Psalm 84 and Sara Groves

If you’re someone who understands that life as a redeemed sinner is both beautiful and difficult, this post is for you. I hesitate to even touch on the hardships that come in the fine print of following Jesus to East Africa — there are so many lies blocking honesty and vulnerability that tend to make me freeze up.

“You’re being dramatic, Ashland.”

“If you tell people you’re tired and sad, they’ll get the wrong idea about this beautiful place.”

“No one will understand. To people back home, you might as well be living on Mars.”

“They may even openly question why you’re even there. Don’t play the martyr. It’s unattractive and also not theologically sound at all.”

“So they’re paying money to watch you suffer and be completely helpless…?”

“You yourself understand so little; you have no business trying to invite others into the confusion and mess of attempting relational ministry as an ex-pat.”

“You will 100% offend at least one people group. Tread lightly. Better yet, probably best to keep it to yourself.”

You get the idea. I’ve developed an isolationist mentality fueled by believing it’s not okay for me to have a post without pretty pictures. (Disclaimer: not a single human has ever so much as hinted at this, but the lies have been living in my head anyways.)

Lord, help my unbelief.

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If it’s alright with you, I think I’d like to be honest for a few minutes.

Thanks to a new read during this season (Behold the King of Glory by dear friend and pastor Russ Ramsey — I could not recommend this enough), I’ve been walking closely with Jesus in new ways through this season of longing and desperation over cultural brokenness.

I guess the timing is appropriate, given what Lent is all about. And let me tell you… I have never longed to see Jesus’ coming quite as deeply as I have living here.

Maybe it’s my white skin and western mind that stands in stark contrast to everything around me. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ll always be an outsider, no matter how many local friends call me their family. Maybe it’s just the Spirit revealing deep-seated issues and nothing more. All I know for sure is that I am acutely aware of the convoluted layers of brokenness I run into, quite forcefully, at almost every turn in this community.

And I’ve always done this thing where I NEED to have every piece to the puzzle when confronted with a problem. I almost can’t function until I have them all. Anyone else struggle with that? The desire to put all the pieces together, regardless of the cost? To understand every detail of a problem fully and thoroughly in order to come up with a solution? Yeah, that’s bitten me in the ass more times than I can count.

Because here’s the thing… what if there IS no “solution”? What then?

When the kids I know well are exposed to adult sexual behavior from the time they’re toddlers, because poverty requires 13 people to cram into a one-room, mud-walled home with no privacy. When their curiosity isn’t always addressed because shame runs deep in this culture, so they’re left to their own means of exploring with other kids. When that curiosity leads to inappropriate sexual behavior between pre-teens.

When trauma and anxiety from dysfunctional parenting lead children straight into pits of desperation, which then leads to seeking help from local healers in hopes of immediate relief.

When the teenage Ugandan brother I pray over and invest in threatens to throw it all away because he’s afraid. When he says he’s been cursed with unwelcomed visions of his father who died years ago (trauma stimulated by new surroundings and pressures is my best guess). When he says he can’t study because he can’t sleep at night.

When questions and concerns get lost in translation because cultural norms are so deeply ingrained and so vastly different than anything I’m used to. When I unintentionally offend my friends in the community because our value systems are different. Because people here value relationship over work, and innocently assume that I must be avoiding them because I chose productivity in an office over visiting them in their homes.

When a boy yells at me in anger and tells me that I’m not Ugandan and therefore will never belong here. Which is true in many ways, no matter how much it stings.

When interpretations and applications of Scripture are so far from anything I ever heard in the reformed circles I grew up in. When messages are laced with promises of success, protection, and prosperity if you turn to Jesus. When I hear so often of hell and so little of His loving grace. Basically, when I fear that people aren’t hearing the Gospel all the time. (Stemming from theology righteousness? Arrogance? Genuine concern? I may never know.)

When I’m taken advantage of by friends in the community and treated like a human ATM. When I realize there’s a good chance the people I helped financially used the money for things I didn’t agree to support, no matter how much I prayed for wisdom beforehand.

When teammates are stressed and spread too thin and can’t always find ways to love each other well. When everyone needs a break, but it’s impossible to find one most times.

When I’m so far away from people I know and love on the other side of the world, and struggle to process with them because they can’t (and shouldn’t be able to) fully understand.

I could go on.

I find that as my frustration intensifies, so does my desire to reach for a gavel and call a community-wide meeting. Somehow, I naivly believe that if I could get everyone to talk openly and honestly and be vulnerable with each other, mzungu and Ugandan alike, then all the problems would be solved.

“You, sir. Tell me how the missionaries offended you last week. Great. White people? Care to repent? Clarify? Maybe explain how you were hurt by what they did or said? Wonderful. Meeting adjourned.”

