Wednesday, April 22, 2015

My Frantic Questions; His Gentle Answers - part four

Over the past few days, I've been sharing about a change God brought about in my heart during our second year of living here in Costa Rica.  Finally, opening my mind and heart to truly listen to what God had to say to me about the doubts I was having about the effectiveness of our ministry, how hard my adjustment was, and how strategic and important our work really was lead me to a place of peace that I so desperately needed.  Today, I'm sharing the final two questions that I took to the Lord at that time. 

My frantic question:  Isn't this different from what you always wanted to do with your life? 

Ouch.  This is hard!  When I was 13, I started praying that God would give me the opportunity to go to the former Soviet Union.  A few years later, things started to a fall into place in a way that God had clearly prepared my heart for.  Not knowing of my prayers, friends invited me to join their ministry in Ukraine when I was 17.  I came home sure my life's calling was to missions somewhere in the Slavic world.  I took more trips to Ukraine and to Russia, focused on studying Russian and Ukrainian linguistics in college, and, my heart and plans narrowed in on a certain region of Ukraine.  So many events and friendships throughout my university years increasingly pointed me towards my heart's desire to someday serve full-time in Ukraine, including the provision of a fellowship to study during grad school at the very university I had dreamed of someday teaching English at, in Lviv, Ukraine.

And, then, I fell in love with a man with a huge heart for the poor of Latin America, and that story is a very long one with its own set of frantic questions and God's answers.  We got married ten days after I returned from studying in Ukraine!  We prayed for several years about where God was leading us, and, eventually the answer was clear: Latin America.  I genuinely was excited and eager to go, but the shock of how very different from Ukraine it all was once we arrived was really confusing for me.  What started as little fears of "are we sure that we got this right?  Did we miss something?" grew to the accusation of "this isn't what you wanted to do at all!"

His answer: Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the Lord's will that prevails.

moving to Costa Rica in 2008
That was it.  That verse from Proverbs 19 was all I heard.  I believe that God used my love for Ukraine and Russia to give me a heart for missions.  I still miss it.  I wish I remembered Ukrainian and Russian better than I do.  I still hope that I will go back someday.  The dream for our family to live in Ukraine someday is still there.  But, I know that God's will is where I want to be more than anything, and He has us here now. 

When we boarded our plane to move to Costa Rica, the flight attendant gave us a can of Coke that fascinated our 3-month old.  The label in Cyrillic letters immediately jumped out at me, and  I remember laughing at the irony.  But, later, as I looked back at the photo during these struggles, I felt like God was whispering to me, "I know, Sarah; I know your heart.  I know that plane, this journey, didn't take you where you thought it would.  I love you, and I know the plans I have for you, and they are good."

It is His will that prevails, and I am so thankful for that!  Because of His leading and His gentle work to shift my heart, I am in a very, very different place than I was when I first took these questions to the Lord.  I now absolutely love Costa Rica and its people, and I am blessed to be doing life where I never expected to be!

My last frantic question? It's one I'm sure we can all relate to: Aren't you lonely there? 

His short, simple answer was the sweetest of all: I am with you always. 

That is just what I need to remember.  Following Him does require leaving much behind, but knowing Him surpasses it all.  The promise of His presence is what helps me face these questions as they creep up again (and they do!), or as new ones arise.  I'm praying that we can press in to God, taking our questions to Him, releasing our doubts and fears to Him, and that we can press on in the beautifully different call each of us have received from Him.  Thanks for hearing my story, ladies!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tuesday Together: Discussing frantic questions and gentle answers

I've really been enjoying Sarah's current series of posts. We'd love to hear from you along the same lines, with anything you'd like to share about your own experiences. To get us going, here are just a few questions, but feel free to go in other directions, too:
Did you have a honeymoon phase when you got to your country, or did you go straight to a time of frantic questioning? What were those questions and how did God answer them? Are you dealing with any frantic questions now? What are some gentle answers you have heard, that you would like to share with us?

