Sunday, September 6, 2020

The Stuff of Fiction and What God Thinks of Our Stories

When writing fiction, all the experts say you need a good hook to draw your readers in - an inciting incident to propel the story forward and keep readers turning the pages.  That, and you have to make your readers care about your characters.  If readers feel invested in your characters, they'll keep reading.

A fair amount of drama doesn't hurt either.  A secret past or hidden identity is often a good move.

And action if possible.

And engaging dialogue.  Definitely that.

And good pacing in tandem with a good story arc.

In other words, it takes a lot to gain a reader's interest in a story and then to subsequently hold that interest till the end of the book.

This is all well and good in the fiction world.  People tend to read fiction for the enjoyment of entering another world and living vicariously through fictional characters.  I am one of those people.  My particular preference is historical fiction set in 1800s America or the WWII era set anywhere in the world.  Add in some romance and my satisfaction is complete.  I love learning history through the eyes and ears of fictional characters, and I love exploring the cultures of bygone ages through the narrative descriptions filling the pages of a novel.

I'm also a rather critical reader.  I fully invest in the main characters to the point that I can get frustrated when there's a hole in the narrative that did a disservice to the characters or when the backstory isn't believable or when the character acts out of character in a way that isn't purposeful to the story line.  The reason I nitpick over details is because I expect fiction to be neatly packaged even if the characters themselves are a hot mess or the story doesn't lead to an ending I'd prefer.

But that's the way of fiction.  It can be well constructed and delivered because it's completely made up.  Characters can grow and change over the course of the story.  They can speak only the words worth speaking that will drive the story along.  They can appear in scenes that are interesting and critical because any uninteresting or uncritical scene has been deleted from the draft.  The story can move along with smooth transitions from one chapter to the next, and loose ends can be tied up.

That's why I love fiction.  It's relatively crisp and neat, no matter what events are actually happening in the story line.

When I think about what makes an interesting story - about what the fiction experts say is necessary - I'm struck by how much those requirements do not fit reality.

Even people who have plenty of drama in their life can't say they've always had smooth transitions from one scene to the next.  They can't say they're experts at spoken exchanges, always saying whatever is compelling and eloquent at the right time and place.  They can't say they didn't have long stretches of nothing new happening and wishing they could skip ahead to the next interesting part of the story.

If people with plenty of drama in their life can't say that, then people without much drama can't say that either.

I'm someone without much drama in my life.  Anyone hearing my story wouldn't find much to be interested in.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about me is that I moved overseas to be a missionary, which has proven interesting to many people, but isn't the stuff of fiction per se.  There's very little action in my story and certainly no secret past or hidden identity to kick things off.  I live a relatively simply, mundane, uninteresting life.

My story will never be told in a fiction narrative because the one problem with fiction is that it doesn't recognize a universal truth: all stories are interesting page-turners to God.

God is the creator of all things.  He is the creator of the earth and everything in it.  He is the creator of humanity.  He is the creator of stories.  He is the creator of our stories and He is very much interested in them.

One thing my attempts at writing fiction has taught me is this: creators of characters and their stories care deeply about those characters and their stories, even if no one else does, even if no one else understands why that scene pricks your own heart or why that part of a personality resonates with you or why that choice kept you thinking long past your bedtime.  Creators of characters care deeply about their characters.

And God, as the creator of us and our stories, cares deeply about us and our stories.  He was hooked the moment He created us and He's invested in how the story goes and where it goes.  Every page is meaningful to Him and there isn't a single human story that He'll give up on because it just wasn't engaging enough to Him.  His interest and His love for our stories have no bounds.

He is the Author and the Reader.  He simultaneously writes our stories and reads them.  I imagine Him writing with one hand and turning a page with the other, devouring what's there because He's so moved and captivated by our stories.

Psalm 139 paints a poignant picture of how much God invests Himself in us.  Our lives are at the center of His thoughts, at the heart of His consideration:

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me (and are interested in me despite my boring life).

You know when I sit and when I rise (even though most of my sittings and risings are not worth mentioning).

You perceive my thoughts from afar (and understand them even when they're jumbled and unintelligible and not worth putting into words much less putting on paper).

You discern my going out and my lying down (because You care about every coming and going and watch over me even as I sleep).

You are familiar with all my ways (even the monotonous ways).

Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely, O Lord (and love me the same whether the words coming off my tongue make You proud or make You cringe).

You hem me in - behind and before (even though sometimes I should probably be hemmed out).

You have laid your hand upon me (and keep it there no matter what).

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain!

Psalm 139 was written by someone with more drama than even the greatest fiction writers could possibly concoct.  King David's life seems like the stuff of fiction on steroids, so it's ironic that his words speak so strongly to someone as uninteresting as me.  Yet I take heart in these truths written by someone whose life was a riveting page-turner. 

God knows me and is familiar with all my ways and His hand is laid upon me.

God is interested in my story.  He's invested, deeply invested, and such knowledge is too wonderful for me.

