Don’t Stop Breathing

grapesThere’s a weird thing the radiology nurse says as you lie on the biopsy table waiting for more pictures of your right breast – a body part you never thought might try to kill you.

In the nicest, least alarming way possible she says:

“Stop breathing.”

Not, “Hold your breath” because it’s likely you’re already doing that. Not, “Take a deep breath and hold it,” because even a tiny movement will skew the coordinates for the spot the doctor found on your mammogram.

Three weeks is a long time to keep quiet about things like this.

At first, I didn’t tell anybody about my bad mammogram, except Sam. But as each day passed, I felt like a MMA fighter, weak and bleeding, pinned up against the cage, taking hit after hit.

Now I know the scripture is right: Our battle is not against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Are you taking hits? Are you being stoic and brave about it, all by yourself? Not a great idea.

Finally, I did what I tell everyone else to do: I got the biggest, baddest MMA fighters I know* and invited them into my cage. Because I was too far down to do it myself, they used their considerable heft and experience to fight for me. They surrounded me and insulated me in ways that are hard to describe.

Lesson #1 – You can’t really follow Jesus alone, because Jesus didn’t live like that.

As my friend Barry says: You can’t find people working alone in the New Testament, anywhere. Even in the garden, knowing they would disappoint him, Jesus took his friends along, and when he sent them out, he sent them in pairs. Are you a Jesus follower, trying to fight your battles alone? Sorry Charlie. That’s a contradiction in terms.

Yesterday, at 4pm, Dr. Lee called.

I stared at the number before picking up, knowing he would either tell me I have breast cancer or I don’t. I’ve spent three weeks considering my response, because the moment you imagine how it looks to join to the pink ribbon club – the one you’ve had the luxury of ignoring your whole life – you start asking hard questions.

  • If I have cancer, does that mean God is not sovereign?
  • Does it mean he is not good?
  • How does my faith look on a breast cancer journey?

On biopsy day, during my third round of mammograms I started to cry. Overwhelmed by the dozen women in the waiting room, wearing matching robes like cult members; overwhelmed by the woman I prayed for the in bathroom who later got terrible news; overwhelmed by the amazing breast imaging technology that is sure to bankrupt me.

When it was over, I walked into the lobby crying and it scared Sam.

“I don’t want this,” I told him. “I don’t want this to be my life.”

But as it turns out, it isn’t.The biopsy was negative. And this is the most amazing news.

I wonder though, what I would be saying today, if it hadn’t gone my way? Would God still be good? Would he still be sovereign? Would I even be talking to you about it? I want to believe all three answers are yes.

Lesson #2 – It helps to make up your mind about Jesus before the bad mammogram.

Because if I wait to see how my circumstances unfold to decide if the Bible is true, my faith is a house of cards.

Jesus said,Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell– and great was its fall.”

The storm comes. Count on it, but Jesus promises if I build my house on his foundation, it will stand. Not only that, Acts 1:8 says, I will receive power – ability, efficiency and might – when the Holy Spirit comes upon me. Jesus left that here for me to use, so I can be a powerful menace to the enemy that’s trying to kill me…And you.

fireworks-725134_640By the way, that word ‘power’ in the Greek is dunamis, the root word for dynamite. I love that. You can’t imagine the things I want to blow up in the enemy’s camp.

So I decided weeks ago, even if I was diagnosed with cancer, I would be dangerous to the enemy in the Ross Breast Center, and on the days when I wasn’t up to that, I would call in my fighters and let them do it for me.

So tell me, what are you facing and who are your fighters? What do you believe about God? Has he abandoned you in your struggle? Is he punishing you? Or are you just subject to the spiritual laws of a broken world, separated from the God who created it?

Can I bring some dynamite to your fight?

