Choosing a Goodbye

 

 

I was 25 the first time I chose a goodbye.

I’d had plenty of goodbyes before. They were painful, but they seemed inevitable. For a third culture kid, I was relatively stable, which still meant moving: to Tanzania at age 2, to Illinois at ages 11, back to Tanzania at 13, to Kenya at 16, to Minnesota for college, then back to Kenya. Teachers, best friends, and family friends rotated out every two years.

I couldn’t do much about it, so I made the best of it. I made friends with the neighbors for the two years we lived in Chicago for my dad’s PhD, for the three months we staying at my uncle’s in the US, for the three days we stayed in a guest house going home. I was never going to fully fit in, but I dressed right and switched my accent. I became intentional about how I said goodbye, marking it with thank-you notes, scrapbooking, farewells, and poems. I learned to talk to my one constant friend, God.

Home. Stability. Belonging. Those weren’t things you had control over – right?

I’m sure non-TCKs can relate. Maybe it wasn’t international moves but switching school systems or states. Maybe it was the divorce of parents or the loss of a loved one. There are lots of ways that kids don’t get to choose all their goodbyes.

When I moved back to Kenya after college, I didn’t know how long I’d be staying. But I didn’t waste time investing. I poured into a new church, knowing I didn’t fully belong but determined to make it my community. I even ended up dating someone from church, and invested in that relationship too.

Although it wasn’t all these relationships represented, I think part of me wanted stability and belonging… even if I kind of had to force it, even if I had to shape-shift a bit to fit the mold.

Until I hit a breaking point.

I realized I’d fit in too much. This shocked me. Usually I’m a very stubborn person who refuses to compromise on my convictions and has no problem expressing my tastes. But I guess my longing to belong was deeper than I thought.

I would quietly notice differences and take note to hide parts of myself that might cause conflict or be judged. I’d tell myself it wasn’t the right time to bring up gaps that only I saw. I’d bring it up later if it persisted. This outsider wasn’t going to change them. I was the more adaptable one in cross-cultural situations anyway, right?

It hit me once when someone asked me a question that revealed they didn’t know me at all.

For several other reasons I won’t get into here – I chose a goodbye.

My church was a place where people knew my family and would ask about them. It was a place where I could interact with people of all ages. I was part of its inner workings and behind the scenes. I was in a position of leadership. It was my community, the one I’d invested in. There was a whisper that I could belong.

In my relationship we had discovered new sides of each other, formed selfie-worthy memories, and opened up our hearts. There was the possibility of permanence.

And I wasn’t leaving Kenya. I didn’t have to leave. The ending wasn’t inevitable. No external force was imposing these goodbyes. I chose it.

That meant I didn’t have anyone else to blame. The pain of the breakup, the long awkward transition period to find a new church, I was bringing all this upon myself.

The agency came with the weight of responsibility. Stubborn me was giving up after all I’d invested. Was I really sure?

But the choice also came with a sense of hope. Those glimmers of home had felt like they came at a cost. Like it was conditional on me being who they thought I was or seemed to want me to be. By choosing an ending, I was believing in a better future. That I wasn’t stuck just making the best of it. That I might not have to trade my authentic self for belonging. That there might be goodness in this goodbye to others if it meant not saying goodbye to myself.


Why am I still single?

lonely woman walkingAnother Valentine’s Day is here. Which means, for the third year in a row, I’m speaking at a Singles’ Dinner on campus. It’s that day of the year when we might ask, “Why am I still single?”

It’s easy for this question to lead us into self-pity or peppy platitudes. But here are some answers that I’ve found empowering and real.

When we ask, “Why am I still single?” we can actually be asking three different questions.

  1. Why me? Is there something wrong with me?

FOMO on the 14th can make it tempting to throw our own party – of the pity variety. We invite all our insecurities to dance around in our heads long past their bedtimes: “I’m still single because I’m unlovable. I’m too __. I’m not __ enough.”

These fears aren’t baseless. We probably have irritating quirks. We may have unresolved trauma. We may have messed up in the past. We’re certainly a work in progress.

In other words, there is definitely something wrong with you – and me.

But that’s not why we’re still single.

Think about it. There are people who got married at 22 with at least as many issues as us. There are unmarried people nearing 40 who would be great catches. I was editing a book by one such lady this week when the realization hit me: Marriage isn’t something we earn by being the good girl (sorry, purity culture) and singleness isn’t some punishment dished out to the deserving.

