Complacency; a wily assassin

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

~Poet Ralf Waldo Emerson

 

Recently a friend sent Sal and I a video about the man who started the Free Burma Rangers. His family tells an incredible story of being called to the mission field in the middle of a war zone and ethnic cleansing and how they demonstrated the love of Christ by helping the oppressed, extracting children caught behind enemy lines, equipping local peoples and more. As I watched him run through ISIS gunfire to rescue a young girl who sat clinging to her dead mother, I was convicted to tears. “Oh God,” I prayed, “I am so easily distracted and lulled by the mundane. Help me to keep running and not to take my eyes off the prize.”

Photo courtesy: Chris Sinclair; Christianitytoday.com
The Eubank family, founders of Free Burma Rangers.

 

Paul writes, “… we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame…” (Romans 5:3-5) I think the inverse is also true. One could say, “We know that comfort produces complacency; complacency, passivity; and passivity, apathy. And apathy is the enemy to love and will ultimately destroy us.”

Picnic tables encourage quality family time much more than couches do for the Sanchez Family

One of the greatest struggles in my life has been continually living with intentionality. Sure, it’s easy to stir up some fiery emotions and get motivated for a time, but as hours stretch into days and then into weeks and years, it’s so easy to be lulled into a stupor by the relentless cradle of the mundane. Comfort is one of my greatest enemies. When we are stateside and friends visit us, they often ask if we’d like a couch or a television and they’re confused when we decline. But the truth is, typical American comforts make me lazy. When we stay with friends and family who have couches, I find myself spending a ridiculous amount of time sitting and sending my kids to fetch things that I should be up getting myself. Now, to be fair, there is, of course, nothing inherently evil about the couch; the problem is my own lack of self-discipline. However, why needlessly subject myself to such a source of temptation to be lazy?

The temptation, however, doesn’t end with physical comforts. In the absence of these things I’m drawn to seek comfort in routines, schedules and programs. I start to conjure up a false sense of security which leads to a satisfaction with how things are- with the status quo. When I get comfortable, I relax and my awareness of the needs of those around me gets dull. What a precarious life we live!

A couple of our kids out in Rhino Refugee Settlement

Sometimes the things we see overseas and the abject poverty that surrounds us haunt me when I return to the US. I feel guilty about living comfortably while knowing that one of my unofficially adopted daughters overseas is facing eviction, or that a beautiful little girl who used to come to Sunday School in the refugee camp will be sleeping in the mud, or in a grown man’s bed. We will take our family out to eat at Pizza Hut and suddenly I see lovely but gaunt faces looking in through the window at me.

Because of this, sometimes I live rather existentially. By only focusing on what is immediately in front of me, I can avoid some of the unpleasant feelings, but this causes other problems. Without meaning to I can loose motivation, lose the heart that drove me forward to make a difference and deaden the voice of God in my life. I’m not saying that we should wallow in sorrows that we can do nothing about. Philippians 4:8 says, “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” However, we do have to guard diligently against getting distracted and loosing sight of our mission.

After all, if we are children of God, we have a heaven-assigned mission to do good and to share the Good News in word and deed.

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

~John Wesley

Hadassah reading before bed

I believe that one of the greatest tactics of the devil in America is busyness and distraction. The statistics on the average amount of screen time we spend daily are staggering. I get it; when that notification goes off alerting me to a new message I’m like Pavlov’s dog drooling at the sound of a dinner bell. The amount of social media communication that people expect from us is insane. Demands on our time from work, school, family, church, sports, etc. seem impossible to satisfy. I’m always surprised how strong the pull of this American lifestyle is and how quickly I get sucked into it every time we return stateside. I’m constantly re-evaluating how I’m spending my time and reorganizing my priorities.

What does this have to do with a video I watched earlier this week? Please bear with me as I try to pull my thoughts together. Not too long ago I was unwittingly just going through the motions. Without realizing it I had lost much of my zeal, bogged down by the daily grind. We were moving forward, fundraising, sharing about our vision in East Africa and the Horn, making plans on how we would return amongst the Covid crisis and sending some aid to our partners still working in Uganda. However, my heart was heavy with a lethargic tiredness. That’s not to say that I had lost any belief in our work. On the contrary, I was and am genuinely excited about the direction God is taking us. However, at some point the necessary focus on things like budgets, travel plans and preparing another school year turned into being consumed by the concerns of this world and too much passion was wrung out from my heart.

Arua kids who come for one of our weekly children’s programs

Then I watched this video about a missionary family doing something truly extraordinary for Jesus and it was like a defibrillator shock to my heart. It’s crazy how our God-given calling is so intertwined with how we see God. All at once I was reminded of the bigness and goodness of God, of my love for Him and challenged to live radically for Him. I was reminded that God’s plans for us are bigger than our pocketbook or budget, wilder than our dreams and imaginations, greater than our natural abilities and so beyond us.

He fills my heart with passion and motivation, and like Peter, I have to keep my eyes on Him if I am to walk on water. The moment my attention turns to the cares of this world I start to sink. God will also guide me in processing the sorrows without detaching from them so that through sanctification I can become more like Christ who was at once a man of sorrows and filled with joy.

Rhino Refugee Settlement, Northern Uganda

And I wonder if I am not alone in this. If a missionary to Africa can get lost in the seductive draw of the mundane, distraction, comfort and complacency, I have to imagine that American Christians immersed in this culture can also fall prey to it. Please be encouraged to discover or rediscover your God-given destiny for adventure and a life that is significant because it makes a difference. God made you for a purpose and it will undoubtedly be a destiny filled with excitement, sorrow, joy, pain, adventure, love, loss and daring, but you have to break out of the world’s cookie-cutter to find it.

Thank you for reading this post and God bless.

“Why do so many people do nothing? I think it’s because most of us look at the evils and injustice around us, and we become overwhelmed. The problems look too big for us to tackle. We say to ourselves, ‘What can I do? I’m just one person.’ One person is a start. One person can act and make a change by helping another. One person can inspire a second person to be intentional, and another. Those people can work together. They can becoe a movement. They can make and impact. We should never let what we cannot do keep us from doing what we can do. A passive life does not become a meaningful life.”

