Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Call to Missions

"How did you figure out you were called to missions?"  The people asking us this question were trying to discern if they were called to be missionaries themselves.  We were sitting across the dining room table from them and they asked us simply and pointedly: How do you know?

The Question of why we're doing what we're doing has been asked of us many times, in many ways.  Sometimes The Question is posed straightforward, as it was that time around the dining room table.  At other times it's asked indirectly, such as when we're asked if we're taking our kids to Africa with us.  (Yes, sometimes people ask this.  For the record, we are not leaving our children behind!)  The Question is put in a variety of ways, with numerous nuances.  "Why would you go across the world when there are people who need help here?"  "How can you leave your family to do something like this?"  "Are you really okay with raising your kids in another culture?"  "Have you thought about doing ministry here?"  These questions, all valid, ultimately ask The Question: How do you know if you are called to missions?

Good question.  More often than not, there is no succinct answer.  For us, there was never an "aha" moment.  God never spoke to us in a dream.  He never put a banner in the sky.  He never threw the Great Commission in our faces.  Instead, He gave us a nudge.  Just an idea.  For us, the call to missions began with an inkling that we should consider the idea of becoming missionaries.  That was it.

Sometimes when people ask us The Question, we look at each other and shrug our shoulders.  We just have a feeling that we're supposed to do mission work.  At the core, that's really all it is: a gut instinct from the Holy Spirit.  For some people, that answer is enough.  For others, that makes no sense.  Packing our bags and moving across the ocean for years on end is not typically something to be done on a whim.  We agree, which is why our practical side examined the nudge from all sides even though our gut told us we were on the road to missions no matter what.

Perhaps more than anything else, we considered missions because Eli and I knew we weren't meant to live a typical American life.  Practically speaking, that could mean any number of things, but for us it opened the idea of pursuing missions.  In college, when Eli began considering his career path, he realized that majoring in Physics led to little else than working in a lab, which he had no interest in doing.  Eventually he realized that he was interested in medicine, but he also knew that he didn't want to work in a doctor's office the rest of his life.  As he thought about how to combine his growing passion for medicine with his desire to work in a nontraditional work environment, Eli was given the nudge again: How about missions?

Our practical side decided to test the nudge.  We thought it wise to try to confirm this budding call, so we found a way to spend time in Africa and we invited God to speak.  He met us in Cameroon and confirmed to us that, yes, we were called to medical missions long-term in Africa.

Our call to missions became even more apparent when we started asking the question, "Why not us?"  When we probed that question, we realized there was really no reason for us not to go.  Some of the basic, tangible things that are barriers for other people are not barriers for us.  For example, the idea of living in a hut in Africa doesn't dissuade us from going there.  We aren't fancy people.  We're people who predominantly wear jeans and T-shirts, who don't shower every day, and who love being outside.  When termites started building mounds inside our house in Cameroon, we were intrigued more than anything (although I will admit that the cockroaches in the kitchen cupboards started to bother me by the end).  Another example: neither Eli or I have the need to live close to home.  While we love our families dearly, we don't need to live down the street from them in order to thrive.  I left my hometown when I ventured to Bethel for college, 12 hours away, and haven't lived close since I left nearly fourteen years ago.  Eli, similarly, has never felt the need to return home permanently.  In fact, when we were in college, Eli's mom once said that she anticipated him living anywhere but close to home.  We are independent adventure-seekers and although we'd love the chance to live near our families again, we don't have a need to.  Besides, what we are doing is nothing compared to missionaries throughout history, who left home and family without email, Skype, and cell phones.  We are not taking a boat to China (like Eli's great-uncle and great-aunt did) nor are we packing our coffins with us (like countless missionaries did throughout history, knowing they'd likely never see home again).  We are flying to Africa in the 21st century.  Even so, we recognized that doing mission work internationally is not something that everyone could sign up for.  But we could.  So when we asked the question, "Why not us?" there were no reasons great enough to keep us from doing missions.

Over time, our call has become more specific.  We felt a nudge toward Africa from the very beginning.  We can't explain it beyond that.  Eventually, Eli felt a specific tug toward teaching.  We learned of a residency training program in Kenya that's currently seeking faculty to teach Family Medicine, so we veered in that direction.  The specifics of the call are being revealed as time goes on, but the call to missions itself remains firm.

How do we know that we are called to missions?  Because God nudged us and we responded to the nudge.  Because we explored the idea He planted and invited Him to speak through that exploration.  And because we looked at ourselves and realized God was matching the essence of who we are with serving Him in Africa.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

In All Honesty

She began by telling us her dream: 

She was on the mission field and she was walking.  She was dirty and tired.  Her muscles ached from the burdens she carried.  She was walking on the right road, but she felt like a weary, disheveled version of herself.  She kept walking.

When she awoke, she somehow knew that her dream was a picture of her future in missions.  

