Lose the Fish, Gain a……

Don’t worry, I’m really not going to say that much about fish.

I recently started a short devotional study on pursuing God and God’s relentless pursuit of us.

Day 1 started off well enough. Sort of an introduction to the idea of breaking down the things that keep us from pursuing Jesus with our whole hearts.

On Day 2 I read the story of the fishermen turned apostles. After catching more fish than their nets could carry, on command they left them on the shore and quite literally followed this strange preaching man till the end of His days. (Luke 5:4-11) The end of the devotional asked this question: Are you willing to leave everything to pursue Christ?

It’s a worthwhile question and at first I was really into it, challenging myself, would I be willing to leave this or that, things God had given to me along the way, things I felt I deserved? We’re told to count the cost, and I thought that’s what I was doing. But what does the cost of something matter if you don’t take into account the value of what you’re getting? A blender could be dirt cheap, but if all the reviews on Amazon say it breaks after three days of use, the value is not worth the tiny cost. Would you spend $100 on an appliance that had a life-time warranty, an item proven to last and stand the test of time? Maybe. If you had the money. Because that’s something that has obvious value. That’s the whole point of investing right? Putting money into something because you know the value will increase and be worth more if you stick with it.

Moments later I found myself with this prayer, Lord, I want my question to be not, “What are You going to ask me to leave?” but “What are You going to ask me to gain?”

Non-believers often see Christians as carrying with them a list of all the things they can’t do. Christians can’t get drunk, they can’t dress inappropriately, they can’t party. Blah Blah. Let’s not think of ourselves the same way. Instead of feeling burdened everyday by all the things God asked us to leave behind, consider what God is giving you in their place. Yes, these fishermen left their entire livelihood on the banks of the shore that day, but consider what they gained. They may have lost their identity as fishers of fish, but they acquired an identity as fishers of men! An identity given to them from the mouth of Christ. And they immediately became some of the original 12 disciples of our Lord and Savior.

Maybe one day God will ask me to leave behind my livelihood as a teacher and start on a path that seems much less certain. That’s definitely how I felt when I left my home and moved to Uganda. I had no—and quite frankly still don’t have any—idea what He brought me here for. But when asked to follow, you follow. (I like to imagine when I’m finally meeting God face to face and He’s playing back the video tape of all my life choices on his God-sized projector, and hearing Him say in His big God voice, “So here, in 2015, I asked you to follow, and go to Uganda and you were like ‘nah God, I’m cool right here, thanks though,’ What was that about man?”)

Jesus told believers not to look back, not even to go back to their family and say goodbye, but only to pick up and follow Him. (Luke 9:61-62)

Often I miss the things I left. Nights in the kitchen watching America’s Got Talent with my mom. Parades, Cookouts, Thanksgiving with my extended family. Sitting in the church fellowship hall every Sunday connecting with my Grandparents. Long evening discussions with my best friend on a couch in one of our apartments. Just as I’m sure Simon and the sons of Zebedee occasionally missed their quiet mornings on the Lake of Genesaret waiting for fish to wander into their nets— especially in times when Jesus was stirring up major controversy. You think when they were in Jerusalem and Jesus was in the middle of flipping the vendors’ tables in the synagogue, shouting, birds and produce flying everywhere, Simon ever turned to James and said, “Hey man, ever miss those days when all we did was wait for a bite?” I don’t know, but if they were anything like me they did.

The changes in our hearts and lifestyles that God does should surely be celebrated. I was there, now I’m here. I was lost, now I’m found. But I think keeping our eyes fixed to what we have gained is even more vital to our growth as Christians than focusing on what is now behind us. Yes, I sometimes miss my old life. I look back on photos from high school and college and it feels like an utterly different lifetime. But that’s what I had to leave in order to be where I am now, which is living in an extremely beautiful, developing country that forces me to grow in difficult and fantastic ways. I have a fiancé who was raised in a culture so opposite mine, and we teach each other every day. I regularly feel I have a better relationship with my family because I appreciate our phone calls and rare time together so much more than I used to. But most importantly I have a staggering feeling that I am on the cusp of uncovering God’s deep desires for me, and that, I see as a huge gain.

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What Are You Building?