~John C. Maxwell, Intentional Living: Choosing a Life that Matters

Quarantined in the middle of nowhere

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Sal and I spend our morning coffees looking out over our pond

We are currently parked just outside of town in a little wooded oasis on a pond that most people don’t even know exists and I have been repeatedly asked, “How on earth did you find this place?” Well, the answer, as so often is the case, is: by luck and providence. When Covid-19 was first coming to the attention of the American people, we were distracted as we prepared to move. Our time on the farm was coming to a close and it was time to find a new place to park the camper and call home. Even though we are currently an RVing family, we rarely spend time inside the camper, preferring rather to do everything from eating to schooling and even sleeping outside when possible. This fact, in addition to being a five-person-three-dog-family means that the traditional RV park which packs you in like sardines is not a very viable option for us. We’ll take privacy and room to breath and play over conveniences like running water and sewage hook-ups any day, but it does make finding a place to park our camper a little more difficult.

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Talai enjoying the local wildlife

We had been searching for days on sites like RV Village and contacting people on Craigslist trying to find some kind of wooded lot that we could rent on a monthly basis but we weren’t having any luck finding one that was within an hour of Charlotte (not to mention that everything was booked because of Nascar which hadn’t yet been affected by Covid). Finally we stumbled across an awesome app called HipCamp where we located a rustic campsite well off the beaten trail and yet close enough to town to continue our work in Charlotte. We contacted the owner who promptly agreed to let us reserve it on a monthly basis and we settled in.

I am always so impressed with my girls who remain so flexible. Children, in general, like structure and routine, and whereas we strive to maintain as much of that as possible, there is admittedly a lot of unavoidable change associated with our lifestyle. School runs on a general schedule but the details may need to change a little depending on new sets of chores related to our current environment. Things are added and removed from their daily routines rather fluidly. For example, picking berries has taken the place of gathering eggs as part of their morning routines and their nighttime routines now include checking each other for ticks.

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The girls snuggle up with the pups during a family slumber party in the yurt

This is not a phenomena in their lives that is exclusive to our time spent RVing in the US, but rather just a part of the international missionary lifestyle. The girls navigate differences in American subcultures quite similarly to how they navigate the varying world cultures that we encounter as we travel. In the live movie Dora, she makes a comment about studying the indigenous culture of America where she is being sent to go to school. We all chuckled when Dora related  American high school kids to indigenous rainforest tribes, but really, her mental framework wasn’t that different than our own girls’. Our family has begun to see any culture or subculture that we interact with, regardless of how similar or foreign they are to our own, as the indigenous culture of a region to be observed, learned from and hopefully assimilated to. Still, from environmental to cultural to climate to economic changes, our family really works together to remain flexible and make necessary adjustments which enable us to thrive in often changing circumstances. Every time the girls rise to the occasion with smiles and a positive focus on new adventures instead of what they will have to give up, my pride in them skyrockets. (Did I mention that we even have an Aspy in our family? Some of you will recognize how significant that is).

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The girls enjoying a hotdog dinner

So, transitioning into another question many people are asking me, “What is life like out in the middle of the woods with no running water or electricity?” Truthfully, we seem to do things differently than most folks, so don’t take my answer as a generalization, but I can tell you about our life in the middle of the woods without running water or electricity.

Firstly, when it comes to the practical side of living, things aren’t that different from life in Uganda. We have a small solar kit which powers our phones and tablets as well as a few other small luxuries like fans, lights and my daughter’s new Furby which she purchased with her own hard-earned money. We’ve built a composting toilet and we filter our water from local water sources (a.k.a. the pond) with the same filter we used in Africa. The girls school up to the picnic table or with clipboards in their hammocks. I cook outside with a double-burner campstove and we gather around the picnic table to share dinner. On a hot day we go for a swim in the pond. On a side note, it’s important to know that I consider it a pond; others may go so far as to call it a lake. However, I am originally from Michigan, home of the Great Lakes and where, if it’s muddy it’s considered a pond and if it’s under an acre in size it’s a puddle. That said, our pond is filled with bass and turtles and well over our heads out towards the middle.

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School in the hammocks

A typical day starts between four and five in the morning for Sal and I. It is still dark outside but we light a citronella torch to ward off mosquitoes and make some light. We sit on the porch of the rustic cabin on the property and brew some coffee in a neat little drip apparatus which we inherited from Sal’s grandma and which dates back to 1906. We do our Bible reading and devotional time first thing and then spend the rest of the quiet hours of the predawn together in prayer and conversation (over coffee of course). The girls are up with the sun by six and started on their morning routines which include picking wild blackberries which I’ll add to their breakfast oatmeal. After AM routines are completed we move into family devotional time where we study the Bible and other Christian writings. Currently we are all reading Love Dare and have adapted it to apply not only to marriage, but to family relationships as well.

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Mila working on homework on the porch of our rustic cabin

Our school probably looks similar to any other homeschooling family with the exception of our environment. We take a break following lunch for quiet rest time where everyone gets to nap, read or journal. Following rest time is family chore time. Our chores involve things like gathering firewood, straightening up the cabin, washing dishes, gathering water to filter, burning the burnable trash and training the dogs (who are learning nifty tricks and how to be therapy animals). We all work together so it doesn’t take very long.

After chores comes everyone’s favorite time of day: freetime. We might all go for a swim or splash in the creek or fish. The girls like to explore the creek and catch crayfish and water dogs. They might pick berries, play their instruments, go for a hike, play chess or just hang their hammock up high in the trees and spend the afternoon engulfed in a good book.

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Talai holding a baby squirrel that had fallen from its nest during a severe thunderstorm. The girls spent hours trying to catch it.