Especially because it means I can connect with my Creator without wondering if He'll want to connect with me too.  If anything, He is the one reminding me that He loves my story and that it matters.

Henri Nouwen once wrote to a student, “[Y]our story is the story with which you can come to know God’s story better, and it is his story that makes your story worth living.”

Our stories are not the end-all. None of us have the greatest story ever written, but all of us have a story that intersects with it. Our stories are possible because God, the Creator, wrote a grand story that includes all of us and which gives our stories purpose and meaning.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain!


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Song for this Season

This summer has not been what I expected.  I thought Summer Break meant Mama Break, and maybe in another time and place that would be true.  But it has not been true in this time and place.  I had expectations of sending the boys outside all morning while I catch up on projects and read to my heart's content.  I had hopes of writing a lot.  I had dreamed of waking up early for the sole purpose of reading Scripture and actually starting my days with prayer.

Apparently those were high expectations.

Instead, Summer Break has meant Mama Gets No Breaks because in this time and place there are hearts that needs tending, relationships that need mending, and hopes kept from rending.  It's been a season not of keeping all the plates spinning, but of holding the one plate we've got tightly and securely.  It's been a season of hanging onto each other in the midst of relatively mundane days, learning to meet each other's needs in new ways since most of our anchors have up and gone.

A few years ago I wrote a song which has crept into my mind lately.  At the time we were finishing our first year on the mission field, and there were a thousand thoughts and emotions surging through me.  I still have a thousand thoughts and emotions, and although our circumstances now are vastly different than they were then, my heart easily identifies with the words and sentiments of this song.  So I've been singing it again, just to myself, just to pour something tangible out.

It's been a song for this season.

I love this picture below: our sons running home from the hospital with boundless energy, and the jacaranda tree in full bloom in the dry season.

For anyone else whose anchors have up and gone and who needs the encouragement of trees blooming in the dry season, here's a piece of my heart from me to you.




Narrow Way
© 2017 Krista Horn

Some say to take the road less traveled,
the path that’s not well-worn.
As I’ve journeyed down that road,
my heart’s grown as it’s been torn.
Torn for hopes not realized,
and yet grown through anguished cries.
As I’ve walked this narrow way,
He’s sustained me day by day.

Some say the harvest still is plenty,
and the workers still are few.
As I’ve seen this truth before me,
I’ve felt a harvest in me too.
Room to grow in love and peace,
pride and judgements – oh, to cease!
As I’ve walked this narrow way,
He’s refined me day by day.

Some say how great is the reward
for all those who pay the cost.
But some days the price is steep,
and His promises seem lost.
Is it true that there’s still worth
serving the ends of the earth?
As I’ve walked this narrow way,
He’s grieved with me day by day.

Some say that going against the current
requires being both strong and brave.
Yet as I’ve swam through this deep ocean
I’ve been floundering in the waves.
Floundering but sustained along
by a God who shames the strong.
As I’ve walked this narrow way,
He’s upheld me day by day.

Some say success is simply measured
by results that can be seen.
But what gauge can know the merit
of obedience to the King?
For a faithful heart is more
than the triumphs we long for.
As I’ve walked this narrow way,
He’s smiled on me day by day.

Some say to take the road less traveled,
the path that’s not well-worn.
As I fix my eyes on Jesus,
I still walk though I am torn.


Thursday, May 14, 2020

60%

One of our greatest pre-field training components took place over the course of a month in Colorado.  At the time, Eli had just finished a job in an ER, we just had a baby, and we had just moved from Minnesota to Michigan as part of our eventual transition to Africa.  In other words, our life was in utter chaos as we arrived at training.  I personally was an exhausted, bleary-eyed mess, nursing an infant round-the-clock on top of managing a toddler and preschooler.  The information we acquired during that month was only minimally heard and understood by my malfunctioning brain at the time.

There were, however, some nuggets I did hear and understand and have carried around with me ever since.  One of those nuggets was a statistic from someone somewhere.  (You'll have to excuse the fact that my postpartum, transition-ladened brain wasn't able to process or remember the someone somewhere this statistic came from.)

We were told this: that a person living cross-culturally is, on average, only capable of functioning at 60% of their normal, living-in-my-own-culture capacity.

60%

I was shocked to hear this.  That's a ridiculously small capacity to be functioning at.  That's also a huge frustration to deal with daily, especially for folks like ourselves who come from a work-driven culture.  We know how to work hard, how to make the most of our day, and how to push through till the job is done.

Except when we literally can't because the normal energy we conjure to do said things simply doesn't exist.

I had a hard time wrapping my mind around this concept.  I wasn't sure if I believed the statistic.  I certainly didn't want to believe it.  Especially because it meant sacrificing so much to live overseas and only being able to accomplish 60% of what we set out to do on any given day.

That's discouraging.  That's defeating.  That's frustrating.