A spouse is a gift from God. The first man literally fell asleep and woke up next to his dream girl. He didn’t do anything to seduce or earn Eve’s love. She was a gift. Every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17) – including a good spouse (Proverbs 19:14).

This is the essence of Christianity, honestly. Something is wrong with all of us. But our generous God loves us. He gives us all gifts we don’t deserve and can’t earn. That’s grace.

When we look at our lives this way, we can flip the question. Instead of pointing it at our lack, we can point it at our abundant blessing. “There is something wrong with me – so why me, God? Why did you choose me and love me and bless me?” We can turn self-pity into praise, scarcity into abundance, griping into gratitude. Why me? I may never know the answer, but boy, is it a happier question!

  1. I’m frustrated and I can’t do anything about it!

Sometimes, when we ask the question “Why am I still single?” what we actually want is to vent about everything conspiring against our #couplegoals.

Inevitably, someone misunderstands. Instead of offering sympathy, they give us advice… of varying qualities. They start telling us everything we need to change and do differently. It sounds to us like basically that it’s our fault for still being single because if only we followed the magic formula, we’d be out of this “stage” already. It feels like blaming the victim – because we played the victim card, and they didn’t play along.

But what if we asked the question they’re trying to answer – and instead answered it for ourselves? What could we realistically do to pursue a relationship or marriage? Instead of moaning helplessly, this question empowers us to create an action plan!

At least it did for me. Besides pouring out my desires to God in endless journal entries, I was pretty much passively waiting for Prince Charming.

Then I read a productivity book for work. It said that a vague task overwhelms us, but knowing the next concrete step motivates us. Maybe I would stop ruminating if I started doing something about it.

I realized I didn’t know much about dating, so I learned more. Watching TEDtalks on flirting? Researching the availability and security features of dating apps? Checking out library books on dating? That was doable.

I realized it scared me: enter exposure therapy. I faced my fears and made an online dating profile. I quickly deleted it. Then I pushed myself to rejoin, chat with people, and eventually meet up.

It turns out online dating is still fairly taboo among Christians here, so most people were just looking for hookups. I slipped back into venting about why this couldn’t work: I work remotely, strangers on these apps might just be looking for a green card…

But what could I do? I decided to take an asset-based approach. I might not know many eligible guys, but plenty of older mentors seem concerned about my dating status. The next time someone asked, I said they could set me up or pray for me. I figured I might meet people I could trust who shared my values.

The learning and troubleshooting has continued. Along the way I’ve collected some ridiculous stories, met some wonderful guys, and learned a lot about myself. I still get frustrated, but I feel much more confident and empowered.

If you’ve felt trapped and overwhelmed, maybe it’s time to channel that frustration into action. Looking for your next step? I recommend checking out Henry Cloud’s How to Get a Date Worth Keeping.

  1. Is there a reason I’m still single?

The final way we can ask the question “Why am I still single?” is to find out the purpose for which we are still single.

I mentioned earlier that a spouse is a gift from God. Singleness is too (1 Corinthians 7:7). Just like other spiritual gifts within the church, singleness is meant to build up the church “body” or community.

How has your singleness enabled you to learn about yourself? Have you gotten to travel more for work, pay off loans, develop hobbies, or learn contentment over codependence?

How has your singleness enabled you to love others? I’ve been able to offer rooms to housemates and visitors, support friends in crisis, and celebrate with family.

How has your singleness enabled you to serve God and the church? I’ve been able to pour extra time into preaching, writing, and presenting at conferences. I’ve gotten to focus fully on seminary and work without balancing family responsibilities.

I’ve written more about this in a previous blogpost, but suffice to say, our singleness is significant, right now.

So maybe part of my purpose in still being single this Valentine’s is to encourage someone at that Singles Dinner. Maybe they need to know that they’re no less deserving of marriage, that they can do something about their singleness, or that their status is a gift too.

Who knows? In any case, if you’re throwing a pity party, I don’t think I can make it.

 

Update posted 22 February 2020:

As I think about it, there’s one more way to ask this question: “Why am I still single? If only I had or hadn’t done __.”

This way of thinking is when you say to yourself, “I shouldn’t have broken off that engagement. I shouldn’t have turned that person down. I shouldn’t have taken that job which would limit my options. I shouldn’t have focused on my career or my education or my personal growth.”

Maybe it’s true that some previous decisions were made poorly. But what have they led to? Who have you become because of the lessons you learned? What might you have missed out on? Are there ways you could still capitalize on these experiences to heal and forgive and grow? Are there ways you can have grace for yourself?

