Monday, August 24, 2015

Asking for Prayer for a Pillar

Anyone seeing Mary Springer would not think of a "pillar."  Mary is petite, blond, with an open caring face.  She is always ready to break forth into a smile or laugh that lights up her eyes, and those same eyes are equally willing to fill with tears because of her very compassionate nature.

But don't let that fool you.  Mary is a pillar.  A pillar of strength.  A pillar of determination.  A pillar of faith.  A pillar of persistence.  A pillar of faithfulness. 

If you have been involved in my work in any way - West Africa, East Africa, Canada, the US - over the past eight years, you may not know but Mary has been praying for you, faithfully.  FAITHFULLY!

And now, Mary, who has been fighting cancer for several years (and when I say fighting...I mean F.I.G.H.T.I.N.G!) has entered into hospice care and it seems her fighting days may be nearing a close.

So I'm asking you to join me in prayer.  Prayers for healing because God is able!  Prayers for an ease of the significant pain that has racked her body for some time.  Prayers for her peace of mind.  Prayers for her husband and children.  As her pastor put it, Mary is "outwardly wasting away; inwardly being renewed."  Her faith is strong, even now.

I have known Mary for many years, as a fellow member of Madison Square Church.  But I didn't really get to know her until she came to Liberia in 2006 through our church partnership, to participate with a children's ministry called Pebbles and Stones.  It was there that I got to know Mary better and learned what a prayer warrior she is.  Shortly after that, we asked Mary to join our weekly prayer call for the work of business development.  Mary prayed about it, confessed that she didn't "know much about business" (even though she runs her own counseling practice), but that she is willing to commit to prayer.  At that time we had a group of maybe seven or eight people who called in weekly for prayer.  Over those years, people have dropped off, one by one.  But not Mary.  Even though the focus shifted from Liberia to Ghana, then to West Africa, then to Kenya, she stayed.  Even though her life changed and she went through normal life challenges, she stayed.  And throughout her fight with cancer (I think she was diagnosed in 2011), she still didn't stop joining this prayer call (except for a handful of times when she was just too sick), as well as participate in any meeting we had in Grand Rapids about business development and discipleship.  That, dear friends, is faithfulness.
Mary, in Liberia.  Mary is in the white shirt and yellow skirt.

And now it is Dave Graf (who has been in these prayer calls since 2006), Mary Springer, Michael and myself who are on this prayer call weekly at 7 am on Tuesday mornings.  We have become very close because of this.  Mary prayed me through the loss of my husband Bob; prayed for my children as they mourned their Dad and went through numerous transitions since then; prayed me through the changing of jobs; through the challenges of development work in Africa; through the fear of getting into a new relationship with Michael; and fervently for many businesses by name, as well as many country issues in West and East Africa.  It wasn't unusual for her to tell me at the end of a call of a vision or impression that she had for me, that ministered to me in one way or another.

And so I'm asking for prayers for this faithful sister in Christ today.  Will you join me and stand in the gap for her, as she has done for so many people over the years?  Someday she will meet the people she has prayed for over the years, as you may also meet this woman who has prayed for so many.  We look forward to that day with confidence.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The UK

