"What is your favorite memory from this year?" This innocuous question was posed as a discussion opener in a Bible study class where we were going to talk about having margin or breathing space in our lives. I instantly recognized the intention of the question. Our answers would likely point us to those moments we savor with our families or friends where memories are made and the busyness of life has been set aside for us to focus on the relationships in our lives. These are beautiful moments, and I have had many of them this year - vacation with my family at the beach, time visiting extended family in Tennessee, watching my sons explore a new and dangerous hobby in blacksmithing, sweet and unexpected discussions from the heart with my preteen daughter.
So, my breath caught in my throat and I was stunned when my heart had a different answer to this question. Mvolo, South Sudan. A place where I faced my biggest fears, where my body was depleted with dehydration and exhaustion, where I walked with and talked to men and women who live in extreme poverty and who see death every day, and where I found myself at the end of all my resources and lost my heart to a place and a people of breathtaking, raw beauty. And where I learned to rest in Christ.
I didn't have margin or breathing space in Mvolo. I found something even better there, but it came at a high cost. The path to it was through brokenness before God as I submitted to Him. You see, we went to Africa to prayerfully consider whether or not God might be calling us to be full time missionaries, and everything about that dragged me right out of my comfort zone into a place where I was confronted with my willingness to follow my Savior no matter what. No. Matter. What. As I prayed through this and wrestled with the God of all Creation, I realized my answer to this hinged on something that needed to grow in the face of all my fears. My faith. So, I said, "Yes." But it came at the cost of many tears. You know, those gasping for breath, messy faced, heaving sob-like tears. And it came at the cost of my desire to have my way. As I yielded to God and began to follow Christ on this path to Africa, the faith to obey didn't come in one miraculous dispensation that made each step and decision easier. It came one step at a time as I trusted Him, cried out to Him, stumbled in doubt, got my shots, updated my passport, prayed some more, entrusted my children into His care through the hands of their grandparents, and finally got on a plane. Deep Breath.In my foolishness, I thought that was going to be the hardest part. It wasn't. I'm thankful, infinitely thankful, that God sent me to Africa with my husband and our dear friends, who God has allowed us to do life with for almost ten years now. There is rest in fellowship with other believers as we carry each other's burdens, pray for one another, laugh and cry together. This is a topic for another time, but worth mentioning here. The people that God allowed me to walk this journey with were part of God's provision for me and a place of comfort and rest in a land so foreign. He never asks us to walk alone, so as I deboarded the plane in Uganda, I did it with the support and love of people who really know me and really love God. There is such joy and comfort in these relationships! The culture shock, the poverty, the godlessness of the religion of the land, or the exhaustion could have tanked me in short order. And while the waves of those things crashed over me, they didn't crush my soul because we labored in it together.
So, after acclimating to Africa for two nights and a day in Uganda, we finally arrived in South Sudan and the small village of Mvolo. As we flew in over the dry expanse of African planes and dusty earth, huge outcroppings of rock formations suddenly appeared below us and the tiny dots of huts in lovely little clusters began to take shape. I was not prepared for what I would find as we touched down in the middle of nowhere. Hundreds of curious faces, throngs of children, adults with cautious eyes formed a ring of welcome around the plane. And so it began, my real understanding of what it means to trust God when there isn't any margin or breathing space in your life.What God gave me through this process was priceless and beautiful, and He gave me the recognition of it in Mvolo. In our brokenness, in our darkness, in our fear, in our desperation, and in our desire for more, He gives us Christ in all of His glory, comfort, love, joy, power, and promise. In the starkness of the land of South Sudan and in the midst of a people forgotten by many, God displayed to me His vast and glorious love. He sees them. He sees me. And in those moments, my heart was flooded with a joy unspeakable and full of glory.
When I think of my stained, dry feet as I walked the dirt roads in the village, I think of Christ walking among the least of these and showing them compassion. When I think of the beautiful faces of the children in Mvolo who laughed and played and stared at us in curiosity, I think of Christ calling the children to Himself. When I think of the women asking us to heal their children and the men begging our husbands to stay teach them God's word, I recognize the limits of my ability and pray for them and know that God sees their need and delights to meet it. There is little margin or breathing space for the people of Mvolo where food is scarce, work is hard, and the death rate is high. And yet they have learned to share in one another's labors, enjoy the simple pleasures of life, and laugh together in the midst of sorrow. Even more lovely to behold were the ones who have Christ. They shine with joy and hope. They have learned to walk with their Savior and find rest in Him. Such simple, beautiful, life-changing faith.Yes, Mvolo is seared in my memory and written on my heart because God met me in my need and showed me a world beyond my imagination. Even better, He walked with me there and I am forever changed.