worshipRecently I attended a high school graduation and ran into friends I hadn’t seen in many years.  I had to answer the dreaded question, “What are you doing these days?” at least fifteen times in the space of an hour.  Each time I gave a slightly different answer.

“I’m a freelance writer.”
“I’m a private English tutor.”
“I’m doing Spanish translation work.”
“I’m caring for my grandmother.”

All of those things are true.  But none of them would qualify as consistent, nine-to-five, full-time employment.  The fact is that I haven’t had what most people would call a “real job” for the past two years.

In those moments of uncomfortable silence when I don’t have a ready response for people’s questions, I struggle with feelings of insecurity and worthlessness.  I feel like I need to justify my life, proving my value by the things I produce, or by the dollar amounts on my paycheck.

We are a culture that categorizes individuals by their occupation.  But when I met people in Asia, they would identify themselves not by their jobs, but by their connections to others. “I’m Jenny’s mother.”  “I’m Teacher Wang’s grandson.”  “I’m your landlord’s nephew.”  Their occupations were not as important as their “guanxi,” or relationships.

My Heavenly Father tells me that my value lies not in what I do, but in whose I am.  “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Romans 8:15, NAS).

Ultimately, I am a daughter of the King.  My identity lies in my relationship to Him. He says I am precious and loved (Isaiah 43:4), and that He has a wonderful future in store for me (Jeremiah 29:11).  And He’s the only One I have to answer to.

Going Vertical!

MJ

Insistent ringing woke me from a deep sleep.  Stumbling out of bed, I answered the phone and heard my friend Jennifer’s voice, calling from the U.S.  Shaking my head to clear the grogginess, I tried to take in what she was telling me.  There had been a car accident.  Her sister’s husband had been driving.  The family was called to the hospital in the middle of the night.  Her sister, who had been seven months pregnant with her first baby, was killed instantly.

This must be a bad dream, I thought.  I kept praying that I would wake up and it would be over.

Less than a month earlier, I had packed up everything and moved to East Asia as an English teacher.  My roommate and I were just starting to find our way around town, getting to know our students, and beginning friendships with the local teachers at our school.  Our little northeastern town was starting to feel like home.

But after Jennifer’s phone call, I was ready to jump on the first plane back to the U.S.  My heart ached for Jennifer and her family, who seemed a million miles away.  In that moment, I doubted God’s  plan for me. I wondered if I’d made a mistake in coming to Asia.

Soon after, I received an email from a friend that addressed exactly what I was dealing with.  He described how his family had moved from Australia to Hong Kong when he was young to begin a new ministry.  Almost immediately after they arrived, however, news came of a family emergency in Australia, tempting his parents to give up their calling and move back home.

“The enemy loves to end things before they’ve even begun,” he wrote.  Though it was difficult, his family decided to stay in Hong Kong, and God greatly blessed their work in the years to come.  “It’s not a coincidence that this tragedy occurred right at the beginning of your time in Asia,” he continued, “but I’m praying for you to persevere.”

With God’s grace sustaining me, I stayed in Asia.
I talked and cried with Jennifer, my family prayed with me over the phone, and my roommate covered classes for me when I needed a break.  As I shared openly about my own loss, a local co-worker confided in me the pain of her father’s death in a car accident many years ago, and I had the opportunity to share with her the hope I have in Jesus.

That was just the beginning!  If I had left that first year, I would have allowed the enemy to rob me of all God had in store in the following four years in Asia.  Even in pain and loss, Jesus brings life and hope!

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble (pressure).   But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Emphasis mine)

John 16:33 (NIV)

Going Vertical!

MJ

directionsGuilt took me on a walk around the block the other night.  It was a perfect summer evening.  The sun was setting, and there was a light breeze, a welcome relief from the intense heat of the day.  Taking a deep breath, I tried to relax.  But my route was dictated by my internal G.P.S. – Guilt Positioning System.

Taking an immediate left out of my driveway led me in the opposite direction of our 97-year-old neighbor of more than twenty years.  I tried not to think of how long it had been since I had seen her.  She must get lonely, at home all day with her cat.  I really should visit her…

Crossing over the street, I chose to avoid the block where my Chinese friends with the adorable baby girl lived.  Months ago, I had promised to invite them over for dinner with my family, but my schedule always seemed too full.  Passing their street reminded me of my unfulfilled promise, and I felt the nagging shame of not being a faithful friend.

At the end of the street, I turned towards the lake, carefully steering away from the house of my childhood friend from India.  We had been best friends in 5th grade, but we lost touch when I moved out of the country for a year.  When I got back, I tried to contact her, but she was hurt and angry, and didn’t want to talk to me.  More than 20 years later, I’m still flooded with painful regrets whenever I pass her house.

