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. 

On Cattle Dogs and Impossible Prayers

IMG_2638Look who’s back to work.

My dog Gracie, the one with the floppy left ear who nearly died last week, is back in action.

Last Sunday, after her head had swollen to twice its normal size for mysterious reasons and the vet said we might have “some decisions” to make, I laid in my bed and cried, praying for my dog.

Meanwhile, one of my best friends in California is fighting for her life against ovarian cancer. Tear gas and revolution are blowing through Turkey for desperately important reasons and, officially, 70,000 people have been killed in Syria.

And I’m praying for my dog? How parochial, how selfish.

Then I remembered what my darling friend Lisa Long said to me at the Love Does Conference last month.

“Don’t compare yourself to other people, it’s a losing proposition.”

Life is hard for everybody in totally different ways because this world is broken.

Yet, there are protestors wrapping their arms around Turkish cops in riot gear; cops who perhaps moments before were firing water cannons into the crowd. Do they deserve hugging? Hardly. Are people still doing it? Yes. What an amazing impulse – where does it come from?

I can do very little about encroaching authoritarianism in Turkey, or the war in Syria, or Karen’s cancer, but rather than feel helpless and bitter, I have learned to pray and say thank you.

Like so many biblical mandates, that one seems irrational with water cannons firing, but when I do it, I feel unburdened, clean and stalwart, like I’m contributing to a war effort I can’t see. I imagine tethers snapping just on the other side of my awareness as I pour my heart into unfathomable places, exercising my faith for people I’ll never meet.

It doesn’t always happen, but when my heartbroken prayers get a yes, like they did with Gracie, my confidence grows and I begin to pray for increasingly impossible things, like a peaceable, common-sense solution in Turkey, an end to the fighting in Syria and that my sweet friend Karen and I will celebrate together at her son’s graduation. For all of this, I’m saying thank you ahead of time.

It reminds me of a poem by W. S. Merwin

Listen

with the night falling we are saying thank you

we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings

we are running out of the glass rooms

with our mouths full of food to look at the sky and say thank you

we are standing by the water looking out

in different directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

after funerals we are saying thank you

after the news of the dead

whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

in a culture up to its chin in shame

living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you

in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

remembering wars and the police at the back door

and the beatings on the stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks that use us we are saying thank you

with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable

unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us

our lost feelings we are saying thank you

with the forests falling faster than the minutes

of our lives we are saying thank you

with the words going out like cells of a brain

with the cities growing over us like  the earth

we are saying thank you faster and faster

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

we are saying thank you and waving

dark though it is

Can You Name Five Life Goals?

St. Andre - French Alps

St. Andre – French Alps.

I’m reading a fantastic book on prayer called The Circle Maker. Wendy Lawton of Books and Such Literary Agency recommended it, saying when she finished it, she bought 35 copies.

Praying to an unseen God can be really hard – especially if nobody’s ever taught you how or why it matters. This book does both.

Written by Mark Batterson who pastors National Community Church in Washington DC, this book is an anthology of miracles. Batterson tells every story backward, starting with a successful $3 million bid the church made on a rare piece of Capitol Hill real estate. Then he backs up a few years and explains the prayer that started it, which grew into many prayers, relentless prayers, boring daily prayers and an army of on-foot prayers circling the property until the deal closed.

It’s a book of evidence, but one that’s smart enough to tackle “unanswered” prayers or those where God says no. You should pick it up. It’s good.

Reading Batterson’s thoughts on goal setting, I noticed how neglected and mushy my own goals had become. How can you pray circles around things when you don’t even know what you want? He talked about a guy named John Goddard who at age 15 wrote down 127 life goals, ranging from milking a poisonous snake to learning Arabic. By the time he turned 50, he’d accomplished 108 of them.

Batterson writes:

The brain is a goal-seeking organism. Setting a goal creates structural tension…which will seek to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be, who you are and who you want to become…Goal setting is good stewardship of your right-brain imagination. It’s also great for your prayer life.

So, I began writing 100 life goals today – so I can circle them in prayer. Here are five:

  • Learn to fly a plane.
  • Live in France.
  • Build a Dream Center in Santa Cruz, California – (Whoa. Did I just said that out loud?)
  • Learn to play guitar well enough to play around a campfire.
  • Write bestselling books.
IMG_0573

Nice would be nice.

At least two of those goals are impossible without God, it’s just a fact. The trick, Batterson says, is to work like it’s on me, but pray like it’s on God.

And so my friends, today is audience participation day at Going to the Sea.

  • Who are you?
  • What are you dreaming up?

In the comment section please inspire us:

Link up your blog if you like and post five of your own life goals. Be bold.

Roll your works upon the Lord (commit and trust them to Him; He will cause your thoughts to become agreeable to His will and) so shall your plans be established and succeed. Proverbs 16:3