Tag Archives: grace

Sustained in the Beautiful Hard

The first time I heard it was Sept 6, 1999. In the wee hours of the morning through the jet lag as newlyweds who naively landed ourselves on assignment in Kenya, the dawn was alive with the exotic melodies of birds. Their songs heralded the beginning of a fresh new day, bathing it in beautiful anticipation, proclaiming God’s glory to all. Through all our years in Kenya, Uganda and Congo these morning songs were a constant joy.

Landing in Cameroon two weeks ago, I subconsciously expected everything to be similar to our life in Congo. Sure enough, some of our favorite things about our previous home – morning birds, huge juicy mangoes, choirs singing in church in colorful fabrics – were similar. Oh how I missed those morning songs!! Cameroon has the same freshly roasted peanuts, red clay roads, long handshakes and strong hospitality. To focus on all the beautiful things, I am tempted to reflect on our Spring Break trip as a fabulous success.

But that would not be the whole story. It was certainly not my success. And it would skip the testimony of God’s power in our lives this past two weeks to stop there. Let us never skip an opportunity to tell of his mighty works even when it costs us something. So we will share the detailed truth that it may bring God even more glory.
Each day several friends ask, “How was Cameroon?”
The short story is: “It was beautiful. And it was hard.”
Vibrantly beautiful and
terribly hard
at the same time.

Spiritual opposition often feels like all the cards are stacked against you. Nothing went very smoothly, and God intervened over and over and over to keep us moving forward. He sustained us. Our first obstacle was the denial of visas that left uncertainty over our departure like a cloud until God miraculously delivered new visas the exact day we needed them. Secondly, the 24 hours of flights did not always include foods we could all eat, but God brought a flight attendant to bring us special treats from First Class.

Upon arrival in Cameroon, we realized we had left our Yellow Fever vaccination cards in America. They are required for entry into many African countries and some will even vaccinate you in the airport if you don’t have your yellow card! We were stuck at the mercy of the health department officials. They could have refused us entry or forced us into shots then and there. God gave us favor with one of the officials who decided against protocol to accept our photo images of yellow cards on Kent’s laptop. (Later one woman would try to stop us from leaving the country on the same grounds, but pass us because of the work we do.) God’s intervention for the win!

We settled into our guesthouse rooms and crashed. We had not been prepared for the heat and humidity. We knew there would not be air conditioning. What we didn’t know is that March is the hottest month of the year. So 90-degree days don’t sound too hot, until you factor in 95% humidity with a ‘Real Feel’ of 117 degrees! We were sweating through 3-4 sets of clothes each day, which didn’t help us hydrate after the airplanes. We couldn’t drink enough and we had to focus on filtering enough water for the 5 of us to keep up. The heat sapped our energy and melted our brains, putting us in a fog. Sleeping under mosquito nets seemed to make the heat worse. God kept our filter working quickly, gave us a fridge that worked, a fan to sleep by, and sustained us in a way that doesn’t make sense to me even in retrospect.

Within 48 hours, I was not recovering energy or health from jet lag, I was actually getting worse each day knocked down with the flu. Kent left for his conference out of town. While he was away, I was not sleeping much at night. I think I was allergic to the dusty, lumpy mattress. One night, my lungs began to fill to the point where I felt out of breath to walk a few steps. I am familiar with walking pneumonia, and knew I was in trouble. God intervened. One of my friends was taking me shopping the next morning and I asked her to help me buy an inhaler and allergy meds. She just ‘happened’ to have meds and an extra new inhaler sitting in her house that another missionary had given away! Within 2-3 days with the meds and inhaler my lungs cleared and I could breathe again. I haven’t had allergic asthma like that in maybe 10 years, but it hunted me down on this trip.

