Category Archives: Prayer

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.’”

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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”.


Thanks be to God: Lyrics, video, and theology


I wrote a worship song and recorded it in a jam session here on YouTube.

Lyrics:

Took the lead to map my own course
until I got lost
Sold my soul and bought a kingdom
was it worth the cost?

Broke and broken
Chasing the wind
Please show me the Way

Chorus:

Thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God!
We were against him
but he was for us.

Thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God!
When we were done for
he did it for us.

Tried to root out lust and anger
they sprung up like weeds
Kept competing with my neighbor
what was wrong with me?

Sin enslaved me
Death destroyed me
Set this rebel free

Chorus

Covered up my shame by hiding
in the dark alone
Tried to numb my pain but my heart
toughened to a stone

Fear degraded
Separated
Change me with your love

Chorus

Thought I had my act together
‘til I fell apart
I determined to do better
still I missed the mark

Law was heavy
Curse was deadly
Bring me back to life

Chorus

Bridge:

Part 1:
Thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God!
Thanks be to God!

Part 2:
Perfect to save
Lamb that was slain
Up from the grave
Conquering king

Both parts together

Chorus

Theology behind the song:

I wrote this song to process the incredible truths I learned from Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. A key theme Rutledge emphasizes throughout her book is our need for God’s apocalyptic deliverance. She says that in the late Old Testament period, the prophets articulated a growing awareness of humanity’s inability to keep the law and the insufficiency of repentance. Instead, they felt a desperate need for deliverance that comes from beyond ourselves: an apocalyptic intervention. This song is intended to highlight our desperate need for God to intervene.

I organized the verse progression roughly around potential phases of Christian life. First we don’t want Christ’s lordship (verse 1). Then we accept it but struggle with our sin in our own strength (verse 2). We may give up, feel shame, and try to protect ourselves (verse 3). Or we may begin to trust in our own legalistic righteousness and feel proud (verse 4). Each verse ends with a call for help, much like the Psalms cry out for God to deliver them. The structure of this song, with the trouble of the singer, the cry for help, and the praise given to God for deliverance, fits the genre of the thanksgiving Psalm.

Verse one highlights our human desire for power and control over our lives, the kingdom of self. We are tempted to gain the world but lose our souls (Mark 8:36), just as Jesus was tempted to worship Satan to gain dominion of all the world’s kingdoms without the cross (Luke 4:5-8). Judas is an example of someone who sold his soul for monetary gain, only to realize the reward was not worth the cost (Matthew 27:3). We discover our leadership is inadequate, but then we have no resources to save our lost souls. We need Jesus, who is the Way (John 14:6).

Verse two describes how our sinful nature is not something we can overcome through making good choices, because as Rutledge mentions, Sin and Death are also Powers enslaving us. In Romans 7, Paul describes sin as “sprung” (Romans 7:9) and “What is wrong with me?” echoes his frustration in the same passage (7:24). I chose lust, anger, and envy/pride because these are common besetting sins even for Christians. Paul describes how Jesus sets us free to be slaves of righteousness (Romans 6:16).

Verse three focuses on broken relationships. It evokes how original sin separated Adam and Eve from each other and from God. Their nakedness symbolized their shame, which they attempted to deal with by hiding (Genesis 3:7-11). The result of broken relationships means fear and distrust. The Bible frequently mentions disobedience using the metaphor of hard hearts, and in Ezekiel 36:26-27 God promises to give his people new hearts that will obey his commands. I mixed this idea of hard hearts symbolizing disobedience with hard hearts symbolizing fear and emotional coldness. Disobedience, at its root, is an inability to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:30-31). So a lack of feeling can be linked to the biblical concept of hard hearts. I think sin and its consequence of broken relationships often connects to the emotional fallenness I see in today’s world. Though I am not in any way saying, for instance, that those who suffer depression as punishment for sin, I do think it is important to speak to the emotional pain that affects so many people and say this is not how God intended for us to live, but is a result of the Fall and Jesus will eventually restore us psychologically as well, even if it is not fully complete until the new creation.

Verse four describes the futility of trying to earn our own righteous standing before God through our works. Paul says that no one is made righteous according to their obedience to the law (Romans 3:10, 20). In her exposition of Romans, Rutledge describes how we are enslaved to the powers of sin and death, which have turned the law, intended for good, into a lethal club. She also describes the godlessness of the cross; that Jesus was in some sense separated from God because he became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) and took the curse of the law upon himself (Galatians 3:13). In Romans 7, Paul depicts the resulting struggle the law evokes inside himself against the power of his sinful nature. He ends with describing how his body is subject to death (Romans 7:24), which I echoed in this verse’s cry for resurrection.