So I did what a lot of pre-field missionaries do.  I told myself that it probably didn't apply to me.  Surely that statistic is not true for everyone.  It can't be!  It's only a statistic and statistics, by nature, don't apply to everyone.

Well, that is true.  Statistics don't apply to everyone, and I have some missionary colleagues who this doesn't seem to apply to.

But it didn't take long of living overseas for the inclination of "that doesn't apply to me" to come crashing to the floor.

That was discouraging.  That was defeating.  That was frustrating.

That was also humbling (as were so many things in those first weeks and months of life on the mission field).

It wasn't that I had notions of grandeur, thinking I'd be some kind of superhero missionary.  I really didn't.  I knew I'd make a million mistakes on the way to glory, as many missionaries have quipped before.  And I was totally okay with that.  It's just that I really thought I was a highly capable person, certainly more capable than functioning at a mere 60% capacity.

But it turns out I'm not.  I am a rather average missionary whose brain feels muddled most days and who tires out way earlier than I ever imagined possible before living overseas.

And here's why:

Whenever I go into town in Kenya, my mind is racing with energy-sapping thoughts.  Should I greet that person?  Should I not?  How will they perceive me if I greet them?  If I don't?  Do I speak in Swahili at the market?  What's that one Swahili word again?  Will I confuse them with my blundering language attempt?  How will I answer if they speak Swahili back but it was too fast for me to understand?  Why is that man calling out to me?  Is there a rational reason and I should acknowledge him, or is he just another creep who finds a mzungu woman novel and attractive?  How are my actions (or lack thereof) affecting the general perception of missionaries in this community?  All of these thoughts swirl through my head before I even reach the market.

Conversely, whenever I go into town in America, I never think about how to interact with those around me.  I inherently know what is and isn't appropriate behavior without even thinking about it.  I also don't have to wrestle with language hurdles while inquiring about tomatoes.

Here's another example:

Whenever someone requests financial assistance from us, we have a lengthy discussion about what to do.  Even after we make a decision, we usually have a lengthy discussion about whether we did the right thing.  Why are they asking for money at this particular time?  Is their need genuine?  Have they asked for help from anyone else yet?  What kind of relationship do we have with this person, and therefore what role would we assume if we choose to help?  Are we helping as a friend or a sponsor?  What ramifications will our assistance have on this person within their own community?  If their family or neighbors find out that wazungu provided help, will it cause problems and throw the community equilibrium into upheaval?  How much is an appropriate amount to give?  Whatever we give sends a message - so what message are we sending?  Who can we talk with and seek advice from?  How do we know what to do???

Conversely, if someone was to request financial assistance from us in America (and I say if because that hasn't happened yet), we'd still have a discussion about what to do and maybe even question if we made the right decision, but we wouldn't have to do mental gymnastics about the cultural implications of whatever decision we might make.  It would simply be an easier thing to manage within our own cultural context.

And that's the thing.  Everything is easier within our own cultural context.  Communication is easier.  Conflict is easier.  Decision-making is easier.  Everyday life is easier!

But because we spend our days living cross-culturally, we also spend our days expending an incredible amount of extra energy just to get through these days. 

That's why I'm often totally spent by lunchtime. 

That's why answering the door sometimes feels like the hardest thing I do all day (and the biggest achievement). 

That's why I drink so much Coke - to give myself a kick of energy to get through the afternoons and evenings.

That's why I haven't succeeded in my goal of writing a blog post here every month - because writing takes so much creative energy, and creative energy is a hard-to-come-by luxury in the 60% functionality I'm capable of.

Experiencing the reality of this statistic is hard.  But experiencing the reality of this statistic has also helped me have grace for myself.  Since it's true that I simply cannot function at full capacity while living cross-culturally, it's also true that I need to have extra grace for myself and to be satisfied with whatever I am capable of.

The fact that I can scarcely get out of the compound let alone have next to no ministry outside the home?  Oh well.  My responsibilities on the homefront and within the compound are more than enough for me to handle.  I will rejoice in what I am able to do within the walls of my own home and within our compound community.

The fact that my writing life creeps along at a frustratingly slow pace?  Well, that's frustrating, but whatchya gonna do?  I can't pull creative energy out of nothing - and I truly mean there is nothing to pull from some days - so I will rejoice in any writing I am able to accomplish, like this blog post here.  Major victory!

I've come to accept the 60% statistic, even though it still irks me at times.  Oh how I wish I could be more productive in this cross-cultural life!  But apparently I am limited, severely limited.  And thankfully that's normal. 

So I choose to have grace for myself when I routinely set out to accomplish more than I'm able to and routinely fail at it.  And I have grace for myself when I choose to give up before getting started because I already know how my limitations will impede whatever task I've got in mind. 

Grace, grace, so much grace is needed.  I pray not only that I will continue having grace for myself in this, but that others will have grace for me as well.


