Early in September, we were away from home for one week. When we returned, we learned that our neighbor, a young teenage boy, had brutally killed our pet cat while his little sister watched the whole gruesome process. That same morning we learned this, the boy also attacked our front porch with a machete, trying to destroy all the potted plants I’d been growing there. He did this in broad daylight right in front of the eyes of our other neighbors and while we were inside our home. We all lived together in the same “courtyard”, and now we had a clearly violent and unavoidable threat directed specifically at us. It was even worse because this boy had grown increasingly hateful and threatening towards our family over the preceding few months and he wasn’t improving, nor was his family trying to help discipline or restrict him.
So we spoke with our landlady, our other neighbors, our best friends in town, everyone we could think of asking for help with this situation. Everyone agreed that the threat was real, that at some point it would escalate further, and that our boys would likely be the next target. Everyone also agreed that seeking help from the legal authorities would likely make things much worse, due to rampant corruption and abuse in the local legal systems. Even our landlady felt incapable of removing this family, though she admitted that soon after they moved in, many people had come to tell her that this family had caused a lot of trouble in their last place of residence also. Apparently people had some deep fear of responding too strongly to this family in particular, although they all agreed the threat was serious, things would only get worse, and the boy would likely wind up in jail in the future after doing something even more terrible.
It was a frustrating, heart-breaking, destabilizing, and infuriating situation for us – that injustice and wrong, perhaps even evil, could so easily triumph and be allowed to persist and grow. There was nothing we could do but turn to God, plead with him for justice, and find out if he was leading us to respond to the situation in a certain way. At first it was difficult for us to hear clearly from God, due to all the mix of emotions we had regarding the situation. But we both felt that God was being clear with us that this was not a threat he was asking us to simply endure, he was not asking us to continually subject ourselves or our boys to it. This was important to realize, because after many years of living in Madagascar now, we have had to endure a number of risks and threats to ourselves and our family, and when they seem particularly outrageous (as this one did), we simply have to ask God if this is truly what he wants for us. Several times since being here, I’ve felt God clearly indicating that, yes, some specifically strong risk or especially difficult hardship is something he is asking us to endure. But this situation (with the boy and his family) was not one of those times.
So all that was left was to ask God: “what then do we do?” We pleaded with him to remove this family from our courtyard, through one form or another. We asked him to provide us with another home in Ambilobe that we could move into, one which would be well-suited to us, and that he’s give us the energy and enthusiasm to make the move. But God didn’t answer these requests.
Instead, in response to our questioning, God spoke very strongly to both Lora and me, each in our separate prayer times, and his response was about something far bigger, something we absolutely did not expect. He communicated to us that no matter where we are, whether Madagascar or anywhere else in the world, he is with us and we are with him. And he communicated it much more strongly than in just those words… it was a non-verbal type of communication that responded to a huge number of deeply-held ideas, feelings, and thoughts that Lora and I both have had about pursuing God with this call he’s given us here in Madagascar. Regarding everything we ever thought and felt about it before, God was changing it. It was like he was “releasing” us. Pursuing his work here was no longer a duty or an obligation for us, it was no longer a “call”. Our relationship with God wasn’t changing in the slightest – this was the foundation of what he was communicating to us – but his role for us in his Kingdom was no longer tied to this place.
In our separate prayer times, this same profound thing was communicated to both Lora and me, and to both of us very strongly. For Lora this communication from God was also accompanied by a very strong compassion and love for that boy, his family, and for Malagasy people in general – to replace the bitterness that had been growing in her since the situation had happened and with the apparent inability to find any resolution to it in the local culture and society. For both of us, it was very clear that God was doing a new thing in our lives with him, and it was no longer bounded by his call to us here in Madagascar.
