Wrestling With Grief

Here’s a big, terrifying question that I’ve been asking myself lately: What is grief? What is mourning supposed to look like?

I’ve been wrestling with these huge ideas, struggling with colossal theological questions, and fighting to keep my footing in life while I figure out what grieving looks like. Man, this stuff is hard. The Lord’s been super active in this process, but I still feel like there’s part of the process I’m not getting. So, welcome in, let me walk you through what I’ve been dealing with these past few months.

A few months before my Dad passed, a good friend of mine introduced me to this crazy thing called the Enneagram test. As she described it, it was “more than a personality test,” and it “revealed your deepest flaws and darkest pain.” Sounds like a lighthearted conversation-starter to me. The deeper I looked into this thing, though, the more I started to like it. If you don’t know already, the Enneagram is actually a personality typing test with 9 main character types, each one containing specific positive character traits and the deeply-rooted issues that go along with those. With character tests like these, it can sometimes be difficult to not find your identity in what the test says your identity is. Above all, our identity is in Christ, and we’re ever-shifting, ever-learning creatures who gain wisdom and change our ways as we grow older. But with that in mind, the Enneagram’s been teaching me a ton about myself lately.

I’m a Seven on the test, also known as The Enthusiast. Makes sense. There’s some rad good things about Sevens, but I care a lot more about the crappy stuff and how I can get better. A Seven is typically someone who fills up their schedule, who does a lot of different activities to keep themselves busy. The test would say that they do this so they purposefully don’t ever get a chance to slow down and feel hard emotions. This is very true of me. Sevens, even if they talk about deep thoughts and emotions, struggle to feel them deeply when they’re on their own. I had never really realized this before. Armed with this new insight into my character, I set out with a thrilling new goal for myself: take time to be sad! Yes! Everything about that seems counterintuitive to me, but here’s the thing: if I never deal with the hard-hitting emotions of losing my Dad, they’re going to come back up later on. I’ve got to face these head on, but it all just seems so terrifying and messy.

I’ve been going through Job in the past few weeks. Job gets everything torn away from him, and most of the 40-something chapter book is about him complaining to the Lord, and rightfully so. Job has some incredible friends, who walk with him through all of his pain, and I’m grateful to be able to say I have the same types of friends in my life. What I’ve realized about Job, though, is that (no offense buddy,) he’s kind of an idiot. That’s a harsh word, but he is completely blinded by his pain and in the first part of the book, believes that God is infinitely angry with him, and although Job says he’s never sinned, God still crushes him. In Chapter 10, verses 16-18, Job says:

16 If I hold my head high, you stalk me like a lion
    and again display your awesome power against me.
17 You bring new witnesses against me
    and increase your anger toward me;
    your forces come against me wave upon wave.

18 “Why then did you bring me out of the womb?
    I wish I had died before any eye saw me.

Job, understandably, is extremely frustrated with the Lord because Job did nothing to deserve the vast amounts of destruction that have been dealt his way. I relate to Job here in some sense: I find myself frustrated with the Lord, but instead of becoming angry, I normally rationalize my sadness or try to distract myself. Typical behavior of a Seven. I’ve realized some crucial things from Job. Righteous anger is not only okay, but important in the grieving process. I’ve heard some people say that questioning God is wrong, but I don’t really think that’s true. Wrestling with what God’s doing helps us to understand His character more and grow closer to Him. When Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, He questioned God, He asked if there was another way. Wrestling with the things God does is an okay thing, but it’s not okay when you start to believe He doesn’t know best, or start to believe He enjoys pain, or worse, start to believe God can’t be real at all because of our pain. Those are lies. We can wrestle with the why of God’s actions, but we have to retain the understanding that he is absolutely sovereign.

Job’s friends give him some advice that give him real perspective on the issue, but he struggles a lot to see their point. I think that’s where Job struggles so much, he can’t keep his frustrations in perspective and starts to question whether God is good at all. In Chapter 11, verses 7-9, Job’s friend Zophar says:

“Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
    Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
    They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know?
Their measure is longer than the earth
    and wider than the sea.

And later, in Chapter 15, another friend says:

11 Are God’s consolations not enough for you,
    words spoken gently to you?
12 Why has your heart carried you away,
    and why do your eyes flash,
13 so that you vent your rage against God
    and pour out such words from your mouth?

These are pieces of deep wisdom that I’ve taken to heart recently. As a Seven, I’ve been trying to spend intentional time going to be by myself, letting myself slow down, playing my guitar, and talking to the Lord. I’ve been dwelling in truths like this, but also wrestling with what the Lord’s doing, and my place and job in that. And that’s been really good time. I’ve learned to enjoy feeling hard emotions, and I’ve become more comfortable just talking with the Lord and trying to figure out His character more and more.

There’s a crippling truth that I’ve been trying to come to grips with throughout this process. Here’s the dilemma: I believe that God is capable of doing anything and everything that is possible, and that He alone is in charge of the Universe. I also believe that God is good, and that He delights in pure good and never in evil. Furthermore, I believe God uses everything for His and our good. So, I’m forced to come to this conclusion: God could have let my Dad live, and he could have been glorified an equal amount a different way. That’s the fact of the matter: God could’ve done things differently. And I don’t know why He didn’t, and I wish I did. Thinking about God in this sense and questioning Him in these ways sometimes makes me feel like He’s more abstract than He really is, and that doesn’t help anything either.

