Imagine looking upon a scene of dust and blood, of body parts strewn haphazardly, some still twitching, disjointed, bleeding out. Not one piece is connected to another and thus the entire body, broken apart and moments from death, lies collapsed in the sand, unable to move, unable even to seek help. A body so dismembered bears no resemblance to the human form, though every piece is there in one place. Instead, it’s a scene of disgust and revulsion, of loss and thwarted potential, something to be avoided, to look away from, to try to ignore and forget.
Last year, a few months after moving to the town of Ambilobe, Lora was having one of her prayer times and suddenly in her mind came a picture much like the one I just described. At that time she identified us with that mess of body parts, with that ugly hopelessness of being cut off from the body, the kind of affliction which causes everyone to avert their eyes. And in her prayer, she felt God assuring her that he sees us, that he’s with us, and even that he’s pleased with us where we’re at. A broken body, a severed limb, isn’t too big of a problem for him. He knows our hurts and our pains, he feels them himself, but his power to heal, to pick up the pieces and put them back together, is always greater.
Yes, scars remain (Jesus displayed his own scars to his followers even after his resurrection). But the scars prove his faithfulness, they’re records of his healing, not the other way around. They prove that the wounds we receive can hurt us deeply, but by the power of Jesus, they can’t destroy us.
Towards the end of last year, both Lora and I had been sensing in prayer that God was wanting us to take a break from the work here, a time to be “restrengthened in the Body of Christ”. To be honest, even the thought of it almost felt too painful to consider. The circumstances by which our last ministry team ended, and a number of other painful situations that happened in the months following, just made it seem like the effort wasn’t worth it. We were tempted to withdraw, to just try to “go it alone,” to not invest the time, the energy, and the vulnerable pieces of ourselves in an effort to build mutual trust, attempts which so often are met with rejection and pain.
I think so much of the global Church, and a whole lot of individual Christians, are in this same situation. We disagree over doctrine or practice, we have differences of personality or background, or often enough we just have hurt and broken relationships from the past. And these various things cause us to separate, to divide, and to cut one another off. We see offense where none was intended, or we isolate ourselves and hide our vulnerabilities so as not to risk any harm. We often think we’d be better off without those different perspectives and approaches, or those hurts and pains, weighing us down. I was just reading this morning in Acts chapter 15 about how Paul and Barnabas, who had worked so well and accomplished so much together, separated from one another and from joint ministry, not because they had different goals or beliefs, but because of the lingering pain caused when another of their colleagues abandoned them in the middle of the work.
How effective are the Enemy’s tricks! A wound has been delivered and we become convinced that the best response is a quick chop! – to amputate ourselves from the rest of the body. Rather than to put in the exhausting and nuanced work of rejoining the veins and ligaments little by little. Consider that scene I described at the beginning, only imagine now that each of those parts severed themselves. Each one presuming that the pain of being joined to the greater body was worse than that of being cut off from it. And now here we lie, a jumbled heap of blood and dust, a few muscles still twitching, but nothing remaining well-enough connected to make any coordinated actions, not enough to gather together and stand back up, no way to rise again. The weak heart’s last few beats pour its lifeblood out into the sand, where the arteries have been cut away. A bloody mess. We avert our eyes.
It sounds extreme, but is this not what’s happening so often? We’re so quick to fracture into denominations, to split our churches, to set up one more missions organization, as if it will be so much better than all the others. First we confine ourselves to these little groups, we can only work with our own kind, because only they can be trusted. Then the same spirit of division that birthed these smaller groups will often stick around long enough to break them down further, until all that’s left is a small handful or people or a lot of isolated individuals. For the actual people involved, after a few experiences like this, it’s usually easier to just stop trying to be part of a group. Or at the very least, to stop investing themselves. And so, naturally, there are plenty of Christians, those who want to follow Jesus, who aren’t even part of the body of Christ in any recognizable way.
The truth is, nearly every time we break off from the rest of the Christian group, we’ve got a great reason for doing it, right? People have acted inappropriately. People have betrayed trust. People believe wrongly. Maybe the people just aren’t working together effectively and efficiently. The list of good reasons goes on and on. But how often can we really say that we split ourselves off from others because of Jesus? Can you say that without using his name in vain? As in, Jesus actually told you to break apart that portion of his body, to cut yourselves off, and that he’s pleased by it? The world is full of possibilities, but I’m skeptical that this one happens often.