*Thanks to my fighters: Sam Kirk, Stefan & Andrea Schmid, Pieter duPreez, Jenny Case, Karen Ransone, Cassie Bartley, Alicia Kramer, David Warner, Lisa Long, Stacia Julian, Beth Herndon, Krissy Close, Michelle Tucker, Christy Quirk, Jane Quirk and friends, Mike Quirk and the women of Love Dinner.

Medaling in Madagascar.

My friend and favorite superhero Bob Goff is a creative genius when it comes to loving people like Jesus. His gift is stopping to notice other humans in a way that makes them believe they matter.

For example, Bob travels to Uganda with his pockets stuffed with medals, so he can pin them on former LRA child soldiers, and say: “You are unimaginably important,” and make them believe it.

Bob Goff is the reason 160 foster kids in Madagascar are wearing medals around their necks today.

DSC01370

In the extravagant, inefficient, upside down Kingdom of God, this is how love does:

A couple of years ago, I met Bob in Los Angeles. Probably like a million other people, I picked up the phone and dialed his number, which, like a lunatic, he listed in the back of of his NYT Bestseller Love Does. To my great surprise, he answered, and then squeezed me into his already tight schedule. Sitting in a cafe at Pepperdine University, Bob looked at me and said, in the most literal way possible, “how can I help YOU?”

I mean really, who does that?

At that time, I knew Bob had negotiated with the publisher of Love Does for an advance that would cover the construction of a school for former child soldiers in Gulu, Uganda. I also knew that he gave 100% of the proceeds from Love Does away. I’m sure that’s some of the reason there are more than 300 students there today.

What I didn’t know was, every time he goes to Uganda, he brings little, pin-on, military-style medals. So when he’s talking to a teenage boy, who was abducted then conscripted into a life of violence and depravity, he can pin one on him and say: God sees you and you are precious to Him.

You can’t imagine how many people need to hear that, and not just child soldiers.

So a couple of months ago in Texas, my colleagues and I were discussing how, in two-weeks time, anybody can reasonably expect to impact a bunch of neglected and abused girls in Madagascar. Ridiculous really – a total fools errand.

IMG_5078“We ought to take them swimming,” my partner said.

“Yah, and pin some medals on them.”

Sometimes when a thought bypasses my brain on it’s way out my mouth like that, I think God’s behind it.

I spent hours on-line looking for the kind of medals I imagined Bob was pinning on kids in Uganda, but I couldn’t find them. So I called my friend Kim, who owns Hometown Trophy and T’s – a mom and pop trophy shop in my town. I explained what I was doing and since she’s read Love Does, she said, “Yep, got it. Let me call you right back.”

Ten minutes later, her daughter Lindsey called and showed me, not a pin-on medal but a heavy Olympic-style medal with a crown on it. She offered to string a ribbon on it that matches the Malagasy flag and asked if we wanted anything inscribed on the back. Sure! Can you write beloved, chosen, precious, courageous and overcomer on them?

“You bet,” she said. Then she donated them – All 200 medals.

DSC01369It had been a hard, discouraging week in Texas. One where you think any second the alarm will sound, so the real player, the one who isn’t incompetent at your job, can step in and take over. As I’ve said before, sometimes I forget this thing I do isn’t all on me. 

The day Lindsey and Billy delivered those medals to Mercy Ships, I held one in my hand for a very long time. I turned it over and over and read the word Beloved engraved on the back.

The end of the story is this:

After Madagascar’s wildest pizza party, we had 35 medals left. Akany Avoko employs 40 staff.

The next day we walked back up the hill to Akany with 35 medals in my backpack, hoping for a solution to the obvious problem. I told Director Lalasoa, how much we wanted to give her staff those medals but we couldn’t imagine which five people would not get one.

“Wait, you have 35 medals in your bag?” she said.

“Yes.”

“I have five left over from last night, just sitting on my desk.”

“What? You have five medals sitting on your desk?”

“Yes.”

For those of you bad at math, that’s 40. Later that week, Lalasoa called her staff together, thanked them for their hearts and hung medals around their necks.