One of the perks of my work is that I am able to accumulate air miles.  Michael had a two week trip scheduled around the UK for his work, with all his expenses covered.  We looked at my air miles and figured that if I used them all, I could accompany him.  So for two weeks, I'm tagging along with him as he visits the major universities and colleges in London, Oxford, Cambridge, St. Andrews, Edinburgh, and Durham.  We are taking the train around, which is great, and really gives us a lay of the land.  I realize again on such a trip that I am not a tourist by nature, nor do I like big cities or places swamped by tourists.  The best place so far has been St. Andrews, a town of about 60,000 (35,000 are students at the University of St. Andrews!) right on the North Sea - absolutely beautiful.  After all the hustle and bustle of the other places (especially London), my soul immediately found a connection at St. Andrews.
An enjoyable bike tour around Oxford
The actual lamp that inspired C.S. Lewis to write about Narnia.
Michael and his colleague, James, in stocks, as they deserved.
The streets in Oxford.  Oxford was used a lot for the Harry Potter films, so many Harry Potter tourists and places to visit from the movies.
One of the beautiful buildings in Oxford.
The streets in Cambridge.
This AMAZING cathedral was built under the rule of Henry VI, Henry VII and Henry VIII.  Bob was fascinated by Henry VIII and it was so cool to see that part of the organ covering was Henry VIII's gift to Anne Boleyn. 
This cathedral in St. Andrews was destroyed in 1549, having been built in the 1200s. The story is that in 1549, John Knox preached a sermon and told the people to take the cathedral down.
The beautiful North Sea and relatively untouched beach with many fisherman still working.
Taken in St. Andrews, by the North Sea.
Four mile hike along the sea in Scotland; so very beautiful.
Fields of wheat everywhere in Scotland...along with many free range cows and sheep.  Very peaceful and beautiful.
Tomorrow we will take the train to Edinburgh, then to Durham, then back to London, and then home on Friday.  I have been able to get some writing in while Michael is in meetings.  Our two main tourism days were the two Sundays that he was mostly off.  Thanks to technology I still was able to attend the International Council meetings that were being held in Bakersfield, CA with ICM.  They went from about 5 pm to 1 am, but I was thankful for the ability to connect.  Here is a picture of the International Council, with my Skype picture there as well!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Back on my feet

I'm back on my feet again, taking another step, thanks to the prayers and encouragement of many of you.  I'm not 100% yet but continuing to move in that direction.  I am in Bakersfield CA as I write this, prepared to go into another week full of meetings with International Christian Ministries (ICM).

Last Monday evening, after I sent out the "Flesh Eating Bacteria" blog, we had a guest over who happened to get sick.  She apologized profusely for having thrown up in our bathroom.  I reassured her that there was no need for apology - I was sorry that she had gotten sick!  But the next day I thought about that exchange and I realized that I too feel like I "threw up" last week on this blog.  And I too want to apologize for that.  I know that there was some real sickness that legitimized the entry, but I still feel bad about it, just as our guest did.  However, I also acknowledge that this is a "Reeds In The Wind" web-log - not an ICM or work blog.  This blog has been like a journal for me, capturing my life on a weekly basis for the past ten years.  It allows me to not feel so alone on this journey, and I am privileged to have company in the likes of you reading it and commenting on it.  I keep the topics to work, family, and faith, and if I need to get personal, I can.  I try to keep it as positive as I can, but sometimes, thankfully rarely, I "throw up."

But so many of you responded with such graciousness and kind words.  And so many prayers were lifted on my behalf.  I truly felt the darkness lifting by the end of that day.  And my face has fully healed.

So thank you.  And sorry.  I'll try not to do that too often.

A number of you wrote and said that you identified with those dark thoughts and dark places.  For those who did, let me pass on some of the wise words I heard in this past week:

From my boss, Dr. Phil Walker, in response to these words of mine:  "See how many people are looking to ICM and to you - good, serious people with serious medical issues - and you can't do anything."   "Ah, the great lie.  Of course you cannot do anything.  It is not yours to do.  While we can “feel” responsible, we have to remind ourselves over and over that God has chosen the weak things of this world to confound the strong.  I know in my mind that only God can handle these things (this is what Grace really means).  But my emotions cry out that “I” should be able to do something.  It is in our helplessness that we grow in Grace (2 Peter 3:18).  I came to the end of myself in 1982 after doing some amazing things in Southern Lebanon preparing to launch a ministry among Muslims only to have my family life collapse around me.  I went to my knees by my bed and cried out to God, “what do you want from me?  I have given you my life, my wife and my children.  I live through constant danger, bombings and little to no benefits (life salary etc).  God’s answer changed my life, “I want you.”  Suddenly I realized that I could never do anything in my flesh that would “fix it” for others.  If God does not do it, I cannot and should not try to make it happen.  It is in this place of helplessness that I find rest."