I relate to Job in another way: Job just wants to be frustrated with the Lord sometimes, and when his friends try to point him to God, he’s super annoyed. In Chapter 16, Job says to a friend:

“I have heard many things like these;
    you are miserable comforters, all of you!
Will your long-winded speeches never end?

When I talk to someone who’s going through a difficult situation, and they are talking about how lost they feel, confused, etc, I want to instantly help them by just saying something easy and cliche, like “Yeah, but God is good.” True. God is good, for sure. But, the person who I’m talking to surely knows this fact the whole time, and I haven’t healed their hearts by telling them some platitude about our Creator. Job’s friends sat with him in pain and anguish for 7 days straight before saying a word. I always love talking about the Lord, but maybe sometimes it’s just as effective to sit with one another in pain, and just soak in each other’s difficulties.

So, grief. I think grief is a messy, muddy process. Grief, I think, is something that you need to feel alone, but that you also need to involve close friends in. This process includes solitude and reflection, and lots of time wrestling with the Lord. Sometimes, that means asking big questions, and a lot of times that means being purely frustrated with God. That’s okay, but it doesn’t mean losing sight of who we’re worshipping day in and day out. I’m absolutely certain God is willing to sit with us in silence and feel our pain in unison with us. After all, we have a Creator who wept when a friend of his died. Jesus went through everything we go through in this wild human experience, and that is eternally comforting.

In other news in my life, I leave for Stuttgart, Germany in 18 days. That is wild, and I’m so excited to be joining my friends in planting a new campus of Trinity Church out there! Also, this Summer I’ve committed to work at a surf camp in the Outer Banks, Surf Hatters, as a film/video guy. Plenty of rad, joyful things coming up fast in life, but right now I’m taking time to just rest. I am terrible at rest; most Sevens are. Figures.

More updates will come as I head to Germany, so keep an eye out for that! Hope this post encourages you. To the King!

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Light After Darkness

I’ve never understood Heaven very well. I don’t think any of us will really understand it until we’re Home, because all this broken Earth offers us are reflections of light through a dim and cracked mirror. A few days ago, though, my Dad finally got to witness the full picture. He got to see his Creator completely. It’s hard to picture exactly what that glorious reunion looked like, but I keep thinking about the story of the prodigal son, how the Father runs out to the son and wraps his arms around him and throws a huge feast for him. I imagine that’s how Jesus greeted my Dad when he finally got there, he ran up, he wrapped his arms around him, and with tears of joy in his eyes, whispered “Well done, my son. Well done.”

The past few days have been a hurricane of emotions. Honestly, we feel a lot of relief that my Dad’s not in pain any more, relief that he’s home. There’s joy in that fact too, a lot of joy. But, because we’re human, there’s also a lot of sadness and sorrow. There’s weariness, confusion, and pain. I stumbled across some powerful scripture later on in the day when he passed. Psalm 116 says:

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
    he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
    I will call on him as long as I live.

The cords of death entangled me,
    the anguish of the grave came over me;
    I was overcome by distress and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    Lord, save me!”

The Lord is gracious and righteous;
    our God is full of compassion.
The Lord protects the unwary;
    when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return to your rest, my soul,
    for the Lord has been good to you.

 

And, man, the Lord certainly has been good to us. We’ve seen so many remarkable stories of people encouraged and touched by my Dad. One of my Dad’s best friends and colleagues prayed with my Dad and started a relationship with Jesus while my Dad was on his deathbed. That is wild. Jesus is freakin wild. In the past few days, we’ve been sharing a lot of stories like that. My family and I have been recounting a lot of funny old stories about my Dad, laughing together, remembering him together. There’s so many things I’m thankful for with my time with my Dad, and those eighteen years of influence he had on me will never wear off. I’ll be telling my kids and my grandkids stories about this goofy, humble, incredible man.

So here we are, right at the intersection of sorrow and joy, loss and growth, fear and hope. I’m not sure what mourning and grief will look like exactly, but I know it’ll take time. Take time to figure out how to get back to normal life, take time to not be sad about it anymore, take time to see the full effects of it. And that time is critical, there’s no rushing grief. If there’s one thing I learned in the past 50 days my Dad’s been in the hospital, it’s that the Lord uses waiting. He uses waiting, because as agonizing and distressing as it can be, it builds faith and trust like nothing else. The Lord knows that if we can trust Him in times of silence, pain, in long, drawn-out times of sorrow, then we’ll trust Him anywhere. He made the Israelites wait in the desert, Noah wait for the flood. Heck, we’re still waiting for Jesus to come back to Earth. In all of these situations of waiting though, God has promised us greater things on the other side. He’s told us that good will come, that it’s worth waiting for, and that He always keeps his promises. And that’s why we can wait in the first place, because of that hope for greater things. Hope, after all, is much stronger than fear. Romans 5:3-4 says,

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…

Hope is the pearl in the oyster, hope is the diamond in the rough, hope is starlight on the black canvas of night. People ask us often how we can get through loss like this, and the answer is simply hope. Jesus is our hope, Heaven is our hope. Without hope in those things, life feels meaningless and mediocre. There’s a song by Kings Kaleidoscope called Light After Darkness, and it talks about metaphors for Jesus and for hope. The lyrics go like this:

You’re light after darkness, gain after loss,
Strength after weakness, crown after cross,
Sweet after bitter, hope after fear,
Home after wandering, praise after tears.
Seeds after sowing, sun after rain,
Sight after mystery, peace after pain,
Joy after sorrow, calm after blast,
Rest after weariness, sweet rest at last.