Kent’s conference was productive and fruitful, but not without difficulty. He was staying in hotel that some days had water and some days not. God got him through and got him home. He returned safely back to us after 4 days and promptly came down with the flu. For a few days we were both down at the same time. I had a horrible stomach ache that wouldn’t go away. God gently reminded me what the enemy was trying to steal, kill and destroy on our trip. He would love us to call it ‘ruined’ and only remember the ‘bad’. We gathered our family to sing and pray. My stomach ache left and never returned. It was a turning point in my full recovery. Kent had enough of the dusty, lumpy mattress and got a ride to bargain for a new one. God granted him favor with the shop and he bought a wonderful new mattress for 70% of the asking price! We started to sleep so much better!

Through the fog of heat and illness, we were trying to tour available houses for our move this summer, but our time and energy reserves were so low. One hour out of the house required two more recovering. This was made only more complicated by the fact that there were no known houses available big enough for our family. The unrest in outlying areas had many displaced colleagues moving into the city in the past years, so there is a housing shortage. We met one Cameroonian colleague who has 25 family members staying with him! We also had no car, the heat was unbearable and we needed to walk everywhere in the muddy clay. Hour by hour, God gave us the strength beyond understanding to get something done.

Our last 2 days in Cameroon were wonderful. We had strength again. And good friends had planned to come and spend time with us. We hadn’t lived in the same country in 14 years. Sweet fellowship. Time to smell flowers, dry laundry on the line, enjoy the first spring mangoes. In the midst of a minefield of obstacles, James, Joel and Anna enjoyed everything! They enjoyed the foods they remembered from their younger years. They enjoyed meeting new friends and attending their new school. Teachers let them jump right in. Joel chased agama lizards and played in the dirt with the little kids. Anna picked her favorite tropical flowers. James immediately clicked with other teenagers who “get him” as a missionary kid. So much glory. So much beauty. The calm before the return storm.

Our last night in Cameroon, I had a horrific nightmare. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been tormented by a dream like that. It had zero connection to reality. It was pure evil. We fought back with prayer and I began to sing praises to Jesus, which our enemy hates. God carried me through. He is victorious!

Our return home was odd in that every single airport was frought with more obstacles. It seemed that we would never make it home. There was a 2-hour delay leaving Cameroon due to trouble with the fuel truck (?!). There was a strike in Brussels for air traffic controllers, so we boarded and sat on the tarmac another 2.5 hours. This meant we missed our connecting flight in Washington DC by 5 minutes and were stranded. All the while, Anna’s health continued to decline. She was sick to her stomach more and more often and hadn’t eaten much in 2-3 days. We were rescheduled, overnighted in Houston and finally made it home (without bags) the next day. The fingerprints of Grace followed us. Airport personnel cleaning up barf for us. A stranger giving us a plastic bag when we needed one. The airport shop having a ‘sale’ on Tshirts and toothbrushes when our kids needed something else to wear. A hotel with free breakfast enough to feed our boys, and free airport shuttles that run at 1am. God’s grace followed us. (Anna has a parasite and is recovering well at home.)

He sustained us. We would not have survived this trip without his help. We not only survived, we accomplished almost all our goals for the two weeks! So how was our trip?

The verse that comes to mind is Paul’s testimony in 2 Corinthians 4:8-
“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed.
We are perplexed, but not driven to despair.
We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God.
We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.
Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus
so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.”

If you read this all the way to the end, I pray you have seen the life of Jesus in this story. I pray this post is like the beautiful birds’ song which proclaims God’s glory to all who will listen. If He can comfort, guide, protect and sustain me when I feel like I can’t breathe in a foreign country with flu and malarial mosquitoes at 117 degrees… He can comfort, guide, protect and sustain you where you are too. He sustains in the beautiful hard.

“But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head.
Psalm 3:3



Sunrise from our back yard
Sunrise from our back yard

In my all-too-brief(-so-far) lifetime, I have found much to complain about. It seems like everywhere I go, there’s something that isn’t the way I want it.

I was speaking with a colleague in our kitchen once, and asked how she got on, traveling more than we do. Her answer was short and simple: she has different things she enjoys in each place she goes, and she focuses on enjoying what is there, in whatever place she happens to be (trust me, her words were simpler than that, but this is me writing now… :-)).