On Madagascar & The Everyday Miracle

 

I used to believe in coincidence, but I don’t anymore. 

After a month at play in a garden of miracles, ascribing mere coincidence to an improbable stream of events just feels stingy and mean.  Here’s what I mean by that. 

On Taxis. 

A member of my new Mercy Ships team, Valerie, sprained her ankle before we left Texas. Madagascar, hilly and green, looks like a fairy kingdom from above – you kind of expect to see Hobbit doors affixed to each hill. This is delightful, until you have to walk up and over them, which we did, nearly everywhere.  For two weeks, Valerie stuck close to our base, dutifully managing a project there. She didn’t paint 100 sets of fingernails at Akany Avoko, our girls home partner up the hill, nor did she go swimming with the girls day after day. It was too hard to get her there. On the second to last day though, she asked if we could make it happen.

The next morning we waited for a bus to come by that didn’t already have six people hanging out the back door. Rush hour. No chance, and we had only 15 minutes to get there. This ain’t my first rodeo, I did what I know to do.  

“For a thousand reasons Lord, we can’t be late getting the girls to the pool. You know this. I need a taxi. Help.”

Not two minutes later, a little cream-colored Renault taxi puttered up, but it was already under hire, with at least four people in it. Isn’t that just the way sometimes when you’re practicing your faith?

Well, yes Lord thanks, but that won’t work, it doesn’t solve my problem.” 

The driver slowed and shouted something unintelligible in either French or Malagasy. I nodded confidently in case he was asking if we needed a cab, then off he went. 

“Lord help. I need a taxi.”

Four minutes later, an empty cream-colored Renault came skidding down the hill, blocked traffic to turn around and picked us up. At nine sharp, we walked up the drive to meet the girls, who jumped up and down cheering when they saw us. Akany’s driver, Mr Benza, who is the picture of punctual faithfulness, smiled at me and started herding a bunch of squealing teenage girls into the van, just like he had every other morning. 

Probably just luck right? Coincidence? 

Three days later, standing on the same dirt road, a tiny bit late for the first in our series of breathtakingly long  flights, I smiled and said, “Lord, I need a taxi.”

I couldn’t help but think we’d made a grave planning error. We were 15k out of the city and in two weeks, the cream-colored Renault was the only taxi I ever saw on that road. 

“Lord, I know your arm is not to short and I know you see me standing here surveying my limited options. Help.”

As I turned to walk back to the office, practicing how to say, “I need a cab” in French, my partner hollered.  Pulling up to the gate was Mr Benza with his van full of staff from Akany Avoko.  We had visited the center a few hours before but never mentioned we needed a lift to the airport. Director Lalasoa, leaned out the window smiled and said, “need a ride?” 

Mr. Benza didn’t drop us off. He pulled into a lot, parked the van, hoisted my rolling suitcase onto his shoulders and walked with us to the International terminal. Though we share no common language, we said goodbye like old friends. Allies really. 

Coincidence?

On Swimming.

Raise your hand if you think it’s smart to take 167 orphans/foster kids, many of whom can’t swim, swimming.  Yep, me neither. 

Nonetheless, months ago in Texas, we decided what abandoned and abused girls need is not a troupe of short term missionaries doing crafts with them, but a group of advocates/allies/friends who want treat them like our own.  What does that even look like?

Team member Lisa and the girls

The problem is, it’s rainy season in Madagascar. Every morning we ducked under awnings in the muddy street market dodging women selling ducklings and mushrooms and Nokia cell phones, on our way to Akany and then to an outdoor, unheated swimming pool. 

Lord, swimming in the rain is a bummer. Plus, none of these children have an ounce of extra body fat, my team will be fine, ha ha, but them? Help.” 

Sun on the pool became, not a joke exactly, but more like an awesome winning streak, the kind that makes people want you to bet for them at the racetrack. 