Give me the hope of tomorrow, give me the strength for today,
You are the promise of peace on my pathway to faith.

Near after distant , gleam after gloom,
Love after loneliness, life after tomb,
After the agony, rapture of bliss,
Glory awaits beyond the abyss.

All of those statements are so true about Jesus and about our hope. No matter what we go through, we have hope waiting on the other side. There’s nothing more comforting than that fact.

Here’s the thing though: because we’re human, our emotions run strong and heavy. All we know is Earth, and so when someone leaves this place, we can’t help but feel great loss and sorrow. This grieving won’t be easy, our walk will be peppered with doubt and confusion, and life will be really, really hard without my Dad here. Our mourning and recovery won’t be wrapped up and packaged neatly, it won’t be clean, it won’t be fun. But then I think about this guy Jesus who we spend our whole lives trying to figure out, spend our whole lives trying to follow and honor, and I think about how my Dad is with him now, finally. There’s nothing left to figure out, the light is shining directly onto him. And that gives us hope, that image, and the image of us joining them some day soon. More than anything else in the world, Jesus is our hope.

We’ve also been blessed with some purely incredible friends throughout this whole thing. All of you guys have been encouraging and selfless in loving us. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but I think it takes two villages to lose one. I’m thankful for each and every one of you.

I’ll leave you with this incredible, constantly true verse from 2 Corinthians 4:

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Daily we’re made new, daily we have hope. Don’t lose heart, my friends, because this world isn’t the end, and someday we’ll stand face-to-face with the Creator of the Universe too, just like my Dad is. At long last, Home.

 

Rivers in the Wasteland

The thing with having a terminal sickness is that you pretty much know when you’re close to death. The pain’s still there, but you start to see the glorious light spilling through the cracks from the other side a little more clearly. This place where you start to catch glimpses of Heaven is a place of hope for what’s next, but also a place of sadness because it’s come time to leave family and friends behind, along with the rest of the world. It’s right here in this place that my Dad is now in. 2 Timothy 4:6-7 was shared by our good friends the Coates today, and I think my Dad can look back on his life and say that this verse rings true through it all:

“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

I want to be clear here, and tell you that my Dad probably only has a few days to live, maybe a week or two. He’s pretty much ready to go. And honestly, we’re ready for him to go too, because we know he’ll be meeting his Maker. His intestines have stopped working, he can’t have any nutrients, and so very soon the rest of his body will start to shut down. It’s possible that there will be a miracle, and God could definitely still do that, but God’s also made it pretty clear that this is my Dad’s time to go. It’s also really clear where he’s going after earth, though. And that’s a comforting fact. It’s this weird collision of emotions and truth, the truth being that he’s about to be free from pain and totally free from sin, and so that should be a really happy and joyful thing. Of course, death isn’t really all that, because we’re human. And so our emotions kick in and we realize that we’re not gonna see him for awhile, and he’s not gonna be around when we need him. And that’s super hard. The mind seems to disagree with the heart when death is close, like they’re at odds with each other. And the trouble is, the heart and it’s emotions usually find their way to the surface a lot more often.

There’s a lot of things we’ll miss about my Dad. There’s a few things I would’ve loved for him to be a part of, like my years at James Madison, or for him to have been at my wedding. I would’ve loved to go on a few more adventures with him, but you know what? That’s not what the Lord has in mind, and He’s in charge here. So who am I to stand in His way? Of course it’s okay to be sad, and grief and mourning will come, and that’s okay, that’s really important. It’ll get harder, too, once it really starts to sink in. Through it all, though, we can cry out, like 1 Corinthians 15:55, and say,

“Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

Because Jesus is victorious over death. This is not the end.

I don’t really think we could’ve asked for better time with my Dad. His heart rubbed off on all of the family, and man, he taught me a lot. How to ride a bike, how to drive stick-shift, how to shave. He’s taught me how to be faithful, how to treat women respectfully. How to work diligently, how to love people, even when they don’t love back. How to use every opportunity to share the gospel. Really, how to live completely like Jesus. There’s no doubt that my Dad will be leaving a remarkable legacy, one that will have a ripple effect for generations and generations. It’s been incredible to hear different powerful stories of how my Dad touched people’s lives, starting with how he was really one of the first to guide my Mom in deepening her faith with the Lord and helping her craft it into what it is today. He’s done that with me too, and all of our family.

Here’s the good news: God’s gonna use his death for good here on earth. We’ve been talking about a lot of scripture lately, but my buddy William sent me some verses that have been particularly meaningful. Isaiah 43:16-19 (MSG) says;

This is what God says,
    the God who builds a road right through the ocean,
    who carves a path through pounding waves,
The God who summons horses and chariots and armies…
“Forget about what’s happened;
    don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
    It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?
There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,
    rivers in the badlands.