But I know that’s impossible. And even if it were possible, that’s not what would ultimately happen. So then I circle back around to frustration at the Creator of it all. What can I do to find peace here? How can I escape this discomfort? How can I alleviate pain from things that run so deep? “People are hurting, Jesus. I’m tired of crying with neighbors and only being able to pray over them. Why am I even here? Please help. Do something!”

Then two weeks ago, I was reading an article on Discipleship by Dr. Larry Crabb and realized that I’d been missing something. A very big, very obvious something that had somehow been clouded in the mess of heavy burdens.

“When relief of the inevitable pain of living in a fallen world becomes our priority, at that moment we leave the path toward pursuing God. God’s prescriptions for handling life do not relieve an ache that is not meant to cease this side of Heaven; they enable us to be faithful in the midst of it.”

Oh.

This whole time I thought I was fighting cultural brokenness, things wrong with the community right in front of me. Turns out I’ve been battling sin. A thing that knows no cultural divide or language barrier. A thing that seeps into every corner of this world. Yes. Right.  Had I been looking at the trees too closely and been missing the forrest? Is it possible to be blinded by righteous anger?

And then… and then… I opened my copy of The Blue Book and found Jesus there, too.

“The missing part of our lives [ability to ease pain, in my case] can either drive us crazy to the point where we lose paradise by reaching for more than we currently possess, or it can become the best altar for our prayers, where we remind ourselves of our dependence on God. When we understand how dependent we really are, we become free to enjoy the rest of the garden.

Jesus. Jesus. This is why he came. THIS is why he died in our place. Because we could never get out of this mess ourselves. This is what he came to redeem. Of course!

It is not, nor will it ever be my job to fix this place. Or fix my home culture. Or fix the entirety of the fall of man. I could see that now. Jesus came to make all things new; to bring a new heaven and a new earth. To restore what is dead back to life. He’s already done that on the cross, and he promises that he will complete it. Outside of Him, there is no solution.

But what am I supposed to do with all this pain in the here and now? How am I supposed to handle the tears and frustration and injustice that I see around me every single day? Why did God bring me here at all?

Thankfully, I took the time to call a mentor back in Nashville and asked her those very questions. Wanna know what she said? What Jesus said through her?

“Ashland. Stop for a second. Take a couple steps back and listen. You may not be able to see it right now, but I see countless opportunities for you to sit with people in the middle of their grief, in the middle of your grief, throw your arm around them and say, “Wow. This is a complete mess. We are all so messed up without Jesus. Aren’t you thankful we have hope in his Gospel?” Because you will never feel peace or be able to show Christ’s love by trying to fix problems with rules and expect immediate results. That’s not how Jesus came anyway. Jesus walked this earth and met people in the middle of their messes with a nonsensical type of love. Ashland, the Spirit gives you the power to share that same love! I think you should roll your sleeves up and dump so much love and understanding and shared grief with these people you call family, and together you ALL can be humbled and grateful and hopeful for righteousness. Let that be the foundation of your prayers.”

Well, by then I was crying.

Because I realized that I may never know the hard and fast answer to the tension between Ugandan culture and Gospel culture (don’t even get me started on American culture and Gospel culture), and there’s no mathematical equation telling me when it’s appropriate to speak out of Spirit-led conviction or to keep quiet and pray.

Psalm 84 came to life for me: my soul longs, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; and my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Blessed are those whose strength is in Him, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. And then Psalm 63 brought refreshing hope in the midst of the helplessness: I know that I can sing in the shadow of His wings, that I cling to Him because His right hand upholds me. 

For reasons I often struggle to understand, the Lord saw fit to invite me into this corner of his creation for such a time as this. He’s brought me here. He’ll show me the way.

He’ll show us all the way.

And while I’m waiting for Him, I search for my theme song lately and hit play for the thousandth time. Let Sara Groves remind me of a few things. (Everyone should listen.)

I believe in a blessing I don’t understand;

I’ve seen rain fall on the wicked and the just.

Rain is no measure of his faithfulness;

He withholds no good thing from us.

No good thing from us, no good thing from us.

I believe in a peace that flows deeper than pain,

That broken find healing in love.

Pain is no measure of his faithfulness;

He withholds no good thing from us.

No good thing from us, no good thing from us.

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Here’s where I invite you into this with me for a little bit, and ask you to humbly pray the following prayer over me and this place. And know that I by no means assume that Uganda is the only nation crippled by these burdens; and because of that, I’ll pray the same over you.

“O persistent God, deliver me from assuming your mercy is gentle. Pressure me that I may grow more human, not through the lessening of my struggles, but through the expansion of them…Deepen my hurt until I learn to share it and myself openly, and my needs honestly. Sharpen my fears until I name them and release the power I have locked in them and they in me. Accentuate my confusion until I shed those grandiose expectations that divert me from the small, glad gifts of the now and the here and the me. Expose my shame where it shivers, crouched behind the curtains of propriety, until I can laugh at last through my common frailties and failures, laugh my way toward becoming whole.” – Guerrillas of Grace, Ted Loder