Friday, April 24, 2020

Entitled to Suffer

Several years ago, a missionary friend of mine made the difficult decision to leave the mission field because of serious health concerns that couldn’t be addressed in her host country.  She had spent a long time enduring physical suffering and attempting to find answers locally before her condition became so complex and so unbearable that she was forced to return to the States for medical help.  Once in the States she still endured a long and painful journey of recovery.  In the midst of all that, my friend reflected, “In order to attain a theology of suffering, one must suffer.”

I have never forgotten those words.

They’re particularly poignant coming from an American worldview.  The American psyche does not accept suffering well.  Our culture feels entitled to not suffer, as if all the hard work and thinking and planning and determination and zeal that were instilled and passed down by our forebears grants us a “get out of suffering free” card.  This is our American Theology of Suffering: we have the knowledge and willpower to combat and defeat suffering if we choose to.  We get confused at best, offended at worst, when we suffer anyway.

That perspective doesn’t seem to line up with a biblical view of suffering.

Living and working at a mission hospital in Africa has given us an opportunity to see how other cultures view and understand suffering.  While Americans (in general) experience comparatively little suffering and fight against it at all costs, Africans (in general) experience a lot of suffering and accept its existence in their lives as normal.  Death is known here.  Death is fairly understood and even expected.  And although death is greatly grieved, somehow it’s also accepted.  While we struggle sometimes with how easily it’s accepted – we fail to understand the lack of “Why God?” in so many situations – we’ve also been learning something from our Kenyan brothers and sisters that is so hard for us as Americans: how to identify with our Savior through suffering.

Because of Covid-19, the entire world is suffering right now and disciples of Jesus in this present age have an opportunity.  We have an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus and to know Him more by willingly walking down the road of suffering.

I would argue that “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10, emphasis mine) is best done by suffering willingly.  I don’t mean welcoming suffering in a masochistic sense or never fighting against sickness and disease.  I mean that it’s beneficial to acknowledge that suffering is a part of this world and no one is exempt from it, and that for followers of Christ it’s beneficial to invite Him to use our suffering as a way of connecting with Himself – the man of sorrows who was familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3).

No one saw a global pandemic coming and no one saw the acute, increased suffering in our present world.  No one saw the sickness and death, the separation and isolation, the stress and anxiety, the financial failures and economic disasters.  No one saw a world imploding and crying out for answers.

Answers may elude us, but opportunities do not.  Opportunities abound for displaying kindness and compassion, for increasing our prayers and study of the Word, for choosing to connect and encourage each other in an era of social distancing, for giving of our limited resources because someone else has even more limited resources.  And another opportunity has presented itself: to identify with Christ through our suffering.

Most of Paul’s writings on suffering refer specifically to suffering for Christ, for the Gospel.  “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29).  The average world citizen suffering in this pandemic is not suffering for Christ, for the Gospel.  But that doesn’t exclude the reality that suffering for its own sake is opportunity to identify with Christ.  Paul tells of a time when his “brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier” Epaphroditus became ill and nearly died, a circumstance that no doubt caused Paul great anxiety since he acknowledges that a deadly outcome would have spiraled him into “sorrow upon sorrow” with grief for his friend (Philippians 2:25ff).  God had mercy on Epaphroditus, and on Paul too.  The life of his dear friend was spared.  Yet I’m sure his experience of stress and anxiety (and for a time the loss of his fellow worker’s presence) caused Paul to lean heavily on Christ, the Savior who also knew stress and anxiety and the loss of His fellow workers’ presence.  I’m sure Paul turned to Christ for help and for comfort, and I’m sure Paul understood his Savior a bit more too.

Even for the times when our suffering is granted by God (such as Paul’s thorn in the flesh and of course Christ Himself who submitted to the “the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Isaiah 53:10a), we can take heart that God’s grace is sufficient for us.  His grace sustains us, it teaches us, and it helps us to know Him more.

Charles Spurgeon, who was no stranger to suffering, once wrote: “Will the Head be crowned with thorns, and will the other members of the body be rocked on the dainty lap of ease?  Must Christ pass through seas of His own blood to win the crown, and are we to walk to heaven in silver slippers that stay dry?  No, our Master’s experience teaches us that suffering is necessary, and the true-born child of God must not, would not, escape it if he could.”

As we walk this road of suffering during Covid-19, let’s acknowledge the opportunity before us.  It’s not an opportunity to fight against our current suffering because we’re entitled to not suffer.  Conversely, we have the opportunity to endure suffering as people who are entitled to suffer as followers of Jesus.  And maybe, if we’re willing, there’s an opportunity to develop a biblical theology of suffering as we lean into this time of identifying with and understanding our Savior, the Man of Sorrows.


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[I wrote this article for A Life Overseas and it was originally published on their website earlier this week.  I've had a few other articles published there, but haven't always re-posted them here.  To see the other articles I've written for A Life Overseas, click here.]

Sunday, March 29, 2020

A God Who Redeems the Worst for Good

[This is from a newsletter I sent last week, giving an update on our life in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.]