So I was thinking about this this morning, as I looked out at the most amazing sunset I can recall (above). The fact that I noted it is itself notable; I’m sure it looks even better from non-colorblind eyes, but it was enough to impress me, in any case.

Having spent much of last week in the Pacific Northwest, walking in the rain through wet leaves that have been decomposing on the ground for weeks (at least), we returned to Texas to see most of the leaves blown off the trees in our area in a single gusty day —and continue to blow in the wind like driven snow.  But I think each has its beauty, if you look for it.  The PacNW soft earth that your feet sink into, reminiscent of a mud ball that just happens to have a thick head of green hair, is nothing like the dry clay of North Texas, which opens cracks greater than an inch, then fills up in a heavy rain until it floods again and again.…

Anyway, I thought I should stop my complaining (if only for a moment) and give God glory for the beauty he has brought into our lives.

And with that perspective, I recall that there is a much better reason to rejoice in all circumstances. Paul once wrote of his contentment in the face of financial need:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
(Philippians 4:11-13 ESV)

Somewhat ironic to think of hunger, when my greater complaints are expensive avocados and mangos (which could also double as rocks, some times), or not being able to find meat that doesn’t have flies all over it in the market (I’ll let you guess which complaint belongs to which place).

As I think through this verse, I think what Paul is saying is that his contentment doesn’t come from having enough food, or the kinds of food he likes, nor even having beautiful sunsets in one place and beautiful local music in another. Paul’s contentment comes because Jesus is the source of his life and happiness, and Jesus never leaves us.

Think about it — if I’m not happy because I have food, clothing and shelter that I like, but rather because the Creator of the universe is on my side (or rather has made me on His side), then my happiness that cannot be taken from me, whatever my circumstance.

Do I really get, on a daily and momentary basis, that my sins (real as they are) have been washed clean, and that I have relationship with God, not because I earned it, but just because He is that good?

Jesus took the worst day in all human history, and made it *Good* Friday, because on that day He gave us the greatest good we will ever know. Then He proved it three days later, in case there was any question that our fight with sin and death was finished. How can we not want that to be the center of our life, love, and happiness?



Romans 6:1-14

Here is my mindmap for Romans 6:1-14:

Here is the scrolls for this week, and here are a few more questions of my own:

  1. What questions does Paul ask the reader?
  2. What are the answers?
  3. How is Baptism like death?
  4. What does it mean to be Baptized into Christ?
  5. How does baptism answer the questions of sin and grace?
  6. What is the connection between baptism and death?
  7. Where do we get newness of life?
  8. What are the costs/benefits of being united with Christ?
  9. Who is crucified/done away with in v.6?
  10. Why does Death no longer have power over Jesus?
  11. How does that affect our lives? Why?
  12. Why doesn’t sin dominate us?

Romans 4:13-25

Here is my mind map of this passage:

Here are the scrolls for this week, and here are some more questions of my own:

  1. What two consequences of justification by Grace does Paul mention here?
  2. How do we know that the promise didn’t come through the law?
  3. How would the adherents of the law inheriting nullify faith/grace?
  4. Of whom is Abraham the father?
  5. How does he describe God?
  6. What kind of hope did Abraham have? In what? To what end?
  7. What kind of faith did Abraham have? In what? To what end?
  8. Why was Abraham’s story recorded?
  9. Who is ‘us’? Who is Jesus?

Introduction: Romans 1:1-7 thoughts

Introductions are somewhat like genealogies to many of us; we have a tendency to just blow them off, and skip to “the good stuff”. But this introduction has plenty of Good stuff in it. It introduces Paul, the Gospel, Jesus, and the Christian, all of which are very relevant to us today, and which will be relevant as we go through the rest of this book.

Paul is a servant, yet also an apostle. How is one sent in authority also a servant? Yet this reflects Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:42-45 (ESV):

And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.43But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servantd, 44and whoever would be first among you must be slavee of all. 45For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Paul is also set apart for the Gospel, to the end of the “obedience of faith”. Interesting that those who are in Rome (v7) are “called to be saints”; holiness is also essentially being set apart. So the one is set apart to preach the gospel, and the others are set apart to live it.