And maybe you had good reasons for those decisions. It wasn’t so much that you were saying “no” to marriage as that you were saying “yes” to something else. You chose to forgo stability for the fulfillment of following God. To be the authentic self that had been stifled in that relationship. To be present where you were instead of investing in long distance. To uphold your values and standards instead of compromising for convenience. To let that person go because you couldn’t give them what they needed.

Sometimes, it helps to remember that we’re not helpless. We rationally chose singleness for good reasons, or we’ve learned from it anyway.


As soon as I could read the writing on the wall

woman lying on area rug reading books

Photo by Renato Abati on Pexels.com

Hannah’s house had eight-foot-tall bookcases shoved against its white cement walls. Seven-year old Hannah loved to read everything, especially Boxcar Children and American Girl books.

But she was very smart and she got bored when she knew it already. Like the Beginner’s Bible stories each night before jumping under the mosquito net. Usually Mom and Dad still read from that Bible so the younger kids could understand.

One day she was lying on her daisy comforter-covered bed with a kids’ Bible she hadn’t seen before. It was probably a Christmas present, maybe from Grandma Rasmussen.

There were the usual stories, Adam and Eve, Noah, David, Jesus, you know. But then there was a picture with a hand – with no arm – writing letters on the wall. That wasn’t supposed to be there. There weren’t any Bible stories about that, silly! But it was, and it had right under the title the actual verses straight from the real adult Bible.

What if there were other stories in the Bible that the adults never taught the kids?

~

Grandma Rasmussen taught Hannah how to bake cinnamon rolls, and how to iron, and make beds, and learn the three- and four- times tables. It was because she used to be a home economics and math teacher.

She and Grandpa were pastors too. She tried to teach Hannah the song, “Come everybody let us tell, the books of the Bible we know so well… Genesis, Exodus…”

Hannah knew the tune, but the words she knew were Swahili syllables she just tried to copy in her mouth. Later, she read the Table of Contents from the Swahili Bible and figured out what they had been teaching her to sing in PEFA Sunday School. It was the only thing she learned from ten years of PEFA Sunday School.

~

But Hannah learned things at Sand Hill Lake Bible Camp in Minnesota. It was for the whole family, but she was eight so she was with the other kids. At craft time she learned how to make “God’s eyes” by crossing two popsicle sticks and winding bright colored yarn around them. She was really good at not letting the yarn overlap. She learned the theme verse that year, which was Jeremiah 29:11. And she learned that the lady up front was called Rebecca H. and she was very nice to Hannah because she was a missionary kid from East Africa too.

~

In East Africa at school on Monday mornings, all the kids had to walk in a line to assembly. Everyone had to have their white and blue uniforms tucked in. The Headmaster made us sing songs like “Oh Cinnamon, where you gonna run to, all on that day?” Later Hannah figured out that it was the British way to say “sinner man.”

The headmaster usually told the story of the Good Samaritan, and that it meant we should all be nice to each other, and that Gandhi and Mohammed and Jesus all got the idea about how to be good people. Pretty much all the kids were Muslim Indians, and everybody liked the really Christian science teacher and hated the headmaster, who was Anglican or something. He always ended by telling all the kids they would look like spoiled brats if they littered. They could tell he didn’t mean it when he sang about “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.”

Hannah and her atheist Dutch friend talked about God as eleven-year-olds. Hannah started wondering if she was lying when she sang the songs about loving God and believing him.

~

Then Hannah left that school and moved to Chicago. Dad taught pastors at a Bible school in Tanzania but God told him to get more training at Trinity. She made friends with Rachel, the brave New Zealander, and Neema, the tomboy from India. They went to Kids on Kampus together.

Mr. Mike was the leader of Kids on Kampus. He loved puns, taking kids out for ice cream, and the Bible. Once he gave the kids a talk about how “as long as it is called today” we need to respond to God. It was really real to him. Maybe Hannah didn’t know it already. Maybe the Bible was sixty-six books on an eight-foot-tall bookshelf. Maybe thought she had read them but had only read the blurb or looked at the pictures. That happened sometimes.

~

Hannah didn’t have to read the kids’ Bibles anymore. For her birthday, Grandma Rasmussen gave Hannah a card with Jeremiah 29:11 at the bottom (as always) and a Daily Bible. That meant it was arranged in chronological order because she wanted to read each day together with “my special Hannah.” Hannah tried really hard for a while but had to skip through parts of the Law because it got too boring, and gave up partway through Psalms, or maybe earlier.