And also, Isaiah 41:17-20,

“The poor and homeless are desperate for water,
    their tongues parched and no water to be found.
But I’m there to be found, I’m there for them,
    and I, God of Israel, will not leave them thirsty.
I’ll open up rivers for them on the barren hills,
    spout fountains in the valleys.
I’ll turn the baked-clay badlands into a cool pond,
    the waterless waste into splashing creeks.
I’ll plant the red cedar in that treeless wasteland,
    also acacia, myrtle, and olive.
I’ll place the cypress in the desert,
    with plenty of oaks and pines.
Everyone will see this. No one can miss it—
    unavoidable, indisputable evidence
That I, God, personally did this.
    It’s created and signed by The Holy of Israel.

There’s gonna be streams running through the badlands. Or, as NeedToBreathe puts it, rivers in the wasteland. Here, where there’s death and sadness, God is putting in a flowing river; good things in the midst of this turmoil. We have life-giving water, and beautiful trees and flowers are going to spring up from those rivers and streams. And the Lord says that no one will be able to deny that His hands were in it from the start, that he is working to see this thing through so that all the glory will be His.

I’ve been able to have some really meaningful conversations with my Dad the past few days. We’ve been talking about what Heaven will be like, who he’ll be able to see, how he’ll finally be Home. He is gonna be home. Home, at last, after all this complete crap here on earth, he’ll finally have pure joy and peace. He’s gonna be sitting next to the King at His table, like Mephibosheth in 2 Samuel 9. Mephib is Saul’s grandson, and when David becomes King and takes over the throne from Saul, Saul’s son had been a great friend of David’s. That son was Mephib’s father, and so David wants to repay him. Mephibosheth is crippled, and is looked down upon like scum on the bottom of a shoe. King David finds him anyway, and tells him that for the rest of Mephib’s life, he will eat with David and all of his royal family at the King’s table. And that’s exactly how it is with us and our King, Jesus. We’re crippled by sin and disease, and he calls us to eat with Him forevermore anyway. The best part is, when you’re sitting down at a table, you’re at the same level with the King, and your crippled feet are out of sight. Jesus heals those crippled legs and lets us sit with Him and feast, and that’s where my Dad will be very soon.

You know, it’s not exactly a tragedy, this whole thing. What if our time here on earth is like our time in our mother’s womb, and we don’t want to come out because we haven’t experienced what’s next yet? Life will certainly be hard without Dad. But how freakin great is it to know he’s gonna be home free? That thought alone will be a stream flowing in the middle of our desert, bringing comfort on the hardest days.

My family and I are so very thankful for every friend who’s been supporting us along this journey. We appreciate all of you guys so so much. Thanks for everything. I’m thankful for my closest friends who would answer a call at any time of day and have been praying for us relentlessly, who constantly offer love, wisdom, and joy.

One of my favorite things about my Dad has always been his laugh. We used to watch The Office together, all of our family together, and he would laugh so big and so loud. He has a booming, contagious laugh, and I haven’t heard it in a while because he’s had so little energy. I’m gonna miss that laugh. Every time I hear it, though, I can’t help but grin ear-to-ear and laugh along. I think when he reaches Heaven, he and Jesus are gonna be sharing some great big belly laughs, and they’ll both be grinning ear-to-ear, finally in perfect relationship with each other.

I’m thankful for these last few days I’ll have with my Dad. I’m thankful I know where my Dad’s going after he leaves earth. I’m thankful that our God will bring good things up from this painful time, like rivers flowing through the wastelands. I’m thankful for a Creator that will take care of us when my Dad is long gone, and when the earth is nothing but rubble. And I’m thankful that one day, I’m sure I’ll get to see my Dad again.

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The Birds and the Steves

When relationships are centered around Christ, it’s easy for those relationships to grow real deep, real fast. All of my closest friends have one thing in common: a shared passion for the Lord. I really think the love of Christ in us helps us to bond with each other in wild ways, and these past two weeks were no exception. The kind, gracious folks of Winterveld showed me the type of love it takes to have those deep friendships, and it was incredible.

Winterveld is a quieter village than the last place I stayed, and the community was closely-knit and welcomed me warmly. There’s a whole cast of characters who helped make my stay awesome, so let me lay them out for you. Firstly, there’s Pastor George, the head Pastor of Born Again (also called Faith Restoration.) Next, there’s Mdu, who I stayed with. Mdu lives with his family: Mama, Tshepo, and Mpumi. When Mdu wasn’t around, I spent the days with Pastor Steve #1. Now, there’s two Steves at Born Again Church; Steve #1 is who I spent the most time with, he’s a junior pastor and has 5 daughters and is on his 30th year of marriage, to a kind woman named Mildred. Steve #2 is also a junior pastor at the church, and he teaches at a local high school. Both Steves are incredible men who I grew close with, but I spent more time with Steve #1.

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We went on some wild adventures during my time in Winterveld. On the very first day, we went out and finished demolishing an altar to the enemy on Pastor George’s family farm. I knew I was in for a powerful two weeks when that was the first thing we did!

