August 2013

Living with Purpose (Dedicated to Lou Ellen Bills)

As I sit here to write my piece for the month, I struggle to find the words to reflect what is going on in my heart and head.  My face has been tear-streaked today.  I spoke with my father earlier this afternoon.  He gave me some news that I have prepared myself to hear, but the reality of the situation is not an easy one to swallow being so far from family.  The time is approaching.  I am named after my Granny Bills, Ellen.  She has been in a state of physical decline the past two years, but this past year has especially been hard.  This afternoon, my dad shared with me that the possibility of losing her in the weeks to come is very real.  Keep in mind that I am four weeks away from being home.  My granny is one of my greatest heroes, and I had the privilege of growing up and knowing her well.  I have peace in knowing that these days are the end of her life, and I am confident that I will see her in the Glory land one day.  She shared something with my father in the hospital room about a week ago that relates perfectly to what I am doing here...

I have written before about evangelistic studies, but there is something I have found to be very common among the women with whom I have studied.  I have been asked in various studies, “But what is my purpose?  What is it that God wants me to do?”  Most of you have heard of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life.  I meet in a group of Christian sisters on Saturday mornings to discuss the ideas and scriptures that Warren presents in his book.  I have also just recently begun reading it with another friend in conjunction with studying the book of Mark.  So many do not know Jesus, and so many are seeking to live with a purpose in this life.  I believe we find the answer in our faith in him.  I believe that our purpose is to glorify the Father in everything that we do.  I love the major points the Warren presents in his book, and after guiding someone through the study of “Who is Jesus?,” it is fitting to guide them in a study of finding purpose if they choose to accept their identity in Christ and his Church.

About a week ago my granny mentioned to my father that she had a lot of thinking to do.  “What do you mean by that?” my father asked.  And this is how my beautiful, spirit-filled granny responded, “I am just not sure yet if it is my time to give up.  I need to really think about it and figure out if God still has a purpose for me.”  In all of her misery, pain, and sickness, she still plans to fight the good fight.  She wants to live her life with purpose to the very end.

She has always said that Psalm 23 is her favorite.  Most Christians are very familiar with the psalm.  We know it by heart.  We find our purpose in its verses:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
— Psalm 23

For his name’s sake.  Our purpose is to live for the glory of the Father.  My granny is such a testament to living out her purpose for God.  I am unsure how much longer she will be with us.  It wouldn’t be the first time she makes us think it is over, and then has a turn for the good.  Whatever the case, she is such an example to me in my journey of faith.  It is my prayer that I may live with the same attitude and mindset.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
— Hebrews 12:1

One Way to Look at It: A Masterpiece

Sometimes it is hard to apply what we know about God to the situations we face each day. We tend to get bogged down in “real life” which means the stuff that fills our stretched thin days and energy levels. All too often, it seems the world is spinning at a pace too frenzied to sustain. In the midst of this, trouble seems to hit hard. Life is disrupted by illness, financial struggles, interpersonal stress, work frustration, school issues, marriage, parenting, self-control...difficulties come in every shape and size, and as adults, we have to take the hit, recover and move on.

It can be very hard to understand how God is working. In this broken world fraught with pain and hardship and weariness, it can be hard to identify good things. We want to believe that God is good, that he works for good, and that he wants good for us. But we live in the tension between what we believe and what we witness in our walking-around lives. 

How can a good, loving, powerful God be taking part in all this mess? How is it not better, if he is?

One of the verses that gives us pause in this whirlwind is from Romans. 

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
— Romans 8:28

Sounds too easy, too good to be true. There has to be a catch, because an easy life evades us. But consider what came before that specific verse.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
— Paul, Romans 8

Paul makes this statement in recognition of the struggle for hope, not to denounce it. He acknowledges how much we need God’s hand in all of this, and announces confidently that we have knowledge of God’s good intention and action.

Can we understand this in such a way that it helps us live this life? Can God work for good even as bad things happen? How is that possible?

Think about it this way:

God is The Creator. We know this, but we forget that it means He is the first and best creative being. He took nothing...nothing...and made everything. If He can do that, He can take anything and make it good.

Imagine Him as a painter. He has a huge canvas and has begun a masterpiece. It will take ages and time to develop, with layers of color and life built into it. There has never been anything like it, and may never be anything like it again. He is the Master and sketches out his ideas, leaving background shadows and hints to be built upon later. He could take his time and create exactly what he wants. But he has a different plan.

Instead, he takes the paints and materials and shares them with every human being. Everyone can affect the outcome. Those who would learn from him and pursue his dream pay close attention, aiming for the guidelines he left on the canvas. Those who ignore his ownership of the entire work paint as they see fit. Sometimes their strokes closely mirror his own. Sometimes they run amok and cover hues intended for beauty. None can match his design perfectly. But he has chosen this as a collaborative project and rejoices in the opportunity to share in the process with whomever comes to take part.

But whether the paint is lovingly applied or angrily flung, he will produce a beautiful work. He would never voluntarily choose to have parts of his creation destroyed or erased, but he did voluntarily choose to let us choose, so sometimes it happens. He would never celebrate this, but neither does he feel as derailed as we humans tend to in the face of plans that go awry.