The chorus echoes Paul’s cry after his long exposition that points to the fact that we are delivered only through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:25). It refers to how God saved us when we were still his enemies (Romans 5:10) and if he is for us nothing can condemn us (Romans 8:31). It also refers explicitly to Christ’s work in finishing the work of our salvation (John 19:30, Ephesian 2:4-10).

The bridge combines the themes of Christus Victor and substitutionary atonement. As Rutledge argues, the way in which Jesus set us free from the Powers was by becoming the sacrifice for our sins. I deliberately combined the victim lamb with the victorious king to keep the strength within the context of suffering, avoiding the triumphalist view but still emphasizing spiritual warfare.


Where are you, God? In exile with Esther (audio)


Where is God when terrible things happen to his people? The Jewish people face a genocide in the book of Esther, but God is never once mentioned. Is he still at work in our lives when we’re helpless and things couldn’t get worse? You can listen to it here.

Originally presented in a chapel service of Africa International University in Kenya.


Emotional Maturity When You’re Seeking Support

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CCO Public Domain

Last fall, I had several panic attacks as I broke up with my boyfriend. My housemate suddenly moved out days later. Our church plant had a dramatic leadership crisis.

I prayed to see what God was teaching me. Flipping through my journal, something caught my eye. I’d prayed to grow in emotional maturity in 2017. What did I do that for?!

Being in these relationships taught me emotional awareness, communication, and empathy. When these relationships ended and I needed social support, God also faithfully used these difficulties to grow my emotional maturity.

Just as maturing into an adult involves taking responsibility for my physical well-being, emotional maturity means taking responsibility for my emotional needs. As a single extrovert who works remotely in a foreign country, I intentionally seek out social time to maintain emotional stability. When I moved to Kenya post-college, though I wished people would reach out, I learned to initiate since I’m organized and need company. I developed a baseline of regular social events on my calendar and a list of friends to call. Unlike with college friends or family, I had to schedule two weeks ahead so Friday night I wasn’t disappointed when everyone already had plans.

This time, I had to initiate my social support. I didn’t have panic attacks when I was around people, so I scheduled something social every day. Once, someone cancelled on me and my housemates weren’t home. I felt panic rising, but I picked up the phone. My friend didn’t answer. I called a second person, a third. Finally the fourth person came over. It wasn’t my friends’ fault they couldn’t be there for me when I needed. I had to persevere to get the support I needed. (I realize this can be too much to ask in some mental illness situations).

When I felt unloved during this difficult time, I questioned my worth to others. But I knew how self-pity could turn me inward to nurse my pain alone. I countered with truth and love. I stood up to my insecurities and reminded myself of all the other people who loved me. I realized their comments reflected more on other issues than who I was.

It also took courage to reach out for social support. My boyfriend and housemate were both suffering from burnout and personal issues, which made me feel my needs didn’t matter in comparison. So when those relationships ended, I worried my friends wouldn’t want to be burdened with my neediness. I felt vulnerable receiving rather than giving comfort and advice. I reminded myself that real friends don’t resent you for struggling, but care about you. I accepted being needy for now. I stepped out, trusting my friends would welcome me for tea and a hug.

Even when you reach out, people may not know how you like to be comforted. I had lost two close relationships. So, I could Skype my best friends and family, who knew just what to say but were in a different time zone. Or, I could reach out to friends next door who didn’t know me as deeply. I sometimes had to explain how I wanted them to comfort me. For instance, I tried going to a life coach, but later realized I needed counseling, and looked elsewhere for that support.

Needing someone to talk to also didn’t give me license to unload indiscriminately. I felt overwhelmed by my concerns about our church plant, but given the culture and my demographic, the pastor wouldn’t respond well to me. I didn’t trust myself to confront him in a godly way either. To avoid spreading gossip and dissent, I couldn’t talk to my church friends. Finally, I called pastor friends at other churches for advice, who persuaded me it would be biblically and culturally appropriate to talk to a church elder. I learned to process my feelings with the appropriate people.

So far, maturing emotionally has been more painful and exhausting than I expected. Often God allows and uses difficult times to shape us into his image. Romans 5:3-4 says, “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” As I look back, I thank God for how my heart is growing up and hope in his continued goodness.


No Fail Too Epic

"Head in Hands" by Alex Proimos

“Head in Hands” by Alex Proimos CC 2.0 via Flickr

Moving from one country to another, I’ve often identified with Jacob’s prayer for God’s protection and provision as he runs away from home. But just lately, the earlier part of Jacob’s story in the Bible challenged me.

While Jacob and his twin Esau are in the womb, God tells their mother Rebekah that the older brother will serve the younger. As soon as Esau leaves the womb, it is clear that Jacob is the younger. Jacob is chosen by God before he is born. He does nothing to deserve that blessing.

