Tag Archives: providence

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”.


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.


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.