~ Oswald Chambers

John 21:1-17
Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way - Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.

“I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore. “Bring some of the fish you have just caught. Come and have breakfast.”

Jesus took the bread and gave it to them and did the same with the fish.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.
[excerpts from the passage]

- - -
Jesus asked Peter a very penetrating question, not once, but three times. Jesus probed Peter repeatedly in order to dig deep into his spirit. “Do you love me?” Do you really love me, beyond just saying the words?

Jesus is very intent as he teaches Peter about God’s Kingdom. He’s drilling home the point by repeating the same question because it’s important.

In response to Peter’s three affirmative declarations of love, Jesus pushed him even farther –
“If you love me… then feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep.”

Jesus challenged Peter with this concept. But he is likewise challenging each one of us to feed his sheep. Our love for others demonstrates that we love God.

We are to demonstrate our love for God by
•    nourishing
•    serving
•    comforting
•    strengthening
•    and loving others
"Peter realizes with the revelation of the Lord’s piercing question that he does love Him. Then comes the point. Don’t testify how much you love me and don’t talk about the marvelous revelation you have had. Just feed my sheep." ~ Oswald Chambers

In order to truly do this, the love of Christ must be our starting point.
“Those who do not love Christ will never truly love the souls of men. Nothing but the love of Christ will constrain us to go cheerfully through the difficulties and discouragements we will meet in this work.” ~ Matthew Henry

Speaking of difficulties and discouragements, what if God calls you to love someone that is unlovable? What if the person or people you’re supposed to care for are peculiar and utterly impossible to love?

During Jesus’ time on this earth, he repeatedly poured out his love to bedraggled, awkward, and unlovable sheep. Here are a few examples:
  • Only one healed leper out of ten bothered to say ‘thank you’.
  • Jesus’ family made various self-centered demands on him.
  • Jesus’ disciples were concerned about petty and trivial things. Instead of focusing on what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, they were more concerned about position and prestige.
  • His disciples didn’t stay awake with him at his most crucial hour.
  • Peter denied him. Judas betrayed him. 
  • Jesus endured much physical suffering, verbal abuse, and shame.
  • Imagine this - People even spit on his face.

In spite of all that, Jesus continued to pour his life into people, into bedraggled sheep. He continued to demonstrate a love that never stopped. Jesus persevered and offered his body on the cross, all because of his great love for us!
Does God really expect us to love awkward, bedraggled sheep the same way he did? 
There is no relief and no release from this commission. ~ Oswald Chambers

Remember what Jesus said. If you love me feed my sheep. In other words.... nourish, serve, comfort, strengthen, and love others.
We shall often meet with more ingratitude from men than we would from a dog. But if our motive is to love God, no ingratitude can hinder us from serving our fellow men.
~ Oswald Chambers

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. Lamentations 3:22

Love always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13:7b - 8a
It is impossible to weary God’s love. And it is impossible to weary that love in me if it flows from the Spirit of God within me. ~ Oswald Chambers

It is only out of our love for God that we have any capacity to love others. True love must start with God because true love is not self-generated.
First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first. If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.
1 John 4:19-21 (Message)

You cannot claim one without doing the other. We are to love God and his people.
“Jesus calls people into relationships that put them beyond their comfort level.”
~ Gary Thomas, Seeking the Face of God

The love of God pays no attention to my prejudices. If I love my Lord, I have no business to be guided by natural emotions. ~ Oswald Chambers

Will you die to yourself for another person?

Will you lay down your life for one of the many bedraggled sheep in this world?

What about your love for others?

Have you grown tired?

The command we have from Christ is blunt: "Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both." 1 John 4:19-21 (Message)

- - - - - -
The text above is a short version of a talk I gave at Crossroads Tabernacle in the Bronx, New York on June 14th.

Click here to listen to an audio recording of my talk. Scroll down until you find:
"Bedraggled Sheep" - Deb Smith - 6.14.15

preaching at Crossroads Tabernacle

16 June 2015

Remembering missionary pioneer, Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015)

One of the most influential Christian women of the 20th century, Elisabeth Elliot, died this week after a long battle with dementia.