Earlier this spring the girls rescued a baby squirrel that was knocked out of its nest during one of the large storms and couldn’t climb back up the tree to its home. We also set up an off-grid incubator which we kept successfully at an ideal temperature and humidity for an egg which was abandoned by the mother bird after a snake attacked the nest and ate all the others. Unfortunately, even our best efforts were unsuccessful in hatching the bird egg.

We’ve watched many a storm from the porch of our cabin. There have been three tornado warnings where my phone’s warning system has alerted us to take cover. During two of those we went for walks (for one of those walks we responsibly waited until the hail passed before leaving overhead shelter). We observed crazy green skies, fascinating cloud formations (which sparked a spontaneous lesson on weather patterns and clouds) and the results of a flooding creek. During one of these walks Talai rescued the smallest of our dogs, Bjorn Bluetooth, who didn’t realize that the current of the stream became significantly stronger when the stream became a bonafide river and was swept downstream about 20 feet.

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The water pictured is the result of light rain. After heavy showers started causing mudslides on our two-track, we decided to move the camper to higher ground

In short, we’ve spent our days of quarantine in a situation that we consider just about as good as it gets. Sure, this kind of life comes with its own challenges: our feet and ankles have plenty of itchy ant and mosquito bites, we can be slow to communicate electronically, especially if we’ve had little-to-no solar and our phones are dead, we have to plan ahead a little more to do simple things, but overall that is a very small price to pay for the freedom, simplicity, joy and rest we’ve enjoyed over the past several weeks.

We get to enjoy this place until mid July. At that time, we’ll be packing up and hitting the road as we launch the next big phase towards returning to Africa. During this time of rest we’ve also had lots of time to pray and dream and we have solidified our plans for moving forward. Over the next few weeks I’ll reveal those plans, as well as our travel itinerary so that we can connect if you are interested in partnering with us in our work (you can always contact me privately about this as well). Check back soon for details!

As always, thank you so much for your interest in our lives and work. We so appreciate your thoughts, prayers and support. In fact, words elude me which could express just how deep our gratitude is. We pray that you would be safe and blessed during these uncertain times.

To face giants and rescue snails (Finding courage part 3)

I thought I was done writing about courage a couple of posts ago, at least for a while. However, I was out with a friend recently and as we chatted I recalled a story from Buenos Aires Argentina involving my middle child, Talai, a story in which she showed great courage. With so many unknowns in our future as a nation and a world, I figured one more dose of encouragement couldn’t hurt. So without further adieu, allow me to share a tale of snails, bullies and courage.

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Outside our apartment in Corrientes. In the background is an asado or, “barbeque pit.”

When we first arrived in Argentina to study trauma counseling and work with victims of human trafficking, we lived in the northern province of Corrientes. The girls were so excited. We had finally completed our long road trip from Northern Michigan to Argentina and after months of endless adventure and travel we were getting ready to settle in to what would be home for the next several months. As a family we looked hopefully and excitedly towards a seemingly bright future. Unfortunately, we didn’t detect the dark clouds of bullying quickly approaching on the horizon.

The particular area we were in was one of the most anti-American places we’ve ever been. I remember standing in line at the store one day and trying to make small talk with a woman standing behind me.

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Homeschooling at our Corrientes apartment

“Hello, how are you?” I said.

“You know the Russians beat you to the moon,” the gal responded. “Stupid Americans; you think you rule the world.”

It was an intimidating experience, but with love and patience we won over most of our neighbors. It was a difficult time for our whole family, but Talai had the worst of it. Talai is an Aspy, which means she has a super-cool personality, but she sometimes struggles to read social queues and make new friends. At the base we worked on there were many children. Several of them picked up on Talai’s quirks and soon she was the focus of daily bullying in the community. During kids church one Sunday a teacher came and got Sal and I. Talai had been in a fight, or more like an ambush. Two boys had held her down while another punched and kicked her. During Sunday school.

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Enjoying a mate (being a South American green tea shared amongst friends from the communal cup, mate, and straw, bombilla) in front of our apartment

At one point we thought things were getting better when a girl around her age befriended her. The two girls were peas in a pod; they teeter-tottered and laughed and whispered together. Other kids started to leave her alone and Sal and I were so relieved. Then one day her “friend” led a co-ed group of kids into the bathroom and kicked in the door to Talai’s stall. She was mortified and heart broken.

The rest of our time in Corrientes was very hard on Talai. Sal and I tried working with parents and teachers to stop the bullying, but in the end we had to keep Talai in our sights constantly and discipline the other kids ourselves to keep her safe. Sal employed some interesting tactics to deter kids from picking on Talai, but even their fear of him was not enough to stop it completely or help her make friends. I think the most difficult thing for her was that these were fellow missionary kids; they were supposed to be her brothers and sisters in Christ. Truthfully, it was a sad commentary on a community where holding on to their racism was more important than embracing the international Christian fellowship.

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A game at a sort of party/vbs we held for local children in Buenos Aires, Argentina

As soon as we could transfer our studies, we left there and moved onto a missions base in Buenos Aires. We had been part of a daily program for street children and saying goodbye to them was difficult and sad, but we had to take care of our girls. Initially we liked the new base a lot. Both the adults and children seemed friendly and sincere. They apologized for the racism we had encountered and assured us that everyone was family on the base. We lived, studied and worked on the base and our whole family was adjusting well and making friends.

When the rainy season arrived, large land snails started emerging all over. My girls are lovers of all animals including the creepy crawlies and they loved seeing the snails everywhere. We noticed that broken shells started littering the sidewalk, but we weren’t sure why. Then one day Talai burst through the front door with tears in her eyes holding a smashed snail in her cupped hands.

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So many snails!

“Mom!” she exclaimed. “The kids are smashing the snails! They just take the poor snails and smash them on the sidewalk for fun.” She could barely get the story out as sobs of indignation and sadness wracked her. I did the best I could explaining to her the cultural and background differences that caused these kids to seem to her so heartless, but there was little I could do to console her, and nothing I could do to make it right.

