Monday, February 24, 2014

What about your calling?

Some of you noticed that I didn't write a blog last week.  The announcement of my engagement was pretty momentous; it received a lot of response and I needed to do some processing.  As was expected and predicted, many people were happy for us.  But as also predicted, some gently pushed back and questioned our decision.  I have spent the last number of days wrestling with some of those questions and my reaction to them. 

Of those who questioned, the most frequent concern was phrased like this, “But what about your calling?”  To be honest, which I do my best to be in this blog, I bristled at this question.  My human response wanted to say back, “What about MY calling?  What about YOUR calling?” I had to sort out what was causing me to have this rather strong reaction.  To do that, I consulted with my pastor, David Beelen, and my best friend and fiancĂ©, Michael, to help me process and sort through these feelings.

Pastor Dave had this to say about the question:  “What about your calling” is a great question.  In fact, we all have a vocation from God.  That is part of the beauty of the theological tradition that rooted us in the Christian life: all believers have callings from baker to banker to butcher to missionary.  Work is a blessing from God.  And anyone who has been listening for that voice and then following it as a single person (and in your case, single by being widowed) has a call to follow Jesus as a single person.  But following Jesus at this point in your life means being a wife to Michael. And that means that together you need to figure out how you will follow God’s voice to you together.  Just like Bob and you did earlier.  That may mean Africa or may not. 

God has allowed my calling to change a few times in my life:  from social work to business development; from living in the country to living in the inner-city; from living in the inner-city to living in West Africa; from being Bob's wife to being his widow; from Partners Worldwide to ICM; and now, from being a widow to being Michael's wife.  A calling is not a permanent fixture and is often multifaceted. 

As Michael and I processed this question from people we know well and love, and in light of Pastor Dave’s questions to us, we had some good conversations.  And as you know, many of our conversations take place over Facebook.  The following was written by Michael at around 4 am, while I was on the road to Kakamega, and he apparently couldn’t sleep.  We had been processing this just before he went to bed.  He wrote:
It's one thing to be prayed for and loved because you are Renita the missionary and people get excited by what God is doing and maybe even they live a little vicariously through you...

...but that is a role and a series of expectations, and though it is related to Renita that human being, Renita the "daughter of Eve" (in Narnian terms)... it is not the sum-total or Renita the human being.  And so...when you as Renita are seeking to obey God and work in Kenya or Liberia or Ghana or some place that takes a spin of the globe to find, then these friends are all there.  They DO care as Pastor Dave said, but they may also be engrossed by you in this role. They have been praying for you in this role, and often contributing financially for you in it too.

The truth is, they do care, but they may have merged Renita the person with Renita the missionary. They love stories of cultural juxtaposition, of trial, of gospel success...they are with you, toe to toe.

BUT...when that is threatened, that vision of you as missionary that they feel invested in...then they lose sight of Renita the woman! Renita the woman who like John the man or Anne the cancer patient or Theresa the widow, or whoever; and they have so invested in you in THAT role, more or less, that this is a bit of a threat. Michael is JUST a editor...what has he to do with your calling. The calling they have loved you in and through but are now collapsing into you so they can't see where one ends (a calling) and where the rest of you begins (and there is much more). fairness, this may be unfair to some of your friends and supporters. They do love you. If push comes to shove, they will pray for you. They may or may not financially support a change in calling, but that doesn't mean they don't love you.  It does mean that if their only or even primary reaction is "what about the calling" they have lost sight that Renita IS not the missionary or IS not the widow but simply IS...IS…IS in all its complexity. The woman, the Christian, the human being for whom all the God given desires and needs and hopes and dreams that run deep are also running deep. To be known and to know, to love and to be loved...these are deeply, deeply woven into our souls as each of us knows...

...and these parts of being you and me or just human are part and parcel of how God calls!!!
So that you discover a person in me you love and are loved by and want to marry...that is human...that is spiritual...that is calling...that is you.  And you are entering this part of life with an openness yet to God and where this might "lead"...and I think others will catch up. If given time.

I think that explains some of the "hot" reaction...because somehow YOU disappeared in some of these reactions to your news.

I know that some of my reactions have been to ask the questions, “Don’t I get to be happy?  Don’t I get to have a life outside of my work?  The people asking this are mostly married and living in the US – are they questioning themselves in the same way – or others who announce engagements?” 

To which Michael said,
Don't you get to be YOU...and doesn't God work in your life in ways that include a calling to the work you do but in other spheres of existence other ways that you are Renita?  There is no good reason that God cannot lead you into marriage just as he lead you into a mix of impulses that make up the calling (one of Pastor Dave's points...and a good one).

[Do you see why I love this man?  How articulate and wise at 4 am!]

God has given me grace in the past to commit to callings that seemed impossible at the time.  I wondered if I could stay in Africa after Bob died, and then again, continuing in Africa without my children.  I asked you all for intercession for strength for me.  Thank you for praying for strength to stick it out and keep those commitments in the past.  Now I ask for prayer again to commit to a new marriage and to a future together as we figure out how to obey God’s voice together.  I see this as a tremendous challenge.  But God has seen me through previous challenges and you were there to walk with me.  Walk with me again.  And I also want to pray that you keep to your commitments and that you hear God call you to obey.   I especially pray for you who are married as you seek to follow that call together.  I find that being married or single, hearing and then obeying God’s voice takes more commitment power than I can muster from my own paltry resources.

