Roger: The Body

As the nasty disease revealed itself more and more, so did God’s love. God’s love showed up in Roger’s life as it always had—through Jesus’ body, the local church.

The Body

Alzheimer’s was not Roger’s first encounter with a heartbreaking diagnoses. Years earlier he sat in a hospital at the end of his rope. This time he was watching his daughter fade away. As he sat there, he prayed a desperate prayer to a God he had believed didn’t exist: “God, if you are real then show yourself! Please, heal my daughter.”

Spoiler alert: my wife today was Roger’s little girl. Tessa had somehow contracted e-coli, which was attacking her kidneys. The doctors had tried everything the knew and were out of ideas. They were preparing for a last ditch dialysis effort as Roger prayed his prayer for God to reveal himself.

I don’t know if the invisible God always complies with demands to reveal himself. But he did this time. As Roger sat by Tessa’s side the next day he watched as people from their church flooded the hospital. They brought food. They prayed. They listened and encouraged Roger and his family. Something slowly dawned on Roger as he watched so many people love in a way that was beyond what he had ever expected. They called the church Jesus’ body—as if in some way the most tangible expression of Jesus in the world today was standing there in the hospital room with them. Just as Roger couldn’t see a disease like e-coli but could see it manifest itself in his daughter’s sick body, so Roger could also see the living God revealing himself through the living body of the local church. Jesus’ body had come to visit them and had revealed God to them. In that moment, Roger prayed to give himself over to Jesus’ love and become a part of this loving body as well.

Almost immediately, my wife was healed. The effects of the e-coli slowly began to disappear. The doctors never had an explanation.

I’m not suggesting every sickness is a parable in disguise. But God used something evil to work a miracle. He softened a hard heart and used his people to reveal himself to Roger. The next Sunday, Roger attended church (which he had done begrudgingly for several years) and announced by walking forward that he had given his life to Jesus.  Applause erupted. Tessa and her mom and sister had been praying for Roger for years, and they had asked the church to pray with them. So for the church, Roger also became a story and a sign that God was living and active, revealing himself in answers to prayer.

Roger got used to a new way of life, following Jesus. He was giddy to discover the instant connection he had with those he had never met but were part of the family of God. After returning from a conversation with Christians he had never met before, Roger shared with a buddy from church that it was just like talking with his sister. “Then I realized, she is my sister!” he had exclaimed. Bereft of a father from an early age, Roger had finally found the love and belonging he had been longing for in this new family.

Even as Roger and Karen moved to be closer to us, Tessa and I found ourselves praying that the local church would welcome and support Roger and Karen and show God’s love to them in their hour of need. Again, God answered. Time and again, the local church(es) prayed, visited, encouraged, and upheld Roger and Karen as they suffered. The young men moved furniture and did maintenance. The young women listened and gave hugs. Men helped them with insurance. Women watched Roger and gave Karen an outlet. The children brought laughter and relief. Days after Roger died, God showed up again. This time he came to the house in multiple cars from multiple states and from multiple backgrounds and ethnicities. Small groups and small children, friends and family converged to mourn the suffering but also celebrate Roger’s life. They were happy when we were happy; they were sad when we were sad.

The neighbor across the street approached me afterward and said, “Man, we saw everyone show up for the memorial. I don’t know what you got going on, but I’m just thinking I need what they’ve got. Whatever they’ve got going on I want some of that.”

Roger: Beloved Slug

Tessa and I left in 2017 to work as missionaries in Madagascar. Meanwhile, Karen and Molly worked tirelessly to continue caring for Roger. Then, November 2018, we knew the time had come to return and help care for Roger more intensively. In true Benjamin Button form, Roger had gone from stumbling like a toddler and fumbling with door knobs to walking a few steps then falling. When we could no longer help him to the bathroom, he went back into diapers.

Alzheimer’s does not just steal people’s memories as they sleep. It seeks to humble and humiliate. It breaks people down and robs them of their God-given dignity. Loved ones are forced to find a way to deal with it. But it is, at every turn, hard to watch and hard to deal with. Especially when, at a level you can never gauge, the person who is slipping away knows what’s happening.