I rocked her in my arms until she calmed down and then we buried the remains of the poor dead and broken snail she still held. Over the next few days she built a snail hospital and started collecting broken-shelled snails and caring for them. She poured her whole heart and all her time into it. A couple curious boys came by to ask what she was doing. They were intrigued by the hospital and so they went out, found a healthy snail, threw it on the concrete and then brought it to Talai to care for. Talai put her hands on her hips and proceeded to scold the boys for hurting the snail in the first place. The boys were abashed and quickly apologized. Then, they asked if they could help with caring for the snails. She sent them out to scavenge for food and they returned that afternoon with lots of greens and flowers from various people’s gardens which earned them official snail hospital staff positions. They came by daily to help and learn from Talai.

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Talai and the original Snail Hospital

Word spread quickly and soon we had large groups of kids in our front yard investigating the snail hospital. Most kids were puzzled over why she would care for snails (which they smashed because they thought they were gross) and left laughing among themselves. I began to worry for Talai. She had endured so much at the hands of bullies just a little while prior and now she was taking a stand that, although noble, was seen by her peers as foreign and odd. I worried that the other kids would use this as an opportunity to tease and ridicule her.

Sal and I discussed this and one night we sat Talai down to have a talk with her. We explained that, although we were very proud of how she was caring for the snails, her actions in doing so could possibly make her a target for ridicule. We told her to consider the possible price this endeavor might cost her if it resulted in being bullied again. We assured her that none of the bullying had been her fault, and that what she was doing for the snails was right and good, but even so it may have negative consequences for her.

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Talai selling Aloe Vera to raise money and awareness for her snail hospital

Without pause she explained to us that under no circumstance was she going to abandon her patients; as a doctor she was bound by the Hippocratic Oath. She told us that Jesus said that anyone who puts their hand to the plow and then looks back is not worthy of Him and she assured us that, while she appreciated our concern, she had counted the cost and that standing up for the helpless was always worth it.

What was there to do but hug our little world-changer and support her in her work? We watched her closely day-by-day, ready to jump in and defend her. But then, something unexpected happened. More and more kids became intrigued by how she cared for her little victims and started volunteering at her hospital. Meanwhile, Talai changed her attitude of anger towards the perpetrators into one of patience and understanding. She started approaching groups of snail smashers and reasoning with them, explaining how even snails were created by God and how it was much nicer to enjoy and play with them than to smash them. The change didn’t happen overnight, but it came on steadily.

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That’s part of my garden

More and more kids started to disapprove of snail-smashing. Talai received new hospital volunteers daily, which was a good thing because her hospital, which had expanded and annexed our entire front yard, now had hundreds of patients. Then, one day, snail-smashing ceased completely.

With almost all of the base kids involved in the hospital to some capacity, and without the emergency room being overcrowded from smashed snails, Talai led the kids to expand the hospital into an all-out snail rescue. My beautiful exotic garden became a sort of snail hospice (“Snail Heaven” as Talai called it) where snails who weren’t expected to survive went. As it turned out, my garden must have had some healing powers because many of the snails made a turn-around and became so healthy that they ate most of the plants to the ground. We also had the constructed and expanded hospital and the graveyard for those who didn’t make it in our front yard.

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Talai takes a shift on a rainy day as a snail shuttle scooter driver

Other kids volunteered their yards and gardens and soon there was a snail playground for the younger ones, physical therapy for the older ones and a diner. They started a shuttle service to transport the snails from one area to the next and designated “drivers” would carry the snails on their scooters. They even painted the snails’ shells and kept records of their progress. Scouts would go out in search of snails who had run away from the hospital and others hiding around the base and bring them to the rescue where they would receive health screening and a check-up before being released back to the wild. It really was an incredible operation.

My garden was devoured beyond repair; there was a constant stream of kids through my front yard and peeking in our windows; parents were complaining to me about their raided flower beds; and I couldn’t be happier. My daughter had changed the minds, hearts and destructive practices of an entire community. She convinced others to enjoy and embrace something that they had previously reviled. Many a good missionary has spent years and even decades trying to do that very thing. I was so very proud of her

Many people ask me what I do with my kids while we are in the mission field, as if my girls were annoyances impeding on “real mission work.” I don’t “do” anything with them. Together we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the widows and the orphans and preach the gospel of freedom and peace to the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. And sometimes they do it without me.

Thank you for reading this post. God bless you.

 

An official relaunch

Welcome to Love’s Training Ground!

We are a missions family who have worked in North, South and Central America and East Africa. We work largely with traumatized children and youth, although we do a lot

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A young boy at Ofua Refugee camp in northern Uganda. He is one of many that our team worked with.

with adults also. We’re relationship based and believe in working with and alongside the locals to help them raise up strong communities with native leadership committed to integrity.

This blog will follow us in our day-to-day existence: the good, the bad, the trials and the triumphs. We hope it will be a source of inspiration, encouragement, entertainment and humor. You can read more about me (Heather) and my family by clicking the “Who am I?” tab.

For those who follow this blog, you’ll notice that it is no longer “Borderlands International.” They are the nonprofit organization we direct and partner with, but trying to combine the organization’s updates with our personal blog simply wasn’t a good idea. In an effort to communicate our lives in a transparent and authentic way while maintaining the professionalism that the organization demands, we’ve opted to divide the two into different web pages. Hence, you are now on Love’s Training Ground, our personal family blog. If you are looking for, or interested in Borderlands International, please go to borderlandsinternational.org.

So, where are we right now? Last year we left Uganda, Africa and returned Stateside. We’ve been in northern Michigan catching up with extended family and getting our feet back under us. Our plan is to move to Charlotte, North Carolina at the end of the month

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The girls on their way back Stateside. Despite the long travel time – our return trip was only 30 hours which isn’t bad – they love to fly.

where we’ll prepare for our return to Africa. From renewing passports and acquiring the proper visas to building an emergency evacuation fund and getting cyber security training, there is quite a bit to do prior to getting back to Africa and the process will take months. However, the first step forward requires that we move to Charlotte. With the help of friends and family we have acquired an RV and an SUV and we’ll be RVing for the remainder of our stay in the US.