From my pastor, Rev. David Beelen:  "One line in your blog struck quoted an easy line that people throw out too easily (and you used it that way)..."God does not give us more than we can bear"  In fact, God often gives us more than we can bear....most days this feels like more than I can bear.  Which then leads me to dependence and some prayers of desperation."

From a dear friend in Iowa, Ron Rynders:  I have had the privilege of reading the Bible for each of my grandkids. I have 11, and I am in the middle of #9. Having just finished Jeremiah yesterday, I was sort of in the mood for getting this. Here’s a guy who got laughed out of town every time he opened his mouth. Sometimes he got dumped into a well, all alone, up to his armpits in mud. Hungry. In jail. Ridiculed. And much of his rejection came from people in his own profession. But above all, he had to learn that it was not a matter of getting approval or support from anyone on this Earth. It was all him and the Lord. When God spoke to him, he transliterated it to the people, no matter how important the people were and no matter how objectionable the message was to the hearers. He dictated his book, and the king burned it one page at a time. So he just wrote it again… and then, for all his work, he was led off with the captives to another land. Thing is, what Jeremiah said, came true. The test of a good prophet is if her words are true. It’s not about support—God owns the cattle on a thousand hills; he only has to sell one cow, and you’re all set. It’s not about printing a book; there are many publishers. 

So here I am, rambling about what you wrote, and countering some of your problems with a nice, safe distance between us. I’m really sorry. I just want to give you that hug again, and tell you what I think about the woman I have come to respect deeply. God has confirmed over and over that he supports you, relates to you, meets your needs, answers your prayers. He loves you with an everlasting love, and that’s all that matters. When perspective comes, your body heals, and time has passed to heal your troubled soul, you’ll look back on this and see how much muscle you obtained from the late-July turmoil in 2015. You lost a husband and learned to smile again. You have spoken the Words of Truth into many lives. God has poured you out, and though this dry spell is difficult, you will arise to show his glory, with or without money from supporters."  

From Karl Westerhof, on staff with the CRCNA, a friend of Bob's who has become an encourager to me through the blog:  "You  wouldn't think God would let it happen.   You wouldn't think the old self still has so much toxicity to release.  You wouldn't think it would hit you when you are at home.   But, bam!   And on top of all that, your feelings and memories take you right back to the grief and mystery of Bob's death.   Yes, all that is right inside your brain, ready at any moment to be triggered again. And then you get to telling yourself a bunch of junk.... what if my whole ministry is a delusion?   I'm accomplishing  nothing, doing harm, creating dependence, blowing smoke, pretending to be significant, yadda yadda. This is a litany from hell.  God never promised to get me out of trouble, but he does promise to get me through it.  So, Renita, it's a deep pit, and it's dark, and you can't even imagine how so many things can go so wrong at the same time.  I'm not going to remind you of the good things; I'm not going to quote a sunny scripture; I'm not going to tell you to buck up and pray more and all that good stuff.   It don't work.   I think we can look squarely at the darkness, stare deep into it, feel the feelings, and grit our teeth and repeat "I trust you God".  And there in the depths we find a wrecked but risen Jesus, who totally gets it, who knows how really terrible it can get, and who is with us in every breath with his own new breath, his divine wind, his Spirit, and he will not let us go.  Period. Oh, whoops, there I went with some good words that might sound useless.  Sorry.  Not.   Renita, I'm praying for you.  Karl"

And this is only a very small percentage of the wonderful and wise words I received.  How blessed I am!  The body of Christ is truly a wonderful thing.  Thank you, dear friends, for being with me on this journey.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Flesh Eating Bacteria

This is not a feel-good blog but may be more of a rough don't read on if you are looking for something positive and upbeat this Monday morning.  I don't think I write a lot of, "Somebody call the waaaaaaaambulance" blogs....but this is definitely one.