Yet the rest of his life he keeps acting like he has to earn it. He acquires a firstborn’s inheritance rights by taking advantage of Esau’s hunger. He tricks his father into blessing him, again by feeding a family member at the opportune time. Then he runs away from home because his brother is angry enough to kill him. He works for his uncle Laban, using superstitions methods to increase his herds. When he meets Esau again, he sends ahead a parade of pacifying gifts. He had asked God for provision and protection, but when it comes down to it, he trusts his own conniving.

Yet God keeps turning these mistakes and selfish actions towards his initial plan – to make Jacob into a nation. Maybe if Jacob hadn’t been such a grasper, God’s plan would have happened in a straightforward way – perhaps receiving blessing without a brother’s death threat. But God gave Jacob the freedom to take the inefficient path to blessing if he so chose. Or maybe God knew all along how Jacob would acquire the blessings. But God chose him anyway.

Jacob’s sons weren’t born in happy succession either. Jacob was tricked into marrying both of Laban’s daughters – two rival sisters. Leah and Rachel kept bearing sons as a way to compete for the affection of God and their man. God used the family’s trickery and rivalry to birth founders for the twelve tribes of Jacob, also called Israel. Perhaps another way would have fostered more brotherly love. But then maybe they wouldn’t have sold one brother into slavery in Egypt, who strangely later saved them from famine. Maybe Israel would have starved before it got started.

Why did God use selfish tricksters and jealous siblings to build his people? It’s not a great fireside story about a nation’s founding father.

Or maybe it is. Maybe the point is to remind God’s people that they would keep trying to help themselves, but they didn’t need to. That even if they went wrong, God was committed to his end of the deal. As long as they were his people and he was their God, he would recycle their mess in super creative ways.

I am scared of messing up. What if I don’t choose the path God has for me? We fear the wrong college, career path, or relationship. Why did I do that stupid or selfish thing? Surely God can’t work with me now.

But God can. God wants us to obey him because it’s a lot better for us in the long run. I’m not saying that we can turn our backs on God or that we will avoid all consequences for our mistakes. But our actions do not make such a big difference that God can’t transform them for his own ends. We keep thinking we have to earn everything, but God gave us his love and forgiveness before we did anything to deserve it. If we’re sincere about wanting to follow God, he’ll work everything out for our good in the end. We can trust that things will go according to the plan of this God who controls everything. We are free to try and to fail and to fall into a cosmic net of grace.


Haggling with God

Shortly after my graduation from college, I posted a poem quoting Jacob’s prayer at Bethel: “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth” (Gen. 28:20-22).

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Jacob made his vow after dreaming of a stairway to heaven – Untitled by Michael Keany (Own work). [CCo] via Flickr

Like Jacob, I was on the move and concerned about life’s basic necessities. I had debated between opportunities with Christians for Biblical Equality, InterVarsity and my multicultural church. But I didn’t feel at peace walking down any of these paths. God called me – over Skype in the person of my dad’s dinner guest – to join the team working on the Africa Study Bible. Since my parents live on the same campus as some of the Africa Study Bible reviewers, a few months later I found myself returning “safely to my father’s house.”

But like Jacob, my life after this bargain with God was a struggle. When I arrived in Nairobi, I started from scratch. I developed systems to organize and track 2000 pieces by 250 writers through the editorial process. With my high school friends gone and most of my work being over email and Skype, I had to start over with friendships as well.

I felt helpless – like I was unraveling. But when I stepped back, I realized God was weaving threads back into my life in a providential pattern. In addition to my sociology and English majors, old skills of French and technology came in handy. Christians for Biblical Equality contracted me to write a Bible study guide for groups of young adults. In Minnesota I had planned to help out with a church plant or youth group. Instead, two months after I moved back to Nairobi, my family’s church invited us to help with a church plant nearby. I was asked to co-lead the teens class.

Like Jacob, I gave God a tenth of what he gave me. It only multiplied my blessings. Living with my parents enabled me to save money. I was able to pay off all my student loans within a year of graduation. My contract writing paid for a Kilimanjaro summit to celebrate twenty years since I first landed in Tanzania. God went above and beyond providing food and shelter.

Instead of helping out with InterVarsity, this weekend in Nigeria I met with leaders of their sister movements in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. We were defining a partnership to create a Bible study guide compatible with the Africa Study Bible. I marveled, “How in the world did I end up in this room with international leaders working on a project that could impact the continent?”

Jacob thought he was driving a hard bargain by nailing down the specifics of God’s provision. But he hadn’t listened closely to God’s unconditional promise the night before: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying… All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land…” (Gen. 28:13-15).

When God told Jacob he would bless him and make him a blessing to many nations, Jacob haggled for clothes and food instead. But God didn’t agree to settle for Jacob’s meager terms. Jacob had no idea of the scope of what God was going to do for him and through him. I’m beginning to realize that I have no idea either.