I was having trouble writing for what felt like quite a while just because I’ve had so much swirling around me that I’m trying to catch on to. I have made it a habit of writing about what I know God is teaching me and in the past three months I have seen Him move SO much. He has answered prayers of mine that have been on my lips for ages now. He has changed my heart in ways I didn’t expect. He has been doing so much, but I wasn’t able to process any of it. With all this moving and shifting going on, and all the things I’ve seen Him do in my life, it has taken me so long to feel like I’m holding a tiny string of what He might be teaching me.

I’m coming out of a season of stress. I spent most of Fall completely overwhelmed by my life. Work was demanding more and more from me, with four school performances to arrange within three weeks of each other, talent show auditions, preparations for the school musical, reports to write on each student. I was barely keeping up. Personally, I felt like I had never been more uncertain when I looked into my future. I knew I was getting married in several months but I didn’t know where we would live, where I would work, if we would have enough money. I was actively trying to discern where God wanted me to serve after my teaching contract ended. I had already put in my notice at my job and wanted to be sure where I went next was where God was leading me. I didn’t know how Michael and I would be able to live together when we got married, when he was then residing two hours away. I had just gotten engaged and was confronted with the complications of planning a wedding in a foreign country. And my fiancé was in the middle of applying for a visa to the US to visit my family and home for the first time. As the first week of December arrived, I had no idea on what side of the world I would be spending Christmas, or if my family would get to meet Michael before we got married. I was in the middle of all these situations in which I felt I could do nothing but pray, I was waiting on God to move. And for someone who prefers to be in action, that is an extremely frustrating place to be.

It seemed every new, small problem that arose—my cell phone falling in the toilet, my power or running water going out—sent me over the edge. Each day I woke up afraid of what that “one thing” would be that day that would leave me incapacitated.

I was bombarded, overwhelmed. I felt weight pushing down on me. I knew I was called to be victorious, more than a conqueror, but I didn’t feel that way, and I didn’t know how to get my mind into alignment with spiritual truths. I was praying and fasting, yet still crying each day from the height of my stress level. I didn’t know how to give things over to God.

On a Monday, my busiest day at work, I sat in my classroom with a spare 20 minutes thinking, this is not how the life of a believer should look. I’m living as if I don’t believe there is a God who is all powerful, all knowing, completely able to take care of me. I’m making decisions as if I don’t really believe I’m going to look into His face and give an account for my choices at the end of my life.

In the last several months Eric Johnson’s sermon ‘God on Mute’ has been an incredible blessing to me. From that sermon I learned that this question of “God, what is Your will for my life?” is not the correct question. It’s the question most of us ask, but it’s the wrong question because it ends up putting us into a box containing what we believe God wants for us on the inside, and everything He doesn’t want for us, every other choice we could make, on the outside.

I’ve noticed for a while how small my view of God had become and I wanted to invert that box. I wanted God’s ‘will’ for me to feel large and expansive and not imprisoning and limited. And that’s why I changed that ‘will’ question to “God, what are you building in me?”

I’ll be the first to say that when I moved to Uganda full-time, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I had spent a few months here before, but I had a very small picture of how difficult life actually is for a foreign woman living on her own in a developing country. I often still get overwhelmed at it all.

So I knew in all my troubling circumstances I should be asking God, what are you building in me? But I also found myself saying, “God, I’m actually really scared of whatever it is you might be using this stuff to prepare me for.”

God, I have these issues whizzing around me. I have responsibilities I’m struggling to keep up with because I feel so weighed down. I can’t actually see how I’m going to make it through the last weeks of this term without breaking down daily. I don’t yet know my place here. I started noticing how often this world tries to take your eyes off Jesus.

But as we entered 2017, weights started breaking off of me. God removed the worries I had for so long. Michael’s US visa was granted, we travelled together, job opportunities came into my line of sight, I survived yet another stressful term of teaching.

In January, I met back up with my bible study group of women and we reflected on what we saw God do throughout our time together in 2016. We discovered that during our Christmases apart, God had answered every prayer we had been praying for each other. It was astounding. I looked back at my journal at lists of things I was waiting on God for, and I could literally tick them off because I had seen God answer them all. I went home that night after our first bible study meeting of 2017 and discovered that just that day, God had finally answered another prayer I had for nearly two years!