Our goal is to return long-term to Ethiopia. We loved the work we were doing in northern Uganda, but we were faced with two awesome “problems.” For one, new missionaries and missions families are arriving weekly. We prayed for God to send the workers, and He’s done just that. For another, many of the South Sudanese we worked with in the refugee camps are returning to their homes in South Sudan, which is also an answer to prayer. On top of this we feel like the Lord is leading us further north to Ethiopia.

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Talai in a gift shop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She and Sal did a scouting trip there last February

When I’m running low on new content to post, I might reminisce and share some stories from our past adventures. We’ve been very busy the past few years and I’ve neglected this blog. Hopefully I can take advantage of the slower pace of being Stateside and “catch up” a bit. Again, I hope this blog inspires, encourages, entertains, challenges and makes you laugh. My goal is to maintain a sort of “missionary life unplugged” attitude built on an honest, authentic and holistic representation of our life and work. Our previous posts representing both us and Borderlands International will remain on the blog, but from here on our we are relaunching as Love’s Training Ground.

Thank you for dropping by today. Please keep us in your prayers.

God bless.

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Taken from one of the final walks the girls and I took with the kids from the missions base we lived on. Walking and playing with the base kids was one of our favorite things to do.

Ordinary people, extraordinary circumstances

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This is one of those posts which I wrote a few months ago, but it addresses our personal experience on the ground amidst foreign political tensions. I went back and forth choosing whether or not to post it, but in the end I decided I’d go for it. I hope you find it uniquely informative and entertaining.

Local elections were held on the 15th of last month in Arua. The last local representative from this region had been assassinated a couple of months prior and, with that still fresh in mind, the people showed up to the polls filled with suspicion and anger. The president of Uganda and many other members of parliament (MP’s) came to town to witness the elections, which, since no one thought that was peculiar, I believe was politics as usual. But, protests and demonstrations quickly turned to riots in town which were met with a heavy hand by police and national guard. Perhaps you have heard something of this already; what transpired has reached international news agencies.

Fortunately, we live a relatively safe distance outside of town and simply planned to stay home until the tensions passed. We had anticipated some trouble and had a bit of food and other necessities stored up. Then came a game-changing phone call. “Your children’s student passes have been approved and you need to travel to Kampala immediately to receive them. If you are not there by Tuesday (the 14th)  you could face a fine of over $1,000 U$D,” we were told. So, early Monday morning we hopped in the car and left for Kampala. Just over an hour into the trip we started having car trouble. Our route is not a good one to be stranded on with a broken vehicle, so we turned back and made it home. After much prayer and discussion we decided that I would take the night bus with the girls and Sal would remain home with the dogs. Later that morning Sal rode into town to purchase the tickets for us. By that time demonstrations had already begun in force, but, whereas it took a long time, he got in and out without incident.

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Meanwhile the girls, carefree, spend a relaxing afternoon under a mango tree

Throughout the day we heard distant sounds of demonstrators clashing with law enforcement and received a constant stream of information through social media of what people had seen or heard. We contacted the bus line and arranged to be picked up outside of town just past 10 pm. That night, for the very first time, our trusted motorcycle taxi man (“boda driver”) showed up early. He was anxious to get us onto the bus and return home to his own family. He and two other boda drivers carried Sal, the girls and I to where we had arranged to meet the bus.

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For lack of relevant photo, enjoy this cute one of Hadassah on a particular day she was feeling homesick and digging into her Wyoming roots.

Initially things were calm enough. Then a small group of demonstrators identifying themselves as “The Resistance” by their red headbands came marching by and chanting. I won’t tell you what they were saying but it was enough to get themselves in plenty of trouble. Our boda man and Sal were laughing together, making light of the situation and finding things and people to poke fun at to pass the time. I was chatting quietly with the girls who teeter-tottered between worry and curiosity. When police and national guard began rolling past us, even our boda man became alert and started to look worried. It was a selfish prayer, but I kept asking God to allow things to remain peaceful another 10 minutes or so until we were on the bus and Sal on his way back home.

When we finally spotted the headlights of the bus coming up the road we all sighed a grateful prayer and breath of relief. We had been watching as all the commotion moved gradually up the road, drawing continually closer to our position. We were playing chicken with the turmoil, hoping the bus would arrive before it drew too close. And praise God it did! Sal and I said a hasty goodbye and I moved to quickly settle the girls into their seats for the night as the bus wasted no time in getting back on the road.

When I sat down I texted Sal and apologized for not giving him a kiss goodbye. In all the stories the valiant couple always stop time long enough for an epic romantic embrace before turning to face the oncoming danger before them. I was a bit disappointed in myself to discover that, when circumstances demanded it, I was pathetically deficient in the romance department. I had the perfect plot painted around me: approaching danger just over the horizon, unfair demands pulling us apart, a sad and uncertain sending away, a brave knight seeing his beloved to safety. And I  totally ruined the moment with a hurried “See you later honey,” as I scrambled onto the

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A parting like this would have been so much better.

bus behind the girls.  As Sal rode home to safety, and the girls and I moved south and away from the turmoil, I made a silent promise to myself to be much more epic the next time.

The rest of the story is far less dramatic. Sal fortified our home “just in case” (and to pass the time). The girls and I stepped off the bus in the morning and headed to immigration to finalize their paperwork, which went well. Then we hung out in Kampala for a few days to let the northern turmoil subside a bit. Although the protests did make it as far as the capital, our closest encounter was when our Uber driver drove like a maniac to weave his way through the traffic jams they were causing. I’m pretty sure that at that moment, our Uber cab was a far more dangerous place to be.

We took another night bus when we returned to Arua. We must have been served some bad food just prior because two of the girls had the runs. There are no bathrooms on Ugandan buses. Just as I was deciding to ask the bus driver to stop on the side of the road so that my girls could relieve themselves out in the African bush in the dark of the night, Arua came into view on the GPS map on my phone. I comforted my girls with those words all moms are familiar with: “Just a little longer honey; we’re almost there.”