Hannah also got a real Bible, an NIV Teen Study Bible from the Trinity bookstore. She and her Trinity friends always biked there to buy candy, listen to free music samples, and hide behind the shelves reading in the teen section. She made a goal to read one to four chapters of the New Testament every day. She almost always ended up reading four chapters, and wrote a lot of pencil marks on the sides.

Rachel, Neema and Hannah all started reading the Bible because of Mr. Mike. They got together and talked about God and doubt. They met on a field on the other side of campus a couple times and gave each other sermons they wrote themselves.

~

The Trinity kids were very different from the rest of their school. There were a lot of Catholics and Jews with ipods, au pairs, North Faces and Birkenstocks. Michael Jordan’s kid was in Hannah’s 22-person eighth grade art class. Hannah took eighth grade art and math instead of seventh grade math like all the other kids her age. So every week the boys threw their dodgeballs at her and her Trinity friends.

Jewish Ian put a Time Magazine cover on the locker next to Hannah’s that said, “Looking for the Real Jesus?” and signed it “Jésus”, his name in Spanish class. It made the three friends angry. They started to call themselves “Friends Always Through Christ Around the World” and became closer because of the tough times.

~

Hannah left the F.A.T.C.A.T.W. at the end of the second year to go back to the house with the white cement walls in Tanzania. At the last night of Kids of Kampus, Mr Mike and all the kids prayed for her and her family. The songs on the overhead seemed to pop out at her: “Prince of Peace,” “Emmanuel,” “Friend.” “Blessed be your name when the road’s marked with suffering…” And Hannah knew God was telling her there was a Friend who would be with her wherever she went.

~

While Hannah had been gone from the British Anglican school, her best friends had moved away. Her classmates now loved celebrities and partying and Hannah loved God. So she ate lunch with a new girl, another Dutch atheist.

Before school in the morning, Hannah read the Daily Bible Grandma Rasmussen had given her. At night, she wrote angry tearful letters to God for not being her friend. Then right before bed she sung a made-up tune to a Bible verse ten times that she’d written on an index card, a different one to memorize every week.

Back when Hannah gave her sermon to Rachel and Neema, it was on the “What Will They Think” factor from Galatians 1:10. Now, she said it like a rap to memorize it: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men/ or of God or am I trying to please men/ if I were still trying to please men/ I would not be a servant of Christ Galatians one ten.”

~

Slowly Hannah realized she had been blaming God for not keeping his promises but maybe it was her fault for being angry and very picky about friends. Then she realized God wasn’t picky about friends, and she shouldn’t be either. So she made three other friends. Then Dad and Mom told Hannah they might be moving to Kenya.

Hannah cried because she knew deep down it was meant to happen, but it was scary. They said goodbye to the house with the white cement walls, and went to visit the States for the summer before school started in Kenya.

At Sand Hill Lake Bible Camp again, one of the workshops was about listening to God. Hannah laid down on a pew. She remembered the theme verse from last time she was at Sand Hill Lake when she was eight and from Grandma Rasmussen’s birthday cards: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” Then she remembered verses she had memorized before bed: “Be strong and courageous, do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” And: “If I rise on the wings of the dawn and settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”

And this time Hannah wasn’t going to blame God for not keeping promises. For the talent show at Sand Hill Lake, she did a song she’d written about the last move. The chorus went, “Not in the gale of wind, not in the fire, not in the earthquake, but in the gentle whisper You are there, saying, ‘I love you more than life itself, Trust Me, Trust Me, I am Emmanuel.’”

~

And Hannah had more sleepovers in the first six weeks in Kenya than in the previous three years in Tanzania. Her new friends read the Bible and prayed together, because all of the friends were friends with God too. And Hannah realized maybe the Bible was God’s letters – sometimes angry and tearful – to God’s people for not being his friend. Why couldn’t everybody be friends?

Originally written for a college English assignment about my experience with the Bible.