Monday, April 20, 2015

My Frantic Questions; His Gentle Answers: part three

If you haven't been following along the past couple of days, make sure you go back and read Part One and Part Two of this series of posts!  Today, I'll share some more of my frantic questions and God's gentle answers during my hardest time of adjusting to life as a missionary mom. 

My frantic question: Wouldn’t it be easier if you had stayed in the States?  Isn’t this just too hard for you? 

Does anyone else have a washing machine like this?
We all know the challenges of moving to a new country, learning a new language, and building a new life and ministry.  During my first couple of years here, I was completely overwhelmed by these challenges.  It's interesting what still sticks out to me years later... a police officer yelling at me and refusing to help me our second week here, not knowing how to use our "semi-automatic" washing machine, being robbed several times, not being able to find relief from the tropical heat, ants and bugs everywhere, moving into an unfinished house with no furniture, really hurtful conflict with other missionaries, being terrified of driving here, receiving judgment when I needed acceptance, our house flooding repeatedly, trying to climb up onto our house's overflowing water tank when I was pregnant and my husband was out of the country... and so much more.  Yes, life was easier in the States, and this all just seemed too hard.

His gentle answer: You are not called to a life of ease.  What you are experiencing now is too hard for you to handle on your own; you can only handle it through My strength.  You can’t do it by yourself.  Lean on Me.

I couldn't do this new life in my own strength.  In the States, most of the time, it was something I could handle pretty well (so I thought), on my own.  It was bringing me here to Costa Rica that taught me how I truly dependent on God I really am.  This is a lesson I have to repeat to myself just as often as this question attacks me, which, I have to admit, is often.  But, God's answer is the same: "Lean on Me, Sarah." 

Another frantic question:  Wouldn't it be more strategic to be in a more "unreached" area? 

My husband and I had been excited about missions for years, so we had done a lot of reading, attended conferences, took the Perspectives class, and spent a lot of time with missions-minded people as we prepared to leave.  It was not lost on us that there was a huge push to get more workers among unreached and lesser reached people in parts of the world like East Asia and the Middle East.  My own heart was drawn especially to people who had never previously heard the gospel or been exposed to Bible teaching.  But, God through a series of events, led us to Latin America, and, at times, I found myself thinking that we weren't quite "real" missionaries because we weren't in one of those more strategic areas.  So, when things were so hard, this little thought ballooned into one of my frantic questions, wondering if what we were going through was really worth it when weren't even doing work as important as others. (Can you hear the lies I was listening to here, ladies?)

His gentle answer: I've asked you to be a blessing where I have placed you, which is, for now, Costa Rica.  Value this more than man's statistics, charts, terms, and opinions.

Those were just the words I needed to hear from Him to conquer these doubts and lies I was allowing to run so rampant in my head.  What's really exciting about this is that letting go of these insecurities lead us to a place of recognizing a strategic need for ministry focused on maturing the Latin American church, who we believe are playing and will continue to play an increasingly important role in the growth of the Church worldwide.  This understanding eventually lead us to a completely different role and ministry than we originally came to Costa Rica to do... and we are so thrilled to be part of it!

Please share what frantic questions you have struggled with about your role and place of ministry.  What gentle answers has the Lord given you to these questions?

Come back tomorrow to chat with us about this, and then again on Wednesday for the final post in this series

Sunday, April 19, 2015

My Frantic Questions; His Gentle Answers - part two

our little family in 2008, newly arrived in Costa Rica
This post is a continuation from yesterday's, when I shared some of the story of our first couple of years of living and working in Costa Rica.  I did not follow the "normal" cycle of cultural adaptation; I completely skipped the honeymoon phase, and went straight into major culture shock less than 48 hours after landing in Costa Rica!  In addition to culture shock, I was adjusting to life as a mom (we moved here when our firstborn was 3 months old), and trying to figure out how I fit in a ministry organization that really didn't have a place for me.  (My husband is a structural engineer and was working with an organization of engineers and architects; I am a linguistics major who focused on Slavic linguistics... now living in Costa Rica.)