A God Who Redeems the Worst for Good

First things first: we are doing well here in Kenya.  The world is in chaos, and Kenya itself has now identified its first cases of coronavirus, yet we are doing well.  Thanks be to God.

Current world events have brought to mind the likes of Joseph, Naomi, and David.  The current crisis has reminded me that our God is a God who redeems the worst of events by bringing good out of them.  God helped a hated brother who was sold into slavery become a powerful leader in Egypt who went on to save countless lives during a severe famine and be reconciled to his family.  God helped a devastated woman who'd buried her husband and both sons to find incredible joy through the kindness of a relative and the birth of a grandson.  God helped a shepherd boy running for his life to escape danger time and time again and eventually sit on the throne of his enemy and oppressor.  Our God is a God who redeems the worst of events by bringing good out of them.

My prayer for the world right now is that God would bring good out of this, specifically that minds and hearts would be turned toward Him and that fear would be replaced with peace.

My prayer for Kenya is that God would bring good out of this, specifically that this culture still in need of greater understanding of proper hygiene and sanitation would be awakened to that understanding.  I also pray that fear will be conquered by love for our neighbors.

My prayer for ourselves is that God would satisfy us each morning with His unfailing love, and that we would be glad in these uncertain times.  Such an outlook would be a very good thing to come out of all this.

The severity of the current crisis should not be minimized.  And neither should the capacity of our God to do marvelous things in the midst of calamity.


Loving Our Neighbor

When I had typhoid in 2017, the Body of Christ took care of me.  Our community checked on me daily, prayed over me, posted Scripture verses on the door of our house, watched our kids, made meals for our family, and literally set up an IV in our house so I could battle my sickness from the comfort of home.  That horrible experience was enveloped with love and compassion and kindness from so many people around me.  I will never forget how the support of our community built a foundation for my recovery.

Even though social distancing impedes personal interactions, I encourage you to routinely check in with those in your community.  They may not be suffering from the coronavirus itself, but many are struggling with isolation and anxiety and having kids at home round the clock (which is a very real struggle!).  Check in with each other.  Encourage each other.  Do whatever you can to love those around you even as you remain physically distant.  And receive encouragement from others too.  Be the kind of community member who builds a foundation for all of us to climb out of this pandemic together.


**********************


Q&A: Coronavirus

Q: Will you be coming back to the States during this crisis?
A: No.  Even though the U.S. State Department has encouraged all traveling Americans to return to the States immediately, we do not feel the need to do so.  We are not traveling Americans - we are Americans who live abroad.  Our home is in Kenya, and since we are safe and well here, we do not intend to leave before our next intended Home Assignment (which will be in 2021).


Q: Is it safe for Eli to continue working at the hospital?
A: Yes.  Even though Kenya does not have the same infrastructure in place to deal with a global pandemic like America does, strict safety protocols have been put in place.  We remind ourselves that Eli is regularly exposed to all manner of sickness and disease, and he is well equipped to face other contagions like the coronavirus (should it come to that).

Q: Are you being quarantined?A: No.  Kenya is not in lockdown mode as of yet.  All unnecessary travel has been put on hold, and we are prepared to stay in Chogoria for awhile.  We recently stocked up on supplies in Nairobi and are extremely grateful for a refrigerator and freezer!  The average Kenyan has no electricity or running water, let alone modern conveniences like fridges and freezers, and therefore is not able to stock up like we are.  We consider it an incredible blessing to be able to stock up on supplies at all!


Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Glory in Death

O Death, I have felt your sting.  I have seen you take Life again.  I have been surprised, sorrowful, enraged, and numb because of your recent incursion.

Yet because of you, I have seen Victory.  Not your victory, but His victory.  Which became her victory.  Because of you and your taking of life, I have seen again that New Life is the end of the story.

Even you, O Death, are being used for a greater purpose.  Even you are playing a part in the grand plan to bring New Life to us.  Even you submit to the Victor.  Even you cannot foil what He purposes.

I will grieve and cry and sleep in sorrow because of what you've done, yet I will rejoice and sing and rise in hope because of what He has done.


**********************


One week before Sarah died, we were visiting with her husband and rejoicing in the good news that she was responding to meds and had finally turned a corner.  We thought she was out of the woods.  We thought she would soon recover.  We thought we'd be gathering again in the near future to hear the testimony of how God had healed her.

Instead, one week later we gathered at their home to mourn her death and that of her unborn child.

It was shocking, to say the least.  Even though she'd been in the hospital for awhile, no one saw this coming.  We woke up on a Wednesday morning and heard the news.  The burden of grief weighed on us immediately, and it felt like a stone around our necks.

Sarah was our colleague, our neighbor, our friend.  She and her husband are an integral part of our community here, and the entire community felt the enormity of the loss.  Not only did she die, but she died in our hospital, under our care.  The loss felt personal.  Sarah was given incredible care, but her condition was too advanced and she eventually succumbed to it despite everything we could possibly do being done.

How do doctors grieve the loss of a patient who is also their friend?