Elliot, the Christian author and speaker whose husband, Jim, was killed during their short-lived but legendary missionary work among unreached tribes in eastern Ecuador in the 1950s, passed away Sunday at 88, according to reports.

Elisabeth's personal biography
A year after I went to Ecuador, Jim Elliot, whom I had met at Wheaton, also entered tribal areas with the Quichua Indians. In nineteen fifty three we were married in the city of Quito and continued our work together. Jim had always hoped to have the opportunity to enter the territory of an unreached tribe. The Aucas were in that category -- a fierce group whom no one had succeeded in meeting without being killed. After the discovery of their whereabouts, Jim and four other missionaries entered Auca territory. After a friendly contact with three of the tribe, they were speared to death.

Our daughter Valerie was 10 months old when Jim was killed. I continued working with the Quichua Indians when, through a remarkable providence, I met two Auca women who lived with me for one year. They were the key to my going in to live with the tribe that had killed the five missionaries. I remained there for two years.

After having worked for two years with the Aucas, I returned to the Quichua work and remained there until 1963 when Valerie and I returned to the U.S.

Since then, my life has been one of writing and speaking. It also included, in 1969, a marriage to Addison Leitch, professor of theology at Gordon Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts. He died in 1973. After his death I had two lodgers in my home. One of them married my daughter, the other one, Lars Gren, married me. Since then we have worked together.

- - - - -
Years ago, when I heard Elisabeth Elliot speak in Omaha, Nebraska, I was absolutely amazed at her insight, wisdom, and poise. Every one us in the audience was riveted to her every word.

Examples of her profound wisdom
“God is God. Because he is God, He is worthy of my trust and obedience. I will find rest nowhere but in His holy will that is unspeakably beyond my largest notions of what he is up to.”

“Does it make sense to pray for guidance about the future if we are not obeying in the thing that lies before us today? How many momentous events in Scripture depended on one person's seemingly small act of obedience! Rest assured: Do what God tells you to do now, and, depend upon it, you will be shown what to do next.”

“This job has been given to me to do. Therefore, it is a gift. Therefore, it is a privilege. Therefore, it is an offering I may make to God. Therefore, it is to be done gladly, if it is done for Him. Here, not somewhere else, I may learn God’s way. In this job, not in some other, God looks for faithfulness.”

“Where does your security lie? Is God your refuge, your hiding place, your stronghold, your shepherd, your counselor, your friend, your redeemer, your savior, your guide? If He is, you don't need to search any further for security.”

"Faith's most severe tests come not when we see nothing, but when we see a stunning array of evidence that seems to prove our faith vain.”

“To love God is to love His will. It is to wait quietly for life to be measured by One who knows us through and through. It is to be content with His timing and His wise appointment.”

09 June 2015

Granting permission to missionaries; an article by Michele Phoenix

Permission to be Confused
It’s okay for missionaries to get frustrated. It’s okay for them to question. It’s okay for them to feel let down by the One who called them and not understand what his purpose is in the challenges they’re facing.

It’s okay for missionaries to be confused.

But their doubts must be accepted and their vulnerability honored. If you want to support your missionaries, be affirming. Pray for miracles and have faith when theirs wanes.

Acknowledge the emotional toll of disappointment and the spiritual confusion it can cause. Give missionaries permission to question and feel defeated, if only for a time. It isn’t weakness—it’s a natural response to unmet expectations and to what feels like broken promises.

Permission to be Flawed
Missionaries aren’t perfect. Some of us struggle to get organized. Some of us battle temptation, carry the burden of depression, have trouble setting boundaries or suffer from anxiety. Some of us lie, gossip, overeat, misrepresent or exaggerate.

The missionaries you see standing at that mic on Sunday mornings have chosen a life that may different from yours, but they’re just as human, just as frail and just as fallible as anyone else.