This young woman, who lovingly held her infant in her arms as she sat across the table from us, had wanted to be a missionary since she was a kid.  She had encountered discouragement along the way, including a woman in her own church who responded, "Oh, I'm sorry" upon being told by this young girl that she wanted to be a missionary when she grew up.  But this girl held onto her hope.  She grew up and still wanted to be a missionary.  She met and married a man who also wanted to be a missionary, and now they were sitting across the table from us, ready to sign on with an organization who would get them to the mission field.

But that dream.  It stuck with her.  She knew it was God's way of saying, "Your life in missions isn't going to be rosy.  You won't have the perpetual energy and excitement you did on your mission trip in high school.  It's going to be hard.  It's going to be exhausting.  It's going to look different than you thought."

When she told us her dream and its interpretation, something cascaded inside me.  Waves of understanding were followed by rapids of relief which were then followed by splashes of dismay.  I related to this woman, and her story assured me that I was not alone.  But it did not change the fact that I, too, was preparing myself for a future that would look different than I thought.

I never had dreams of being a missionary when I was a kid.  I knew little of missionaries and even less about what it meant to be called in that direction.  I remember a time when I was a freshman in college that a friend mentioned the idea of pursuing missions and I instantly thought, I could never do that!  But something changed between my freshman and senior year, and by the time I graduated I was committed to the notion of living overseas with Eli.  And I was excited about it.

We went to Cameroon for five months and loved it.  We came home and told people we were headed back to Africa when Eli finished training.  We cooked Cameroonian food from time to time and I kept in touch with my dear Cameroonian friend through emails and phone calls.  We did what we could to stay in touch with Africa because we wanted to, because it was in our future and it was exciting!  We also did the hard work of preparing ourselves for the future academically and experientially by going to grad school and attending missions conferences.  We did everything we could to stay on track.

But seven years was a long time to keep up the enthusiasm, especially when our youthful ignorance of the real world slipped further and further away with each passing year.  Seven years was far too long to maintain a romantic notion of our future.  We began facing the reality of what it meant to be missionaries, as opposed to being people who do mission trips.  We began exploring and embracing the actualities of missions, both the good and the bad, and our romantic notions were tempered.

Seven years was also a long time to maintain our stamina even as we maintained our focus.  Our energy waned and our excitement faded over time.  But we were in the morass of med school and residency.  It was understandable, right?  It was hard to be excited about much when we were barely holding our heads above water.

We assumed, however, that once we finally reached the point of moving forward with missions - of signing on with an organization and knowing we were finally en route to go - that the old energy and excitement would resurface and we'd be raring to go, even though our picture of the future had changed.  Our assumption was imprecise, however, because we are not the same people we were seven years ago (which is as it should be) nor do we have the same understanding of who God is and how God works as we did seven years ago (which is also as it should be).  We have grown and changed.  We have matured and become more honest with ourselves.  And we have learned that unenthusiasm, weariness, and apathy are par for the course.  Energy comes and goes, as do eagerness and passion and romantic notions.  But the call to remain obedient will stand forever.  Christ set the example because "he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8).  For us, to remain obedient is to follow through on our calling, which is to be medical missionaries in Africa.  He called us to this long ago, and now it sometimes feels like a cross to bear because what we'd really like to do is hole ourselves up in a cabin in the woods and read good books in between hiking and snowshoeing and playing Settlers of Catan.  There are plenty of days when the notion of still going to Africa feels less like a longing and more like an act of obedience.

But obedience is good.  Obedience is Christ-like.  Obedience is believing in the bigger picture and rejoicing in God's sovereignty.

So although we are grieving the lost excitement that emanated from our pores seven years ago, we are anxious to experience the bigger picture of what going to Africa means.  We eagerly await when God will pull us from this lull and renew our strength and joy.  Because,

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31

"Even youths grow tired and weary."  We are barely in our thirties yet we feel run over everyday.  God could have written that verse with us in mind.  I often wonder how it's possible to be this tired when we haven't even lived half our life yet.  But we are not alone in our weariness, nor are we alone as we come to grips with the fact that our future will look different than we thought.  And we are learning that it's okay to move forward with some trepidation.

When the woman shared her dream with everyone else at that table, I was surprised by her admission but also humbled by her bravery.  It's not a small thing to admit that, as someone headed to the mission field, it can be difficult to find the enthusiasm to go.  There are pressures placed upon missionaries - indeed, placed upon anyone in ministry - to be holy and righteous, to be up to speed on daily devotions, to be full of nothing but prayer and lacking nothing but sin.  Lethargy?  Not allowed!  Detachment?  Heck no!  Scriptural memory loss?  Heavens above, what on earth are you doing in ministry???  These are the pressures we face, and certainly the pressures we feel.  But we are not perfect and we are not holier than thou.  We are broken and bruised, but we are faithful to Jesus.  In other words, we are normal.