I do believe God has called Michael and I to be together.  I do believe that He was the matchmaker.  So I do believe that He will bring good - maybe that good is just for Michael and I, maybe for our children, maybe for the Church at large...I don't know.  But I don't have to know.  He knows.  And that is good enough for me.

And by the way, just to remind you, my work will not change in 2014.  And my prayer is that I will continue to work with Business as Mission globally beyond 2015.  Some logistics may change, but that is what we are waiting on.

And next week, back to reporting about the work!  

Sunday, February 9, 2014

This Is It.

Over the past few months, as I have mentioned my relationship with Michael in the blog, or as he has run into various people, we have been told individually that people are waiting for an "announcement" from us.

Well folks...this is it.

On January 21, 2014, Michael proposed to me.  And I said yes.

The End.

Oh?  You want details, you say?   Ummmmmmmmmmm....okay.

It was in Kenya, on the Masai Mara.  A colleague of mine got a tremendous deal for Michael and me to have a one day safari at a five-star location.  I was planning on taking him to the same parks that I had taken my children to in the previous month, however these parks did not have elephants, and elephants are Michael's favorite land animal (see poem he wrote in 2009 here).  I had searched and searched for an affordable way for us to see elephants, so when my colleague called with this opportunity, I jumped on it and thought it would be the perfect gift for his birthday.

We arrived at the Masai Mara on the afternoon of Michael's birthday, and it didn't take long to see animals, as the Mara is teeming with wildlife.  We enjoyed seeing a family of lions, giraffes, impala, hyenas, Thomson gazelles, warthogs, and the like.  It was great!  Plus it had just rained and we were not driving on roads, so the jeep was slipping and sliding in the mud, which made it fun.  At one point, I asked the driver if he thought we would see elephants on this drive.  He said probably not because of where we were headed, but that we might see them the next day.  I told him about Michael's birthday and the hopes we had of seeing elephants that day, but conceded that if we had to wait, we would wait.  With a wink in his eye, the driver made sure we saw elephants.  Not only that, but we found one mother elephant nursing not one but two young elephants!  It was a beautiful and magical time.  We thoroughly enjoyed God's creation.

[Wait a minute, Renita.  I thought this story was about a proposal not about a birthday and elephants??  Shush.  It's coming.  I'm bringing you into the context.]

That night for dinner, at the very nice resort restaurant, alongside the Mara river which is full of hippos and crocodiles, Michael got down on one knee and proposed to me.

Just as our relationship has felt surreal, this proposal, in this context, felt surreal.

Was I completely surprised by it?  No.  At our age, you don't do these thing on the fly.  In fact, Michael had asked and received the blessing of my children prior to the proposal.  [Hannah's only request to Michael was that he make sure the proposal was romantic - and to do it right.  I don't think it gets much better than getting engaged on the Masai Mara in Kenya, do you?]

We are planning to get married this summer, in early June.

So, what does this mean?  I'm glad you asked.  I have thought long and hard about this particular blog entry.  The truth is that out of the approximately three hundred persons who receive my blog each week, most of you will have no reaction.  A portion of you will be very happy for me.  A smaller number will be concerned for me, my children and my ministry.

For those of you who are happy for me, know that I am very happy as well!  I am happier than I have been in a very long time!  People have noticed and commented to both Michael and myself that the change is visible.

For those of you who may be concerned about me, I imagine your question might be, "Isn't this too fast, Renita?"  My answer to you is that when you are 45 and 49 years old, and you have spent time talking for roughly three hours a day for the past eleven months, you get to know someone very, very well.  Having a Skype relationship, without the distractions of movies or TV, or eating together or errands, etc., makes for very dedicated time for learning about each other.  Add to that that we were advised by our pastors to begin reading marriage books very early in our relationship, which caused us to discuss deep issues early on.  But Michael and I are bent that way anyway - toward talking about deep things.  So when you get to the point that you believe God has brought you together and you make a decision to marry, there is little point in waiting or delaying.

For those of you concerned about my children, they both gave their blessing to our marriage.  Noah has had no problem in adjusting to this relationship and has been happy for us throughout; Hannah has struggled a bit more.  But the month they spent with me in Kenya was very significant as it gave us the time to discuss these things and talk through a number of issues.  In March this year, it will be four years since Bob's death.  None of us want to forget him or the impact he had on our lives.  All of us are missing him in different ways.  That doesn't change with this.  The acceptance of Michael into our family is a separate event from the loss of their father.  The one does not negate the other.  So I feel good that we are able to move forward together as a family.  That doesn't mean that there won't be difficult days, but we have a solid foundation of communication, trust, and love that allows us to move forward with patience.  I have asked Hannah to be my maid of honor (although I'm starting to regret that as she has threatened to take over the wedding and make all the decisions herself!); I have asked Noah to walk me down the aisle (again, I had to emphasize with him that he was NOT giving me away.  I am not his to give!)  They both joyfully agreed.