For me I’m finding it to be a very gradual building process. A slow process of me waking up realizing, ‘Oh, I don’t worry about that thing like I used to,” or, “Wow, I see now how You were with me through that hard time. I see how merciful You are.” By no means do I feel like I have everything together, but I’m on my way to seeing what God is building in me.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, I would encourage you to NOT STOP PRAYING. This really carried me through. Talking to God in every moment. Reminding myself that I’m not alone in this. Make appointments to speak with Him, and keep His name on your lips.

A Priscilla Shirer study taught me the secret to living in peace is living in gratitude. So you know what, God, yeah things might be really hard sometimes, but you are sustaining me. You don’t waste anything, and everything hard that I go through, every hurt and worry and stressor is still being used to build me on the inside.

Now, sitting on the other side of the canyon I couldn’t see across four months ago, I am beyond grateful to God. Jobs are in order, housing will be there, wedding is slowly coming together, Michael’s visa is done. It’s like all of a sudden I’m looking back wondering, what was there to worry about? But if only I had known then what I know now.

Maybe one day I’ll get it. Maybe one day my heart will finally be steadied and I’ll learn just how in control He really is. Until then, God, keep me praying, keep me expecting, keep me yearning for You. Because I see how you reveal yourself to those of us who are willing to let you lay the bricks and foundation for what is to come.

The Bench Where My Heart Breaks.

God breaks my heart regularly.

Such a harsh, and possibly shocking, thing to say, because most of us spend a great deal of time trying to protect our hearts from hurt. But I think I gave up that right to protect my heart when I gave it to Jesus completely. In college I told God He had the right to use my life to serve Him and mold me to become more like His Son’s image. I gave up that right to keep a fence around my heart when I followed Him to Uganda.  And I gave up that right when I surrender to Him daily.

In the nearly two years that I’ve been living here, I have seen quite a few sights that have left me shocked, confused, sympathetic. But they were usually situations involving people I had little to no relationship with.

The first time my heart really broke here it happened on a small bench, in a field, beside a few men building a pit latrine.

For a while, okay my whole life, but for most of 2016, I had been asking God to tell me what He wanted me to do. What was my next step. God, what do You want me to do with my LIFE?! What is Your will for ME?

The BIG question, right?

I mean, He moved me to Uganda, gave me a job, and put this stirring in my heart to serve others. And now I couldn’t figure out what to do with what He had done for me. In the early Fall I was beginning to spend so much time worrying about what was to come for me. My future in my career, my future with my (then) boyfriend Michael, my future in Uganda.

One day, on that small bench. I sat like I did on many afternoons, staring out on a little field that had been matooke trees just a few months earlier, helping my young neighbor with his homework.

Now Ashem, my neighbor, is around nine years old, but he is very wise. I’ve seen him simultaneously watch over his two younger brothers, wash dishes in a basin, run his mother’s vegetable shop, and do his homework. But his childlikeness remains evident when he builds swings and small forts and plays school with his friends. He has apparent leadership qualities, but I fear for the man he will become as he is raised in an abusive, non-Christian home.

That particular afternoon in September, in the midst of answering religious education questions and turning fractions into decimals, Ashem told me stories about all the people meandering around us.

“That one stole his friend’s phone.”

“That one will beat us if he hears us call him Sudanese.”

“That one’s husband was killed.”

“That one doesn’t eat food, only dirt.”

“That one killed that one’s baby in the hospital.”

The men continue building the walls to the pit latrine (squatting toilet) while Ashem tells me that until it’s finished, people have no where to go to the bathroom other than this very field I’m currently sitting in. I look around me and I suddenly notice people carrying small bags of you know what, and dropping them randomly around the field.

About 30 minutes later, we finished up the homework, and I went home and sobbed.

Crack crack crack went my heart.