It's only recently that we've felt comfortable sharing more of our struggle.  We had to acknowledge the fear that, if we admitted our listlessness which has accumulated over the last seven years, that people might not support us.  Who wants to support missionaries who are exhausted and spent, or, God forbid, who are ineffective in the eyes of their supporters?  It's a legitimate fear for people who rely on the financial support of others.  Whether right or wrong, there are expectations to meet.  The stereotype of missionaries being on a righteous pedestal as they bring the light of Jesus to the nations is still alive and well.  Some people have told us they could never be missionaries themselves because they're not good enough to do mission work.  We're not sure what it means to be good enough for anything, but it was a reminder that the stereotypes still exist.  Since we are now subject to that stereotype as we begin training and fundraising to move to Africa, we feel the necessity of being more transparent.

So here's the truth: To be sure, we are recovering from what the past seven years have wrought upon us, but recovery from that kind of strain doesn't happen in a day.  We are excited to head to Africa in the sense that we're relieved to finally be at this end of our ten-year journey to get there, but the idea of packing up and moving somewhere new yet again sounds perfectly draining.  And if raising small children here is tiresome, then the idea of raising them (and homeschooling them) halfway around the world in a foreign culture sounds practically defeating.  And the expectation of missing out on ministry opportunities because of the time required to raise and homeschool children on the mission field is downright discouraging.  And although Kenya is in Africa and where the residency training program is that Eli feels called to work with, it's not Cameroon which would have been more comfortable in the sense that it's familiar and also where our hearts were first planted in Africa.

So here we are, willing to go as we remain obedient to Christ and trusting in Him who does not grow tired or weary and who understands the bigger picture in a way that we cannot fathom.

"I don't see how any degree of faith can exclude the dismay, 
since Christ's faith did not save Him from dismay in Gethsemane.  
We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; 
we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be."

~ C.S. Lewis


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Continuing the Journey: Seasons of Preparation

Everyone was wearing green.  It was a Thursday and it was St. Patrick's Day, and the atrium was crowded with people in a nervous yet celebratory mood.

It was Match Day.

It's hard to describe the nerves and emotions that surround The Match.  Medical students spend four years preparing for the next phase of training - residency - which is determined completely and utterly by The Match.  Where you match is where you go.  It's a legally binding contract.  And it affects the next several years of your life.  But it's a gamble.  It involves numerous interviews and numerous prayers and hopes and dreams and many, many nerves for most med students.  After the interview process, med students rank which residency programs they'd like to attend and then wait for The Match to tell them where they've matched.  Every med student in every med school across the country opens their envelope at the same time on the same day.  It's a big deal.

We were equally excited and nervous as we stood in the atrium at Loyola with everyone else in Eli's class.  Eli had interviewed at many programs in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest and we put a lot of thought into our rank list.  Even though Eli had chosen to do Family Medicine, a relatively non-competitive specialty, anything could happen and we were prepared for whatever the envelope held.  More than anything, we had prayed and were trusting that God would send us wherever He felt would be the best place to prepare us for Africa.

Finally, the time had come.  Eli opened the envelope and we read the letter together.

It said Duluth.  Duluth!  We had matched to our top choice!  We hugged each other and let the news sink in.  It meant Eli would get full-spectrum training and could be C-section certified.  It meant having the opportunity to do a rural rotation.  It meant being in the north woods.  It meant staying in the Midwest and being relatively close to family.  It meant joy for us!

We didn't take it for granted.  There were certainly people who didn't match where they wanted, or even in the specialty they wanted.  There was no lack of emotion in that room when the envelopes were ripped open.  Tears of joy mixed with tears of grief all around us.  We were among the former and we thanked God for His mercy.  We had turned in our rank list like everyone else and invited God to move through the process and send us where He wanted to.  Since we matched to Duluth, we trusted that God must have wanted us there.

We were moving from one season of preparation to another.  We were trading four years of med school for three years of residency.  We were graduating from grad school and jumping into jobs and babies, all the while continuing to prepare for what was still years away.  We didn't know the entirety of what Duluth held for us, but we knew it held further preparation: preparation of our skills and talents, and preparation of our hearts and minds as well.

After these past seven years, we've learned the value of preparing for what lies ahead.  We've been continually humbled as we've learned how much we don't know and how much we have yet to learn.  We've been reminded that no amount of preparation will really prepare a person for picking up and moving overseas to live and breathe and minister to a people yet unknown.  But we've also been reminded that no amount of gumption and energy and zeal will replace even a half-hearted attempt to prepare for what God has called a person to.  

So we readied ourselves to trade one season of preparation for another, and we celebrated by hosting a Match Party at our apartment with our Small Group.  Most people in Chicago had no idea where Duluth was and we enjoyed educating our friends about the fabulous place that is Northern Minnesota along with the flannel-wearing culture up there.  Some of the guys even indulged in the chance to wear flannel with us as we looked toward living in the north woods!