Last week was a rough week for me - physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Flesh eating bacteria literally entered my body, but also seemed to enter figuratively, into my soul, my emotions, and my mind.

The week started with the opportunity to meet with old and dear friends, long-time supporters who have "had my back" since 1997.  Toward the end of our meeting, they informed me that they would no longer be able to support me as much, as I was becoming "too evangelical" because I am working with the church.  That hit me hard. When I examine the word, evangelical, it means "pertaining to or keeping to the gospel and its teachings."  Doesn't seem like such a bad thing to me.  Just last week I met with a pastor from the Reformed Church of Zambia who shared with me that the Church in Zambia is telling their business people terrible things about the nature of their work and how unholy it is.  That is not "keeping to the gospel and its teachings" so I am happy to be "evangelical" in that way.  My fear, and where the flesh eating bacteria begin to enter into my mind and emotions, is that "evangelical" is lumped with "fundamentalism"  and because I am adamant that the church needs to be the change agent as it relates to business, I could be cast as a fundamentalist, which is definitely an insult in this day and age.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, I began to feel ill with fever, body aches, etc.  By Thursday morning, I woke up with a completely swollen ear and surrounding tissues, hot to the touch.  When I went to the doctor, I was told it was a serious type of cellulitis and because it was on the face, it needed to be monitored closely, as it can quickly become life-threatening.  It is caused by a flesh eating bacteria that can go both deep and wide - causing permanent damage to the eyes, nerves, brain, and other precious parts.  If it was to spread at all, I was to go directly to the emergency room.  Hannah took Thursday afternoon off to monitor me; Michael took Friday off.  They marked my face with permanent marker to be able to observe any spreading or other symptoms.

Also on Thursday, I received a number of bad news emails from ICM, ranging from partners in a number of countries very sick and in need of resources, to significant budget and fundraising alarms, to program demands that are increasing beyond supplies.  The flesh eating bacteria went after my mind, "See you can't do this job."  "See, you can't raise money - people are leaving you, not joining you." "See how many people are looking to ICM and to you - good, serious people with serious medical issues - and you can't do anything."

On Friday morning, I had to return to the doctor who didn't like what he saw in terms of lack of progress, and decided to give me a shot to try to keep me out of the hospital.  Later that afternoon, I received an email from the publisher with whom I had been talking for some time - the one I was hoping would take my book; they reported that they decided to pass on my book.  I immediately felt the spread of the flesh eating bacteria in my soul, with whispers of "see, you can't write" and "see, no one wants your book - no-one sees the value except you, therefore it must not have value."

On Friday evening, we had a serious blow up at our house.  Not uncommon in a small home with two merging families of many young adults, not to mention tremendously complex extenuating circumstances that are mostly outside of our control, making us often feel like victims.

But that was enough to pretty much shut me down.  The straw that broke the camel's back.  Let the flesh eating bacteria have their way.

Saturday found me searching the want ads, looking for a different line of work, despite the fact that my face was beginning to heal. My thoughts were, "Let me find a job where I do my work, get a paycheck, and go home.  Let me find a job where there aren't so many people depending on me.  Let me find a job where I don't have to constantly think of how to fund the work, on top of doing the work, which is actually difficult to do." An overreaction?  Absolutely.  But an indication of flesh eating bacteria having found their way into my system?  Yup.

As I cried out to God on Saturday night, peace didn't come like a river attending to my soul.  I didn't wake up Sunday morning saying, "It is well."  I was reminded that we will have earthly troubles; that we are to endure hardship for His sake; that suffering is often not meaningless; that "my will" needs to become "Thy will;" and that God will "never give us more than we can bear."  All of these words felt cerebral; none seemed to address the flesh wounds.