These verses also pack in a lot about Jesus, the point of the Gospel (and of everything else, truth be told).  Jesus in the gospel fulfills promises made by men who spoke for God, whose words were written down and kept for us to read.

The gospel is about Jesus, the Son of God (putting together vv1-3: the gospel of God, which [God] promised beforehand … concerning his Son), but it is also about Jesus the Son of David (v3). But He is also Jesus, the Son of God in power… by his resurrection (v4), and finally, Jesus is the source of both grace and apostleship (v5).

This last one I find interesting, given the bilateral nature of lordship. That is, a Lord and a subject have a two way relationship, the one providing protection and other resources necessary for life, and the other providing service and fealty. In the same way, Jesus provides us Grace, which we need for (eternal and any other) life, but he also gives us a job, to represent him before a fallen world.

Rephrasing the above, in five short verses we see Jesus as the eternal Son of God, the human Son of Man, the glorified Son of God, and the Son our Lord.

These verses also talk about what it means to be a Christian. That is, the purpose of the Gospel is to bring about the obedience of faith (v5), and that purpose is to be fulfilled in the readers (v6). Some have argued about the meaning of “obedience of faith”, given the linguistic ambiguity of the construction. Does it mean that faith is obedience? or that obedience that comes from faith (e.g., NIV)? Or obedience that is in some other way characterized by faith? My understanding of the construction is that it doesn’t require or exclude any of these, and that we must interpret it from the larger context.

Why is this question important? One conversation I had recently asked whether Paul here is talking about a single act of faith, which produces justification (as will be treated at length later in Romans), which is thus itself obedience, but not intrinsically tied to any other obedience? Or is Paul talking about obedience that flows from faith, i.e., sanctification, the act of Christians being made more holy subsequent to their trusting Jesus. And most critically, is it possible to have the one and not the other? Is it possible to trust Jesus, then never produce any concrete life change?

I have heard this question debated ad nauseum, and I think it is important for scholars to wrestle with it, but I think here it is enough to say that even if it is possible to have faith without obedience, that would in no way be a good thing, and that in no way is the point of the Gospel. That is, for Paul (and I hope for us), we want to see lives changed because people trust Jesus (and thereby have a right relationship with God, and go to heaven, etc), but we also want to see lives changed here and now as people live more rightly (and thereby glorify God more in their bodies, here and now). If you’re promoting either one without the other, you’re cheating people, IMHO. And perhaps this is why Paul used an ambiguous phrase here. Perhaps the Gospel is there to make people obey by placing their faith in Jesus. Perhaps it is also there to make people more like Jesus, once they have placed their faith in him, and tasted and seen how good he is.

And this is affirmed in Paul’s description of hearers in v7: loved by God and called to be saints. We are not just loved, we are called to be holy. And we are not just called to be holy, but we are loved. This is a package deal, and we get it all in Jesus.

I was somewhat surprised to hear called to be saints this morning used in reference to unbelievers. I’m not sure if Paul meant it that way. But it does make sense, given that those whom he predestined he also called (8:30) is a part of the golden chain that predates conversion, and given that this predestination happened before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8 & 17:8). So while we who believe are called to be holy, it stands to reason that there are some who have not yet converted, but who are nonetheless also loved by God and called to be holy. If so, how does God show this love? And how does he call them to be holy? Paul tells us his thoughts on this in ch 10:

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?c And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15And 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!”

So we share the Gospel, and that calls people out of darkness into the kingdom of Light, and it shows people the love of God, as they hear what meets their greatest need.

And this is why grace and peace (v7) are distinctively Christian greetings. We proclaim grace to one another, because we know that it is by grace that we live and breathe. And we proclaim peace to one another, because this is what God has accomplished for us.  And this is not just the sit-down-and-rest-awhile peace of a half time show; it is the complete fulfillment of all our needs in Jesus. It is peace with ourselves and peace with others because we have peace with the creator and sustainer of the universe –and everything else is secondary.