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Talai enjoying pancakes, a special treat courtesy the big city, on the morning we arrived to Kampala

When we got home we quickly used the bathroom and crashed into our beds. We didn’t wake up until midday. As Sal and I decompressed the whole series of events together, we realized how exhausted we were and did a bit more sleeping. Two days later Mila became very sick and tested positive for malaria. I won’t go into detail except to say that malaria is a wretched disease and Mila has since recovered well.

Circumstances have been driving me to my knees with increased intensity. Before one challenge I bring before God has passed, we are already confronting another. Mila is starting to feel better and Hadassah suddenly comes down with some strange virus. We raise just enough money for a project in the refugee camps and then our car breaks down. Political tensions subside and we hear a case of Ebola has been documented only 20 miles from us. It is far too easy to get bogged down or discouraged over our challenges. But God, in His typical way, has changed my heart instead of my circumstances. Not that long ago, I was in that state of culture shock where you are TheTruthWillSetYouFreetaking everything  in while remaining on top of and at a distance from it all. It’s kind of like a job orientation where you are being guided through your new circumstances and responsibilities but don’t yet fully claim them as your own. I’ve experienced that overwhelming and exhilarating sensation of the first day on the job when things get real. But I must say, I often feel like a manager who was thrust into their position unprepared and under-qualified. The physical, emotional and spiritual needs we confront on a daily basis are so great that it’s easy to forget that we carry the hope of the greatest gift of all within us: the freedom-giving Gospel and Christ Himself.

So now, life has pretty much continued as normal. We’re involved in various children’s programs and working on starting a system of libraries which I am very excited about. Within the next couple of months we should have a community library in Arua functioning as well as a mobile library running in various parts of Rhino Refugee Camp. I’ll share more about this vision and project in a future post. We face a constant pressure to do more as we’re continually met with such great need, but that is also a thought for a later post.

As a journalist I find myself analyzing these current events, guessing at what roads they might take the country of Uganda down. In less than three years the presidential elections will take place and the fate of the nation rests on the shoulders of a generation in which 80% of the population are under the age of 30. As an anthropologist I am trying to get inside people’s heads to figure out why they are the way they are. Complexities of culture and tradition run deeply here. As a feminist I’m crying over women’s unjust struggles and brainstorming ways to level the playing field. As a mother I’m sitting in the dirt with kids, trying to love them in a practical and meaningful way. And as a Christian and a missionary, I’m pulling together all of these resources within me and asking myself and God, “How can I serve this people, share with them the saving Gospel message and see communities transformed?”. These people are no longer “the Ugandans,” “the South Sudanese, ” or the “Congolese;” they are my brothers and sisters, and every day I intend to make them more and more my people.

As always, I am so grateful that you are reading this and involved in our lives. May God bless you and yours and may you too find ways to shine forth His light wherever you may be.

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Making new friends at the hotel we stayed

A paradigm of joy and sorrow

Hello friends and family. Please accept my sincerest apologies for  my lack of recent articles.  Several factors prevented me from getting timely updates posted, but I am committed to overcoming these challenges and posting more regularly from here on out. As it stands, I have a few unpublished articles that I’ll be posting in succession over the next couple of weeks. Where they may seem slightly outdated in this age of instant news at your fingertips, I think they still offer insight into our lives as missionaries and I hope you will enjoy them.

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Talai gets her hair done at Dreamland, a South Sudanese orphanage that relocated to Rhino Refugee Camp in Uganda because of the civil war.

So without further adieu, allow me to start with my most recent post: The Christian life: a paradigm of joy and sorrow.

To follow Jesus’ example is to know both joy and sorrow intimately in great manifestations and often simultaneously. The same Good Shepherd that rejoiced greatly over finding His lost sheep was also a “man of sorrows” who grieved over his beloved yet rebellious people and who sweat drops of blood. In other words, He “for the joy set before Him, endured the cross,” (Hebrews 12:2). I believe that most Christians who are walking sincerely in their faith carry these two things – joy and sorrow – both as nearly constant companions. Many Christians wrestle quietly behind closed doors with the challenges in their lives while struggling to reconcile the abundant joy that the Bible speaks about being available to all the saints in any and all circumstances. I do believe that we have done ourselves a disservice by insisting on a paradigm that completely segregates joy, peace and happiness from sorrow, sadness and grief. Indeed I believe that we, as image bearers of God, are capable and designed to experience these complex emotions in unison.

Over the past several years, Sal and I have worked increasingly with people who have suffered severe trauma. These experiences have prompted me to a studious examination of this theme. Allow me to share a recent story and example of where I have personally confronted it.

Here in Arua, Uganda, there is a group of children who regularly gather at my back fence. They range in age from newborns carried on an older sisters’ back to mid teenage

years, but most are between two and ten. We talk and laugh, they teach me phrases in Lugbara and fall into hysterics as I slaughter their language.

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Talai plays with a group of local children who gathered at our back fence.

We play various games like Simon Says or toss a balloon back and forth. In fact, I am rarely able to go out my backdoor without small ones calling to me and/or gathering at the fence. At times I have lamented my lack of privacy, but that frustration quickly dissipates when confronted by the contagious joy beaming from a plethora of beautiful brown faces.

One day I gave them a couple of balloons to share. You would have thought that I had just handed them tickets to Disney World. They tossed them back and forth to each other and squealed delightedly as they dove to stop them from falling to the ground. The smallest thing: a sticker, a balloon, a pencil – things that many Western children would scarcely think about – are great treasures to these children. They “thank you” profusely and smile ear to ear.  It is so easy and so lovely to revel in their delight.

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A bonfire with other girls from the base in our backyard

Three of the girls who come regularly share the name Queen and the youngest is around two years old. She is a beautiful girl with big brown eyes and a smile that would make a grumpy old troll laugh. She always appears to be enjoying some grand joke that no one else knows anything about. We have fun passing flowers back and forth and our favorite game involves her drawing near to me and then trying to jump away before I can tickle her. Her visits have caused much joy and laughter in my life, but about two weeks ago her mother died.