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Beloved Slug

Shortly after they moved up to be with us, Roger pulled me aside in the driveway. He was making the initiative to speak with me, which rarely happened. He told me he was sorry, sorry we had to move in with them and put our newlywed lives on hold. Then, he said something that stuck with me—that gave me a clue as to how everything was affecting him. He said, “I hate you have to do this, you’re a good guy and I’m a . . .” He struggled to find his words as his eyes darted back and forth, scanning his brain for a piece of information it had hidden from him. “I’m . . . just a . . . slug. And . . .” He trailed off. We all had to try and fill-in those missing pieces while talking with Roger. Many times, we probably misunderstood what he was trying to say. I hope I did understand him then.

Roger felt shame. He was ashamed of the burden he brought to his family without any ability to really make it any better. Alzheimer’s took away his ability to provide or to achieve anything. To hear Tessa talk, Roger probably struggled with shame his whole life. He never felt loved enough, never felt good enough. That was probably not the first time he felt like a slug: slimy, gross, unwanted, unloved little slug. I struggled then to comfort Roger. I think gave the analogy of someone with a broken arm. It wasn’t his fault he couldn’t help and needed us to. He was hurt. We would take care of him just as naturally as you take care of someone with a broken arm. But Roger’s description haunted me. I wonder how often that was his default view of himself. I know I often have similar feelings about my own self.

Roger loved the writing of Anglican minister, Brennan Manning (author of the Ragamuffin Gospel). Reading Manning’s writings in his middle-age, Roger finally understood that God loved him . . . that anyone at all loved him. Just like me, Roger had assumed before that God either didn’t love him or didn’t care about him and had lived most of his life as if he needed to make God love him. At least he could make someone else love him.

It struck me one day, as I watched my mother-in-law struggle to help Roger, how damned he was according to our culture of achievement. In his state, Roger was incapable of earning anything. He could no longer earn a paycheck. He could no longer win respect from his drive or insight. He could not earn praise for his accomplishments. Most of all, he could not earn love. Then I remembered with a jolt that I couldn’t either! Though I was a physically healthy 20 something, I had no more ability to earn the love of God or anyone else than Roger had in his weakened, confused state. I was working hard at that time to provide for our family, achieve accolades at school, and earn love from my wife by being a good husband. Yet, even though I was not disabled, I could never earn the acceptance from others that I felt I needed.

Roger reminded me that none of us can. God is not waiting for us to do great things or show great devotion before he will love us. We are all much more like Roger in his eyes than we want to realize, completely dependent and unable to achieve. God’s love flows from who he is, not who we are. Jesus came to achieve for us what we could never achieve for ourselves. Does Jesus come to those who give themselves to him and teach us to relive his achievements, to live out the good works God planned for us (Eph. 2:10)? Absolutely! But none of that has anything to do with us earning love.

When we were as good as dead, while we were sinners and his enemies, God loved us first. And once we glimpse that kind of otherworldly love that is so alien to our human abstractions of love we will weep over it and follow it wherever it goes. We love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). That was the miracle of God’s love working itself out through Roger’s Alzheimer’s.

Roger: Alzheimer’s

2019 was a crazy year for us, and it’s only gotten crazier since then! So many of you supported us through that year. Yet, to this point, we haven’t really had the time to process and share. But sense, like most of us now, we are forced into some downtime, we wanted to share with you the story of God’s faithfulness through the life of Tessa’s Dad, Roger.

Tessa has already shared on this blog about her Dad and God’s faithfulness to their family. I’ll be sharing my perspective here in four chapters, Alzheimer’s, Beloved Slug, The Body, and The End.

I only knew Roger a short while, and after he was already sick. But his story has changed my life. He died a year ago today.

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It was a perfect, spring day when Roger, my father-in-law, died. It wasn’t just the mingling energy of the cool air and warm sun that made it beautiful but the palpable sense of peace. Perfect is not a common adjective for death. It does not normally describe well at all a process that is so overwhelmingly unnatural. But death uncovered more for Roger than it buried. He suffered from ruthless Alzheimer’s for at least eight years. And he never did beat that undefeated soul-eater.  But wait, Roger’s life had been forever changed before it was slowly drained from him. Long before Alzheimer’s crept from the shadows, Roger had already cheated death out of a victim.

Alzheimer’s 

I don’t want to give you the wrong impression: Alzheimer’s is ugly. There is no dressing it up. At first it skirted around the edges, noticeable only in Roger’s mood swings or an overall melancholy. Something was wrong. Something essential was being siphoned away from him and he knew it. He ran smack into a sliding glass door while on vacation. That’s when, Karen, his wife, also began noticing things. His skills began to decline. Those too were only affected a little at a time. A draftsman working with numbers all his life, Roger was now struggling to count. Karen was faithful to give him simple math homework each day; the exercise might keep his mind keen. When I met Roger, months later, he could not solve 1 + 1 or even sign his name. Then his body began rebelling as he lost fine motor skills.