Less than three months after we matched to Duluth, Eli graduated from Loyola and became an official M.D.  The next day we got on the road and headed north, where the air is cooler and clearer, and where, for us at least, the environment induces reflection and refinement.  It would prove to be a good place to prepare.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Continuing the Journey: Provision and Humbleness

It was a Sunday morning and I stood to worship.  The sanctuary was full, which made the air warm despite the January temps outside.  The rhythms of "Blessed Be Your Name" filled the room and I was in the mood to worship.  I was on the cusp of a transition in my life that would turn my mourning into dancing.  My soul wanted to sing praise to Him and could not be silent (Psalm 30:11-12).  

The first verse began and I resonated with it.  I had just finished working at a difficult job and was about to begin grad school at Wheaton first thing in the morning.  It was an answer to prayer in many ways and my life felt full.  Abundant.  So I raised my voice in praise for the abundance He was giving me, giving us.

Blessed be Your name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name

The second verse followed and I identified with the words.  I had been in a desert for the past 2½ years, floundering as I wondered why God had me where He did and wondered when He would release me from the wilderness.  But even Jesus was led into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1).  So Blessed be Your name.

Blessed be Your name
When I'm found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed be Your name

Then, the bridge.  When I've sung this in the past, I've always interpreted the lyrics to mean, "Even though God sometimes takes away the good things He's given, blessed be His name."  This is true.  Blessed be the name of the Lord in all things.  But on this particular Sunday in January, I understood the lyrics in reverse, to mean, "Even though God sometimes gives hardship, He will sometimes take them away too."  I was experiencing this very thing.  God had granted me a serious struggle and was now taking it away and replacing it with the oil of gladness (Isaiah 61:3).  And I wept with joy as I stood beside my husband and sang these words with the Body of Christ in that sanctuary:

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Blessed be Your name

I literally wept.  It was humbling to be at this point in our journey because God was giving me something I wanted, which is no small thing.  I have learned much about the propensity of God to not give us what we want because it is through sacrifice and submission and dying to self that Christ-likeness is most likely to form.  And yet, at this particular juncture in our story, God was giving me a break.  A breather, if you will.  My desires and His were in alignment and He was allowing me to grow in Christ-likeness as I happily pursued studies at Wheaton.

My desperate desire to attend Wheaton was, first and foremost, because the M.A. in Intercultural Studies could not be rivaled in its ability to prepare students for mission work in a cross-cultural setting.  Plus, the idea of going back to school sat well with me.  I wanted intellectual stimulation, and the program at Wheaton would offer that as well as spiritual encouragement and a network of resources within the mission world.  It was a win-win-win and I was ecstatic!

Furthermore, God saw fit to provide for our financial needs as I acquired an advanced degree that would further entrench us in debt.  And debt, as we know, has the burdensome tendency to keep people in the States for a looooong time before getting to the mission field.  Increasing our debt was not on our checklist of things to accomplish before heading overseas.  God was very gracious in this regard, however, and provided a way to minimize our debt while allowing me to attend Wheaton.

The Billy Graham Center on Wheaton's Campus (which is also where the grad school resides and where all of my classes took place) has an extraordinary and incredibly humbling little thing called the BGC Scholarship.  If awarded to you, it covers your entire tuition.  Every last dime is paid for.  That, in turn, grants you the freedom to leave for the mission field much sooner than if you were hamstrung by debt.

In short, I applied for a BGC Scholarship called the "Pre-Field Missionary Scholarship" and was granted one.  There's no particular reason why it was awarded to me.  Yes, I filled the requirement of being someone who aimed to work on the mission field in the future.  But no, I didn't fill the requirement of being on the mission field within nine months of my graduation.  That wouldn't be possible because of Eli's need to complete a residency, which would take three more years.  But the Scholarship Committee, which was aware of our particular situation, accepted me anyways, and after my graduation I was granted an exception to the requirements.

It was humbling to say the least.  And it was apparent that God was swinging the doors wide open and ushering me in to a place of preparation and study and growth as we continued on the journey toward missions.

We like to joke that we went to Wheaton because I often came home from school and repeated everything I'd learned to Eli.  He was quite familiar with my professor's lectures and the required reading.  We talked through the papers I wrote and reviewed case studies together as we imagined our future as missionaries.  I was learning from seasoned professors - men and women who'd each served on the mission field all around the world: Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Kenya, Australia, France, Sweden...  Their experience and their stories were inspiring and motivating at once.  It was humbling to learn from these people.  And my classmates!  They literally came from all over the world to attend this program.  There were people who grew up on the mission field, and people who currently served overseas but were furloughing and getting a degree, and people who were international students.  They came from everywhere: Japan, Kosovo, Russia, Brazil, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Korea, Denmark, Bolivia, Ecuador, Burkina Faso...  It was a conglomeration of cultures and cultural experience.  What an incredible environment to be in while further preparing for the mission field!

And if there was one thing I learned at Wheaton, it was humbleness.  The world is bigger and more complex than we can imagine.  So is the Church.  And God's heart for the nations is bigger than our feeble minds can comprehend.  So is His desire to see us go and proclaim the Good News.  