How does a community grieve the loss of a neighbor we greet on the sidewalk and sit next to at Bible Study?

The answer is together.  We grieve together.

This is what love looks like.  This is a community of people gathered together, leaving their shoes at the door, to be present with one another in a culture where no one grieves alone.




On the morning that Sarah died, our community immediately gathered at her house to collectively grieve with her husband, Daniel, and their families.  That initial grief gathering was raw.  Lots of tears and wailing.  The loss was fresh and acutely felt by all.  Later that evening we gathered again, cramming people into every corner of the living room and hallway to support each other and to pray and to fellowship in the aftermath of death.

That first evening of fellowship led to another, and another, and another.  Our community gathered every single night for fellowship at Sarah and Daniel's house until the funeral 10 days later.  Someone would give a devotion, we'd worship and pray, and somehow find ourselves laughing with joy in the midst of such sorrow.  Those nightly fellowship gatherings were beautiful and life-giving.




I will admit it felt counter-cultural.  Americans would never do this.  We grieve much more privately and individually.  Yet spending time together each night was a powerful source of healing.  As a community who collectively suffered a loss, choosing to connect with each other every night in order to worship our Lord was a balm for the wounds of grief.

In the midst of this, we learned more about the African perspective on death.  It was eye-opening and challenging for us Americans.  We continually heard people say, "God has done it" or something similar.  It was God's will for Sarah to die at this time.  That's the reason she died.  We must, and do, accept God's will in this.

Such a perspective offers great comfort to the African worldview.

It also goes against the grain of my own worldview.

My response to such tragedy is Why?  It isn't fair!  She was too young!  She had more life to live!  Why did You allow this, Lord?  

My response was to weep with an American friend at the injustice that Sarah and Daniel will now never have what we have: years ahead of them and children in their midst.

My response echoed these lyrics by Bebo Norman:

Your broken body, it cannot weather
The years your youth still longs to spend
So go down graceful, sleep with the angels
And wake up whole again

'Cause it was not your time; that's a useless line
A fallen world took your life

I agree that a fallen world took her life.  The Fall left us in a world where everything dies.  But I also agree that God has done it.  He at least allowed Sarah's death, as He allows all death.  And I must wrestle with these truths.

As I wrestle, I also rejoice in another truth: that Sarah's death brought glory to God.  I was reading through Philippians when Sarah died, and Paul's profound words regarding death rang out: "...now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death" (Philippians 1:20b).

Whether by our lives or our deaths, Christ is exalted.

It was not only Sarah's death, but her baby's death, that brought glory to God.  This is a really hard truth for the American worldview.  The death of an unborn child bringing glory to God?  The idea rankles.  It's wrong, unjust, unfair, wholly inglorious.  

But Daniel's perspective, which he earnestly expressed in the days following Sarah's death, is true: Sarah did not die childless, as some might assume because the baby was never born.  (Bearing children is of preeminent importance in this culture.)  Rather, Sarah and her baby are both in heaven together, and someone is calling Sarah "mom" even now.

I wept when I heard him say this.  I wept because it's true.  And I wept because my entire being still cried out against the unfairness of it all.  I wept because there's a tension in my response to Death.

That tension remains, but I am grateful for it.  The tension allows both grief and joy, exhaustion and rest, angst and peace.  It allows room for the mysteries that surround Life and Death.


**********************


In the midst of the grief process, Philippians 4:8 struck a chord with me:

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, 
whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, 
whatever is admirable ⏤ if anything is excellent or praiseworthy ⏤ 
think about such things."

Sarah loved the Lord and followed Him, and she and her baby are in heaven with Jesus right now.  That is true.

The doctors at this hospital did everything within their power to try healing Sarah.  That was noble.

Our community gathered around Sarah and Daniel and their families during her sickness.  We supported them and encouraged them as best as we could.  That was right.

There were ceaseless prayers being offered for Sarah's protection and healing.  Those prayers were pure.

The memories of Sarah as a kind, loving, compassionate woman fill us with gratitude and joy.  That is lovely.

The greater community, including hospital staff and our church community, worked together to raise funds for funeral expenses and the outstanding hospital bill.  That was admirable.

Our community gathered every night to worship together and to remember God's goodness and faithfulness in the midst of death and sorrow, forsaking other commitments in order to do so.  That was excellent and praiseworthy.

So we are thinking about such things.  We are thanking God for a life well lived, a life that was devoted to serving Him, a life that gave glory to God even in death.  We acknowledge God's sovereignty over all things, including death, and we stand amazed at the truth that "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" (Psalm 116:15).

There is glory in death.  Glory to God.




Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Our History and the Hope of Christmas: Part Two


"Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget 
the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart 
as long as you live.  Teach them to your children 
and to their children after them."

~ Deuteronomy 4:9


Knowing our past informs the present and gives hope for the future.  At least that's how it ought to be.  We look back and reflect and then consider our way forward.