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I thought about how I spend so much of my time worrying about my small problems while pain ravages throughout those who live right down my street. I thought about how I was currently teaching some of the richest kids in the country, kids who are so westernized, many have never been to a village or a slum or even talked to a person in dire need, and how I’m not allowed to talk to them about God at all. And I thought about how my little friend of nine was privy to all this pain. He watched it happen and told the stories like he was reading from his school book. And my heart breaks for these people, not because I read about them in an article or watch them on the news, but because these are people I see everyday: People I greet as I walk home from work, kids I share my ukulele with and teach addition songs, women I buy vegetables from.

Since that day in September, God continually opens my eyes, reveals hurts to my empathetic heart and renders me confused in how I can do anything to help.

Last week, on that same small bench, I was again helping Ashem, this time with his multiplication timetables. Just then, a bunch of other little boys come by dragging another young friend of mine, Mark. Mark is kicking and punching and Ashem tells me they just caught Mark smoking cigarettes. It seems he does this all the time, and he is most likely addicted. I walk over to the group of boys holding Mark, who is still trying to get away. He is holding his breath with big puffed up cheeks, so I won’t smell the smoke on him. I try to speak with Mark about how bad smoking is for his health while the boys Ashem and Suubi translate to him, but the whole time he is desperate to get away. We go back to multiplication and Ashem tells me sometimes Mark steals money to buy alcohol.

By my estimation Mark is about 8 years old.

And crack goes my heart again.

It’s situations like this, I don’t know what to do with. Seriously, God? I’m just going about my normal life, and then you throw something like that right in front of me. I want to help, but when I feel like I can only understand this culture through the pinhole lens the last 2 years have provided me, I don’t know how I can. Maybe I could talk to Mark’s mom but most likely she would just end up beating him and then leaving the situation alone.

Sometimes I wish I could help all the hurting kids around me. The kids who are in unhealthy situations, either from abuse or hygiene when their toilet is literally the road we live on. But being a foreign person here, where many people expect you to be their savior, is a complicated thing. In many ways Uganda is not what people in the West think it is. It’s not a place of thousands of kids out on the street because they don’t have families at all; that’s not the hardship. The difficulty is that they do. They have mothers who most often care very deeply for their children, and genuinely want what’s best for them. But they themselves are caught up in the status quo, the poverty, the abuse, and they’re doing the best they can, it’s just rarely enough.

Every time God breaks my heart, I ask Him what He wants me to do with it. Why did He bring me here when I don’t know if the little I do makes any difference. Why did He give me this teaching job so similar to what I would be doing at home? Why is Uganda part of my story? What does He have for me here that He couldn’t call someone else, someone stronger to do?

And the hardest part for me right now is I don’t know when or if I’ll ever find out the answers to my questions.

But for now, I only know that I’m here for the small moments: to practice multiplication with a young boy, to share my water bootle in the hot afternoon, or to show an 8-year-old boy that I will still give him hugs when I find out he has been smoking.

Today I came home from work and found the vegetable shop to be gone. Completely vanished. No sign of Ashem, his brothers Aki and Azza, or their mother. And certainly not that bench. I’m left without a clue, hoping maybe a neighbor will know something.

Will I see them again? I don’t know. Are they safe? I don’t know.

How do I keep together all these crumbling pieces of my heart? I don’t know. I’m at a loss for words and I can’t get these little kids out of my head.

Having a broken heart is a terrible feeling. It’s pain and agony and confusion. But somewhere during the healing process it feels like roots start to creep out of those cracks. You start becoming thankful for the moments you had with people you’ve lost. And you remember God can use anything for His good. I’m just now learning to be grateful for these moments when I’m so stuck in my own head, so concerned with my own life, and God grabs me and shakes me and says WAKE UP! LOOK AROUND YOU. I think having a broken heart forces you to make choices that being whole doesn’t require of you. What are you going to do with what He has shown you? With this pain and burden you feel? Because it’s often the broken heart that is the catalyst, the propeller, for whatever that elusive ‘will’ is that He has for you.

Maybe I’m closer to knowing why God brought me to Uganda, maybe I’m not, but I want to thank you for walking with me as I attempt to bury this broken heart of mine into His soil and see what He grows it into.

Thank you to those of you who have made it to the end of this rant-like post, and if you’re still with me, please join me in praying for Ashem and his family wherever they are, Mark and his addictive behavior, and all the people who live in my neighborhood that need a whole lot more Jesus every day.