Unfortunately, there have generally been only two options available to missionaries facing challenges: to be released from service by their sending agency or to keep their struggles private. In order for missionaries to feel safe revealing their flaws, we need to institute systems that will help them to work through their challenges without the all-or-nothing threat that has inhibited disclosure.

It’s a messy proposal, one that would require time and personnel many missions don’t have—following overseas workers personally and intimately, allowing for honest, bared-soul reporting in a safe context.

Imagine how Permission To Be Flawed (from friends, churches, mission boards and colleagues) and strategies/personnel in place to address the problems when they occur might change the experience and reporting of struggling missionaries.

Permission to Rest
For some missionaries, the nature of ministry can take a personal and relational toll. In some cases, it becomes physical too—when the body can no longer sustain the strain of an all-encompassing, all-demanding work. The pace can be relentless.

The problem, when missionaries report periods of rest, is that it often comes without context.
Because they try so hard to sound positive about the work they’re doing, you won’t hear the fatigue, discouragement or urgency in their communication.

Taking a Sunday afternoon nap, doing coffee with a friend or snuggling in for a movie night shouldn’t be guilt-inducing, yet too often it is.

Missionaries may be doing God’s work, but they’re doing it in human bodies. If Jesus needed to get away during his time on earth, surely we can grant permission to those who work in his name today to find appropriate respite from the rigors of their ministry.

Rest isn’t a luxury. It’s a God-mandated necessity.

Permission to Spend 
We like our missionaries to look deprived and to live without. It adds a certain nobility to their status and to the giver’s sacrifice. We honor self-sacrifice and deem it a cornerstone of missionary endeavors. And indeed it is. Leaving loved ones. Choosing a non-traditional life in another culture.

Missionaries sacrifice willingly. And sometimes, out of a misplaced effort to be good stewards of donations, they sacrifice too much. I call it “misallocation of emotional energy.” Living precariously, making life more complicated than it needs to be, forces missionaries to invest their finite supply of emotional energy in coping with unnecessary duress.

Attrition numbers on the mission field are rising. In many of the interactions I’ve had with missionaries who have left their work, there’s been a common thread of just not being “able to handle it anymore”—people who have given it all up, even small material comforts, in an effort to prove full devotion through extreme deprivation. And they can’t sustain the effort long-term.

I’m not advocating for reckless spending or luxurious living. I’m advocating for supporters who understand that they’re funding the whole person, and that her quality of life will be a crucial factor in the longevity of the ministry.

If there is a way to remedy a debilitating “lack,” however trivial it may seem, so the missionary can focus on more important things, isn’t it healthy for her to do so?

Even when given permission to spend, missionaries will need to grant themselves the license to identify what is causing a misallocation of emotional energy and find ways to reduce the stress it’s causing.

- - - - - -

The Permission Challenge
Extending these permissions might reduce the pressure that becomes toxic to missionaries. Sometimes that pressure is self-inflicted, derived from the unachievable standards they levy on themselves. And sometimes it’s imposed by supporters and churches who mean well, but fail to measure the human toll of a life in ministry.

The onus of responsibility is twofold:
  • on the missionaries who self-blame and self-shame 
  • on the networks that back them, sometimes piling unreasonable expectations on people who work in circumstances they can’t fully fathom
If churches and supporters want to encourage missionaries to live in these permissions, they’ll need to exhibit a culture of personal interest, non-judgmental inquisitiveness and generous understanding.
  • Ask questions that show sincere concern. 
  • Acknowledging the flaws of humanness and the stresses of ministry. 
  • Validate the person.
  • Exercise compassionate discernment.
For missionaries to give themselves permission to be confused and flawed, to rest and to spend, a shift in priorities will have to occur, one in which their health - physical, spiritual, emotional and relational — is just as valued as the work they do, regardless of the pressure to put themselves last.

Excerpts from Permissions Missionaries Need, by Michele Phoenix (an MK/TCK advocate and author)