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A few nights, we pitched a huge tent in an empty field and threw a “revival” where the community came together to worship, and pastors came to share the gospel. I witnessed both Steves give powerful messages on the Good News, and over 20 people start relationships with Christ in just a few days.

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I realized something just before I came out to Winterveld. I realized that sometimes I’m afraid of deep relationships with people from different cultures. I worry that I’ll offend them, or that we won’t be able to grow closer because our lives are just so different. But those fears are lies, Jesus has given us the ability to love one another regardless of where we come from or what language we speak. And once I started to grasp that, I started to dig in and buckle-up, I knew that the Lord would help me have deep relationships without holding back. Mdu was the first person I grew close with in Winterveld.

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I spent a lot of my time with Mdu, who’s 28 and a strong leader with a firm faith. The second day I was in Winterveld, Mdu took me on a 5-hour walking tour of the town, with pit stops at multiple friends’ houses, a phone-battery store, a raging river, and a police station. You see, Mdu is the head of the community’s volunteer police force, so he’s well-respected by the employed policemen of the area. Mdu also holds a job at a Pick-n-Pay grocery store, a South African chain, but unfortunately the taxi ride is two hours long and pretty expensive. Mdu is a pretty serious guy, but as we grew closer I got to see some humor peek through. Almost every morning we had a devotion together, we prayed for each other, we shared impactful scripture. That’s when we grew closest, when we were vulnerable with each other about our fears and weaknesses and talked about our God who was greater than those things. I think it always takes vulnerability to have a deep relationship, vulnerability and a shared faith.

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Mdu and I had a conversation that went like this after I’d been there a few days. Mdu turned, stared me down, and said to me, “Sam, you know what I don’t like about you?” “No, Mdu, please tell me what you don’t like about me,” I said. “Whenever I offer you something, you say you’re fine,” he replied. And he was right. As an American, I feel like my first instinct whenever someone offers me something is to say, “No thanks, I’m fine!” If someone offers me a drink and I’m completely parched, I might still say I’m just fine. I think we do this to be “polite.” It’s “polite” not to accept something readily in the States. But also, it’s a pride thing. Because when I admit I need something, I’m admitting that I cannot do life on my own, and that hurts my fragile pride. So I said to Mdu, “Yeah, you’re right man, let’s talk about that,” and we talked for awhile.

The next day, I went over to Steve #1’s place. Pastor George met us over there, and those two guys are full of wisdom and stories of faith. So I told them about my conversation with Mdu, and they helped me realize the problem. I was conditioned to respond in this American “politeness,” but in African culture, I was being straight-up rude. I mean, seriously, this American refusal of stuff to be polite is so backwards, and I was frustrated with myself over it. When someone sincerely offers you something kind, even when it costs them something greatly, why shouldn’t I accept it? And then it hit me. I do this with the Lord all the time. Jesus is offering this free gift of grace, and whenever I sin and mess up, usually my first reaction is to feel guilty and think, “Well, next time I’ll try harder.” No! It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I’ll always fail without the Lord. Just like I think I don’t need other peoples gifts to make it in life, I tell God I don’t need his grace to make it. We can’t let our pride be too big to accept God’s help, and for that matter, we all need to stop refusing stuff to be “polite.”

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I’m thankful for the wisdom and grace of Steve #1 for wrestling over this issue with me. Steve and his wife were so caring and generous towards me, and one of the most impactful things that happened over my trip was when he told me the Spirit had really put it on his heart to spend time in prayer for my Dad and his cancer. So he and I sat down together in his living room and poured our hearts out to our sweet Creator, knowing that He’s got everything in control. When we looked up, all of Steve’s incredible family had also gathered into the room and were praying with us. I looked over and gave Mildred a big smile, and I got a little choked up at how sincerely caring she is.

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I can’t emphasize enough how incredible the people of Winterveld are. They are all so full of faith and strength. Mildred and Steve have been married for over 30 years, and they have five daughters. Their middle child has sever epilepsy and is now on medication, but they told me stories of the hardships they faced in raising her. They understood the difficulties of dealing with sickness in someone they loved, and were constantly willing to surrender everything to the Lord. We talked about James 5:15-16, which says,

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well, the Lord will raise him up…the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

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If you guys aren’t aware, the past few week have been tough for my Dad, and my family’s been hurting some. He’s had some hard news and his pain is increasing, things are not looking so good. Recently, he wrote in a post that:

Many times we have thought: “I think we’ve learned enough through this trial, God. We are ready for you to take it away.” Maybe we have and maybe we haven’t learned enough, but the perspective needs to be: if our great God and Creator be glorified through this, then let Him continue to be lifted up! Oh, what a very hard concept to commit to!

It is definitely a tough concept, and being out in Winterveld these past few weeks I wrestled with this even more. But I think that we’ve just gotta surrender everything to God, we’ve gotta admit that we can’t do any of this on our own. We have to accept the free gifts and grace God is giving us, and know that God’s gonna take care of us no matter what.