I am nothing and no one, and the idea that I can bring something to the table is preposterous.  Who am I to bring knowledge and wisdom to a people I know nothing about?  Who am I to haughtily assume that I understand anything better than anyone else simply because I grew up in a privileged, developed nation?  Who am I to dare think that I have a broader understanding of God because I've had formal biblical training?  Who am I???  My experience is vastly limited.  So is my wisdom.  But my professors and classmates offered insights and stories that expanded my worldview and my humbleness at the same time and I came away a smaller, better version of myself as God chiseled at my inherent pride.

Our future on the mission field will not be the same because I went through the Intercultural Studies program at Wheaton.  God provided an opportunity and a means to better prepare us for what lies ahead.  And by His grace, hopefully we'll bear fruit for the Kingdom in a way that is humble and honoring to Him.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Continuing the Journey: Provision and Service

Truth be told, even though we didn't want to live in Chicago, we were very happy for Eli to be a student at Loyola.  It's a Jesuit school that focuses on the value of service, and what could be better for a future medical missionary than to prepare in an environment that combines the attributes of healing and service?

Loyola welcomed us with open arms.  The previous year when Eli had been accepted by Loyola but hadn't yet taken the offer, he was hounded by a faculty member who kept calling him to see if he was going to accept.  When they finally connected on the phone and Eli explained that he wouldn't be coming that year and why, the man's response was, "Well you're going to reapply next year then, aren't you?"  He made it clear that Eli was the kind of person their med school wanted to take under its wing.  And sure enough, Eli did reapply and was reaccepted.  Not only that, Loyola granted him a scholarship to help with the cost of tuition - a rare asset to receive for graduate medical education in the States.

So in the summer of 2007, less than two months after returning from Cameroon, we joined the next wave of folks starting at the Stritch School of Medicine for a four-year trek towards an M.D.  (I say "we" because this was very much our journey, not just Eli's.)  And we loved Loyola from the start.  We loved the Jesuits and their love for education and service and Jesus.  We loved the inclusion of spouses in almost everything.  We loved that our med school had a ministry office filled with people who truly cared about us and how we were surviving those strenuous years.  And we loved the undercurrent that healing is not just a job to be done, but a service to be rendered.

Being in such an environment gave us hope that, yes, we were where God wanted us to be and we would be alright.  God was providing.

Then, about a week into med school, Eli was called into the Office of Financial Aid unexpectedly.  He was told that his original scholarship was being revoked in favor of a better one.  The Anthony L. Barbato Scholarship was a newly created scholarship that was being awarded to just two students in the first-year class of 146 students.  The scholarship was a rather large sum of money that covered well over half of Eli's tuition and would be renewed for each of his four years at Loyola.  This equated to a remarkable reduction in our overall debt coming out of med school, which is no small thing especially considering that Loyola is a private institution that lies on the pricier end of the spectrum.  (It should be noted that educational debt is a significant problem for people trying to get to the mission field, particularly for those with an advanced degree like an M.D. that accrue incredible amounts of debt.)  

What was the scholarship committee looking for in potential recipients?  Service.  The woman in Financial Aid told Eli that he was chosen in great part because of his time serving in Africa prior to med school.  She said the committee easily agreed that Eli should be one of the recipients and the only difficulty was narrowing down who the other recipient would be.

We were awed and humbled, to say the least.  The scholarship was not something to be applied for, but simply something to be awarded.  And it was awarded to Eli.  Had we chosen for Eli to attend med school the previous year instead of going to Africa, the scholarship would not have existed yet and could not have been awarded to him.  Had we not gone to Cameroon the year prior to med school, Eli may not have stood out to the scholarship committee as someone particularly devoted to service.

So God had intended for us to be in that place at that time all along and He was working to provide for our future in missions by helping us handle our ensuing debt years down the road.  Furthermore, He was continually highlighting the importance of service as we prepared for the mission field.  Loyola was an ideal environment to cultivate this because it offered service opportunities for even the busy medical student to participate in.  For example, Eli (and sometimes I) volunteered with a weekly ministry to the homeless in Chicago in which we'd meet at the Jesuit house in Oak Park and make sandwiches before heading out to drop them off at a certain location downtown.  Eli eventually took over the leadership of this ministry during his second year.  Another opportunity Eli had was to spend three weeks in between his first and second year on a medical service trip to Guatemala in which he and other Loyola students trekked through the mountains to set up day clinics in remote villages.  Those service opportunities were priceless in and of themselves, but were also essential in reminding us that we have been called to a life of service because we follow the Servant, Jesus, who was chosen and loved and delighted in by the Father (Isaiah 42:1, Matthew 12:18).

From the first day of orientation at Loyola, God was faithfully showing us why He had sent us to Chicago.  He had to shut the door to Minnesota to make sure we got there, but He was faithful to lead us.  Our mission trip to Cameroon had been a stepping stone as we walked through the doors of a service-oriented medical school and continued learning what it means to work and heal with the heart of a servant.