Grace over grit in New Year’s goals (lyric video)

Anyone who knows me knows I can take my goals too seriously and end up being hard on myself. Sometimes my (our?) desires for self-improvement – whether New Year’s Resolutions or spiritual effort – are more about relying on human grit than God. This year, as part of participating in God forming me, I’d like to share tunes I’ve made up over the years to help me memorize Scripture verses, spiritual poems, and prayers. I believe that what we put into our minds and hearts molds our character. Besides, what better (and more fun) way to grow than by getting songs stuck in your head? But I want to allow myself to do it imperfectly. I want to give myself grace if they are visually plain, not posted as regularly as I’d like, and just my voice singing into a phone. Still, I trust that just singing or listening to these words of life will engrain them into our lives and change us more than our own efforts can. This prayer seemed like the perfect one to begin with:


Living well (music video & chords)

During a stressful season, God reminded me that all my commitments were things I was passionate about and called to: I was “living the dream”. While praying, these lyrics came to me. I began drawing on the living water during that season, daily listing what I was grateful for and singing this song. Instead of a scarcity mindset, I began noticing abundance and relying on Jesus’ strength instead of my own.

When you’re in a hostile climate, alone and overwhelmed, let this song remind you to draw on your source of life. Then you will bloom in surprising places!

You can find lyrics and chords here.


It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Last year, when I was burned out by my church crisis, I really resonated with Elijah. I recently wrote a narrative sermon for a seminary class sharing what I learned from his story.

We’re going to watch a clip from the end of the movie Avengers: Endgame. For those who haven’t seen it, (spoiler alert!) ultimate bad guy Thanos wants to destroy the planet by snapping his fingers while wearing a glove with the all-powerful Infinity Stones. He finally has acquired all five stones, and he’s minutes away from snapping his fingers. The small team of Avengers superheroes are trying to stop him. In this clip, I want you to notice how every time it seems like the bad guys were getting the upper hand, the good guys came back with another surprise:

The good guys and the bad guys

Today we’re going to look at biblical bad guys and good guys in a contest. The story is in 1 Kings 16:29 through chapter 19. Yahweh, the true God, is trying to get back his people Israel’s allegiance, because they are worshipping Baal, the false God. The good guy is named “Yahweh is God”: Elijah. He realizes Israel is at risk of being sent into exile for their idolatry. He’s desperate to prove to them that Yahweh, not Baal, is worthy of worship. The leader of the bad guys is Jezebel. Her father’s name means “Baal exists”. She comes from Tyre, where they worship Baal. When she married Ahab, the king of Israel, she made it her objective to promote only Baal worship everywhere. They are fighting over the allegiance of Israel, represented by Israel’s king Ahab, who the Bible depicts as “limping” or “dancing” with one foot in each camp. They’re go to whichever campaign rally is giving out free t-shirts.

Yahweh challenging Baal on his home turf

The story starts with Elijah challenging Baal on his home turf. Baal is supposed to be the god of thunderclouds and fertility. Every year during the dry season, he dies by the god of death. Then during the rainy season, another god resurrects him, and he brings rain and crops. So Elijah says, “As the LORD, the God of Israel lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). If what Elijah says happens, it will prove that Baal is dead and powerless for several years, but Yahweh lives. Sure enough, it happens.

But wait, will God let his prophet die in the drought? This is the first time we see: it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. God provides a brook and ravens to drop off fresh meat for him twice a day. In Israel back then – just like some Tanzanian villages I’ve visited – only a chief would eat meat twice a day. But Elijah was eating like this in the wilderness, in a drought being fed by the equivalent of carcass-picking marabou storks.

But then the brook dries up. God, will you let Elijah die? But – say it with me – it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. God tells Elijah to challenge Baal on his home turf again. He heads straight for Jezebel’s homeland, where he asks a widow in Zarephath to cook him her last flour and oil into mandazis. Imagine the drought we had in Kenya several years back and asking someone in Garissa region to cook you their last ugali flour. But unlike her countryman Jezebel, this widow obeys the prophet of Yahweh, even though it costs her everything. And God miraculously refills her oil and flour, so she and her son don’t die either. God cares for the widow and the needy and his prophets in Baal’s own territory. Ouch!

But then the woman’s son gets sick and dies. Elijah prays, essentially asking God, “Will you let this generous woman’s son die?” But say it with me! It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. And God performs what I believe is the first resurrection in the Bible! Baal can’t resurrect himself, but Yahweh is resurrecting a sick little boy!

Despite all these proofs of God’s power, the famine doesn’t seem to be winning Israel or Ahab over. So Elijah proposes a contest to challenge Baal on his home turf in full view of Ahab and all Israel. Elijah and the prophets of Baal meet on Mount Carmel, which archaeology shows was still a site for Baal worship until 200 AD. Since Baal is the god of lightning, Elijah says they will each built an altar, kill a bull as a sacrifice, and whichever god sends fire from heaven will obviously be the real god. Team Baal tries frantically all day and nothing happens. Elijah douses his altar with water, giving himself a handicap, and as soon as he prays, WOOSH, fire from heaven consumes even the water, the soil, and the stones of the altar! OH SNAP! TAKE THAT, BAD GUYS!

