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. 

Feel Like It’s All On You? Thoughts From Madagascar. 



People who visit Africa from other places will tell you, Africa has a smell. Certainly Africa has many smells, but when you finally stand on the Tarmac in Brazzaville, Nairobi, or Lusaka, after one million hours in the air, the thing you smell is smoke – charcoal smoke. 

It won’t register on your first visit to the continent; the overwhelm is too great. You notice it the second time, when someone turns to you and says, “it smells like Africa,” and you know what they mean.  

I’m enjoying that smell afresh tonight, sitting on my bed in Antananarivo, Madagascar, because I’m wearing the same pants I put on five days ago in Texas. I’m the gal who boldly proclaims, while still on the airplane, that certainly all of our team’s 30 checked bags are snug in the cargo hold beneath us. Imagine my happy/sad face when that proved 98% true. One team member suggested I proclaim more specifically in the future. Good note.

So I wear the same thing, and as each day passes I care less and less. My new Malagasy friends do it and it’s actually sort of freeing.  When and if my bag does arrive, I suspect it will be like Christmas. Or maybe I won’t care. 



When leading a team into a foreign country, even when they are fairly experienced Mercy Shippers, it’s hard not to think its all on me and the other team leader. Because when a question is asked we’re expected to answer it, even if we don’t know, which is usually the case. So we ignore our jet lag and bob and weave like crazy, and in that it’s easy to forget, it’s not all on us.   

On our first morning in Madagascar, I sat in the little gazebo on the hill watching the rain soak the flowers, the ducks and the green valley below, and I totally panicked.

I knew Stefan had to leave early to hustle a thousand supplies in the muddy street markets and I’d be left to begin the day, not just with my team but with the 30 Malagasys who showed up to work with us. 

And you know people don’t want to admit this, but it’s hard to make new friends, especially as adults, especially in a foreign country with at least four foreign languages, jet lag and 100% humidity. It’s awkward and terrifying and I knew my team and the 30 or so locals would look to me to say something meaningful, unifying, inspiring, motivating and holy to start the day. 

“Jesus, help! You know I’m inadequate for this,” I prayed in my gazebo as the school kids ran by giggling and chirping “Bonjour Madame.”

“I know.”

“I don’t know how to lead all these people.”

“Why don’t you just bring them to me and let me lead them?”

“Oh. Ok, that’s a good idea.”

So that morning I quit believing it’s all on me and I laid it all on Him. Five minutes later we were singing together, first in English and then Malagasy, and the rivers of awkward began to run off us. Then someone on my team produced an inflatable globe. One by one we tossed it around, pointing out where we live: Madagascar, The Netherlands, The US, Switzerland, and everybody shared, through a wonderful Malagasy translator, one thing each of us loves.  

Malagasys, by the way, love to sing and play music. At this moment, there is a wedding outside my window where they are doing just that. 

Maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for the thousandth time since I came to Mercy Ships I was in over my head, and the God I serve extended his righteous right hand and pulled me out. He promises to do that for anyone who asks, but if we remain hermetically sealed inside a world we can easily handle, we never give him the chance to prove it.  

Later today we’ll walk up the hill, through the muddy markets and chaos to Akany Avoko, a home for abandoned, abused and homeless girls. We’re going with our pockets full of fingernail polish.  

And maybe we’re not saving the world here in Madagascar, but maybe nobody asked us to. Perhaps God is just asking us to engage the world in a way that’s way over our heads, so we have to keep reaching for him.