One toasty mid-morning I executively decided that instead of the usual piki brigade, we Owenses would walk the three miles through the village to our team meeting. This was back in Zemio, and in my head walking was the perfect way to strike up mini-conversations and grow our fledgling language skills.
My crew set out with an air of resignation, plus one smallish kid who flat-out refused to walk within 30 yards of the rest us, so keen was his resentment. We did greet everyone within smiling distance, and said lots of ala yeke njonis and e gue kodoro ti Steves. About two miles in, though, I glanced over at Lauren to find tears glazing her face.
Lauren takes after her mother in this: we both go silent in the company of pain.
I asked her what was wrong, and she shook her head, but then changed her mind and asked about trading shoes with me. I don’t remember if we did, just that after we arrived at our team leaders’ house we counted thirteen split and bleeding blisters.
My great ideas are sometimes the worst.
I bring this up mainly to announce: I am not a gritty person. I give myself rousing speeches about mental fortitude, but at the point of pain I mostly quit this job. If that had been me on the forced march in my 12-year-old’s bloodied shoes, I’d have crumpled on the road and given up on life. Temporarily, but still.
The unfortunate development to this whole story is that God keeps poking me toward Team Grit.
A few months back, our missions director talked about cultivating a theology of suffering, about how that’s perhaps the dividing line between longevity on the field and giving up. The folks who last here are those who expect to suffer, who tuck in their chins and press through it instead of rerouting to kinder ground.
And all the people said yikes.
In that gorgeous novel, The Lord of the Rings, the bossest character is of course Samwise Gamgee: he’s steadfast, unshakable, clear-sighted, humble. Middle-earth doesn’t stand a chance without Sam.
But instead we will talk about Frodo, even though he’s not my favorite. At one point in the journey, Frodo laments about the ring, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
And Gandalf says, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
That’s such a fascinating/dreadful concept: In this life, we don’t get to pick our particular heartbreak. We just get to choose what we do with it.
I guess we all know I’ve been taking it personally, what went down in CAR. If the loss had been primarily mine, perhaps I’d find my way through it, but why do this to people already walking the thin edge of survival? I’ve been wholeheartedly offended on their behalf.
Still at some point, God keeps reminding me, I need to stop protecting people from Him. To which I say: Fair enough.
This past Sunday a co-laborer spoke, and it was such a well-timed arrow to my heart. He talked about Jeremiah 29:11, that passage we like to quote about God planning to prosper us and give us a hope and a future. This promise is, in part, for Jeremiah — the weeping prophet whom everyone hates. The guy who gets hauled off against his will to Egypt, where he eventually dies — according to historical accounts — at the hands of his own people. This is God prospering him and not harming him; this is his so-called hope and future.
The promise is also for the faithful remnant of Judah, who likewise dies in exile, far from home.
Sometimes God and I have very different definitions of harm and hope. The problem, though, is likely me: I am relentlessly temporal. God promises prosperity, and I think He means before I die. God promises a hope and a future, and I think He means in this lifetime. But what if He’s looking through a lens of eternity, as He was for Jer and the Judeans? What if He’s promising that we’ll be a paragraph in His stunning narrative of redemption?
The hope and prospering could look like God using our particular gifts and life experiences to lift high the name of Jesus. Peter and those feisty Sons of Thunder finally use their gift for stepping on people’s toes to boldly speak the gospel to anyone who will listen, plus many who won’t. The disciples are all killed or exiled because they won’t let this Jesus Thing go, and I can actually agree that in spite of all human logic, this looks a whole lot like prospering.
When God promises hope, He’s often playing the long game.
(I should warn you that I’ll probably take my whole life to learn this. My head is forever working out stuff while my heart is like, nope. FYI.)
The folks displaced from their homes in Central Africa, including the Zande church and the handful of Mbororo believers, they might die in exile. Okay. But they might also be a light to the nations, and their children’s children might one day come home to Zemio. Either way, though, God’s playing the long game, where they’ll find their home and hope in Him.
I wish this hadn’t happened on my watch, in my lifetime. Probably you, too.
But that’s not for us to decide. Let’s use our weird and perfect gifts to bring so much light to the time we’re given.