However, it wasn’t yet clear to us what that did mean about our present situation. Just because God wasn’t obligating us to stay in Madagascar didn’t indicate to us that we shouldn’t stay and continue the work. After all, the fields are ready for the harvest, and there’s always need of more workers. In our work specifically, it seemed we were just getting to a point where things could grow well and where hard work and leadership was still very much needed. Why should we not stay and continue? In light of what God was communicating to us, the situation with the boy and his family seemed like a weight lifted off of us, a minor thing with a number of simple solutions (i.e. very soon either God could move them on somewhere else, or he could provide for us a new home to move into, or something else altogether… we simply had to take strong precautions for our family in the meantime).
So we spent the next couple weeks praying and seeking God for further clarity, while also looking for a new house in Ambilobe that we could move into. During that time I asked God a LOT of questions, in a LOT of different ways, just trying to understand what was next for us. I’d also simply ask if he had anything else to say to us, maybe something we were missing so far. Throughout it all, God never revealed to us clear steps for our future, but he continually re-emphasized the solid foundation of our relationship with him and how it was no longer tied to Madagascar. At different points, Lora and I each felt like God was responding to our persistent questions with the simple response that he had already communicated clearly enough.
And this is what God was telling us: that our time here is finished. I felt him clarify that in prayer more and more over the following weeks. He was telling us that we could try to stay longer and continue to participate in his work here and it wouldn’t be a big problem, but our efforts wouldn’t be a big success either – it would be sort of like a small child playing and digging around in their father’s garden – making a little bit of a mess and not contributing anything to the real harvest. The tasks that God gave us here, for which he called me here over twenty years ago, are now finished. The remainder of God’s work here is now through other people and other means.
One day during these last few weeks, I found myself asking God, “why now?!?” In that question, I was including my surprise at the apparent suddenness of it all, my self-doubts about if there was something we’ve done wrong, whether anything has changed in the work or between us and God, or if there was anything else we were missing. I really believe I felt God responding simply that there’s nothing special about “now”, the sense that this is not sudden, God is not surprised, nothing has changed, this is the point (with relation to our role in the work) that God has long been working towards with us and now we’ve completed our part in it. Everything between us and God will continue forward as it has, just with us in a different place and in a different role. And as far as our relationship and God’s plans are concerned, this moment is not that significant… it’s simply the end of a season. The situation with the boy and his family was, at best, a coincidence of timing that God used to speak to us about something far more important, but not at all a cause for us to leave Madagascar.
When Lora and I look back on a number of things that God has communicated to us in prayer over the last six months or so, it’s a bit easier to see in hindsight how God has been preparing our hearts and minds for this moment. Though the work here seems to just now really be starting, yet God has frequently communicated to Lora and me to try not to take the lead in it, that our part in the work would be hidden, that others (such as our good friend Nuckiline) would be the true leaders in this work, and that our role is to support them, pray for them, and seek God’s Kingdom here through them. During these many months now, God frequently told us not to go before them or without them, and to teach and demonstrate to them that they can’t rely upon us, but only upon Jesus and his Holy Spirit. Looking back, it’s easier to see how God knew this day was coming and he was preparing for it all along.
And yet for us it all still feels so very sudden and shocking. I mean, seriously, it was over twenty-one years ago that God gave me a vision to come here to Madagascar, before I ever knew the country existed, before I had any thoughts of traveling overseas or any real thoughts about my future at all. And once God called me here with that vision, I’ve been laser-focused on pursuing him in this work ever since, with no real thought of anything else. For more than half my life, everything I’ve done, I’ve directed towards this place, this task, this burden that God laid upon me. And now suddenly it’s relieved, it’s finished. We’re having a hard time knowing how to respond to this.
But God certainly knows how to work out the details! In Antanamazava, the nearby village where we have a thriving discipleship group that we started together with Nuckiline, one of the last stories we shared there was the one about Jesus walking on the water. During our time with the group there, the Holy Spirit inspired me about one aspect of that story that’s continued to be a big encouragement to me over these last couple of weeks.