My shoulders weighed down with condemning thoughts, I didn’t even notice the ducks on the lake or the pink crepe myrtles as I passed them.  Guilt and shame threatened to overwhelm me, and I had to remind myself of the promise in Romans 8:1-2“Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (N.A.S.)

I began to breathe the truths deeply, taking big gulps of the fresh air of freedom.  I don’t have to believe the lies of the enemy that I am responsible for others’ feelings or reactions.  My neighbors have probably forgiven me and moved on, so why do I keep beating myself up about these things?  But even if others still hold onto grudges against me, if I repent for my part and surrender these concerns to God, He forgives me and gives me His peace.

Once again I was aware of the beauty around me – the sparkling lake in the fading sunlight, the geese flying in a V overhead.  There is no condemnation.  I can really be free of guilt and shame!

The next time guilt starts to lead me on a walk around the block, I’ll choose to walk in the truths of God’s Word instead!

GOING VERTICAL!

MJ

broken-wall1“I’ve always hated Americans,” Mary* told us through interpretation.  Sitting cross-legged on the floor of this small apartment in East Asia, listening to Mary’s story, I felt very uncomfortable.  Why was I here?  In Mary’s eyes, I was the enemy.

Mary grew up under the tyrannical, oppressive rule of an isolated East Asian nation.  All her life she’d heard about the evil Americans who were the cause of every injustice and hardship.  Every time the power went out in her city, the government officials said the Americans had shut it off.  When there wasn’t enough food to eat in her famine-ravaged country, the Americans were blamed for the shortage.

Though her government proclaimed that she was living in a “paradise on earth,” all Mary could see was poverty, hunger, fear, and oppression.  Finally, at the brink of starvation, she made a desperate escape, knowing she was risking her life.  Sneaking past the border guards who are trained to shoot to kill anyone attempting to leave, Mary managed to get across the river safely to the neighboring country, where she was taken in by a Christian family who gave her shelter, food and the love of Christ.  This family had arranged for Mary to meet me and another couple from the U.S., which is how we found ourselves sitting in a circle on the living room floor that night, listening to this amazing tale.

“When I began studying the Bible, I learned that Jesus tells us not to hate,” Mary continued softly, “but to love our enemies, and to forgive.”  She looked at the floor in silence.  “And I heard that Americans are not as I’d been told, but that many from your country love God too, and that some of you are even praying for our country.  I didn’t believe it was true, so that’s why I wanted to meet you to see it for myself.  But now I can see in your eyes that it IS true – I can see the love of God in you.”

Her voice full of emotion, Mary whispered, “Can you forgive me for hating you?”

The night Mary* met me was her first encounter with “the enemy.”  But something miraculous was happening in that meeting.  The walls of hostility were crumbling.  Because we had received Christ’s forgiveness, my American friends and I were able to extend forgiveness to Mary.  And as we repented on behalf of our country for ways we had hurt her people in the past, she was able to forgive us, her former “enemies,” as well.

Many hugs, tears, and prayers later, we left the apartment that night filled with awe that God would allow us the privilege of participating in such a holy moment. We were able to witness the healing power of forgivenessand reconciliation through Christ.

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For He himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”  Ephesians 2:13-14

* (Not her real name)

Going Vertical!
MJ

a-prayer-for-times-like-these“The father should have beaten his son.”

Simone’s shocking pronouncement was met with murmurs of agreement from her classmates.  Though she was the most outspoken of my middle school English class, she clearly wasn’t alone in her opinions.

These East Asian students had just finished reading the parable of the prodigal son, from Luke 15, for the first time.  In great detail, we had talked about each part of the story – how the son left his father’s home, wasted all his money on parties and gambling, and ended up in the mud with the pigs – finally leading up to the dramatic ending of the return home to his father’s arms.

With much prayer and anticipation, I then launched into what I expected to be a good discussion on the powerful illustration of a father’s love and forgiveness.  But when I asked whether the father in the story was a good father, the students’ answers surprised me.

“No, he wasn’t a good father,” James responded quickly.  “He shouldn’t have let his son leave home.”

“He shouldn’t have given his son money,” Sarah reflected, shaking her head.

“The son is very foolish. He will do it again,” predicted Lisa, brow furrowed in concern.  “And the father is not strict with him, so the son didn’t learn anything.”

That’s when Simone chimed in confidently with her opinion.  “The father should have beaten his son.”

Coming from a culture that demands unquestioning submission to authority and inflicts harsh consequences for disobedience, these 14 and 15 year old students couldn’t get past the glaring issue of the son’s rebellion.  The obvious moral of the story to these kids was that the son needed to be punished.  The message of forgiveness was totally lost on them.  Unconditional love was something they had never received from their own fathers.

What’s your view of the heavenly Father?  Do you see Him through the lens of your own experiences?  Are you too caught up in your own guilt to receive His grace?  Or will you accept His freely offered, undeserved, unconditional forgiveness and love?