Throughout those first 18 months, I cried many tears, and, like I shared yesterday, my mind and heart got to a state of being consumed by confusion, doubt, hurt and fears.  And, now, ladies, I'm drawing a deep breath and wincing a little at being this vulnerable, but I got to a point one day that I was crying and trying to pray, and then realized I was literally yelling aloud, "I hate it here, God!"  Oh, was I thankful my neighbors didn't speak English!  It was at that point of brokenness that I went to the Lord, journal and pen in hand, and finally brought my frantic questions to Him with a heart ready to listen to His gentle answers.  When I looked back at the journal page to write these posts, I realized that I wrote the questions as if they were being fired at me, in an almost accusatory way, making it so clear to me now how these questions were coming both from my flesh and from the enemy.

My frantic question: Wouldn't you be more effective if you could minister in your native language?

This question really got me, because, frankly, I had a really fun, satisfying, effective ministry in the States before we moved to Costa Rica.  For years, I had invested a lot in international student ministry, and once I finished grad school, I taught English as a Second Language to immigrants and refugees at a local community college.  I loved how both the international student ministry and my teaching allowed me to build relationships and share Christ with people from literally all over the world... in English!  It was a dream!  I knew that I would eventually leave behind that dream job, but it still hit me hard when we moved here for a position with a ministry that was a great fit for my husband, but one in which I didn't even really have a role.  Language learning was a huge struggle for me as a new mom, and it was an adjustment to go from being the teacher to the student again.  It was so, so easy to dwell on how much more of a ministry I perceived I had in the States.  Additionally, I had anticipated using English as a ministry tool, and it wasn't really working out here in our rural town.

His gentle answer (as I wrote it in my journal): Let's go with My idea of effectiveness, not yours, Sarah.  I see people's hearts; you can't.  Has it not occurred to you that I can more effectively change your heart and sanctify you through what you are experiencing here? 

That wasn't what I was expecting!  I actually remember thinking, "Do I have such a hard heart that I have to be experiencing all this to change it!?"  How special, though, to be reminded that it is only God who knows people's hearts, that any ministry I have is truly His, and that He has so much work to still do in my heart!  It's His harvest field, and He is the one who truly changes hearts.

And, I will say that now, six years later, I'm fairly proficient in Spanish (thank God!), and I can see fruit of ministry that God has given me.  I also have such a bigger understanding of who it is that is really ministering.  We are His tools, gifted with the privilege of being used by Him to plant, cultivate, and harvest fruit.  But, that actual harvest is His!  And, so often, He is doing a great work in our hearts. 

Have you questioned if you could have a more effective ministry in the States?  What has God spoken to you about that? 

Please come back tomorrow for part three.  I have some more to share with you about this! 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

My Frantic Questions; His Gentle Answers - part one

This photo is one that really takes me back to where I was emotionally in 2009, after we had been living here in Costa Rica for a year.  My husband took it with out me knowing.  It looks like a sweet photo of a mama watching over her toddling baby, but, when I see it, I remember the pain that I was in at that time.  Our little guy had just learned how to walk and was teetering around our new backyard.  I was staying close to him, and thinking how I felt like I was struggling to walk myself, still unsure how to navigate life in this new place.  While he was looking out over the valley behind our house with toddler wonder, I was looking at the horizon with my heart hurting and my mind racing with so many frantic questions.