I knew someone in our neighborhood had passed away because the funeral occurred behind our house and continued for five days straight. In Uganda, funerals are grand to-do’s. Night and day groups of people broke out in sporadic communal wailing, some of it quite gut-wrenching. Several times I startled awake in the middle of the night because their wailing had entered my mind causing me eerie dreams. Many, many of the villagers came to pay their respects. People camped out, sang, prayed, cried and sang some more. In general, Ugandans are very vocal and expressive and all of this was intermittent with what Linguists call “non word interjections.”

Before I knew who had died I observed the whole thing with a sort of anthropological curiosity. Even though tradition determined much about the funeral, I wondered if week-long funerals were developed, at least in part, to meet a need to fully grieve and move on in a culture that has known too much death. I have often considered that many cultures seem to have a much healthier grieving process than my own homeland where most people don’t understand grief and are clueless to help others who have suffered loss.

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The funeral gathering behind our home

During the funeral I had very few visitors, but a few days after it’s conclusion my young friends returned to the back gate. I inquired about the events and they told me that Little Queen’s mother had slipped while mopping, apparently hit her head on the way down and died. Life is tough enough on girls in this land where arranged marriages and domestic abuse are the norm, and now Little Queen faced a future with all it’s challenges without a mother. I was told that she was being sent away to be raised by her older sister; it’s unlikely I’ll see her again. And just like that, a young child that I had grown attached to was orphaned, out of my reach and out of my life.

Many people who work with children, both secular humanitarians and Christian missionaries, have a “don’t get attached” policy. It’s quite similar to how healthcare workers who work with the elderly tend to keep an emotional distance from their patients or how juvenile detention workers tend not to get attached to the kids in their charge. It’s a self protection mechanism; we try to prevent excessive heartbreak by not allowing ourselves to get emotionally involved in the first place. A few years ago when we first started working consistently with traumatized children, I tried taking this approach which was recommended to me by several fellow missionaries. It’s all fine and good to sing on Sunday mornings about how we want to love everyone as God loves them, but when we love we share in another’s joys and pains, and when we work with so many children who have such deep and painful wounds and who live in sometimes desperate situations, how can we share in their pain without being drowned by sorrow?

At first I served those children, who then were the street children of Argentina, as I was

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A Saturday children’s Bible study at Rhino Refugee Camp

advised and held back my love, but this did nothing but make my heart restless; I had no peace in the matter. My heart told me that in order to love these children as I loved myself – as Christ commanded- I had to love them as my own children. Still, these children were orphans and/or children of prostitutes. Sometimes their mother’s “customers” payed extra for access to the child as well. Some had been forcibly drugged, raped, beaten, abandoned and exploited in many other ways. How can someone carry that on their shoulders without becoming a depressed, pessimistic Atheist? And yet, if truly the greatest power to heal and to set free is love – pure, unadulterated, involved, intentional, selfless love – and if Love’s name is Jesus and we are to be His ambassadors, then how could I in good conscience not care for these children as if they were my own?

I began praying that God, by His supernatural strength, would help me to help these children. I was amazed by the change that God orchestrated in my heart. He enlarged my capacity to love. Suddenly I could immerse myself in their lives, empathize with their pain and pray through tears that God would change their situations, and I wasn’t consumed by grief. Surprisingly, my capacity to experience joy also enlarged. I could play, and laugh and dream and hope with these children as well and be 100% present and involved. As a mother, I know no deeper agony than watching my own children go through very real pain, and I know no greater earthly joy than to experience their pure and sincere love and affection towards me. I’m not saying that treating troubled children as your own flesh and blood is the easier route; the depths of my sorrow for them can be profoundly deep at times, but so too are the heights of my joy. However, to love at arm’s length is insincere, and whereas it may bring about some good and change, the kids can always sense it. The higher road is to love as Jesus loved: profoundly and with abandon.

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers to the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”

~Shakespeare

And so, I can’t just forget girls like Little Queen. I weep for her loss, pray for her safety and future and laugh as I remember the beautiful times that we shared. Sometimes I cry while I am laughing. I believe that is what it is like to become more like Christ in the way we experience joy and sorrow.

Not all Christians will find themselves on the international mission field working with

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A craft/science experiment day at our house for base and local kids

traumatized children. However, I believe that all Christians will experience loss and grief of their own at times and have to wrestle with how to grasp on to the perpetual joy that God has promised them. Also, all Believers are missionaries in their own spheres of influence. We’re surrounded by lost and broken souls who are hiding behind anger, pride, perfectionism, depression, apathy and a myriad of other masks. If we are to be Christ’s presence to the world, we must love the world, and if we are to love the world, we must immerse ourselves in other’s lives and pain, and if we are to take that step, we must be prepared both to grieve and to rejoice profoundly.

This post is a touch more theological than most that I write, but it’s a reflection of my heart. As always, we appreciate your support and prayers. We pray God both challenges and blesses you.  Thank you for reading.

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The Fifth Gospel

Salt and light… a light not hidden… a salt uncompromising…an understandable gospel for those who won’t read the the written Gospels.

Please, allow me to start by telling you a story.

Two nights ago in Arua, Uganda I was sitting with a new friend, Sheikh ***** **** Muhammad (for his protection we will refer to him simply as “Muhammad”). Muhammad was, a Sheikh (an authorized teacher of Islam) and has a wife and 15 children. His first-born is a Sheikh as well. In fact, his father, grandfather and so on for 5 generations have been Sheikhs.

Growing up he went to an Islamic school and eventually studied in a Shiite University in Kampala. Later he moved to Saudi Arabia where he taught as a Professor in the Sunni University for 17 years. After returning home, Muhammad, being a Sheikh, continued teaching Islam in his homeland of Uganda and developed quite a following. Until recently, that is. You see, Muhammad is now a Christian. He told me that one day, as he was out walking, a forum caught his attention. Christian missionary was explaining the difference between the Jesus of the Bible and the Jesus of the Koran. Muhammad heard and instinctively knew some of it for true. Inside his heart he yearned for the truth.