I’ve thought about the expectations that Jesus’s disciples must’ve had when they set off on their journey. It must’ve seemed like a very straightforward thing Jesus told them to do: get in the boat and go to the other side of the sea. They probably assumed Jesus would just catch up later in a different boat after he was done praying on the mountain. But the weather and the waves along the way were terrible and they struggled all night just trying to cross that sea! When they were finally about halfway across, they were shocked by something they never expected to see: Jesus himself came over the surface of the water and met them there halfway! It took them a while to realize that it was truly him interrupting their journey. Peter even wanted to double-check first and exercise his own faith at the same time. And when Jesus got in their boat, everything calmed down at once, and they continued with him onto their next stop together.
It’s really a simple story, and the detail that stood out to me isn’t even really a big deal. But as we shared that story and discussed it together in Antanamazava, where the people there were also really dismayed about the thought of us leaving them soon, that one detail really came alive to me. Jesus often sends us on journeys that are anything but simple, that don’t end in the place or in the manner that we would expect them to. And he rarely tells us these things in advance – rather he just tells us to go, and we who trust in him simply get in the boat and we go. But we carry with us our own expectations about what lies ahead, usually fairly simplistic and self-aggrandizing. Often enough we face terrible storms along the way, and certainly the path is never as straightforward as we could’ve hoped. And sometimes Jesus astonishes us right in the middle of the journey, interrupting us in ways we could’ve never expected. But he always uses these storms and these surprises to increase our reliance upon and faith in him. And together with him, we continue on to the next stop, whether or not it had anything to do with what we expected when we set out.
Though the story is simple and the detail is minor, it reminds me that we’re in good company. Jesus judges our faithfulness by our willingness to go when and where he sends us. He doesn’t judge us by how far we’ve gone, nor by how well we comprehend the bigger picture and his overall plans, nor even by the unwavering nature of our faith – because even when we step out in faith and our doubts quickly return, Jesus reaches out his hand to lift us up again. Our faithfulness in Jesus is our willingness to go wherever and do whatever he says whenever he speaks it, and to always invite his presence along the way. And he doesn’t leave us, though sometimes it may seem he’s sent us ahead into the midst of a storm. But he’s always there, ready to climb into the boat, calm everything down, and continue on with us, even if the journey he had planned for us was different than the one we thought we were setting out upon. It doesn’t matter where we are, or even where we’re going, only that we’re always with Jesus.
So now we enter into a new season in life, one that we had no idea was right around the corner. We’ve moved out of our home in Ambilobe, and now we’re in the capital city, Tana, making some preparations and intending to return to the US. Of course it’s nearly impossible to make any solid plans with covid-19 still rampant in the world. The road from Ambilobe to here in the capital only opened up for travel just after God spoke to us about our time in Madagascar being finished. Even finding a place to stay in the meantime here in Tana only became available a few days before we left Ambilobe. Currently we have to wait at least a few weeks to receive David’s passport renewal from the US embassy. And there are still no regular international commercial flights here, but it appears that there are a couple of “repatriation” options that we can work out that should still permit us to travel back to the US. Though we can’t rely on our own planning right now, we trust that God will open each door for us right when it’s needed, just as he’s done so far.
And then, arriving in the US, what’s next? We have no idea! This is honestly something we’ve never prepared for or even considered our entire adult lives. I believe this is why God so heavily emphasized the relational aspect when he communicated all of this to us – because we need that solid foundation of being with him now more than ever! There are so many details to work out (not the least of which is navigating the US and our family relationships in the time of covid-19), options to consider, figuring out employment, housing, transport, etc., and much more time needed in prayer. We don’t even know what this transition period might look like. In the past 12 years, we’ve only ever visited the US. It’s entirely different for us to think of moving and living there and settling down long-term. It seems that everything will be different now.
But there’s certainly one thing that hasn’t changed and won’t change: we’re with Jesus, and we desire to join him in his work of further establishing his Kingdom wherever we are. We don’t know what that will look like for us in the US, but still heavy on our hearts is the desire to continue participating in discipleship, to reach out to international people and those most needing God’s touch – this could include immigrants and refugees or foster children or simply those for whom the institutional church is rarely an option. The idea of having meaningful paid employment while also participating in more direct ministry in our spare time seems appealing to us right now. But God hasn’t yet spoken clearly at all to us about any of these things yet. Right now we’re just in the boat with him, on our way to the next destination.