Our first couple of years here were incredibly hard for me.  Unmet expectations, as well as some major challenges with relationships and with our living situation, quickly brought me to place of struggle about whether we were really supposed to be here.  I battled with doubts and fears that would often become the loudest voices in my head, making it impossible to arrive to a place of peace and acceptance.  When I look back through my journal of these days, I see that I did pray through my struggles, but I don't think I went to the Lord with my heart truly ready to hear His answers to my doubts and fears until we had been here for about 18 months (quite honestly, probably the hardest 18 months of my life).  I clearly remember the day that I went before Him, wrote the title "My Frantic Questions" at the top of my journal page, then listed the questions that were so frequently bringing me to discouragement and doubt, and then, by God's help and grace, quieted my heart to hear His gentle answers.  And, finally... finally... as I felt the distinct change between the state of my stress-filled, constant questioning and how my heart felt after receiving the sweet, gentle, truth-filled responses from Him, I entered a new stage of adjusting to life here.  And, as I recognized how profound that difference was, I realized that not only did my frantic questions come from my own flesh, but they came from my enemy, the same enemy who used a question to tempt Eve at the very beginning...
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"  The woman said, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'"   (Genesis 3:1-3)
The serpent started Eve down the path of temptation, of doubting God's truth, by asking a question that she really knew the answer to already.  And, in my case, intellectually, I knew the answers to the my frantic questions about our call to Costa Rica.  But, combined with emotions and temptation to doubt, I had fallen to a place of not trusting God.  My frantic questions had deafened me from hearing His voice, making it so easy to instead hear the voice of my flesh and of the enemy.
"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman.  "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."  When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  (Genesis 3:4-6)
That seed of doubt planted in Eve's and Adam's hearts was what led them to disobey and lose the sweet intimacy that they had with God.  When I read this passage in light of that time in my life, I think about how my husband was the one who I frequently bombarded with my frantic questions of doubt.  It wasn't until I finally took them to the Lord, with my heart finally open to receive His guidance, that I received His gentle answers.

Tomorrow, I'd like to share some of the questions I brought before the Lord that day in my journal.  I have to admit, I find myself hesitating to be vulnerable in this way, but it is my prayer that sharing this will help others who are struggling with frantic, stressful questions of their own.  Please join us again tomorrow for part two of this series

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Loving Like Jesus While Being Despised

It’s been about a year since the conflict between Ukraine and Russia began, and in that year people’s impression of Americans have changed significantly.  When my husband first started serving in Siberia before we were married, being American was on par with being a rock-star. When we moved to western Russia as a family about 4 years later, we were perhaps not rock-stars, but at very least intriguing. Moving to a big city only 3 years after that, people found us mildly interesting but often beneficial to them if they were seeking to improve their English. Now, however, another 5 years later, I have been yelled at and found myself on a number of occasions the scapegoat for various people’s frustration and rage at the dealings of my entire country.  Whereas at one time questions about my background were great conversation starters, I now find myself hoping that my grammar and accent don’t give me away, though they almost always do. 

The worst of this change has been how it has affected my children. They have now been yelled at twice on the playground, just for being Americans. They have been told that nobody wants them here and that they should go back to where they came from. Of course most people are still kind or at least tactful, but there are those who are not. I can understand the political frustrations, but it is hard for me to understand why people would yell at my children for something that they have absolutely no control over. They had no choice in the fact that they would be Americans raised in Russia. They don’t even understand why our two countries would not get along.  They are completely innocent, yet find themselves bearing the brunt of people’s anger. It has been so painful to have the same people that we dearly love and have given much of our life for, despise me and my family.

I know that what I am experiencing pales so greatly in comparison to what so many of you face each and every day, but even in this relatively mild situation, I have come to understand a bit more what Jesus endured for our sake. I am heartbroken that I am not welcomed by the people that I love so deeply and have given up so much to serve. How much more profoundly was Jesus pained by rejection?  My pain and sacrifice are so miniscule compared to His, yet He has used this tiny microcosm to grow my desire to know what it means to humbly love and serve as He did. 

