It is quiet and dark outside and the early morning dew has yet to set in. The rest of America is still sleeping, but I am wide awake. I suppose that is what 36 plus hours in transit from the other side of the world will do to a body. I have returned, now for the third time from Yambio, South Sudan where I work as a missionary deaconess for Hands of Mercy. For those of you who maybe are not so familiar with Hands of Mercy, it is an outreach of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sudan to people with disabilities. My involvement began when I was sent to Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN to begin my deaconess training. There I met Deaconess Pat Nuffer, founder of Hands of Mercy. Ever since it began in 2005, she has been going back and forth to Yambio to continue the church’s outreach to people with disabilities and to further strengthen Hands of Mercy as it moves toward self sustainability. It has been that goal which HOM has striven toward since its inception. As one might suspect, achieving it in a cultural context where war, disease, and poverty dominate is a bit of a challenge to say the least. It has taken quite a while and has been an uphill climb for Hands of Mercy to be in such good position to actually make this long time goal a reality.
Self sustainability is a buzz word among NGOs and non-profits working in the third world, and most especially in Africa. If anything is true, the way to self sustainability takes an almost inhuman measure of patience and perseverance. A measure I certainly have not attained to, but am learning well under the direction of Pat. This recent trip to Yambio brought to the fore the message God gave to Zerubbabel through the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the LORD of hosts (4:6).”
In a bit of required reading for HOM board of directors, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and the Social Sectors speaks of the proverbial ball that is moved up a hill by the force of its movers. We all know that the challenge is pushing the ball to the top where then it can coast down the other side. However, reaching the top is a challenge requiring hard work, determination and a sort of stubborn perseverance. I often feel that the path to the summit is not a straight line, but a zigzagging maze which requires skilled maneuvering around corners and through corridors. The potential to become terminally discouraged seems to abound at every turn. It becomes even more probable when we rely on our own might or power to reach the summit. I recall one breezy evening in Yambio when, for our nightly devotion, we read the simple proverb, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding, but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight (3:5-6).” Relying on my own power and strength is what makes the way a convoluted tangle of twists and turns. So, it was this hard lesson --which I am still trying to learn—that became a central theme for my third Yambio mission. Trusting and acknowledging God through all the various projects and programs begun and continued even when I cannot see or understand the way He is leading.
Our list of goals was long. You already have read about or botched attempt to procure 100 baby chicks for an up and coming poultry business and the substitutionary purchase of our two goats, Milford and Maxine (who-as reports tell- are fattening up quite nicely). And you already read the story about our successful construction of a bakery. With the infrastructure now in place, we are in good position to make a go of self sustainability. Reports are in that our bakery is all fired up and producing bread for sale to the community. Our coop is built and fence is up anticipating the arrival of a full scale poultry business come August, and women are lining the streets to receive feminine care kits and a bit education on women’s health. Yet, in the midst of seeming great success, there are challenges that force us to ask, “God, what are You doing?” In any context where working with people is necessity, you are certain to face the challenge of politics. Relationships that bear under the weight of this challenge strain to grow trust. In Sudan there is the added challenge of communicating cross culturally and cross linguistically. Miscommunication and misunderstanding seem to compound in light of this fact. In this context, the motherly advice of my childhood rings true: think before you speak. Facing accusation and doubt, anger and envy are not uncommon experiences in the Christian’s life. In fact, they seem to be all too common—especially when they are found within our own hearts.
I believe we are all familiar with the hit country song, Jesus Take the Wheel. It seems that Carrie Underwood’s soulful plea is also the prayer of my life. So many times I am attempting to direct my own path and future. Asking Jesus to “take the wheel” may be all well and good, but it is pointless if you continue to be a “backseat driver.” As cheesy and cliché as that analogy might be, it is undeniably true—especially for me. Learning to trust God is one of the greater challenges of my life. And it is challenges which He uses to make the lesson stick. In Lutheran diakonia theology we learn that God is a “holistic healer.” Meaning that He takes care of the whole body—its physical and spiritual components. Likewise, He is also a holistic teacher. God trains the body and the soul to trust in Him alone through discipline. It seems this most recent trip to Yambio was filled with God’s discipline; His discipline to trust, even when trust has been broken, His discipline to wait, even without knowing what for, His discipline to persevere, even when patience is gone, and most especially His discipline to love, even when love has been unkind.
My own understanding of these things is short-sighted and shallow. When the Lord asks—demands—that I hasten, and not hesitate, to trust in Him, it scares me. My eyes can see only as far as they can see. Beyond the horizon is a mysterious and nebulous reality that I dare not approach with a shallow heart. To trust in God is to embrace the uncertainty of life and to believe in His eternal Word. Whether it be in struggling to move a proverbial ball up a mountain top, or sitting in the backseat calling directions to the driver, or building relationships that become mired in politics, it is not me moving the ball or driving the car or sustaining relationships—it is God. It is not by my might or by my power, but always by His Spirit that I am moved to trust and wait, persevere and love in times when it seems impossible and even unpalatable. I suppose these lessons are never finished in our lives. I know I always forget a third of what is said in the classes I take here at seminary. Thankfully, our Lord is patient to remind us of His truth again and again. These lessons don’t even depend on our reason to comprehend them, but on the working of His Spirit within us for us to grasp. None of us is unique in what God teaches, but all of us are unique in how we learn.