There’s many more stories and lessons from these past few weeks that still need to be told, but I think this is enough for one blog post. I hope you’ll be encouraged by these people who are willing to lay their lives down for each other regardless of their circumstances, and I hope you take to heart the idea of accepting God’s grace without letting our pride get in the way. Thanks for reading this update!

I’ll leave you with a few last photos from this awesome village.

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There’s definitely a common theme of pastors napping in these villages…

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We basically each had a 2 liter of Coke every day. Thumbs down for health.

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Every day, meals get passed out to about 50 kids at the church after school, whether they regularly attend or not. Just another way of showing tangible love to the community.

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Mildred almost never misses a day at the feeding program.

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Here’s Steve #2, preaching at his high school before he teaches class.Winterveld-185.jpg

 

Pastor George preaching.

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Steve #1 and I.

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Goofiness at the creche.

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Mdu and I on the last day, in my favorite last-day outfit. Love this guy.

Ps. there are no outstanding birds to be mentioned in this post. I just thought the name was really funny.

Life with Pastor Silas

Life’s different in the townships here. Because fully-developed and under-resourced areas are so close together, you can drive twenty minutes down any highway and you’re in a different world. The atmosphere shifts when you’re out in the villages of South Africa; the pace of life slows down, and a sense of community becomes stronger. Everyone knows each other in the townships, and everyone is looking out for one another. It may be that electricity isn’t standard, running water is a rarity, and violence is more of an issue; but still community thrives, and churches play a major role in bringing that community together and pointing them in the right direction.

I spent the past week and a half with Pastor Silas of Rock of Ages Living Church in Mmotla, a township located about 30 minutes outside of Pretoria. I stayed with his family; Maria, the Pastor’s wife, who spends her days taking care of children at their daycare, and their two kids, Botlhale, who’s 17 and working his way through high school, and Bontle, who’s 21. They graciously let me stay in their house, and they continuously showed me kindness in the form of delicious home-cooked meals and lots of laughter together.

Pastor Silas and I embarked on a wide range of adventures during my stay; we went on a handful of taxi rides, we ventured through a wild blackmarket, we took half of the engine out of his car for repairs, we went to see a family for a memorial service, and Silas let me share at his church service and their Bible study. We also got into a good bit of trouble together, like forgetting to bring money to buy a coldrink (soda) and getting partially lost in a taxi in a different village. Silas and I grew close, and I was able to experience a totally different side of South Africa because I didn’t have a team of Americans with me at all times. At first I was a little scared and uncomfortable to be on my own, but it proved a joyful experience that taught me a few things about this country, about the Lord, about Silas, and about myself.

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Here’s a picture of Pastor Silas after we spent a while working on his car engine the first time with friend and secret-mechanic, Louis. Shortly after I took this picture, we all ate ice cream together and told stories, laughing a lot.

I found a really meaningful routine every day through watering a huge garden behind Silas’s church. Each morning we’d walk across the street together around 7:00, and I’d get the hose out and spend the next hour or two watering the plants and listening to worship music. Normally Pastor Silas waters the garden in the mornings, but I helped him out with the task while I was there.

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I think God starting teaching me things through that garden. It was really satisfying to see the plants grow more and more throughout the week, and I started to realize how similar that garden is to community as a whole. In order to build a strong and fruitful community, you have to pour into it daily, like watering thirsty plants. A few days out of the week, I would go around and pick up the trash that had blown into the garden over night. Like community, and like our own souls, we can’t leave our trash and sin lying around haphazardly. We have to learn to get better and to clean up.

After I finished watering the greenery, I found a cool, shady spot against the church and spent time reading the Word and writing. Then most days I’d help Silas and Maria at their daycare, which is called a creche here. The creche meets at their church, and usually they have about 75 kids between the ages of 2 and 6 years old. Silas and Maria both strive to teach kids thoroughly in different areas of learning while keeping the activities fun. Pastor Silas taught the children about the seasons one day (it’s Spring here) and they colored pictures of birds. Silas had them practice English and Tswana (the local language) while they showed each other their pictures, working on skills like speaking and social interactions, as well as basic art skills and knowledge of colors.

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When the kids weren’t learning from Silas and Maria, they would play, eat, or just make strange loud noises. They were all very interested in me also, and it took me a few days to get them to stop calling me lekgoa, which is a derogatory term for white person. They’re all so sweet though, and it’s great for them to be in a loving and warm environment like the creche, because the same can’t always be said about their home environments. I spent a good amount of time playing with kids, but they mostly were interested in feeling my leg hair, which is totally foreign to them.

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Here’s Maria, teaching kids about Spring and the flowers that are starting to bloom around the area.

We spent a few hot afternoons working on Pastor Silas’s car. Well, I didn’t really work on it, it was mostly Louis. But I was always there when we’d take breaks and eat ice cream- for moral support, of course.

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At the end of the day, Silas and I would usually sit outside his house and enjoy the temperature dropping and the wind picking up. It’s here that we would have deep, heart-felt conversations about life and the Lord, and our struggles. We’d talk while we looked out over a tree that stood alone in his yard, and we would watch the powerful red African sun disappear in the distance. Then, the sky would change in hue from blues to oranges to pinks and violets and then finally fade into darkness. The stars would start to peek into view, like someone was poking holes through a sprawling colorful blanket. Eventually darkness would fall completely, and there’d be no more holes to poke in the night. In these special moments, Pastor Silas shared his heart with me, and we talked about things like his preaching and his family, and spiritual warfare that he’s fighting in his community. I would tell him about struggling to be away from home and keeping my heart present in South Africa, and he’d share wisdom. Those evenings sitting under the sky were some of my favorite times of out of the whole week.