It was an education of the heart as well as of the mind.  It wouldn't be the only education we'd receive while living in Chicago, however, nor would it be the only financial provision that God would offer for our future.  While Eli was plugging away at med school and I was struggling with a difficult job and a failed knee surgery among other things, the Lord eventually opened another door that would both educate us and provide for our future in missions: graduate school at Wheaton.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Continuing the Journey: Obedience

We were still in Cameroon when we started praying that if God wanted us to be in Chicago for med school, that He would close the door completely to the University of Minnesota.  We knew ourselves well enough to know that if given the choice, we'd choose to stay in Minnesota over going to Chicago.  Minnesota was familiar, friendly, and fascinating.  Chicago was cold, congested, and cacophonous.  But the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola in Chicago had already accepted Eli as a future medical student.  A spot was waiting for him if he chose to accept it.  Eli was definitely going to med school.  It was simply a matter of where.  We were still waiting to hear from U of M.  If they were willing to take him, that's exactly where we'd choose to be.

We were hopeful because Eli could have gone to U of M the year before.  We had been forced to turn down the opportunity because the deferral date had passed by the time Eli was accepted.  (We knew we were supposed to go to Africa that year, so our hope was that he'd be accepted by a med school and then defer for one year while we went to Africa, in which case a spot would have been saved for Eli the following year.)  But the deferral date had already passed, so we either had to go to med school that year (and forgo Africa altogether), or turn down the offer completely in favor of going to Africa and starting the process of applying and interviewing for med school all over again.  We "foolishly" chose the latter.  "For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom" (1 Corinthians 1:25) and "the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight" (1 Corinthians 3:19).

All that to say, because Eli was given the opportunity to attend med school at the University of Minnesota the first time around, we were hopeful that he'd be given a second chance when he reapplied.

But hope and faith are funny things.  We hope for something and sometimes get what we want.  At other times, we hope for something but the Spirit gives an impression that our hope may not be realized.  Sometimes our hope and our faith align, and sometimes they do not.  Always, though, our true hope is in Christ alone, because "in him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory" (Ephesians 1:11-12).

So Eli and I were sitting in our borrowed house in Cameroon and getting a nudge from the Spirit to pray something that's very hard to pray: "Your will be done."  I have found, time and time again, that when the Spirit nudges me to pray this prayer, it usually means I'm not gonna get what I want.  I've also found, however, that time and time again, when I'm willing to pray this prayer I am propelled into a journey that molds me and matures me in ways I never could have grown had I not been willing to submit and obey and pray that prayer.

So we felt the nudge and humbled ourselves and prayed: "Lord, if you want us in Chicago, please let Eli get turned down by Minnesota."  Not our will, but Yours be done.  Jesus prayed those words in Luke 22:42.  And then He was crucified.

I was sensing a premonition.

Sometimes I utter that prayer and it doesn't affect me because I either feel like my desires already align with God's, or because I'm truly indifferent about whatever might happen.  Other times, however, I whisper that prayer painstakingly.  It costs me something just to say it because what I'm hoping for is probably not what God knows needs to happen.  When my own will is strong and decisive (as it often is), it is desperately hard to pray, "Your will be done."  Following through with that prayer becomes an act of obedience more than anything else.

But we love God, and we trust Him more than we trust ourselves, so we prayed that prayer as we wondered about Eli's future in medical school, and handed everything over to Him.

Well, God did what God wanted to do.  He closed the door to Minnesota and asked us to follow Him in faith to Chicago.

I may as well confess that I did not go to Chicago quietly.  Even though I knew it was where God wanted us, I went kicking and screaming.  I began grieving once we came home from Africa and the reality hit that we needed to pack up and move within a month's time and begin the next phase of our life for four very long and arduous years in a city that I knew I didn't want to live in.  I remember standing on the sidewalk at my in-laws' house about a week before the move, and out of nowhere I started crying just thinking about having to spend four years in that busy, bustling, burdensome place.  I was not a city girl, and although Eli grew up in a city, he did not desire to live in one again.  Chicago?  "Why, oh why, God, are you sending us there???"

I was resigned, but I kicked and screamed anyway.  This was definitely a sort of cross to bear.  I was obedient to pray the prayer that needed to be prayed, but when God answered the way He wanted to answer, I thought He should at least know how I felt: dejected and not a little ticked off.

What I can say is that despite my frustration and depression going into this major life transition, I did actually believe that God knew what He was doing, and we obeyed.  We went to Chicago.  And God was faithful.  Ever so faithful.  And He was patient with me and my ranting and raving about being asked to live in that Cementville of a city.

Despite my struggles - because it was a true struggle and not just an ongoing whining session as it may sound - God was faithful to us as we obeyed Him and continued to acknowledge that He had led us there for His purposes.  It's all the more clear in hindsight (as it usually is).  We were meant to be in Chicago.  I could give a litany of reasons why, but the reasons that confirmed our calling and kept us on the path to missions are a highlight, starting with Loyola.

And that is where the story will continue...