Every day we prayed in the van as the windshield wipers squealed against the glass. By the time the girls piled out, changed into their brand new swimsuits purchased for them in Madagascar by a generous American donor, the clouds parted and the sun shone right on our bright blue pool. I mean it, every day. Even if there was grey all around, we had beams of sunshine streaking through the clouds, keeping our baby girls warm in the water. Some days were complete bluebirds. 

One Akany social worker, a  super smart woman named Ony, told Lalasoa later that the sun shining day after day on that pool, in this rainy season, with these praying Mercy Shippers believing it would, has changed her faith. 

Coincidence? Every day? Really?  

On Movies.  

When you’re an orphan, few people stand around waiting to photograph you doing something cute. So we chose to do just that. One of our Dutchies stayed up all night, making a gorgeous 20 minute high-res video full of sweet little girls in brand new bathing suits, smiling and splashing in a sunny swimming pool. 

Edit  He made it on his Mac because Macs are good at such things, but Madagascar, if it lives in technology at all, does it in a very PC way.  You know where I’m going with this don’t you? 

On the night before we left, we had a pizza party at Akany with more than 200 people, because that’s what we’d do with our own kids. (80 large pizzas, in case you’re wondering.) But the movie wasn’t done compressing so we could drop it on another hard drive blah blah blah. 

Jen from IT was working around it like a freak,  Haja from Scripture Union was hustling a second hard drive and Jelmer the Dutchie was red faced and sweating. Finally, I stopped them and we prayed. 

“Lord you didn’t bring us this far to see this fail. You love them more than we do. Help.” 

Five minutes later, Kelsey, an American who had lived and worked at Akany for a year, strolled in and said,

“Hey, I’ve got a Mac VGA adapter in my room, will that help? My dad sent it to me for Christmas. I haven’t used it yet.”

I thought Jelmer was going pass out. When Kelsey showed up with it in her hand, he kissed her while the rest of us jumped up and down, high fiving. Three minutes later the movie splashed across the long concrete wall. The room went silent then erupted in a 20-minute symphony of awesome. 

A Mac VGA adaptor? In Madagascar, in a missionary girl from Pennsylvana’s Christmas cache? Really? 

Can you stand one more? 

On Flying

We left the ship in Tamatave, Madagascar Wednesday afternoon. It is now Saturday just about everywhere on earth and I’m still in the air.  We stayed nights in two cities we just meant to transit – Nairobi and London – and we will stand in a total of, count them, SIX immigration lines before we make it home. On our replacement flight from Nairobi to London we were middle seat, middle row dwellers on an overbooked flight – the airline industry’s version of purgatory – and I’m pretty sure our bags are still in Kenya.  

But remember, sometimes the taxi is full, right before it’s empty. 

Long before all that happened, standing at our very first check in, I said: “This field service has been one for the record books and in my whole life, I’ve never been so tired. Let’s pray for Business Class.” 

“Lord, not my will but thine. I’m happy to sit wherever you want me, but you also say to present our requests with Thanksgiving, so thanks for everything, and if you never did one more thing for me, it would all be enough, BUUUUUUT if there are two extra business class seats somewhere between here and Dallas, I’d sure be grateful.”

Here’s what American Airlines business class looks like from London to Dallas. I don’t know how it happened, but it did. Kevin the steward keeps calling me Mrs. Kirk and asking to refill my Mimosa.  

Friends, this isn’t a magic trick and God is no genie in a bottle. I could list a dozen times where he said no. However, my Bible says two things:

The prayer of a righteous man availeth much. 

I am made righteous through my faith in Jesus.  

Living like this is a choice. This faith did not fall on me like rice at a wedding. I had to work for it: Getting up early, studying, praying, trusting God to walk with me when I don’t understand, and believing he is good even in suffering.

I have lived both sides now: skeptical and indifferent to things of faith and entirely sold out to them. I can tell you with certainty, the latter just works better.