Mission Accomplished – The Esther Project

  The Esther Project girls pulled away from the dock in Tamatave, Madagascar this morning through a wall of heavy, warm rain. Because it is Easter Sunday, and our weekend was such a breathtaking success, that seems more than right.  

My friend Stacia stood with her arm over my shoulders, as the last girls boarded the bus, and said:

“Look at this. It’s beautiful.” 

Academy principal Dave saw that comment break me in two. He walked over, took the tail of his shirt and wiped my whole face with it. Which, if you know Dave at all, is exactly something he would do.  

I could prattle on about all this or I could run the highlight reel. 


This is Captain Jan.
 He was an early and vocal supporter of The Esther Project, and this morning was discovered during a routine stowaway check in the van headed back to Tana with the girls. He’s since been returned to the bridge. 

Yesterday, when we toured the Africa Mercy, Captain Jan and Second Officer Eric let the girls take the helm, which they could barely see over, sit in the Captain’s chair and try out the big binoculars. 

One of the girls had this to say about the experience:

“Our Captains are very handsome.”

I’m not sure what’s funnier about that statement, the handsome part or the use of the possessive “our.” Clearly, The Africa Mercy is the girls’ ship now, but her Captain and Officers too? 

 Incidentally, Jan recognizes he is saluting with the wrong hand in this picture.  He would want you to know he was also holding his phone. 

Speaking of amazing guys, here are another two – Ally and Tom. These are the greatest servant hearted fixers of all time, from shower facilities, to communication gaps, these two are all the grease you need. 

Oh and here’s something we learned about showers: Teenage girls like them. 

Especially when you give them a bag with shampoo, soap and a fluffy new towel, right when they get off a ten hour bus ride.  That creates certain expectations, such as: Where are the showers you didn’t think to provide.  

I freak out about stuff like that, but Tom just gets his tools and rigs up three new showers, which work great until our new field security officer Pennie notices a small leak. As she goes to fix it, the shut off valve comes off in her hand. If she lets go, we have a fire hose in the bathroom. Here’s a video of the experience I know she’s dying for me to post.   

Oh yes, and speaking of water, we had it everywhere, especially in our makeshift Hilton, aka: the warehouse on the dock. The Queen Mother of all hospitality, kindness and detail, Lisa Svatek, collected and placed every bucket and bedpan she could find so the girls’ mattresses wouldn’t get wet from the leaky roof. A few did, but even rainy season can’t diminish this level of cute.    

 Are you wondering what happened to all those Pom Poms?

Maybe by now you’re thinking, just how did we manage a beach trip and pool party with all that rain? Excellent question. 


We didn’t.  The rain stopped.    

If you’re me, and planning an outdoor event where rain is certain to spoil your plans, you pray whiny, beggy, cajoling prayers, that basically sound like “Lord pleeeeeeeease. Sun. Ugh.”

The sun never came out at the beach. It was overcast, without a drop of rain.  

But listen, our baby girls live at 5,000 feet and can’t handle sea level sun. Had it been out they would have melted. Plus, the beach would have been packed with people. As it was, we basically had it to ourselves. In addition, had that storm not blown through, the ocean would have been calm enough for swimming, which we didn’t really want for safety reasons. They were happy just to splash in the waves. 

God knew all that before I did.   

How often, after praying for something I don’t get, do I assume the Lord just didn’t answer? Why can’t I trust that He sees what I actually need and is eager to give it to me?

Africa Mercy crew will tell you, that you have to get a coconut at the beach. It’s critical. This vendor saw a significant spike in his daily revenue.  

And by the way, do these swimsuits look familiar? Remember a year ago, when we took the girls swimming in Tana? An American donor bought them new swimsuits. Isn’t it starting to seem like someone is behind all this?

Can your heart handle one last story and picture?

Madagascar is a tropical island nation and native tropical fish swim all around the dock.  Kneeling there you can see dozens of varieties. It’s a giant magnificent aquarium.  


They were doing this when Principal Dave, the one with snot on his shirt, plucked a few urchins from the water and let the girls hold them, which of course prompted squealing.

This morning before they left, one of the girls got up and spoke to everyone through the translator. She spoke quietly and had to compose herself.  Among a few other things, here is what she said:

“We thank you because now we can see how much you love us.”

That, my friends, is complete victory. Thank you to all of you who worked and prayed and paid and planned and trusted that together we could bring a little more heaven to earth. 

EP final graphic


On Grace and Hustle

redwoodsThis morning I was watching one of my favorite pastors, John Ortberg, talk about the cycles of grace. 

And just what living in grace looks like day to day.

But then 20 minutes later something annoying happened, and all that resolve to live in grace slipped off me like soap in the shower.

Maybe that’s a good thing, because knuckling down and trying harder to catch and harness up the unmerited favor of God is frankly, kind of dumb.

Are you smiling with recognition? Yah, we do this.

I’m always trying to find the right balance between grace and hustle, because I’ve got goals and I don’t believe in lying down waiting for them to fall on me. But at the same time, I was the 10 year old kid who wanted to be 16. I’m rarely content just enjoying were I’m at, soaking up the grace of God.

Here’s the only thing that makes sense to me in this situation.

john-chapter-15-verse-5-arlene-nanoukNothing! Jesus says.

I have years of practice hustling without Jesus, and frankly I’ve got a few funny stories from it, so it’s tempting to think he’s wrong.

But what I didn’t have then, and obviously don’t have now, is peace – plain and simple, the kind of soul peace, that Ortberg said, “makes people want to be around you.”

And if I examine the goal of most my hustle, it’s usually to encourage people around me to keep growing into whatever God has planned for them. To do that, I’ve got to have something good cooking in my own kitchen.

I’ve felt the soul peace Jesus describes a number times, and it is amazing. It’s a not unlike slipping into a warm bubble bath or sitting down to talk with your favorite friend after a long separation. It feels good like that.

And the only time I ever find it is when I abide for a good long while, somewhere quiet; dwelling in stillness and expectancy.

One other thing Ortberg said this morning that stuck:

You are going to go through your day no matter what. You can knuckle-down and hustle it, getting aggravated in traffic, annoyed and snappy with your colleagues, or you can invite Jesus into it first thing, saying “Can you help me with this day because I want peace – your peace.”

It’s a choice.

I blew it in a thousand small ways today because I’m hustling like a freak. But happily his mercy is new every day, and I’m going to get up tomorrow and try again.

Abiding first thing.

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. 


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.