And what about my ministry?  It will continue.  Full stop.  Some of the logistics will change by the year 2015.  One thing that Michael and I have said to each other over and over again is that IF God is in our relationship (and we believe He is) and IF God is part of my calling (and we believe He is) then these two do not need to conflict.  For this next year, nothing changes.  I will return, alone to Kenya from September-December, to complete my two year contract with ICM.  This will also bring me to the end of the pilot project, and the arrangement with ICM is that I will begin to work on my report for the research - which may or may not turn into a book.  This information then needs to be disseminated to various countries and ministries involved in business as mission (assuming the results are positive, which early indications are showing).  That dissemination does not require living in a particular developing country, but can involve travel with a home base in Michigan.  Michael is very supportive of my work, and while I don't want to be gone nine months out of the year (as I currently am) we also know that my work will involve travel.  So nothing changes in this regard.

So...that is it.

Look for more details on the wedding here.  It is going to be small and simple (if I have my way!  At my age, it's not about the wedding - it is about the marriage.) 

For those of you who have stood me in my grief and widowhood for the past forty-six months, I hope that you will now join me in my new-found happiness.  We do covet your prayers as we move forward.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Alone again...but not alone

For the first time in six weeks, I am alone again in Kenya.  Michael left warm Kitale yesterday evening to go back to frigid Grand Rapids.  I have to admit that it feels very lonely here after having loved ones around for six weeks.  It was so good to have them join me in my world and have them develop their own relationship and memories of Kenya.  Michael was able to join me for a number of days in my work and I think it was helpful for him see this work first hand.  His comment on Facebook after spending a day with me in Eldoret visiting businesses was this:
Huruma, in Eldoret, has piles of trash along the roadsides.

Spent the day in Eldoret today with Renita Reed and Jeff Bloem. They were canvassing businesses for the next series of classes in business as mission which teaches a mix of best business practices to small and medium efforts (often as small as a window stall on a crowded street of window stalls). We walked some rather poor and depressed unpaved streets while here.
The streets of Huruma.

It's one thing to see photos of poverty in a glossy publication. It's another to hear it, smell it (raw sewage in road side gutters)...crowded, hot...everyone hawking something. It's beautiful to watch Renita seek to help these men and women ennoble their sense of vocation, and grasp and shoot for excellence and even growth in business. Eldoret was heartbreaking to witness in terms of poverty, but the people were beautiful. One lady with the smallest of food stalls insisted on giving us some of her meager inventory to bless us. The children were wonderful to see as well...giggling at the rare sight of Mzungus (white people) in their midst. Some would run off laughing. A few were brave enough for a handshake and then would run off laughing. I love Renita and I love her vocation. I forgot my camera...but attached are representative of what I saw thanks to Renita's camera and a couple from Google.
Crowded streets and busy people, hauling heavy produce on bicycles.
We are starting our third pilot site this month, in a place called "Huruma", which is a part of Eldoret, formerly considered a slum but struggling to emerge from that status.  The church we will be working with is part of the Anglican Church of Kenya, with approximately 400 members, many of whom are involved in business.  The businesses range from micro-businesses to small and medium size (SME) businesses.  Because we are working with the church, we don't restrict who can join this program in terms of business size - the prerequisites are that they are members of the church, that they currently own a business, and that they want to grow their business .  Since we are involved in research, we spent approximately thirty minutes with each business doing a background survey so that we can compare it any potential growth.  We are learning some interesting things from this research already and it is exciting to watch!

This third site now makes the Marketplace Ministry working in three different cities, with three different denominations. Each site is at a different stage.  It is the most exciting to see the first site really taking off and owning this program within the church and in the denomination.  They are now starting their own classes within their churches and the trainers are being sought out to present at different branches of their churches.  I love to hear BAM being preached by Kenyans!  I start a new Training of Trainers class this week with many members from our partners churches.  

Additionally, we have assessed two control groups thus far and will be seeking one more control group to match the three groups where we are implementing the Marketplace Ministry.  These control groups are with the business members of three churches within the same three denominations but who are not receiving any teaching on Business as Mission or Basic Business principles.  It was difficult to convince these churches to be a control group as they really wanted the training as well, but they were willing to see the big picture and we promised to follow up with them after the research period was completed.
Microbusinesses were part of those we visited.  This mother lost her husband just three months ago and is trying to support four children by selling some produce and fruit.
It is four months until I return to Grand Rapids for the summer.  Lots to do in the meantime.  Good work!  Exciting work!  Work I love!  But to say that it is easy to do this far away from loved ones for extended periods of time would not be truthful.  To say that one can "get used to it" after being away from church, friends and family for so long, is also not correct.  But when it is a calling, there is a deeper acceptance amidst the sadness or loneliness.  I continue to thank God for the opportunity to do this work and trust that He is continuing to lead and guide it!  Alone again...but not alone!