When God offered us this time of sabbatical, a gift we weren’t quite ready to receive yet, he knew exactly what he was doing. And it’s a very good thing, for our sake, that he made it clear the time was to be used for re-connecting to his body. It wasn’t a time for us to go off into a corner and lick our wounds, to isolate ourselves from possible pains, or to find ways to spend our time to make ourselves happy again. No. Instead it was a time to go again towards the same source as our troubles… and there to find strength and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
Without a doubt, God blessed the time that he gave us. One man we had never met before opened his home to us and gave us a great time of debriefing – a time to work through our history of struggles and pains in full vulnerability, to let the Holy Spirit speak and reorient us, and to begin the work of healing.
We spent time with people who have been striving in the same sort of endeavors as us, in every hidden corner of the world. Many of them have toiled longer and under greater hardships than us, have endured longer seasons of fruitlessness, and still they could share stories of God’s faithfulness. But the big picture that emerged from all of them together was one of unexpected results, of people dreaming and daring God to do great works for his Kingdom, and seeing him (eventually) respond greater even than they could’ve imagined.
We also spent a lot of time with people whose ministries look nothing like ours, and who themselves could hardly conceive of the work we’re involved in. Sometimes their stories were different, but so often they were the same: seeking God’s voice, obeying, facing all sorts of unexpected challenges, enduring, and always moving closer to God. We ourselves were humbled and thankful to see and understand a bit better all the different ways God works in and uses his people around the world, for his glory, and for his Kingdom.
Much of this time for us was a time of un-knowing, of losing a lot of the sense of surety and clear understanding in different areas that we thought we had. Even in this God had something to teach us. Often enough, I found myself in conversations with various people who were themselves hurting or struggling to see God’s presence in the challenges they were going through. Just sharing our own stories of struggle, and the little knowledge I had left of who Jesus is, was often a comfort and encouragement to those others in unexpected ways. God was subtly showing me that, no matter what state we feel like we’re in, he still wants to use us for the work of his Kingdom, to build others up and point them to him.
We met up with old friends, we spent precious time with our families, and we made plenty of new friends. We prayed together with so many people over those months and it was so refreshing. We met new fellow workers and have new opportunities for partnership in the ministry in Madagascar. Lots of different people, individuals and groups, also prayed for us and sent us out again.
Just before leaving the US this time, we visited a church we had never yet been to, and before even walking through the front doors, a lady recognized us in the parking lot and told us how excited she was to finally meet us after praying for us for years. Inside the church building was no different: person after person came to tell us they’d been praying for us for so long. That morning touched our hearts so deeply in a way we can’t even describe.
When we left the US again about three weeks ago, we went with a full awareness that we’re surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses”. So many in the body of Christ are accompanying us in this work. We’re not just some broken and spasming body part cut off from the whole, both ineffective and revolting. Rather we’re part of a much larger body that God is still redeeming, perfecting, making beautiful and worthy.
Ajith Fernando has some helpful observations about Christian relationships in his book, “The Call to Joy and Pain”:
Being part of the body is hard and often painful work, to be sure. We can’t rely on others, even the Church, the same way that we can rely on Jesus, because others will always disappoint and fail and offend us. But all the same, Jesus still asks us to rely upon one another, in him. Because it’s in being “joined and knit together”, united in his love, whereby the Holy Spirit is our lifeblood, each of us functioning in the purposes God has given to us. And only together can we fulfill his greater purpose: letting all the world know who Jesus is, that every knee will bow and every tongue confess, from every tribe, people, nation, and language, that Jesus the Christ is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
So as we head back north to Ambilobe next week, to continue working with God to see him glorified among the Antakarana, we’re happy to know that as we go, “we’re surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses”. Some are nearby, though most are far away. But it’s in our collective strength and efforts, by joining together in prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit, that we can cast off everything that hinders us and we can run with endurance the race set before us. So please join us in prayer, that Jesus will have a breakthrough among the Antakarana, and that it will come soon. And please join us also in any other way that the Holy Spirit leads you.