Jesus was reviled by those whom he came to save. He was rejected by those that he loved with a perfect and passionate love.  He was spat upon, beaten, and brutally killed by his very own creation. And you and I were just like these people at one time; like the people who hate and lash out at my children despite their innocence, and like the people in the enraged crowd responsible for sentencing the innocent Lamb of God to death.  Being called names and disliked for my nationality cannot even begin to be likened with how my countless wretched sins pained my beloved and sinless Savior, costing Him his life. 

In this situation of being yelled at and dealt with in other unpleasant ways, I find my fleshly self tempted to become hard and to find fault back in the other direction. How could a person who despises me deserve my kindness and love? They don't deserve it. But, as tomorrow is Easter for us, I am deeply reminded of Jesus humble and sacrificial love for me, and how in His mercy and grace, He did not grow bitter with me despite all of the ways that I turned from and hurt Him. I deserved to be faulted and punished for my sins against the innocent and almighty Messiah, yet He loved me.  He didn’t respond to me in the way that I deserved, but rather gave His life in the ultimate sacrifice of love so that I might be saved. These are the very basics of the gospel and Christ-likeness, yet it is still a struggle sometimes to truly want to love other sinful people the way that Jesus loved me.

Lord, I know you want me to be like you. I know you want me to humbly love even those who yell at me, misunderstand me, and look down upon me simply for the passport that I hold. I know that you want my love for these people to grow rather than diminish even as tensions rise.  Lord Jesus, I praise you for the example of your perfect love that freely loved me, even though doing so sent you to the cross. I pray that you would grow me to be like you; Help me love those whom you love with a selfless and sacrificial love, even if it means being reviled in return as you were. Lord, please make each one of us more like you with each passing day. Amen.

Have you experienced being disliked or hated where you are serving? What does that look like for you? How have you dealt with it personally, and especially with your children? How has the Lord used such things in your life and ministry?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tuesday Together: Come for coffee

As before, get comfy, and settle in to read and fellowship. It's chilly and rainy and blustery here today, so, I don't know about you, but coffee is just what I need! I posted some discussion questions last week, and here are answers to them.

First, from Erin:
Please pray I can let go of all bitterness, things/people that draw me away from Christ...true friends... and direction for next year. 

"He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds," "He has made everything beautiful in it's time..." I also read the OT prophets and Jonah (as part of my Bible reading plan) and felt better.

well funny language stories... I forgot that in Thai "mai" in a certain word is like a question mark in English, so I used to shout, instead of "See you later!" as I walked out the door... "WILL I see you later?" I also kept mixing up the Thai words for "buy" and "fight," so sometimes I would try to say "I want to go buy something," and it sounded like "I want to go fight something," (no wonder I would get strange looks). I also (remember thai is a tonal language) would mix up "spicy" with "diamond" and "duck" (all same words but different tones)... So instead of saying "I don't want spicy," I would say "I don't want ducks," or "I don't want diamonds." Yay me.

From Sarah, with a photo of her kids in Costa Rican dress as a bonus:
I have a recent, funny, cross-cultural kid story to share:
Last month, we had a visitor from the States staying with us, and she asked our son, a first grader, if he was learning “American history” at school.  I knew what she meant was if he was learning any history of the United States.  I simply explained that since he goes to a Costa Rican school, he’s learning mostly Costa Rican history this year. 
But, then my son piped up that he actually has learned about some history of the United States.  He went on to talk excitedly about a Costa Rican hero, Juan Santamaría, who, in my son’s words, “kept Costa Rica from being taken over by the American army.” 
Awkward silence…  (that wasn’t really the type of “American history” the visitor was thinking about)
… because in our “American” first grade textbooks, we don’t really learn about William Walker, the crazy American who formed a mercenary army, took over Nicaragua in the 1850’s, and then invaded Costa Rica.  They also don’t teach us about the young Costa Rican drummer boy, who in an act of bravery, lead to the defeat of this “American army,” making him probably this country’s most celebrated hero.  The main airport is named after him, there are statues of him, our kids sing songs about him…
It was a bit of an awkward conversation, because, right now, our son looks up to Juan Santamaría more than George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.  He’s lived in Costa Rica his entire life, and, right now, Costa Rica’s heroes are more significant to him.  I think that our visitor was a little shocked by this.  For me, it was a funny reminder of how our kids really are growing up differently than we did.  They are immersed in a different culture, and, while I do want them to learn the history of the United States, I’m thrilled that they get to learn about other historical figures that are unknown to most kids back in the States. 