He just continues painting. He can incorporate any color, any stroke, any slash of a brush and develop it into something worth showing. It might take a long time for the colors to blend into something softer and worthwhile. He might brighten it immediately. But nothing we do counts for nothing. And nothing anyone does is beyond his repair.

Because, as we know, in all things, he works for the good of those who love him, even if we can’t see how. This does not mean guaranteeing good and preventing bad, but constantly working toward something redeemed and beautiful.

Confessions of an Uncertain Missionary

I love certainty. I would worship it if I could carve it into a little statue. Because I want it to fill the hole in my heart where uncertainty lurks. I confess my idolatry and wonder at its mean tenaciousness. This is what it is to live by grace.

I received an email today from another missionary. He spends most of his time on leadership training and discipleship in a "burgeoning church movement" of over 11,000 Christians who meet in more than 100 churches. After five years, our four house churches just reorganized into two because of inconsistent attendance and struggling leadership. I would confess my jealousy, but this paragraph is transparent. So I add to the confession my uncertainty, about the calling and the gifting and the way forward. Insecurity makes trust seem like blindness, and as I stumble, frustration and anger hover nearby. This is what it is to live by faith.

I spoke again on Sunday about following Jesus into a life transformed by the power of the Spirit. As some nodded reflectively, I had eyes only for the others—the blank stares of the distracted and weary. And uncertainty lapped steadily against every word. Not a tidal wave but a relentless, erosive wash. I confess my despair. How many seeds will sprout over rocks? How many among thorns? This is what it is to live by hope.

I'd rather love people than like them. I love the poor—the idea of them, at least—and my heart breaks for them, and my pulse quickens at the thought of justice and mercy. But then I meet poor people, needy people, inconvenient people, and I get over it. I would just love them, with money and service and Bible words, in contained moments, at a safe distance. Problem is, I'm to love as I've been loved. And I've been loved with friendship and patience. I've been loved with permission to be needy and inconvenient. I've been loved this way even though the idolatrous, jealous, angry, pessimistic me is unlikable. So I'm uncertain whether I can stand the dissonance between the kind of love I've received and the kind of love I've given. I'm uncertain of my own heart. This is what it is to live by love.

I hate confessing. I would pretend to be better than I am, mostly so I could lie to myself about the uncertainty that lurks in my heart. It's true, I'm uncertain about how others will read my confessions—whether it's necessary to be transparent, whether it's beneficial to be unfiltered. Whether it's prudent to be me. But the real uncertainty is whether the truth can set me free. If the truth hurts, is there really freedom in pain? If the truth is dangerous, is liberation worth the risk? What can I say? I'm uncertain. But let's be honest: this is what it is to live by the truth.

Forward Progress

So far 2013 has been a very important year for CUDA.  It has been year of ups and downs, a year of consolidation, adjustment, innovation and vision-casting.  The year has also had its fair share of uncertainty, scrambling for solution, going-back-to-the-drawing-board, and prayerful seeking for guidance.  I guess, when I put it that way, it’s been like most years in our NGO’s short history.  However this year has seen some very special things happen.  Things whose ramifications will be felt (and appreciated) for years to come.

First, we’ve reached a milestone in our bid for validation from the Peruvian government.  We have received authorization from Peru to operate as an NGO offering technical expertise in development programs.  CUDA now has its own business ID number, can officially formalize contracts and other documents with government and business entities, and can obtain visas for volunteers and workers, among other things.  This was one of our primary goals for the year and it feels good to have all of this finally taken care of, though it in no way means we are done dealing with the government.

Then, once the government officially recognized us as a foreign NGO operating in Peru we had to begin the process of having our projects officially approved.  To do this required a partnership with a local organization, government or otherwise, to execute the program.  You may have seen the update on our Facebook page but a few months ago we signed an agreement with the regional Ministry of Education validating the Living Library program, giving us official government backing and support.  Having this project approved means we can also begin to request visas for our volunteers and project collaborators instead of having to use other organizations to acquire our visas.

In regard to the vision of the organization, the potential for growth in the library program has spurred us into finalizing our NGO’s 5-year plan both for itself as an organization and for each project specifically.  Forming these plans is beneficial not just from a strategy standpoint but from a fundraising standpoint also.  For example, once planning/dreaming began for the library it soon became evident that the program had vast potential for growth and a need for formal funding.  To that end we have begun to send letters to grant-makers detailing the program and its needs.  Be in prayer for this process as we would like to push for significant growth in the program in 2014 but need the funding to come through to make it happen.

One last new development to share with you this month is that plans are in motion now to begin sending CUDA Coffee to the US in larger quantities with the goal of establishing consistent, substantial monthly sales.  We know that many of you have purchased a bag or two when we’ve managed to bring it back with us and appreciate your collaboration.  With greater availability we think many of you, and others, will decide to make CUDA Coffee your regular in-house coffee.  As always all profits go to the NGO and its work in Arequipa.  We hope to be selling coffee full-time by December.

We are continually grateful for you, our stateside supporters.  We depend on your FB Likes, your Twitter retweets, supportive comments while on furlough, micro-loans made, books donated, monthly and random donations, and prayer.  Put plainly we wouldn’t be here now with you.  Thanks for being there for us now and for making us confident of our ability to continue our work into the future.

Library Event with Ministry of Education [Facebook gallery]