We cannot know the past unless we learn about it, unless we choose to engage with whatever is known of our history.  Not everything is known, but often a great deal is.  Knowing history has many uses and I like to think that it, like Scripture, is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  When we learn about what was done wrong in the past we can hopefully find a better way forward.  When we learn about what was done right in the past we can hopefully find ways to replicate that goodness.

History is a powerful and earnest teacher if we're willing to be her student.

I am an ongoing student of the history of missions in Kenya.  I am learning both about what was done wrong and what was done right in the past, and hopefully finding solid ground to both reject what was done wrong and replicate what was done right as I live here now.

One of the greatest things I've learned that was done right, over and over again, was the faithful obedience of so many pioneer missionaries here in Kenya.  I can only hope that my level of faithfulness will amount to even a fraction of theirs.  Their stories have inspired me and moved me to tears, and I am eternally grateful to be following in their footsteps.

This is Johann Krapf, the first Protestant missionary to Kenya.  




Krapf was from Germany and spent seven years in Abbysinia (modern day Ethiopia) before coming to Kenya in 1844 with his wife, Rosina, and their infant daughter.  They arrived in Mombasa in May, and on July 13 his wife died of fever.  Their daughter also died, and Krapf was forced to bury his wife and daughter just two months after arriving in Kenya.

He wrote this: "God bids us first build a cemetery before we build a church or dwelling place."




He also wrote a letter to his mission society afterwards and said this: "Tell our friends at home that there is now on the East African coast a lonely missionary grave.  This is a sign that you have commenced the struggle with this part of the world, and as the victories of the Church are gained by stepping over the graves of her members, you may be the more convinced that the hour is at hand when you are summoned to the conversion of Africa from its eastern shore."

After this horrendous beginning, Krapf continued on alone for the next two years before someone else came to join his efforts.  He spent 13 years in Kenya (or British East Africa, as it was called then) and left with one convert to the Christian faith.  A book published in 1906 explained it this way: "Looked at from a human standpoint, Krapf’s life would seem to have had the word failure written around it.  Thirteen years in Africa, years of privation and suffering, and those at Mombasa of the deepest sorrow, and what was there to show for the sacrifice?  A broken-down body and a shattered constitution, two lonely graves on the hillside at Mombasa and one African convert.  But God has ordered it that no effort for good in this world is ever lost."

As God would have it, approximately 30 years after Krapf's wife and child died, a mission station and church were built on the plot of land where they were buried.  Krapf never saw that particular fruit of his labor.  He saw other successes, like compiling a Swahili dictionary and translating the New Testament into Swahili, and of course his one convert, but he never witnessed the joy of seeing a church built in the end.

I look forward to meeting Johann Krapf in heaven and saying thank you for his faithful obedience, for remaining in this land after it stole his family's lives, for not cursing the ground he stood upon but rather turning it into fruitful soil for the future - soil that we now stand upon and are continuing to reap the seeds that were sown by him 175 years ago.

I've been sharing his story with people who I know will be interested.  And I intend to share his story with our boys someday, so they will know our history and remember it, and be grateful for it.

The person who joined Krapf in Kenya was this man, Johannes Rebmann.  A fellow German, he remained in Kenya for 29 years without a furlough.




At some point during that time, their mission board "had dropped Mombasa as being an unfruitful field.  But ‘Old John Rebmann,’ as he was familiarly called, never lost faith in his work and refused to leave his post.... In his lifelong battle…he had been able to keep together a little company of Christians whose number equaled the twelve of his Master, and John Rebmann was content."

By the time he left Kenya, Rebmann was weak and nearly blind and yet had to be convinced to return to Europe for his health.  This is a photo of him and his devoted servant Isaak Niondo.





I look forward to meeting Johannes Rebmann in heaven and saying thank you for his faithful obedience, for coming in the first place even while knowing the dangers and hardships, for working so diligently to learn several languages and preach the Gospel to the nations.

I could tell you stories about others who came after these men, who saw little or no successes, who battled diseases and rinderpest and famine, who laid down their lives, some of whose names are forgotten to history although their presence was known.  There are too many to write about here, but I am learning about them so I can remember them and tell my children about them.  We are standing on their shoulders, just as others will stand on our shoulders in the future.

And although so many of their stories include incredible heartbreak, I am encouraged.  I am encouraged by their determination and resilience, by their absolute faithful obedience to Christ's call on their life.  

They did what they did because of Christ.  

Because He came, they went.

And I am reminded on this day of all days why we choose this life, why we spend Christmas halfway around the world from our families, why we reach across cultures to build the Kingdom in the here and now.  

It is because of Emmanuel, God With Us.

It is because of Hope Come Down.

It is because of the Desire of Nations.

All the struggles and sacrifices of the past, present, and future are given worth in the Christ child and the hope He brings to the world.


Sunday, December 22, 2019

Our History and the Hope of Christmas: Part One

During grad school at Wheaton, I had an assignment for a cross-cultural research class that required us to explore the Archives in the Billy Graham Center and write a simple report on something we found.