I remember one day as the two of us were searching the garage for something, his toes touched the edge of a two inch tall box. Suddenly, his arms shot out, his whole body stiffened, and he fell like a toppled statue down to the ground. It was the perfect freeze-tag pose. Like an App on the fritz, Roger’s addled brain met a problem it didn’t know how to handle, froze, and then rebooted.

He also struggled to find his words. My first impression of Roger was that he had the kind of aphasia of stroke victims. He was friendly, just quiet and worked hard to find the word he was looking for, sometimes spitting out a similar sounding but unrelated word. It is a trope that Alzheimer’s only affects the memory. Roger’s memory was quite good until he was closer to the end. It is true that Alzheimer’s extends to memory. But its reach is much more and much worse. It is a hardening and twisting of the brain—a slow, unobservable death.

See, you often hear people talk about their fight, battle, struggle, etc. with cancer. There is no such fight with Alzheimer’s. You’re not pitting your will against some aggressive opponent. You are slowly having your life sucked away by an unknown force. For all our progress and medical knowledge, no one really knows who the culprit is that is killing your brain or how to stop them. The doctors who saw Roger would rarely even admit he had Alzheimer’s, fearing, we assume, that any information would be misinformation and liable malpractice.

In April of 2014, Tessa and I told Roger and Karen we wanted to help however we could. We celebrated Christmas together in the same house that year as Roger and Karen moved up to be closer to us. We lived together in the same house as we went to post-grad seminary and Roger and Karen lived out their Alzheimer’s life. Soon after, Molly, Tessa’s sister, moved in as well. Once again, Karen was pro-active. They both ate healthy (especially “brain food” Karen had researched). They worked out together. They attended church and hosted people in their home. These were all exhausting tasks as our village pulled together to raise Roger again.

 

April 10

On April 10th three years ago, Nathan and Chyella and I boarded a plane to come to live in Madagascar as a family. We clung to God’s faithfulness as we embarked on a new family adventure.

On April 10th last year, my dad passed away. That morning, our home was awash with God’s faithfulness.

Dad had struggled with Alzheimer’s disease since at least 2012—my mom noticed signs much earlier. Everyone’s story with Alzheimer’s is different. For our family, God graciously allowed Dad’s decline to remain fairly slow, until a sharp plummet over Thanksgiving 2018, then a steep rush to the end the next April . . . But that final week—Dad’s final week on earth—all I remember, honestly, is peace.

My dad—funny, inquisitive, silly, tender-hearted—had in many ways been gone a long time. The man who remained was still Dad, though, and he was having a tough time. My mom and sister knew dad’s desire to remain at home, and faithfully cared for him for years, including the two years we lived in Madagascar. While we were gone, I was often wracked with uncertainty—and guilt. What if we should have stayed? What if God’s will demanded that I not spend Dad’s final days with him, offering him the deep love and care I felt for him? The Father has required much greater sacrifices of others—what would He ask of me?

Again, I can’t answer to others’ callings and decisions, only to my own. And God was incredibly merciful to me. He gave us two intense years in Madagascar. We got to work alongside our mentors and best friends during what would be their last years in Madagascar. We saw the young Mahafaly churches join the larger Malagasy Baptist Association. We had the opportunity to pour what we had gleaned from seminary into four Mahafaly church leaders who were committed to shepherding the rest of the churches.

Then, Thanksgiving 2018, Dad fell and was unable to stand or walk the rest of the day. This was a big shift for him, and Nathan and I both understood within minutes of my sister’s call what it meant for us. This was the clear sign I had been praying for—a marker of some kind along the uncertain path of Alzheimer’s that it was time to go. In six weeks, Chyella and I were back in the USA, our house in Madagascar was halfway packed up, and Nathan was wrapping up our ministry goals for a final month. I was to stay in the USA for a month and determine if we needed to return full-time. Soon, I felt sure we did. Nathan finished our packing and our work, and joined us. The day after he came, Dad fell again, and within a week was bedbound.

We had no idea how long this immobile stage would last. We were prepared—or thought we were—for much longer. But again, God was merciful. Dad passed within two months of his last fall. When the hospice nurse told us, Sunday night the 7th, that Dad was “actively dying,” a heavy, quiet peace settled over us all. His struggle was almost over.