“So he returned home to his father.  And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming.  Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.”  (Luke 15: 20 NLT)

GOING VERTICAL!

MJ

freedomNot much had changed in 36 years. The pathways were worn, and the buildings looked older – but with freshly painted Bible verses on the walls. It was the fall of 2007, and the private Latin American boarding school in this Colombian coastal city looked virtually the same as when I was a young teacher there in 1971.

I was 22 then, fresh out of college. As well as teaching all day, I had to be dorm mother to the students at night and on weekends, making sure they brushed their teeth and got to bed on time, and supervising the cleaning of their rooms and washing clothes by hand in a bucket.

Daniela, a bitter woman in her 40s, was the director of the school. She didn’t want me to make friends with the students, or even talk to them. It evidently made her jealous that the students liked me. Daniela accused me of prejudice against her because she was Colombian and I was American, even though I grew up in Latin America! She also couldn’t understand why I begged for time off to go to the beach that was just minutes from the school, or to visit my friends in the city. After all, she never went anywhere! This school was her whole life.

Finally, I decided I couldn’t stay there any longer. So one day, saying I was going on a “short vacation,” I left Colombia and went home to Mexico. I never returned.

For years I felt guilty about leaving on bad terms, without really saying goodbye. So when I had a chance to go back to Colombia in 2007, I started asking God for a chance to see Daniela, if she were still there and still alive. Amazingly, I ran into a man who knew about this small school and gave me the phone number! With fear and trepidation, I went to meet Daniela, taking a friend with me for support.

Bed-ridden for two years with diabetes that claimed both her legs and most of her eyesight, Daniela was a totally different person from the hard, angry woman I knew before. She smiled gently when I came into the room, genuinely happy to see me.

I told Daniela I had come to ask for forgiveness. Amazingly, she didn’t seem to remember that I had left under negative circumstances. There was no resentment, no anger. I was clearly forgiven. Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming love for this lady, now in her 70s, who had lived a lonely and difficult life. Through my tears, I prayed for Daniela as I knelt next to her bed, aware that this was a heavenly moment.

Daniela died just a few months after I saw her. What a blessing it was to see her and ask for forgiveness. I thought I had gone for Daniela when I went to Colombia and asked for her forgiveness. But it turned out that the healing and release, the peace that came from forgiving and being forgiven, was really for me.

GOING VERTICAL!

MJ

suitcase

East Asian train stations are not friendly to travelers with large suitcases. Clunking up the cement stairs to the platform with my 50-pound bag on a humid afternoon this spring, I wondered again why I was lugging this leaden weight all over the country. During the three weeks of the Fresh Start East Asia trip I had been pulling, rolling, lifting, and carrying my heavy suitcase through airports, train stations, subways, and bus stations, and my shoulders and back were complaining loudly at the mistreatment. I envied the other locals around me with their small backpacks and shoulder bags, deftly weaving in and out of the crowds, easily maneuvering the endless steps. When will I learn to travel light?

As I started up yet another long flight of stairs, my battered bag bumping behind me, I was reminded of other types of unnecessary weight I often carry around. For years I carried heavy loads of resentment and bitterness towards others. But when I finally was able to forgive, I suddenly felt as if a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I hadn’t realized how much the unforgiveness was weighing me down until it was gone. I felt so light, so free!

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Are you carrying unnecessary baggage through life? Are you weighted down by anger, disappointments, hurts, or offenses? Don’t carry those dead weights around for another day! Release your burdens to God, and let Him carry them for you. You’ll be amazed at the freedom you’ll find when you’re traveling light!

Going vertical!

MJ

691515009_c112b9c230

Rita* sat by herself, head bowed, as others talked and prayed in pairs at the Fresh Start seminar in East Asia. On this last day, the participants were being invited to forgive and release the one who had hurt them, as we have received the forgiveness of our heavenly Father.

Concerned that Rita didn’t have a partner to share with, I approached her hesitantly. Noticing the tears streaming down her cheeks, I sat in the empty chair next to her, feeling helpless. I didn’t have the vocabulary in Mandarin to ask how I could pray for her, much less to understand her answer!

All I could do was pray for Rita, asking the Lord to intervene. Then, in my halting Chinese, I attempted to communicate the message I felt was for her. “God is your heavenly Father. You are His daughter. He loves you.” Rita didn’t look up or respond, but noiselessly wiped away her tears.

Later when people were sharing testimonies, I was surprised to see Rita walk purposefully up to the front of the room. In a quiet voice she told of growing up as the sixth of seven children. Her father had a hot temper, often exploding in anger. Rita never felt that her father loved her or accepted her. The rejection of those early years was a deep wound that remained even after she married and had children, affecting her ability to give and receive love.