Have other missionary moms experienced something like this?  How do you explain this to people back home that might not understand? 

Now, Richelle:
Kid story:
When our oldest daughter was in the French equivalent of kindergarten in our place of service, a certain boy in her class took a liking to her. One day after school, he sat down next to me and told me how much he liked our girl. I asked him if that was because she was smart, funny, good at games on the playground, pretty, nice… He looked at me very seriously and said: “No. I like her because she is white.” Out of the mouths of babes, eh? It is funny, but it also reminds me of just how hard it was to step across the cultural divide – I never really felt like we were able to accomplish that in the nearly 15  years we were there. It is a sincere prayer that, as we transition to a new place, God will give us discernment and wisdom as we learn a new culture.

Bible verse:
3 John 1:5-8 ~
"Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth."
Another few verses I treasure - because as a stranger - as one who has traveled to churches and visited people and places, literally in many places in this world - I've been, my family has been, the recipient/ of unbelievable/incomprehensible amounts of love, generosity and hospitality. This knowledge overwhelms me... it humbles me.

Prayer request:
Huge transitions on the horizon. To read more, go here.

Next is Ashley:
Here are a couple of recent cross-cultural kid stories:
My Daughter was asking me about one of her friends who moved back to the US and asked, "Where is Sam from again? Colorado?... Is that why he has dark hair?" (She was confused that Colorado was a state and not different country!)
Here is another interaction between me and my youngest daughter who is currently in Russian pre-school, and just starting to really pick up the language. 
Me to her while driving home from preschool: "Элси, Ты понимаешь когда я говорю по Русский? (Elsie, do you understand when I speak Russian?)"
Elsie to Me: "Да (yes)... Wait, did you just talk to me in Russian or English??" 

A verse that has recently encouraged me was Roman's 4:18-19 "In hope he believed against all hope,that he should be the father of many nations, as he had been told, 'So shall your offspring be.' He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead..." This verse has encouraged me for personal reasons related to our process of coming to Russia. I was studying Romans at a time when it seemed many things were falling apart with regards to our being able to come to Russia to serve. I knew we felt called to come here, but the obstacles were many. God really used this verse to call me to hope and faith with regards to what the Lord had called us to, despite our circumstances. We are now studying Romans with our church, and this verse was part of our study this week. Every time I read this verse it is special to me, especially now that we've been here in Russia for over 8 years and I can see how God has fulfilled what He had put on our hearts and how He continues to do so.

As for prayer, I'd love prayer for time management! That is such a boring prayer request, but I have so many things going on that I need to be wise with my use of time. Thank you, friends! I look forward to praying for you too!

And to finish, a few answers from me:
I don't usually share potty stories, but that's not the focus of this one, and it's not gross. So, for my funny kid story.... After being sick a while back, our little guy decided that he needs prunes daily. Today he asked me for his prunes, and I told him that we had run out. His quick response: "Oh. Then chocolate would help instead!"

Instead of a specific verse that has encouraged, I'll just share two topics that keep jumping out of my Bible readings: peace (for my own heart and for this country), and the idea that we are blessed when others curse and revile us.

Prayer requests: I've just been tired and busy lately! Ashley asked for prayer for time management; you can pray for me to be disciplined enough to get to bed on time.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this! Please carry on the discussion in the comments. Be sure to chime in with your answers to Sarah's question. Also, what suggestions do you have for later on in this space? Have you enjoyed these "coffee chats"? And take some time to pray for each other now, too.