And so it's Sunday morning as I write this.  And I am choosing to stay in bed, write this blog, and lick my wounds.  I am praying that tomorrow will show a ray of light in some way to give me the energy to put one foot in front of the other again, and rekindle my energy for the work to which God has called me.  If you got this far in reading this blog, I would appreciate prayers, as I believe that much of this is spiritual warfare.  I also know, in my head, that I am immensely blessed, beyond words.  But beyond privilege and blessings, all humans can be knocked down for a count; I know that what matters is that we don't stay down.
Postscript - I didn't see my regular doctor on Thursday but actually had a doctor who grew up in Nigeria as an missionary kid.  We got to talking, and she is the first person who told me that it IS possible for sepsis to not produce a fever (as in the case with Bob).  As I read about flesh-eating bacteria, and remembering the number of sores that Bob has on his head the night before he died, and having just returned from Nigeria, I am now thinking that we might have a possible cause of death:  necrotizing fasciitis that got into the bloodstream, causing sepsis.  Five years later and I continue to look for the cause of death.  This one seems to get a lot of it right.  I still wonder about the shot of heparin that they gave him just twenty minutes before he died when they "thought" they heard a pulmonary embolism.  I wonder if that shot expedited something in relation to the septic shock that his body must have been in (based on autopsy results).  My reading does show that heparin can react poorly with antibiotics, which is what they had put him on when he entered the hospital.  I wonder, I wonder, I wonder....I will probably wonder until I die.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Sodom and Gomorrah

A picture from the place called "Sodom and Gomorrah"
There is a place in Ghana called Sodom and Gomorrah.  It is a location where approximately 40,000 people live in dire conditions.  Bob first wrote about this place in a blogpost in 2009 when the Ghanaian government threatened to plow it down (great piece if you want to read it - "This may sting a bit.").  They are threatening again because of the recent deaths in Ghana, which is blamed on the flooding caused by trash from this location.

I have often wondered about the name given to this depressed area.  Ezekiel 16:49 seems to make it very clear what the sin of Sodom was:  "'Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy."  Doesn't sound like a place impoverished by poverty, disease, and no sanitation to me.  Sounds to me other places in the world that are quite developed.

June 26, 2015 was a day of terror in many parts of the world.  Syria lost 120 lives due to IS.  Kuwait had a bomb go off with IS claiming responsibility.  Tunisia lost lives, believed to be linked to IS.  Somalia lost lives due to al-Shabab.  France lost lives due to terrorism.  IS spokesmen have called for an intensification of attacks during Ramadan and to spread beyond Syria and Iraq. So many people in so many countries living lives of inescapable hardship, oppression, fear, and anxiety.

And yet it is summer vacation in many parts of the world.  A time for family and cottages and vacations and play and fun and food.  And while I love a good vacation as much as the next person, I am struck by the lack of opportunity for any vacation by the majority world.  Ever.  Ever ever.  Ever ever ever.  

I just returned from a trip to Ghana, Kenya, and Egypt. Ghana which was touted as a great place for development but has been struggling so in the past few years with a currency that is crashing and electricity that is off more than on.  

Kenya has seen the Kenyan shilling falling significantly against the dollar - lower than it has been in many years; al-Shabab continues to threaten; tax rates are oppressively high; and significant poverty continues to be a problem for so many.

And Egypt, where being a Christian is met with outright hostility; where the pressures and stresses of life are palpable and dark.

So it's no wonder that on the day that I re-enter a world that is "on vacation," it feels heavy and I can't sleep.  Ezekiel 16 plays in my mind, "arrogant, overfed and unconcerned."  How I don't want that to be the label for the era in which I live.  