Left to Right: Ashem, Azza and Aki doing laundry. Azza rocking my sunnies. Ashem doing addition on his leg.

When Is It Okay To Be A Hypocrite?

Right now I’m staring down situations that might cause me to make decisions in ways I never thought I would. Decisions regarding marriage, career, family, and making some choices that look a whole lot like things I’ve advised friends not to do. When I look back on myself even just a few years ago, I never imagined I would be in this place, in this season of life. And there’s a big part of me that really fears what my closest friends and family think of me, will they see me as hypocritical if I change my mind?

I’ve been considering this question just a little bit these days, somewhere in the back of my mind. But it jumped to the foreground the morning I was reading about Saul’s conversion in the book of Acts.

This man, Saul, was known and feared for arresting and imprisoning followers of Jesus. He was present and approving of the death of the first martyr, (Acts 8:1), and threatened to kill them himself (9:1) He was on his way to Damascus where he would get paperwork to further help him in arresting Christians the day his whole world was shaken. He heard the voice of Jesus in a light shining from heaven. And this voice called him by name. He fell to the ground and was blinded for three days. And who came along to heal him but a timid follower of Jesus, leading him to give his life over to the cause he had just been devoting himself to fighting against.

After Saul gave his life to Christ and began preaching, people were skeptical of him, questioning, “Isn’t this the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” (9:21)

People remembered who he was before. Maybe even those same people he threw in prison were sitting in the very cells he put them in, remembering his heartless demeanor as he persecuted them for this faith he is now claiming. This man was now preaching exactly what they had been arrested for believing. I bet you they were all confused and maybe even angry.

And his fellow Jewish pharisees were probably saying, “How could you turn your back on us? After all we’ve been through. Our people worked together to kill this Jesus guy, and now you say you believe He is the Son of God?” They saw him as a traitor.

But only Saul knew what happened that day Jesus spoke through light on that road to Damascus. Some men traveling with him were there but only Saul knew what it was like to be blind for three days and be healed by someone he would have seen as inferior to him just a few days earlier. Only Saul felt what that change in his heart was like. That change that Jesus said would make him the “chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.” (9:15)

In my life I’ve never had such a dramatic experience as a light in the form of Jesus calling my name, blinding me and making me see I was on the wrong path in life. But I’ve had my share of unexpected turns of events.

Growing up I swore I would never live alone. I thought it would be too scary to even live in an apartment by myself somewhere in Michigan. Yet here I am, living by myself in East Africa.

My whole childhood I listened to my mom say she would never leave America, too many interesting places to see in our own country, why would she go elsewhere? Then just a month into my first trip to Uganda I receive word that she’s coming—completely unprovoked by me.

In college my heart was broken and I said I would never get married before I turned 30, little did I know, within three years I would be 24 and engaged to a man I met deep in an African village.

After my first three months in Uganda I told myself and others that I didn’t have an interest in teaching music anymore, I wanted to serve the poor. Lo and behold, God called me back to Uganda through a job as a high school music teacher for some of the most privileged children in the country.

Scripture and my own life have showed me that it’s okay to change your tune. You shouldn’t fear what others will say when you turn and go the opposite way you said you would. There is a need to apologize when you realize the decision you told all of your friends not to make seems to actually be the right one.

And these things are okay only as long as God is at the heart of the change.

It’s one thing to make up your mind and change it willy-nilly, whenever you please, but I’m starting to realize it’s okay to change your mind and maybe appear hypocritical, if it’s something God has done. When your heart and mind are changed because of something GOD DID, that is not an embarrassment. That is worth sharing.

I think it’s natural for us to worry what people will think of us when we do change our minds and admit we were wrong before. Saul himself hid in a basket to escape the threats of Jews wanting to kill him after his conversion. But he never stopped preaching his testimony of what God did inside him.

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” —1 Timothy 1:15-16

God is in the business of changing hearts and when he brings us from darkness to light, from wrong to right, it is a testimony to Him. It’s not something to hide or be ashamed of because He deserves to be glorified.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” —Ezekiel 36:26 

“Sometimes His best work is not what he does for us but what He does inside us.”
—Priscilla Shirer