Israel worships Yahweh. They start chanting: “The Lord – he is God!” That’s literally Elijah’s name, remember? Elijah’s imagining he’s like Ironman saying “I am Ironman” [snap]. He’s thinking, “Mission accomplished. Baal is defeated. Yahweh is vindicated. Israel is saved. Peace out!” The false prophets are killed, the rains return. This is the happy ending, right?

Evil’s comeback

But Elijah forgot something: It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Elijah may have won the people’s allegiance from Baal for a moment, but they are always dancing between two opinions. And evil lady Jezebel won’t go down without a fight. Furious, she calls in the big guns. She vows that her own gods can curse her if she doesn’t kill Elijah in the next 24 hours.

Elijah is totally blindsided by this plot twist. 1 Kings 19:3 says, “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” Literally. His superhuman race was a bit longer than a half-marathon, but now he flees to the opposite side of the country, Beersheba, which is 173km away – that’s as far as Nairobi is from Nakuru, on foot!

Elijah ditches his servant and lays down to die in the desert: “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life” (1 Kings 19:4). What? Israel’s fearless prophet is suggesting that following God isn’t worth it anymore? The whole time we’ve been asking, “God, are you going to let your prophet die?” and now it’s like the enemy is playing mind games to make him self-destruct!

Like Elijah, I felt burned out when my former church was straying away from God. I felt like the only one pointing out these problems. God did something dramatic (not quite Mount Carmel). I was relieved, but after the adrenaline rush, I realized how wounded I had been in battle. Why did God ask so much of me? I felt disillusioned. I read Elijah’s story. And I realized the crucial moment is what happens next.

The Moment of Truth

Let’s read 1 Kings 19:9-10:

9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.

And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

Strengthened by God, Elijah travels forty days and nights to Mt Sinai. This is where the covenant all started, with Moses on this mountain for forty days and nights. Here, Elijah complains that Israel has abandoned the covenant. God responds.

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

During the Exodus, the wind blew and made a path through the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21). There was an earthquake and smoke when Moses received the ten commandments (Exodus 19:18). Elijah had just seen fire on Mount Carmel. But none of these changed Israel’s hearts from their idolatrous ways. Elijah knows that much. “But Mount Carmel was the battleplan! How could the people not believe after that? I’m out of big ideas. And I’m not enough!” But then… there’s a whisper. But Elijah doesn’t seem to notice.

14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

The people of Israel’s hearts were as stony as the first set of tablets Moses broke. But Elijah is surprisingly stubborn too. His encounter with God doesn’t change a single word of his answer either.

15 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

Elijah has assumed that he and his battleplan were Israel’s only hope. If he died, Israel is doomed. God seems to correct him: “First of all, you’re not the only one left.” We already saw Obadiah in chapter 18 had saved some prophets from Jezebel. God says he’s about to raise up two kings and a prophet to succeed Elijah. Plus, there was a faithful remnant of 7000 believers. From this chapter, Elijah won’t be the star anymore. Two more prophets will confront Ahab before the end of 1 Kings.

Second, we learn that Israel is too stubborn to be saved from the consequences of their idolatry. Next time we see Elijah, he’s confronting Ahab for his worst sin yet. Jezebel has influenced him even more. Israel is spiralling downwards. Even Elijah is too stubborn to obey what God tells him. He never anoints either of the kings. He anoints Elisha, who finishes that task. Despite his superpowers, he’s not the ultimate hero. Before the end of 2 Kings, this northern kingdom of Israel will indeed go into exile.

Where’s my happy ending?

Where is our happy ending? Has evil won? No wonder Elijah was disillusioned. We are left with an unfinished work and an uncertain prophet, wondering, is God going to bring his people back into covenant allegiance to him?

But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Elijah missed the whisper. The Exodus and the law and the prophets hadn’t finished the work. But someone was coming to fulfil the law and the prophets. There where the old covenant on stone was broken as soon as Moses came down the mountain, God was whispering about a new covenant on fleshy hearts. In the New Testament, God would unveil his glorious new battleplan on another mountain to Moses and Elijah – the transfigured Jesus.

Elijah wasn’t the Saviour. But he didn’t have to be. There will another prophet who will be put to death, who will say “It is finished!”. There will be another widow grieving her dead son – not from Zarephath but Nazareth. And then – the son is resurrected! The word of God is vindicated.