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Continuing the Journey: Confirmation

We had been in Cameroon for a few months and were talking with a missionary couple, asking questions about their life as missionaries.  We sat in their home, a beautiful space surrounded by exotic plants and flowers, and we asked hard questions and got hard answers about the daily life of a missionary.

This couple had spent a few years as missionaries before having kids, and I remember asking the wife what it was like to raise and homeschool their daughters on the mission field.  Her response has stuck with me.  She said that after discipling Fulani believers alongside her husband, it was a difficult transition to being a stay-at-home mom on the mission field.  Her role changed.  She couldn't spend as much time ministering because she had to take care of their daughter.  Then another daughter came along and she was twice as busy at home as before.  What I remember most was this: it took her five years to be satisfied with taking care of their girls.  Before they had kids, she was involved in the ministry.  She knew the language just as well as her husband.  She was invested in the community and had good relationships with other women.  Then their babies came along and, well, that changed things.  She was changing diapers and feeding hungry mouths while her husband's local language skills improved.  She stayed home so the girls could nap while her husband was visiting and discipling men in the Fulani church.  She was teaching her girls numbers and letters while he was praying over the sick and sharing the Good News.  It took her five years to be satisfied with her new role on the mission field.  (It should be noted, however, that by the time we were talking with them, she had since found great satisfaction in it.)

This conversation played over and over in my mind for the remainder of our time in Cameroon, not least of which because one of my fears about living overseas was the plight of being relegated to being a homemaker if we had kids.

We had gone to Cameroon with a lot of questions about missions, but the overarching question was, "Is God calling us to medical missions long-term in the future?"

As I listened to the missionary wife, I remember thinking, "Wow.  That's what I'm gonna have to do if we have kids.  Okay.  Okay.  Wow.  That's not what I want to do.  How am I gonna come to terms with this?  But okay."  At which point I realized, as one of many times during our stay in Africa, that my response to that conversation was also a response to the bigger question at hand.  Would I raise and homeschool our future kids on the mission field even though that's not how I really want to spend my time?  Yes.  Because are we called to medical missions long-term in the future?  Yes.

I was able to say, "That's not what I want to do, but okay" because the call to missions was informing all other decisions.  The idea of doing something I didn't necessarily want to do was not shaping whether we felt called to be missionaries.  Quite the opposite.  Our call to missions was shaping all else, even the idea of coming to terms with being a stay-at-home mom and homeschooler to our future kids.

We spent nearly five months in Cameroon with the purpose of discerning whether we should pursue this again.  The answer to our question was a resounding "Yes."  The confirmation came at many times and in many facets.  There wasn't writing on the wall or a banner in the sky.  But there were nudgings, as well as an underlying peace about the idea of spending more of our life doing this.

Sometimes our call was confirmed through the work we were doing.  Joining the clinic staff and a missionary as they took an old Toyota truck into the middle of the bush and gave babies another round of vaccinations has a way of tugging your heart.  Hearing mothers say, "Our kids don't get sick anymore since you brought the medicine" has a way of planting your heart right there in the African soil, refusing to be uprooted and taken back to America.

Yes, we felt called to this.

Sometimes our call was confirmed just by being there.  Waking up to the smell of dirt warming in the African sun and then hearing children run through the yard as they chase an escaped chicken has a way of making you feel at home.

Yes, we felt called to this.

Sometimes our call was confirmed by the immense opportunity to help.  Watching men build a house with mud bricks or seeing women haul firewood and wash clothes in the creek has a way of reminding you that it takes a lot of work to live here.  And there's opportunity to make one part of life a little easier for many people: bringing healthcare.

Yes, we felt called to this.

Sometimes our call was confirmed by the friendships we developed.  One of the greatest lessons we learned from our entire time in Cameroon is that, yes, cross-cultural friendships are possible.  Not only that, they are deep and meaningful and they challenge and grow us in ways that friendships from within our own culture cannot do.  We learned that we do not have to fear being lonely in Africa because friendships will happen, and they will ground us there.

Yes, we felt called to this.

Sometimes our call was confirmed through purely selfish reasons, like our love of the hiking or our intrigue in the exotic.  There's good hiking in the African bush, as long as you're not wary of termites or snakes or spiders or the occasional monkey.

Yes, we felt called to this.

Sometimes our call was confirmed through the people we met at the clinic.  A young burn victim who had never learned to read or write inspires you to have her beautiful name carved onto a sign so she can see it anytime.  Her faith in Allah drives you to your knees, praying that her name will be written in the Book of Life one day.  She needs someone to pray for her, to cry out to God on her behalf, to bring her name before the Throne.

Yes, we felt called to this.

Through many moments, many conversations, many prayers, many inklings...yes, we felt called to this.  It had been confirmed.