There is serious work to be done by the Church.  Our battle is so far from over.  Yes, we must pace ourselves and enjoy the "tithe of feasts" with family and friends (Deuteronomy 12).  But let us not label depressed places with dark names, like Sodom and Gomorrah; let us not forget that the majority world never gets a vacation and being able to take one is an absolute privilege; let us be stewardly with the blessings that we enjoy, and be wise with how we justify how much of our resources we keep and how much we give away; and let us not forget that many of our brothers and sisters around the world are in a battle for survival, for their faith, and for their family in a way that the majority of North Americans will never truly know or understand. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

More Confirmation...Amidst Challenges

Of the three countries where Discipling Marketplace Leaders is working, Ghana is the safest as it relates to terrorist attacks.  Ghana rates at 56 out of 162 countries on the Global Peace Index (Canada is 5, the US is 95, Egypt is 123, and Kenya is 140).

On the Ease of Doing Business (World Bank, 2014), Ghana ranks at 67 out of 189 countries measured (the US is 4, Canada is 19, Egypt is 128, Kenya is 129).  On the human development index, Ghana ranks at 138 out of 187 countries measured (the US is 4, Canada is 8, Egypt is 110, and Kenya is 147).

As it relates to religion, Ghana is 71% Christian, 22% Muslim, and 7% other (Egypt is 90% Muslim and 10% Christian; Kenya is 82% Christian, 11% Muslim, and 7% other; US is 71% Christian, 23% no religion, Judaism 3%, Islam 1%, 2% other; Canada is 67% Christian, 24% no religion, 3% Islam and 6% other).

That is a lot of numbers that tell a portion of the story - but of course, not the whole story.
The beautiful mountains on our way to Abetefi, Ghana.

Part of the story is that in the last three years (since we left in 2012), Ghana has undergone significant challenges.  It has been quite startling to see, to be honest.  Electricity, which was bad when we lived here, has now gone to being on for twelve hours, and then off for twenty-four hours.  This is incredibly debilitating for businesses.  So everyone is switching to generators.  However, the Ghana cedi has also done very poorly against the US dollar.  When we moved to Ghana in 2009, it was $1: 1.5 GH.  Today it is $1: 4.3 GH.  That means that all prices have increased at least three times.  When we lived here, we could fill our car for 50 GH.  Today, the same car, the same amount of gas, it will take 150 GH.  Yet, incomes have not increased.  Purchasing power has only decreased.  So running a generator is a huge expense for businesses; one small business told me that they are paying 1000 GH per week in gasoline for the generator.  And generators are not safe.  We passed by one which caught fire, threatening all the businesses in the area. 
Ramseyer Training Center, Presbyterian Church, Abetifi

And so the economy is struggling. And when the economy struggles significantly, poverty increases and peace decreases.

When I shared about the work of Discipling Marketplace Leaders with business people, pastors, church leaders, and Bible colleges, the response was a unanimous "Amen" and "When can we start?"  I heard comments like, "We have been praying for something like this," and "This could transform our nation." 

I can only sense again that God had been working in this area prior to our arrival and directed us to the right people.  We will most likely start in September with the Ramseyer Training Center in Abetifi (central Ghana), where 4000+ Presbyterian pastors are trained for ministry, as well as in Accra at the ICM Ghana office for multiple denominations.  (Egypt will now be in November due to additional time to translate materials into Arabic.)
Pastors, Administrators, and Pastors-in-training

I continue to be humbled and thankful at the response that we continue to see to this work.  Keeping up with demand will be a challenge and we will continue to work toward building a team of Master trainers who can go out to help deliver this opportunity to different countries, through many denominations. I am so thankful for our partners, ICM Ghana and Hopeline Institute, as they have great staff who will make setting this up in Ghana much easier.

Please continue to pray for people in Ghana and their economic challenges.  Please also pray for this growing ministry.  Pray for God to send trainers, the funds to translate these into the necessary languages, and for wisdom and discernment in each and every process and conversation.

I leave for home on Wednesday.  I must admit that I'm exhausted.  I didn't feel well for most of this trip and I think it was the constant travel, speaking, changes in climate, changes in food, changes in beds, etc.  I am very ready to be home again but very thankful for your prayers and partnerships in this endeavor of Discipling Marketplace Leaders!