Elijah got discouraged in the desert because he thought this was the endgame. He thought he was all alone in the fight and he wasn’t enough. But God was trying to tell him his story was only page 554 out of 2177. He wasn’t the star of Avengers Endgame. He was just Peter Parker in Spiderman 2!

Don’t Worry, You’re Not the Messiah

Can you identify with Elijah? When you turn on the news, perhaps you mourn how far your nation has strayed from God’s will. Powerful leaders like Ahab kill innocent people, steal their land, pocket the people’s inheritance. Perhaps you have been battling corruption where you study or work. Like Ahab, people will even sleep with the enemy if it is politically expedient. Perhaps you’re seeing people misled by false prophets, people trying to cry louder, dance harder, and shed more blood to get their miracle today. Perhaps you see so many people dying unjustly of famine, disease, and domestic violence. You wonder whether God is really sovereign over life and death. People keep ignoring God despite our prayers. We think there is a breakthrough, only for things to get worse. Maybe you just want to give up.

But remember: It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. No matter how many comebacks evil makes, in the end, the good guys win. God resurrects even when it seems the dark powers death have won. Yahweh is God!

You, dear friend, are not. You are not the Saviour. You will fail, and you will leave things unfinished. You are not enough, but you don’t have to be. Because you are not alone.

That’s what I learned from Elijah’s story. When I was burned out, I left my leadership role in the youth ministry. As my friend used to say, “Jesus already died.” I didn’t have to kill myself in the ministry. I wasn’t the only one left, so I handed over to the Elishas there. God still had a very good plan for that church, but I had played my role. And I regained hope in God’s redemptive plan.

On your seats, you’ll find a prayer that has encouraged me when I’m overwhelmed. If this message resonated with you, consider praying this each day this week. For now, let’s read it together:

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own excerpt from homily by Fr. Ken Untener

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.


Providential detours

Ever since we were college roommates, Sarah had wanted to visit and see where I grew up, especially Mwanza, Tanzania. Five years later, she was in Nairobi and we had bus tickets for that night.

But earlier that week, we had gotten food poisoning on safari in the Maasai Mara. We realized our stomachs were not up for a 12-hour overnight bus ride. The food was coming out of the end that you can’t very well lean out of a window without, well, consequences.

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Aside from the food, the safari and week in Kenya was a lovely time with my cousin and his wife!

I tried to get through to customer care to move our tickets, but each time I called, the call dropped instead of putting me on hold. (I later found out that the help line was down whenever the electric or internet cut out at headquarters.)

We both got on antibiotics and I booked new tickets for the following day online. I got a message saying the payment confirmation I had received did not count as a ticket. We tried to pass by the office, but downtown Nairobi was so crazy and crowded that Sarah was getting anxious. We couldn’t find any parking and we hadn’t finished packing, so we decided to arrive a little early to the station to pick up the tickets.

A few hours later, we piled into a taxi with our luggage, and found ourselves in a very busy part of downtown Nairobi at 8pm at a hole-in-the-wall office. I had hoped for a nice waiting room like the one I’d used with a comparable coach company last time. Downtown Nairobi is notoriously unsafe, especially after dark and as white girls. Just the previous week someone had slit my backpack and stolen my phone downtown in broad daylight. Our return trip was supposed to arrive back here at 2am. I was nervous, but I figured it was too late now.

I showed my payment confirmation and was informed that they had received my money, but they had gotten a new online system six days ago and some online and Mpesa payments were not showing up. So our seats had been sold to someone else! The next seats available were several days later, so I got back in the car and said, “Sarah, we’re not going to Mwanza tonight.”

Back home, we evaluated our options: a cheaper bus company and changing buses at the border or an expensive flight with an overnight layover in Dar es Salaam. We compromised and booked an online shuttle to Arusha and a flight from Arusha to Mwanza. At 8am the next morning, we were on the shuttle, and I was texting everyone I knew in Arusha for recommendations of where to stay.

When we arrived, I discovered that I couldn’t buy a local SIM card because the shops were closed on Sunday, and for the Eid holiday on Monday. I borrowed someone’s phone to call a college friend and got a taxi to meet her at a café. The café had wifi, so I could take Whatsapp calls. “What if we don’t have a place to stay?” I worried. I took a deep breath: “Trust God.”

A local missionary family told me that they were now mostly living in Kenya. However, they had arrived that day from out of town. Their house was an explosion of packing to travel again the next day with guests, but they offered us the one empty room in their guest house! I’d met a Muslim friend last year through a mutual friend, and she invited us to join her family that night for a goat barbeque to celebrate Eid!

