This past week was a heavy week for the DML prayer team, as we continued to pray through Nehemiah, where threats from Sanballat and Tobiah turn from plots to action. For the most part, the DML teams are joyful, content, and loving men and women who love serving the Lord. But as we looked at this text, our own fears and anxieties came to mind as we prayed. We were reminded that many members of our teams live in very difficult circumstances, amidst daily threats of kidnappings, pandemic waves with few vaccines available, sickness, poverty, and insecurity in many forms.
That same day, I received an invitation to listen to Kathy Keller, wife of Tim Keller, speaking on the evidence of a merciful God. It felt like a good time to be reminded of God’s mercy, and it brought to mind some thoughts which I share with you now.
When I was a young girl in our church’s girls program (it was known as the Calvinettes), a running theme was from Hebrews 12:1-2, which reminds us to run with perseverance the race that is marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. I wrote a poem about this at that time and had to recite it at an annual event in front of hundreds of girls. As such groups did, they gave me a trophy for my poem to encourage me to keep running that race. I was probably only about 8 or 9 years old. These verses have deep roots in my soul because of the way my youth group discipled me with this wonderful passage.
But occasionally I have to be reminded that I am running my own race. I am not running someone else’s race. I must run the race set out for Renita Grace Kranenburg Reed Thomson. My race looks different than every other person’s race because I am uniquely made, with unique opportunities and challenges, relationships and characteristics.
I can’t run the race for my brothers and sisters in Nigeria who pray daily for safety as they travel from place to place among many kidnappings. I can’t run the race for my brothers and sisters in Cameroon who continue to face the trauma and the threats from an on-going civil war. I can’t run the race for my friends in Uganda as they face another long COVID-related lock-down. I can’t run the race for my colleagues in Burundi, who continue to stare down great poverty every day.
I also have to remind myself that my race is not like a race in the Olympics. The race that Hebrews calls us to is not run on a smooth, carefully maintained course. There are not thousands gathered in the stands to cheer me on (the cloud of witnesses may testify but often not in a way I see or hear). This race is much more a marathon. A cross-country marathon with all sorts of challenges: mosquitos, flies, rocks and puddles, to name a few. There is an occasional view of a beautiful waterfall or lake, but for all of us, this race, this marathon, ends in the valley of the shadow of death.
I frequently think of the statement from Henry David Thoreau, which I learned as a teen: “All men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I actually find that statement not only to be true, but oddly comforting. It puts us all on a level playing field. Despite creature comforts, privilege or even relative safety, at the end of the day, we “lead lives of quiet desperation.” We share the quiet desperation of our fallen state. Yet, we are made by a Creator who beckons us to His kingdom.
Kathy Keller spoke of the significance of Romans 8:1 in light of life’s challenges, which says that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” She reminded me that you can only be released from a threat when you know you were under a threat. “Unless we are aware of the magnitude of the threat under which we live (fully sinful in front of a holy and perfect God), we focus on the small tragedies of life, like pancreatic cancer.” She knows what she is saying as her husband and best-selling author Tim Keller has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which is one of the more unforgiving cancers.
The “small tragedies of life like pancreatic cancer.” Personally, cancer, let alone pancreatic cancer, sounds like a pretty big thing to me. When viewed with the right perspective, in light of God’s salvation, even something as devastating as pancreatic cancer is a trial that believers can face with the confidence of the hope of our faith – that Jesus promises to be with us even in the valley of the shadow of death. Whether it’s civil war, Boko Haram, kidnapping bandits, floods, drought or pestilence, Jesus is there.
C.S. Lewis reminds us that we are far too easily pleased. We are distracted by bright shiny objects. We are often also distracted with our “glass half empty” way of looking at things. How quickly we become distracted by the rocks in the road, or the sudden rain shower that soaks us on this marathon of our faith.
But thankfully, we aren’t left completely to our own devices, nor are we abandoned to our lives of quiet desperation. Psalm 32:9 warns us not to be like the horse or the mule which needs to be led by bit or bridle for course correction. And Kathy Keller also reminded us that this is not a behavior modification threat – it is a text of comfort. It’s good if we can do it on our own, without God’s bridle pulling us back to the path. But when we veer off course, God will lead us back to the way that leads to life.
This way of life includes learning to praise God in spite of my roadblocks and detours on my marathon. Hebrews 13:15 tells us that we are to continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God. When I read those words, that quiet desperation begins to creep up on me as I recognize how far I am from living that. However, what does Hebrews really mean? How is praise a sacrifice?
I’m learning that continually being able to praise is indeed a sacrifice…at least for someone like me. I’m not naturally attuned to be a praiseful person. I’m not an “in the moment” person, which is what I think we need to be if living as a praiseful person. I’m much more of a “what’s next person” which means I’m often looking at what else needs to be done. I’ve been told that I can be a person who looks at the glass as half empty rather than half full.
So for me, it is a sacrifice to give up trying to be on top of everything to become a person who is thankful and praiseful. It’s difficult to do! It’s part of learning to be a living sacrifice and nurture a heart of gratitude.
It needs to be done daily. Sometimes hourly.
But God is faithful and merciful, with bits and bridles when we go our own way.
And He is faithful and merciful to my brothers and sisters across Africa, who are also running the race that has been set before them.