We spent the next few days mostly in his room, taking turns at night. The hospice nurse encouraged us to give him some time alone, but we found we couldn’t. Calm hung in the house like a fog—those dewy, spring fogs that smell of fresh new life. Strange in a house awaiting death . . . but the truth is, we weren’t waiting on death. We were waiting on my Dad’s new life. When I was twelve years old, my dad trusted Jesus with my life, and his. He became a new person that day. On April 10th, that new person got to truly live for the first time. The moment when Dad passed from death to life, I know for certain Jesus was there in the room with us. He healed my Dad—forever—and took him on ahead of us. I’m as sure of that as I am anything else—and that’s where the peace came from.

Nathan and I thought we would look back on 2019 as one of the strangest years of our life. Now, of course, we—along with each of you and the rest of the world—feel that way (times 100) about 2020. These are very uncertain times. The path, and the outcomes, are not clear. But one thing I know: God is faithful.

If you’ve never trusted Christ as your Savior, please do. I would love to talk to you about it. Ultimately, the only peace we can have in the face of death comes in trusting Him. My family had peace at Dad’s death not because he was a great dad (which he was!) or because he did all the right things (which he didn’t!). We had peace because Dad had given his life to Jesus, and allowed Jesus to make him the new person he was created to be. Jesus blood washes away our wrongs, and His resurrection re-creates us to follow after Him—forever.

We don’t know what the ramifications of this pandemic will be worldwide . . . I believe they will be significant. But at this moment, we’re all—the whole world—united in this shared sense of uncertainty. What is going to happen? How will all this turn out? Though we never really know what the future holds, right now we all know we don’t know. But Someone does. He led me tenderly through years of uncertainty with my Dad’s illness. He’s ready to lead you too. Love you all.

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Back with the Mahafaly

Well, it’s been a while. Sometime soon we’ll try to go back through the past year and review how we got back here in Madagascar. But for now let us share about our Mahafaly friends:

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I (Nathan) had the privilege of traveling with our national partners from the Malagasy Baptist church here to check-in on the Mahafaly. In a kind of miracle, with only two or three phone calls months before our trip, several church leaders and their wives were already gathered and waiting for us in Kilimary. They served our team and led us in a reading of God’s Word as we sat and visited with them, sharing their testimonies with those who had not yet heard them. I was excited to see Emora, one of the four guys we spent the last two years training, reading and teaching from the Bible.

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The Mahafaly now have people like Emora who are being trained to teach themselves from the Bible instead of waiting on the arrival of the missionary for a word from God.As we sat and listened, a strange thing happened. Emora began passing our coffee cups and pouring coffee out of a large dirty bucket. For most of us the dirty bucket used to serve coffee to everyone would be strange, but it was Emora serving us that caught my eye. As Emora himself explained, “Mahafaly culture treats women very poorly.” Mahafaly culture is very patriarchal. Only women are allowed to serve. Chores like serving drink or food, washing clothes or washing dishes are unmanly and reserved for women. There is a very strong stigma against men who do these tasks. They are called lazy and weak and considered not manly enough to get a wife to do these things for them.

Our team spent a lot of time last year working with these guys to walk with them through God’s view of marriage found in the Bible. Implicit in biblical marriage is a loving adoration for your wife as an equal partner made in the image of God. Then, as Emora moved on to wash out all our coffee cups, he explained what happened when he and a few other leaders traveled three days north to the capital to attend a large Malagasy Baptist meeting. Suddenly when it came time for food there were women and men serving lunch for everyone. Then when it came time for coffee you served yourself! And everyone washed their own dishes! It was revolutionary for Emora to see equality between men and women, each respecting and serving the other, played out by the church. When Emora returned home he approached his wife and asked, “Would you like it if I helped out with washings and taking care of the kids?” He said he saw his wife’s eyes light up and her body grow visibly lighter. “Yes! Of course I would. I’m exhausted!” she said. Emora went on to say that whereas Mahafaly culture stipulated the women always serve the men, they now partnered together as husbands and wives to help each other and to serve others.

We watched the rest of that time as husband and wife came in and out of the tent, each serving with a new kind of joy. “Our customs were wrong,” said Emanda, another leader, “We are now Christians. We have a new fomba (i.e. culture or way of doing things).”