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In the thirty minutes between dropping our things off at the guest house and going out for Eid dinner, I asked another missionary family on the compound about lodging on the way back. She offered her phone number, but I said I didn’t have a SIM card. Then she offered me a spare SIM card! The Muslim family picked us up for dinner and stopped by a supermarket, where I was able to get phone credit.

We sat on the back porch of a family I had met only once a year earlier, feasting on nyama choma (goat). The family cracked jokes, translated for us, and invited us to sample delicacies like lychees and saffron ice cream. They all piled in the van to escort us home. Cruising through Arusha after dark as we blasted Hindi beats, I was brimming with joy and gratitude.

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The next morning, our flight on Precision Air – notorious for its delays and cancellations – had no hiccups. Sarah’s only disappointment about our original itinerary had been not getting to see Kilimanjaro, and we had found out it was usually too cloudy to see from the ground anyway. But because we ended up having to fly, our plane seats gave her an incredible view!

We ended up with only 48 hours in Mwanza, but I managed to show Sarah all the people and places I’d hoped to. My Muslim childhood friends there were from a different part of Islam, so they were celebrating Eid the night we showed up! We enjoyed another family barbecue and meaningful conversations about Eid and elder care. They told us they’d travelled with the same bus company from Nairobi and their return tickets had been sold to someone else. They’d also been told there was a new system only six days old – two weeks ago!

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Showing Sarah the house where I grew up.

The next day, Sarah got to see the Bible school where my parents taught, which was in session and a good friend was teaching. We met the pastor and his wife, as well as another dean who happened to be visiting. We toured my house – at the last minute we got permission from the current residents – and ate dinner with dear Tanzanian friends. I showed Sarah where my family sailed on Lake Victoria, and she bought local fabric to sew into a dress to wear for my wedding – in faith!

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On the morning before our return flight, we squeezed in a tour of my school and bumped into a friend’s mom. “Are you ever in Arusha?” she said, “My daughter is there now.” I had assumed she was living in Dar, but I got her number. A few hours later, we were having lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in ten years! She was still the same funny and sweet friend I’d remembered, and Sarah loved meeting her. I had one gift left in my luggage – a copy of my book. It turned out she’d followed my book release very closely and it happened to be her birthday. What a perfect gift!

The missionaries were surprised when we showed up at the guest house, because they had been expecting us the following night. I must have been frazzled and confused the dates when I came through earlier! But the guest house had space so they graciously put us up anyway.

After Sarah and I arrived home, the missionary found out that the shuttle we’d taken was actually a scam posing as the shuttle we intended to book in order to steal their customers. It turns out the real shuttle didn’t have online bookings at all!

Just before this trip, I’d been reminded of how God leads us step by step and weaves together threads of our experiences in ways we only realize in hindsight. This experience reminded me that in God’s providence, our detours can be providential:

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If we hadn’t gotten food poisoning, we would have taken the bus, and who knows what would have happened downtown at 2am in Nairobi. If our tickets hadn’t been double booked, we wouldn’t have gotten to see Mount Kilimanjaro or experience such incredible hospitality – including double Eid dinners and reunions with both college and high school friends! If it hadn’t been for the scammers, we wouldn’t have been able to book a shuttle online the night before at 9:30pm. I’m not sure I want to credit God with planning that, but he somehow used even the bad things for our good!

Usually I like to control and plan out my life, but on this trip I had to take it a step at a time and just trust God to get us to the next stop. God provided everything we needed – but not a moment too soon. Yet if everything had gone according to plan, we would have missed so many opportunities to say “WOW God” along the way, whether it was the gift of a SIM card, the hug that was ten years overdue, or the majesty of the mountain rising above the clouds. Maybe in the rest of my life, I need to take a deep breath and say “Trust God”.


Human (spoken word video)

Sexual harrassment threatens to make us beasts and objects, but we’re human. I share my journey of healing and forgiving. Performed live at Slam Africa.


Someone to come home to (spoken word video)

A third culture kid dreams of finding a soul mate who understands where she comes from, but realizes there’s only one ultimate home. Performed live at Poetry Spot Kenya.


Unthinkable: spoken word for Good Friday

This Good Friday, join me in meditating on the unthinkable humiliation God endured to reconcile with humanity. Listen to the spoken word and watch the lyric video:

Click here to watch it on YouTube.