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My experiences with Silas offered me a glimpse of life that I had never seen before. I was able to see how dedicated he is to his church and his community and the children at the creche, and hear stories of intense spiritual warfare, the likes of which I had never heard firsthand before. Pastor Silas and I spent a lot of time speaking about the Spirit, and Silas talked about how the Spirit is a “He” and not an “It,” and how the Spirit looks in daily life. Silas also has an incredible amount of joy, even when he’s in the face of hardship, like someone smashing all of the windows in his church. He showed me that joy is not circumstantial, but it’s a state of the heart that relies solely on the Lord’s goodness.

This just being my first week spent in a township, I’m stoked to get to spend more time with Silas and other pastors, and learn more about the Lord and life in these villages. At this point, I’ve also spent more time in the townships than I have in the first-world city, which is a cool accomplishment. In the next few weeks, I’ll be working on a few photography and graphic design projects, visiting a few different townships on day trips. Then, hopefully in early October, I’ll spend another two weeks or so with a different pastor and his family. More updates will follow soon, and thanks for keeping up with the ministry going on here!

Here’s a few more pictures from the past week.

RockOfAges(resized)-7.jpgPastor Silas’s house.

RockOfAges(resized)-15.jpgPure mischief at the creche.

RockOfAges(resized)-22.jpgThe Pastor after preaching, dressed in his Sunday best.

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RockOfAges(resized)-29.jpgSilas getting the fire ready for a Braai, or Barbecue.

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Arrived in South Africa!

So, I’m wrapping up my first week here in South Africa, and it’s been absolutely incredible.

My flights last Monday and Tuesday were smooth and easy. I had a layover in the Amsterdam airport, which is basically a giant IKEA, and then when I arrived in South Africa, where my entry was completely problem-free. There’s a lot of paperwork minors have to fill out beforehand to enter the country, and when I reached passport security, the officer didn’t even give those papers a look.

I’ve been really blessed by my host family, John and Myrtle, as they’ve taken great care of me and offered me a gracious amount of space to myself. They live in a safe, spacious home in Pretoria, and I’ll be here a few nights a week or so. They make me feel like I’m part of the family. I have my own car to use, and I’ve quickly adjusted to driving on the left side of the road while sittingon the right side. A ton of the drivers, especially the taxi drivers, are wild here, so I fit right in on the road.

On Friday I ventured out into the townships for the first time since I’ve been here. I went with a kind man named Julian who works for Abba’s Pride, and we delivered food to a few daycares out in the townships. These villages are so different than anything we’re used to in the States. Poverty takes grip of communities like a disease, and violence follows. It’s a vicious, tragic cycle. As we drove along, we passed people selling fish and fruits and vegetables on the side of the road, and we drove by houses made of thin scrap metal. We passed an internet cafe inside of a shipping crate, and a KFC in a tiny brick building in the center of a township. Julian and I talked about the state of the country and the effects of poverty.

The important thing to realize about poverty is that it’s much more than just a lack of material goods. Poverty is an emotional and psychological position of despair and lacking, and a feeling of helplessness and unworthiness. Short-term missions come to places like this often, and sometimes they give the locals clothes or money or food, or they paint a playground or build a well, and they don’t have the locals help any. When outsiders come in and help a community, especially if they weren’t asked for help, a lot of times they just hurt the locals more because the outsider confirms the idea that someone in poverty can’tdo it on their own after all. The feeling of helplessness is confirmed, no matter the good intentions. We spent time studying this dilemma and watching videos on the book When Helping Hurts that covers this topic.

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With that in mind, Abba’s Pride works hard to equip pastors and teachers to lead their communities better themselves in the long run. Lonnie, with his wife Debbie, started Abba’s Pride, and they both work full time for the organization. Their daughter Becca and her husband Josiah are also full-time workers, along with a few others. The ministry takes great care to help townships alongside locals, making sure that the locals have skin in the game in big projects, and making sure that locals can take over projects and do it on their own after a while. I feel really blessed to be part of such an awesome ministry.

Lonnie and I drove out to visit Pastor George in a township called Winterveld. On the Pastor’s family land, we spent time with locals and helped work on a project: putting a high quality water well and tank in place for irrigation of the Pastor’s upcoming farm. Right now, the family land is just huge empty land, but Pastor George has 11 families involved in starting a community farm, with each family taking care of their own section. The land has been in the family since 1982 or so, and some of Pastor George’s aunts and uncles live there now. I spent a lot of time with one family member, named Sully, and we talked for awhile and then went on a walk with his goats.SA17-1.jpgA few generations ago, George’s family had a witchdoctor come to their land, and he and the family built an altar to the devil there. There’s a lot of ancestral worship in South Africa, so at the altar they buried bones and teeth of their ancestors, and the witchdoctor planted a single rose atop the altar. He told the family that every week the rose would need to have a blood sacrifice to stay alive, a sacrifice from a goat, or else evil would come on the family. So they would make a sacrifice weekly, and George told me that the first week his family didn’t do this, one family member actually died. So the land had been cursed for a long time, but Pastor George was the first in his family to become a Christian, and other family members followed suit. Last week, Pastor George called his family together and they decided that the altar must come down. So they prayed and prayed and then dug up and destroyed the altar and all the bones with it. They prayed over the land more afterwards, and he told me that at first he and his family were scared something bad might happen. But nothing happened, and his confidence in the Lord grew. Pastor George told me, “Now, we believe that this family is free, and free forever, even the generations to come.”