During the Fresh Start seminar, the heavenly Father had been filling Rita with His unconditional love, allowing her to finally forgive her earthly father. Now she felt she was able to love her husband and children in a way she had never experienced growing up. Rita declared that she was breaking the generational curse of rejection. A chorus of “AMEN!” boomed from the crowd of 50 plus participants. Face radiant, Rita proclaimed, “This young generation of parents in our country will love our children with the Father’s love!”

Have your parents ever failed you or disappointed you? Has your father or mother failed to be a good representation of our heavenly Father? If so, you don’t have to continue in the negative patterns of previous generations. You can choose to forgive your parents for that which didn’t match up to God’s standards. Malachi 4:6 says that if we seek the Lord, “He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.”

You can make a fresh start, beginning today, for this generation and future generations to reflect the Father’s heart!

Going vertical!

MJ

*Name has been changed.

pizza

The slice of supreme pizza lay untouched on his plate as Bob* leaned across the table, speaking in a low voice of his experiences the last several months. It was the night before our 3rd Fresh Start seminar in East Asia, and our hosts had arranged a special dinner meeting with Bob at Pizza Hut to hear some background about some of the members of his fellowship group who would be participating.

His cell phone turned off and the battery removed to avoid being tracked or listened to, Bob told our team how his local fellowship group had been targeted recently by the authorities. The leaders were taken into custody suddenly one night last fall, and interrogated for many hours. The group was forced out of their building and has not been allowed to return since. Members of the group have been followed, harassed, questioned, and threatened. Now meeting in small groups in private homes, the numbers have dwindled from 1000 to about 300.

“I’m always looking around me now,” Bob confessed, “and if I’m in a public place, I wonder if there are cameras or people listening or someone following me.” The stress of his situation has even taken a toll physically. One of our hosts told us later that she didn’t recognize him at first because he’s lost so much weight in the last few months.

Yet as he recounted these events, Bob’s face radiated a peace that went beyond his circumstances. “I want to be like Job,” he smiled. “Even though I suffer a lot, I will thank the Father in everything.”

He was even able to see some good in this period of trial. The members of his fellowship group, though fewer in number, are stronger than ever before. And he’s been able to share the reason for his hope with some of the authorities who have been questioning him!

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). By giving thanks in the midst of his suffering, believing that God will work it all for good, and praying blessing on those who were mistreating him (Romans 12:14-21), Bob was on the path to forgiveness and freedom.  His heart was in a position to reflect the Father’s love. With boldness and joy, Bob was able to proclaim in the middle of persecution, “I am FREE!”

Going Vertical!

MJ

*Name has been changed.

Tongue sticking out to the side, head bent over the desk in concentration, Billy carefully printed the English words on his phonics worksheet as I watched in amazement. It was a day I never thought would come. Billy typified the overindulged only child referred to in East Asia as the “little emperor.” The defiant four-year-old usually challenged my every instruction, but today he willingly joined with the other students to sing “Head and Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” And the same little boy who usually shouted his demands across the room today cheerfully said, “Thank you, Teacher,” when I gave him a pencil!  With a mischievous grin, Billy called out “Goodbye, Teacher!” as he bounded down the stairs at the end of class, and I couldn’t help but smile. My heart was hopeful that maybe, just maybe, Billy was turning over a new leaf.

The very next class, however, “the little emperor” was back with a vengeance. Billy scribbled with black crayon on Jenny’s notebook, laughing when she cried. He gleefully snipped my teaching assistant’s shirt hem with his scissors, and when confronted, yelled “SORRY!” in her face like a verbal attack. And when I gently reminded him to say thank you for a pencil, he angrily retorted in Chinese, “I WON’T say thank you! You haven’t given me an ERASER yet!”

The day Billy marched into my life, he challenged my ability to forgive. Over and over again I had to choose to forgive him, even though he never apologized for his actions or admitted he was wrong. When I finally came to a place of acknowledging that Billy owes me nothing, not even an apology or a change in behavior, the Father changed my heart towards Billy. I experienced a release and a peace that I hadn’t had before. I was actually able to love him. I even started to like him!

Peter must have thought he was being quite generous when he asked Jesus if he should forgive someone not once, not twice, not three times, but seven times for the same offense. I wonder if Peter thought of a “Billy” in his life when Jesus replied that we should forgive “not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).

Just as I had to forgive Billy repeatedly for the same offense, with no evidence of his repentance or a changed heart, God the Father continually forgives our rotten attitudes and sinful behavior, many more times than seventy times seven. I’m so glad there’s no limit to His mercy!

Ask God to give you the grace to forgive the difficult people in your life. Cancel the debt. Release them to God. Declare that they owe you nothing. As we have been forgiven, so let us forgive one another!

Going Vertical!

MJ

*Name has been changed.