There are many debates about how missionaries and religion shape indigenous culture. What I saw on this trip was that God’s customs (his way of doing things as revealed in the Bible) and his church (where we put his way of doing things on display) are sometimes diametrically opposed to what we naturally think, feel, and believe according to our culture. But man is it a better way to live! In some way, we are all called into God’s culture: no longer as Americans or as Malagasy or as Mahafaly, but as Christians.

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Emora with his youngest daughter, Sambatra

 

 

The Lift of Love

Recently, I shared my testimony with a visiting team and was surprised to find myself reduced to tears thinking about God’s great love for me. Still reverberating in my soul is the deep truth that the great and good God loves me. As the son of a Southern Baptist pastor, I had memorized 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sin he will forgive us and cleanse our sin.” “But what if I forget to confess?” I thought. Or what about the sins I don’t even know about? Never settle for one sentence from God; always keep reading to see all that he has said. Please do, because what he kept saying in 1 John set me free and still stirs my soul to praise: John says he’s writing “so that you may not sin,” but if and when anyone does sin “we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one,” and His very body is the sacrificial exchange for our sins; not just for our sins but for the whole world (1 John 2:1-2). I knew as soon as I read it that I was free because of Jesus. And this has made all the difference.

I took another path starting that day that has led me to surprising ministry in Madagascar and many other good gifts, not least of which is a wonderful wife in Tessa. Yet, every single good thing in my life is from Jesus. I am not who I once was, but only because he changed my life trajectory. Any good that is part of my life or good things I have done all have their root in Jesus. “I have no good besides You,” (Ps 16:2). He is my good.

This morning, I again teared up as I suddenly began meditating on the hymn Love Lifted Me: 

I was sinking deep in sin,
Far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within,
Sinking to rise no more;
But the Master of the sea
Heard my despairing cry,
From the waters lifted me,
Now safe am I.

Love lifted me!
Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help,
Love lifted me.
Love lifted me!
Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help,
Love lifted me.

When he lifted me, I was slowly sinking beneath the weight of failure. I had failed the SAT scores several times, failed at love, and was sinking deep in the sin of pornography. I didn’t know it then, and I forget it now, but what my soul was screaming for was love. And Jesus, my Savior, heard that despairing cry from my soul that no one–not even I–could hear. His love lifted me.

I know He will never let me down. His love will continue to lift me and he will continue to be my song–the fuel and inspiration driving me onward. Surely good will come of this, because He is a good God and works all things–confusing, hard, uncomfortable, nerve-wracking, and down right sad as they may be–for our good.

Thank you all for praying for us. I have been drawn back to my first love again this morning (Rev. 2:4). His love, once again, has lifted me

Bring What You Got

Just this past week we took our annual trip downtown to hand out some rice for Christmas. It struck me, as we sat there this year watching Scrooge shut down the guys asking for a donation for the poor (you might remember something about “prisons,” and “workhouses,”) that we would soon be doing the same ourselves. I was overwhelmed with the poverty when I lived here before. More appropriately, I was overwhelmed with the type of poverty here. I’ve written before of the understanding here that everyone suffers. Those who suffer most are labeled mahantra or “beggars.” Many of these beggars would be in facilities for the handicapped were they born somewhere else. Here, they roam the streets in make-shift wheelchairs and crutches, sometimes literally holding their bodies together or contorting their limbs just to move along. Some carry extremely malnourished babies in their arms, skin drooping off their own bodies. All of this shocked and disturbed me into action when I lived here before.

By God’s prompting and guidance, I began meeting with these beggars and sharing stories from God’s word with them (along with a midday snack, basically). I did this as opposed to just giving money because I was furthered disturbed by perhaps the greatest suffering these people endure: shunning charity. People give them money or bread just to get them out of their face. Understand, these people have nothing to lose and act like it. They are relentless beggars. Those of you who have been here before know. I too have given out of that same distanced heart before. Yet, it struck me as I sat with these people that they were shunned by everyone, even each other sometimes. They needed friends. They needed relationships not hand-outs.

Again, through God’s leading I began bringing along friends from our church until our church adopted this group of beggars. Now, every Christmas and National Independence Days (the biggest celebrations of the year), our church brings what they have and shares with this group. But perhaps the biggest thing they share is relationship. They know each other now. It’s such a joy to have actual conversations with these people now instead of merely performing our mutually despised exchange.