So, we’re at the end of a season and we don’t know what the next season for us will look like. If I were to compare with the regular seasons of the year, it seems that we’re leaving this field right at the beginning of summer (which, coincidentally, is the current season here in Madagascar). We’ve spent a very long season of many years working the ground in this area, and adapting the seeds we’ve sown to fit the local soil and climate. In Antanamazava, we’ve now finally seen those seeds sprout up into some beautifully vibrant plants, and we’ve even seen those plants cast their first seeds into the soil around them, with the hope of multiplication in the future. But God is moving us on before the full harvest season begins.
On top of all this, in Nuckiline most of all, we’ve had a long term co-worker who’s joined us faithfully in this work. She’s watched our efforts, she’s put her hand to the plow together with us, and she’s also guided us to better recognize the environment and materials we’re working with. We’ve seen God grow and transform her own passion for him and vision for her people over the last seven years now, often wondering if our relationship with her had anything to do with it. And lately she’s told us openly – how through us God has given her a vision to go, in spite of hardships and even to people she doesn’t know, but to those who most need to hear the good news, in their own language, in a way that can pierce their hearts and transform their lives, and then be spread even further.
The vision that God gave us for the Antakarana people has now fully gripped Nuckiline’s own heart. She’s now completely committed to carrying forward and growing the work in our absence – most likely it will be far beyond anything we could do ourselves if we remained. Please pray for Nuckiline, for strength, endurance, wisdom, humility, and ever-growing love as she takes the lead role in God’s movement among the Antakarana. Please pray that God would send her more co-workers, whether from afar, or even from the first harvest in Antanamazava, that together through them the image of God would dwell even more fully and visibly within the Antakarana people, drawing many to his transformative grace and love.
Please continue to pray for us during this time, for clear guidance, provision, and fruitfulness wherever we go next. Pray that the things God has communicated to us during this time, the solid foundation of our relationship with him, will not be drowned out in the clamor of decision-making and distractions, or jet lag and cultural adjustments, but that a vision of his growing Kingdom, wherever we are, will always be at the forefront of our thoughts and minds and our motivations.
Thank you to all of you for your faithful support and prayers for so many years now! After so much invested for so long, these “final results” may not look like much right now (believe me, we often feel the same way). But if nothing else, I hope this journey has grown our faith together – in the things we’ve hoped for, the things we don’t yet see. I’m confident that God has been preparing, through all of us together, including your faithful prayers and participation, a beautiful harvest that’s not long in coming now. Others will have the joy of reaping it, and to us remains the joy of having worked faithfully in the fields even from the earliest hours. Thank you.
Adam, Lora, Matimu, and David Willard
P.S. This is probably our last newsletter sent from Madagascar, though we hope to update all of you again when we have a better idea of what’s next for us. At the same time, we’re not sure when we’ll actually be able to leave here – we hope to return to the US in time for the holidays (it would be our first American Thanksgiving in 10 years!), but we can’t be sure.
For those of you who support us financially, we’d like to ask you to please continue doing so during this transitional time for us. If you’re unable to continue for any reason, we understand, and please don’t feel burdened. But if God has laid it on your hearts to support us up to this point, and if you’re able to continue for now, please do so until we’re able to leave Madagascar, arrive in the US, and hopefully not too long after, find out what’s next for us, whatever type of employment or livelihood that may be.
And if you have any ideas or suggestions that could help us through this transitional time, please let us know! In particular, if you know of anyone selling a used but reliable vehicle for a really good price, that could be a very big help to us. Or possibly if you know of a place to quarantine for a short time in the OK/MO/AR area, that might also be a big help. (We’re still trying to figure out what we can or should do about covid-19 after traveling internationally and arriving in the States in this season.) Thanks to a few supporters giving very generously during this time, our above-normal travel expenses for getting back to the US soon should be fully covered. If any of you feel God leading you to help us with our transition back and settling once we’ve returned to the US, we’d also really appreciate that. Thanks!