 

It was really awesome to go out and see God working here in such tangible ways. I’m really thankful for Pastor George and his story, and he kindly let me film him telling the story. It’s really cool to be a part of something like this that we know will bring the Lord lots of praise, and I’m really excited to put that project together and share more of what the Lord is doing.

1 John 3:16-18 says;

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

This is a really incredible verse, and I’ve been praying that I would keep a selfless, serving attitude, knowing that Christ first laid down his life for me. Here I’m truly getting the opportunity to love with actions, and I’m able to speak truth into people’s lives and share stories through photography. I think all of us get a little too comfortable just loving with words and not actions.

Tomorrow, I’m headed to a village to stay with a pastor, Pastor Silas, for two weeks straight. I’m really stoked to just do life with him, and be totally immersed in a township like that. I’m sure I’ll have stories to tell and pictures to share when I get back to my host home!

So until then, live loved and love well my friends.

Shifting of Seasons

I’m about to enter a new season. I know a lot of us are. Some of us are moving to college, saying goodbye to possibly the only home we’ve ever known. Others are heading back to high school or middle school, or back to our jobs, starting a new year with newfound struggles. Still others may be heading into or out of tense emotional seasons, or seasons of shifting communities and relationships. I’ve always felt like this time of year specifically is a time of a lot of changing seasons. So, in this final blog post before I enter a completely new time in my life, I wanted to write about the importance of seasons.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 says:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

Virginia Beach is comfortable to me. It always has been, it’s where my family and my best friends are, it’s where I know my way around, it’s where I grew up; it’s home. But if I’ve been in a season of living at home, that season is coming to a close. And something the Lord’s been teaching my friends and I lately is that we need to keep our hands open throughout change, being okay with not being in control. I can’t hold on to home forever, and like Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for everything. I have to keep a loose grip on the things I’m comfortable with, because they’re starting to shift. I bet for a lot of you, you’re going through the same.

Josh Garrels has a song about seasons changing. It’s called Rejoice & Lament, and it goes like this:

Learn this lesson well, my friend
There’s a time to rejoice and lament
Every season will find an end
All will fade and be made new again

There’s a lot of truth there; season change and we need to be alright with that. But seasons are not permanent, like Josh says, every season will find an end, and all will be made new again.

In another song, called Season of Rain, he says:

Praise the Lord, when it’s all gone wrong
Everything fades but our love shines on
Praise the Lord, when your hope is gone
Everything fades but our love shines on

You might be in a season of hardship, or you might just be entering a season of newness. But something that’s crucial to remember is that God is in control of these seasons, and He who knows what’s best for us uses seasons to build our faith. He uses seasons of hardship and pain to fortify our faiths, building it deeper and stronger, so we can come out of that season trusting the Lord more. Other times, He uses fruitful seasons to give us a glimpse of Heaven, encouraging us to push on in our journeys.

What we have to remember about seasons, although they can be used to bring good, they don’t define us. Just because our surroundings change, that doesn’t mean Christ’s heart changes. No matter what season we’re in, we’re still called to pursue and praise the Lord more and more, like that last song says. If we don’t do this, and let our circumstances define us, we negate the purpose of a season altogether. In the same way that my Dad’s cancer is helping us pursue Christ more, seasons are used to bring us all closer to Christ. Turn to God’s Word when you don’t know what to do, because when life is like a rushing river, and the water is rising fast, God’s Word is a steady rock that sits dry above the roar. And remember not to be overcome by a season. In seasons of hardship, God never calls us to do nothing. 1 Peter 4:19 says:

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

That verse is clear as day. Keep pursuing Christ and doing good no matter what you’re going through. To my friends starting college, hold home loosely in your hands, and don’t be dragged down by the newness and by missing what’s comfortable and known. Push hard for Jesus in those times of confusion, in shifting communities, in shifting lives; Jesus remains the same and desires pursuit no matter what. Apathy isn’t excusable. Seek life in times of death, seek light when all you see is darkness.

So, here I am about to enter a wildly different time of life. I leave for South Africa in ten days from today. It’s kept me up late a few nights, and my heart is full of a lot of emotions. This blog has been a joy to write in for the past few months, and I’m not sure what it’ll look like while I’m in Africa, but my intention is to post more regularly, probably once a week, and to write stories and share pictures from the villages I’ll be staying in. Stay tuned for this next season, and I’d appreciate prayers throughout this major shift of life.

Don’t stop fighting for the Lord no matter what you’re going through.