I didn't realize it before, but the Archives are laden with missions history.

Missionary journals, newspaper clippings, old photographs and more fill the carefully catalogued collections.  Not only that, but the grad school library connected to the Archives is full of books on missions.  It's basically a one-stop shop for all things missions-related!

For my assignment, I wound up reading a journal written by a woman named Florence who moved to Kenya in 1906.  At the time we had no idea we'd also be moving to Kenya.  Eli was still in medical school and we were years away from moving overseas.  We knew Africa was in our future, but the specific country was still unknown to us.  Regardless, the journal was fascinating.

Florence wrote a small entry every single day.  She wrote about leaving America on November 1, 1905, and journeying on a ship across the Atlantic. She landed first in Liverpool, England, where she was delayed for four weeks because of diphtheria, but eventually continued on through the Mediterranean Sea, through the Suez Canal, around the Horn of Africa, and into the port of Mombasa.  She landed in British East Africa (as it was called then) on January 9, 1906.

Florence's ministry included teaching Bible lessons, reading, writing, and sewing.  She married a long-time friend a few months after arriving - his arrival in Kenya predated hers by a couple years - and together they worked among the Maasai tribe.  Her husband, John, compiled a dictionary of the Maasai language and also translated their language into Scripture.  They spent decades in Africa and had a fruitful ministry, and I am inspired by them.

I'm inspired not only because of their successes, but also because of their day-in, day-out reality.  What fascinated me so much about Florence's journal were the non-ministry details, the behind-the-scenes daily living that is so much of life.  She wrote about ants in the house, about ruining the bread, about her husband being sick much of the time, and about an elephant destroying their garden one night.  She wrote about going for walks and enjoying picnics, and about looking for colobus monkeys to send back to the Field Museum in Chicago!  This was their life, their faithful walk as they spent decades working to build the Kingdom of God in Kenya.

And I am inspired.

I, too, have battled ant infestations in our house.  I, too, have ruined the bread.  I, too, have suffered from extreme sickness here.  And although we've never had an elephant in our garden (thank goodness!) we know well the battles of trying to keep our house and garden intact just so we can keep on living here.  Some things, apparently, don't change much in a hundred years.

But many things have changed.  Living here is infinitely easier now than it was for Florence and John.  We have electricity (most of the time) and quick transportation.  We have modern technology and the ability to communicate easily with family and friends back home.  We have lots of options for food, even some Western goods, and access to basic medicine.

More importantly, though, is how much has changed in the last hundred years in the Church.  The ministry that we are able to do now, at a mission hospital that openly shares the Gospel with patients, is only possible because of the foundations that were laid by pioneers like Florence and John.  They advanced the Kingdom here.  They shared the truth and love of Jesus and they discipled many.  They prepared their generation for pouring into the next, which poured into the next and the next and the next...  And now we are here, nearly 114 years later, walking on the foundations laid for us long ago and doing our part to keep advancing the Kingdom here.

It wasn't until we'd been in Kenya for awhile that I remembered reading Florence's journal in grad school.  I wanted to look at it again and learn more of the history of missions in Kenya.  So, on one of our trips through Chicago during Home Assignment last year, I took the opportunity to spend a couple days at Wheaton and look at Florence's journal in the Archives again.  Furthermore, I took the opportunity to look through several books that pertained to the history of missions in Kenya.  The more I learned, the more humbled and encouraged I became.

The missionary pioneers I read about (which I'll highlight in the next post) endured much suffering and seemingly little success.  They sacrificed a lot and gained very little.  Sometimes I feel like that too, because something that's remained the same over time is how slowly things change.  We invest in time and energy and money and emotions and prayer and relationships...and the growth and change we came here to participate in happens very slowly.

When I, as a time-sensitive American, get frustrated or discouraged with the pace of change in our ministry, it helps significantly to remember where we've been.  Not just where we, the Horns, have been, but to look even further back to those who have gone before us.

Florence wrote this at the very end of her journal in 1906: "What this little book contains of joys and sorrow, struggles, and smooth sailing - may never be seen by other eyes.  Yet it has been a comfort to record them.  God has kept a better record for which we praise Him and are happy to leave ourselves in His hands for the next 365 days."

I am so grateful to Florence for writing a record of her ministry in Kenya.  I have read it and now I know and can remember what God has done.  I can remember and be encouraged by God's work and God's timing.  He intended to bring Florence to Kenya in 1906 and He intended to bring me here in 2016.  We are both part of a bigger story, a story of ages past filled with people crying out for a Savior, and of a God who provided a Savior who embodied eternal hope.  We are part of a story that declares "Christ has come" and "It is finished" and "Let the nations be glad."

I am filled with hope at this time of year as we reflect on all God has done this year.  And I think it would serve us well to remember beyond this year - to years past, to ages past - and remember what God has done in times and places beyond our own that have made our own time and place of ministry possible.