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“Josh” (the missionary) had said that Jesus was the Truth and that the Truth would set him free. That same day Muhammad secretly gave his life to Christ. Yet for two years, Muhammad lived publicly as a Sheikh who privately didn’t believe in what he taught. As I understood it, he finally felt that he couldn’t live that life anymore; it was hypocrisy. Only four days ago, he came out as a Christian. He told me that he could no longer put his light under a cover. “No.” he affirmed, “I must not be ashamed; no compromise.” Since publicly proclaiming Christ, all of his disciples have accepted the Lord which makes sixty in all, of all ages and races and all being former Muslims.

The day after his public proclamation, a car pulled up in front of a his home and the driver yelled, “Muhammad quick come here!” As he walked out the door, he was abducted. His mouth was taped and he was beaten and taken to a deserted place outside of the city and left for dead. “As I laid there I prayed, ‘Jesus You are still king.'” He told me. “And, as I was crying and praying, a woman came to me from out of nowhere. A woman came to me…Where did she some from? Where was she going? A woman came to me and she saved my life.” This woman took Muhammad to a hospital in Arua where he received medical treatment and was released.

This brings me to the day I met him. Sid (a YWAM buddy) said he wanted to take me to meet a guy he knew who had just been released from the hospital. We picked him up, took him to Sid’s house, made him food and encouraged him. He told us about how he would soon be returning to his home. Because, as he shared, “The time has come and there is a change in my City. They are ready for Christ.” He continued, “When I come back, many will see and not be afraid. Jesus will come with me…”

The former Sheikh had become uncompromising salt and light.

To better clarify for you what the Lord has been speaking to me over these past five weeks in Arua, Uganda, I have to tell you another story of another man, who I highly respect, of his pursuit of the Lord and for the way it transformed his family. It is a story of the change he made from being a passive Christian to a burning one.

Shane has set himself on fire with a passionate relationship with Jesus through His word, actions and prayer.

As he spoke with me he told me about a change that had occurred. Shane said, “I was living a compromised Christianity.” He shared how his family went to church every Sunday, how they invested time and money in the institution and were good people by American standards. But, something was missing. He had no burning desire for the Lord, and neither did his family. He made a conscientious decision to submit his whole life to the Lord and root out every compromise in his life and heart and to live a real gospel. He prioritized and completely reconstructed his daily life, right down to avoiding the TV shows he usually watched with his wife and kids. It didn’t happen overnight, but his family soon followed his example, seeing the Truth evident in his life. Him being that fifth gospel was more effective than a plethora of sermons on Sunday morning.

His story touched me. I met his family and I prayed my girls would grow to be as Godly as his children are, burning with love for Jesus and the world. I heard what people said about him and his family, that he was a man on on fire for Christ, that he was a man who lived the fifth gospel. As my wife and I visited with Shane and his family and they told us their story about how the power of Christ transformed a family when the the father and husband relentlessly strove to know Christ deeper and be more like Him, I was convicted and inspired.

Finally and briefly, I’ll tell you about a man whom I love dearly. He is like a second father to me and my children call him “Grandpa Dan.” His name is, of course, Dan. He is a salt spreader. I could write a book about what he means to me and all he has done to shape me, but I will save that perhaps for a later blog. Just know, he is a walking gospel.

This brings me to the point of writing this post. As I’ve been praying, and I’ve been praying a lot since I’ve been in Africa, the Lord is giving me direction, or vision, or perhaps a mission. I believe that the Lord is guiding me, guiding all of us in fact, to be the Fifth Gospel. This is nothing new but I’m just now getting a hold of it, or maybe he’s just giving me revelation in a way that I can understand. With some luck, the lesson He is teaching me can become revelation to others as well.

Here in Africa there are a lot of people who either can’t read or would never read the Bible: Muslims, witches, Hindus and even ex-pats. But everyone watches, observes, listens, weighs. What has he gained? they wonder. What has he given up? they ask themselves. Why is he here? Where has he come from? Does he live what he say he believes? Is this Christian like the Christ I heard about?

I see the story I’m about to share repeated in my own life. But where my story takes place in a refugee camp in Uganda, the following story takes place in Tanzania.

A group from my church in Wyoming, Family Life Church, went to Tanzania to fix wells and drill some new ones. When they arrived in one village they saw that a well which they had previously drilled was broken and in need of repair. Throughout the several days it took to repair the well, it seemed as though the the village has assigned a man to supervise them, if that’s what you could call it. As the team worked fixing the motor, putting up protection for the solar panels and making other repairs, they would stop from time to time and try engaging this man in conversation. He made no reply but instead just stood stoically by watching their every move. The man was part of the village group of elders with whom the US team had been working with for years. Even after drilling and putting in the well years ago and promising to stay in touch and help in whatever way they could, the elders of the village seemed skeptical and suspicious. However, after days of labor to repair their broken well as well as teaching locals how to keep it running and repair it themselves, the “supervisor” finally spoke, saying something rather astounding. He said, “Now I know that you are true and you are a man of your word. Now I can trust what you say.”

This has great implications for the gospel. It shows that the gospel message is often best received from men and women who are living the Gospel, speaking Gospel, and demonstrating the Gospel. They have salted the food; they have erected a lantern on a hill; they have not compromised or taken the easy way out. Instead, they conquered all obstacles to prove themselves true to their word which in turn gave validity to Christ.

 

This is what the Lord is teaching me about: embodying Jesus, being the salt, shining light in the darkest places and bearing peace and calm even when it’s hard. Even when I don’t get what I want, or when I’m afraid, or even when I feel like I am taking on a very large burden, it is for His sake.

The Word commands us to take up our cross daily and to do all things for the glory of God. This is my mission: to be light and salt; to be a Christ bearer, the fifth Gospel account; always ready to give the reason for the hope that I have in Christ that he may gain glory and that people may be saved. Just something on my heart. Thanks for reading and may God bless you.