Our experience in Cameroon led us to the conclusion that, yes, we were called to be medical missionaries long-term in the future.  We praised God for making it clear and for granting us the freedom to take the next step: medical school for Eli.  So we returned home, packed up and moved, and less than two months after returning from Africa, we began the next phase of the journey.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Beginning the Journey: Encouragement

We were sitting at the end of a rectangular table, surrounded by members of the Mission Board of a church.  We were seeking encouragement in our endeavor to work in Africa, and also hoping for some financial support to help us get there.  It was a bit intimidating, not only because we were the youngest people in the room by at least a couple decades, but also because some of the people at the table were former missionaries themselves and carried a quiver of experience and wisdom.

We presented our story: we felt called to be medical missionaries in Africa long-term but had never spent a significant amount of time in the developing world, which is why we also felt called to work for several months with a missionary couple in Cameroon to experience daily missionary life firsthand and confirm our long-term calling.  We had already been accepted by a mission organization and we hoped to start fundraising as soon as possible and get there as soon as possible because we were on a limited timetable.

The responses around the table were mixed.

Someone deemed it necessary to inform us how long the fundraising process would take - much longer than we were allowing ourselves, he said.  Someone told us we should definitely go, but not now.  That person had a specific plan in mind and said exactly when we should go instead and why that would be best.  Someone else said it was too late in the year to be worked into the missions budget.

At this point I was starting to feel the back of my throat tremble.

We had come for encouragement and support but it felt like sitting through a lecture on how the young and foolish should learn from the wise and learned.

Yes, we were newlyweds with excitement and vision and passion and a bucketload of inexperience.  But we were also followers of Christ who knew - knew - what God was asking us to do.  He was asking and inviting us to follow His lead and go to Africa, specifically to Cameroon, and discern the next step from there.  God had been faithful and had already arranged the time and the place for us to go, and now we just needed the funds and the visas to get us there.  And we were intent on obeying Him.

We sat at that rectangular table and I started shifting in my chair as I recalled a different conversation from a few months prior.  I had just explained to someone that even though Eli had the opportunity to attend medical school that year, we made the choice to turn it down in favor of going to Africa, which meant Eli would have to reapply for med school the following year.  The person was flabbergasted and quickly interjected: "Do you know how hard it is to get into medical school???"   The disappointment, or perhaps disapproval, was obvious and it cut to the heart.  I got off the phone and cried.

I recalled that earlier discouragement as we sat at the table with the Mission Board and felt discouraged all over again, and I wanted to cry out, "Who will believe with us that God wants to send us to Africa this year???"  I felt shunned by our youth and our eagerness to go now.

But thankfully, there was another voice at that table.  That voice spoke up and breathed life into our tattered spirits.  That voice said, "We have to remember that it's not what we plan that matters but what God plans."  And that voice spoke not only to the other, more experienced people at the table, but also to us.  That voice threw a lifeline of hope toward us, encouraging us despite our inexperience and naivete.  That voice offered the idea, for the first time at that table, that maybe we were the ones who had an idea of what God's plan was.

And so we held onto hope.

And maybe we repeated 1 Timothy 4:12 to ourselves for our own encouragement: "Do not let anyone look down on you because you are young..."

There were more discouragements along the way (like someone indicating that, since the members of the Mission Board had been around the block and knew what they were talking about, we should listen to their concerns that our timing wasn't feasible), but more encouragements too (like receiving a check in the mail from family members who said that God had prompted them to send it to us and didn't know why but they wanted to obey His nudging).

The Mission Board had a chance to discuss our situation amongst themselves after we left the meeting and, we later learned, the pastor stood in our corner and fought for the chance to support us.  In the end, the Board chose to support us and the entire church blessed us on our way.  We were greatly encouraged.

And God, by His infinite grace, provided all the funds we needed (a seemingly insurmountable amount) in a shockingly short amount of time.  He confirmed that yes, we were supposed to go and we were supposed to go now.

It's a difficult thing to discern a calling, and even more difficult when achieving that calling requires the support of other people who have their own opinions on the matter.  But we regard the call to do missions as a blessing and an honor, in great part because it does require the support of others.  Our calling invites other people to join us on the journey, to send those who are called to go, and to prayerfully invest themselves in the work of the Church around the world.  Our calling invites others into a community that pursues the work of missions together.

And for that we are thankful.

And we hope that this part of our story brings encouragement to those who struggle with being affirmed in what God is calling them to do.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Power of A Story

We each have a story to tell.  We are simultaneously writing and living a story that is sometimes dramatic, sometimes droll, sometimes unpredictable, sometimes uneventful...but always worth telling.  And there is power in a story.  There is power to excite, to inspire, to encourage, to challenge, to humble, and to change.  That is why it's important to tell them.  We are created in the image of a creative God who has written and told the most all-consuming Story of all time, and He encourages us to write and live and tell our own story too, in conjunction with His.

So that's what this blog is for: to tell our story as it now stands and as we continually write and live it.  We are a family that has been called to do medical missions in Africa.  It's an unusual way for an American family to live and many people have questions for us.  We hope to answer those questions as we invite you on our journey toward Africa and tell stories along the way.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
   his love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story - 
   those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,
those he gathered from the lands,
   from east and west, from north and south.

~ Psalm 107:1-3