Flashback Friday: Safari for Jesus

Today, my heart is heavy for some friends who are going through a monumentally difficult life experience. I won't say much more than that, but do pray for "Shelley's friends," and I'm sure God will know what kind of peace and grace to deliver to their family.
I write because I need it. I need to process my thoughts this way and practice the art of writing. I write to build altars--tangible reminders of what the Lord has done for me. I write because I am so encouraged to go back and read old posts and be reminded of God's faithfulness in the face of my bevy of questions and doubt. And hopefully, whatever I write gives encouragement to my friends and readers or at least makes you chuckle sometimes. Some posts are also longer than others. I don't mind if you take a snack break.
Today's Flashback Friday is about my missions trip to Kenya in 1998.
In the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and ninety-eight, I had been out of college approximately ONE year and was working on staff at my church. At this time, I was an administrative assistant in the evangelism department, so I helped coordinate programs and volunteers for prison/jail outreach, sports & recreation and a men's service/outreach program. I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I did know that I did not want to be an administrative assistant for much longer. So, perhaps I was looking for adventure. I'd love to tell you that God showed up to me in a dream looking all Aslan and told me in a James Earl Jones voice to go to Kenya and serve his people.
But in honesty, I don't know what made me fill out the application. I barely told anyone. Of all the places in the world, I had never really THOUGHT about going to Africa. I had never been on an overseas missions trip. Our church coordinated 10-15 foreign missions trips a year. Africa stood out to me. Again, from a rational standpoint, I thought I'd serve better on a building trip...as in, swinging a hammer and carrying 2 x 4's. I'm not the most relational person on the planet. The idea of talking to strangers on the street about Jesus was about as scary a thing as I could imagine. And here I was signing up for an EVANGELISM trip. It was the church's first alliance with the ministry in Kenya, and oddly enough, of the large 20-person team, almost half of us were on staff. Most teams went without ANY staff members, but with leaders that volunteered through the missions department. I even had to take vacation time to go.
We began our rigorous three month training process. We would be helping an existing ministry start a satellite church in downtown Nairobi as well as participating in an evangelistic crusade. And that's about all we knew. We had some full-time missionaries to Kenya come and talk to us about the culture, food, etc. I'm not going to lie, about the only thing that scared me more than not having a good plan was whether or not I would go hungry while there. I'm NOT an adventurous eater. So, our team prepared some songs (one in Swahili), skits, mimes and testimonies to share. I was kind of in charge of the "fine arts" stuff, so I worked with the team learning some songs and choosing what we'd do. I love to plan things and have a "job," so this task was right up my alley. We had our CD's, scripts, tapes, costumes, etc. all worked out. However, our first sign of "lost in translation" came just before we left.  We were sent some copies of the posters the local church had printed to advertise our evangelistic services (and had plastered all over downtown Nairobi). It said something to the effect of "Miracle Healing Team with Signs & Wonders..." with a team picture featuring our mostly-white faces. Um. Who? What? Where? I believe that God can heal anyone anytime, but that's definitely not what we were prepping for. Or necessarily why we thought we were going. And, I'm not entirely convinced that God wants to be a trick pony show. But whatever. We were going to fulfill whatever purpose He had for us...
And did I mention that three months before we went, there was this big bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi? Remember that?

Then we flew 20 hours across the world, and nothing turned out the way we thought it would.
There is a moment on a missions trip--and now I've been on well over 10--where you realize that whatever expectations you brought in your suitcase you should just chuck out the bus window.
Mine occurred within the first day of this trip. I am a planner. I love logistics. I plan things for a living. I like lists. While I like to think that God made me that way--I mean he does need those with the gift of administration--I also like to think he isn't nearly as concerned with our plans as he is with his own. And His are often so much bigger and more interesting than ours.
Isaiah 55:8-9
   8The LORD says:
   "My thoughts and my ways
   are not like yours.
    9Just as the heavens
   are higher than the earth,
   my thoughts and my ways
   are higher than yours. 

There we were on the side of the street, with our CD player hooked up to a generator powered by an old Mercedes diesel engine...doing mime. We had hoped that it would draw a crowd who could at least understand our movements, and then the local pastor would then let the folks know about the church services. Suddenly, scores of people were pressing in. In America, where I've done similar things, people stand pretty far off and give you space, as we are not sure what we're committing to when we get close to street performers...these trusting people would stand within arm's reach, which was very challenging when the piece called for you to REACH. But our skits and mimes were meant to convey the love of God, his grace and forgiveness...and there is nothing more powerful than acting those things out while looking into the eyes of people who need that hope, smelling their breath, and touching their slender shoulders.
Nearly nothing went according to plan that week. Time is a generality there." Show up at 3 pm," give or take 3 hours. "We'll pick you up at 8 am," but really we won't come until 10:30. I used a hole-in-the-ground restroom while all dressed up in a white angel costume. They passed goat meat in a foil pouch around a circle, and we were expected to take a little and keep it going. Worship services were aerobic and several hours long. I felt very very white and rich and uncomfortable and blessed and humbled the whole nine days. I was faced with poverty I had never seen, and also with fervor and joy for God that I had never seen.
For the first time in my life, I had to chuck my plans and hold open hands before the Lord. I learned to depend on my team leader and teammates and the Lord, as we didn't know exactly what any day would hold. It felt a bit like having your DNA ripped apart and put back together. And I learned more in that nine days about compassion and the leading of the Holy Spirit and FLEXIBILITY than I had in my other 36 years.
That trip served me well. God knew that within two years, I would be leading and participating in trips like that with groups of 30 teenagers to places like New York City, Chicago, Tampa and England. And if you think teenagers are ever predictable...well, no one thinks that...who am I kidding?

It's my daily struggle to stand before the Lord with my plans in hand and submit them to Him. But I want the blessing of being flexible and going where he sends me each day. It may not ever be as far as Africa again. I'm a little ashamed that it took going that far away to do what the Lord might have done had I been more obedient and had my ears and heart attuned to Him. We makes our plans indeed, but the LORD orders our steps. (Proverbs 16:9)
By the way, my mime skills came in handy. I did not eat the goat, but I did MIME eating the goat so as not to appear rude. And I ate a crap-ton of cheezits from my suitcase that week.


Phyllis said...

I remember the suitcase of snacks very clearly! And the roast beast we had for dinner at the Methodist Guest House...an ear of roasted corn for some ink pens on the way to Masai Mara (I don't think we ate any but I still have the visual)...Coke in Kawangware...goat on the grill and stew being simmered in its stomach over an open flame (hey the bread was good)... I have two vivid first impressions of Kenya: the exhilaration I felt as soon as we stepped off of the plane, and the parade of singing we heard upon waking up the first morning there -- which turned out to be a joyful baptism at the guest house pool, in the rain, complete with a multitude of colorful umbrellas. So many great memories and God stories from that trip. It was fun hearing your flashback perspective of it.

Shelley said...

Fantastic, Phyllis! There are so many wonderful things about that trip. That baptism was definitely a highlight. As was sharing it with you. :)