Still, it is not all smiles and sweet conversations. We got mobbed this time by over a hundred angry beggars. There is still bitterness and in-fighting and pettiness galore. Actually there is a surprising amount of yelling. Families and friends can yell at each other too, right? But there is something else also: not another resentful, blank stare but true recognition of another human personality, requiring dignity, expression, gratitude, and questions about family . . . give and take.

Jesus once told his disciples to feed what was probably no-more than a hangry crowd of 5,000 with nothing more than what they had. It was a “bring what you got” sort of situation. That’s what our church did today. Ours wasn’t much either but we brought what we had and shared it with our begging friends. But first, we shared with them the story of the man called, Jesus, who called the poor and suffering “blessed” (Lk. 6:20). The God who chose to come and suffer as a man, dying in our place, who being rich became poor for our sake, knows what its like. He came to put us back into right relationship with himself and others. And just as the Feeding of the 5,000 reminds us, we have to “bring what we’ve got” in order to make that happen for others (to be in and to have relationships with others). Then, no matter how small “what we’ve got” is Jesus will bless it and share it and in the end we will find ourselves unexpectedly filled up as well.

Especially if all you have is yourself–your time, your attention, and your respectful presence to a human life gone unnoticed and unappreciated–bring that to Jesus and see what he does with that. In fact, that’s what he really wants when it comes down to it– your life. Having nothing but your naked, unspectacular life to offer to Jesus is something our beggar friends are faced with every day and that is a heck of a lot more than you or I remember most days. Maybe that’s why Jesus calls them “blessed.” At least, that is what we have found working with the “blessed ones” here in Madagascar.

Mahafaly Marriage Retreat

We have been talking since last year about our need to focus on marriage in our work among the Mahafaly. I am happy to now share about the Marriage Retreat last month. For the first time, the Mahafaly church leaders and their spouses came together for three days to grow closer together around God’s plan for marriage.

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First, some context: last year we set out on a follow-up trip with two of our leaders. The trip ended abruptly when we discovered that one of them was in the process of taking a new wife. As the story unfolded, we learned of his affairs with other women as well. Obviously, we did not continue on our trip. In a short time, another leader also took a new wife. What followed was a painful season as the Mahafaly leaders worked to truly practice what they have long studied about God’s plan for marriage. The other leaders have faithfully disciplined these two, and as a group are seeking to hold one another accountable. But we felt that we needed to hone in on the topic of marriage to help them see how to practice it culturally as new believers. God’s perspective on marriage and ours, whether Mahafaly or American, is vastly different.

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Everything went even better than expected at the marriage retreat. Above all, there was a spirit of gratefulness: from the hotel staff where we held the event to the participating couples. The mere fact we had prioritized marriage and family seemed to mean more than anything we could have said or taught. However, the teaching also had great impact. In particular, we concentrated on the one flesh relationship within marriage. Our couples, particularly the men, where challenged by God’s relationship with us as a model for our love for our spouse. Just as God is committed to never leaving us alone, so we are to never separate ourselves from our spouse. At the end of our time, all the couples declared together that they would never divorce each other.

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Efanake

One of the women who attended (Rasoafeno) brought her unbelieving husband. During our time her husband, Efanake, decided to follow Jesus. Continue to pray for him. As a witch-doctor he has yet to make the decision to burn his charms–the point of no return in this culture for surrendering all to Jesus.

Many of you gave financially toward hosting this event, providing for the meals and lodging that freed up these couples. We also prayed that God would allow the time to be led by Malagasy nationals and not by us as foreign missionaries. The truth of God’s Word is the same, and we felt confident on sharing on God’s plan for marriage from the Bible. But we desired Malagasy brothers and sisters to share God’s truth with grace, wisdom, and the cultural sensitivity. While Tessa and I as well as Grant and Jodie Waller each led different sessions, the time was spearheaded by our Malagasy friends and partners Olive and Narindra and Anthonny and Sandy.

We give glory to God for how everything came together. Last year, we began praying and asking you to pray about hosting a time that would allow the Mahafaly wives, especially, the time and environment to focus on their marriage. God gave us that special time.

Satan has been attacking marriages in general and specifically our leaders. We’ve seen this pattern developing not just among the Mahafaly, not just in the bush, but also in Toliara, in other denominations, and among other tribes as well. Please continue to pray for marriage here, especially for our leaders, and especially for two specific leaders. The two men from the opening story still need your prayers. Pray God would give these people tenderness and that the Holy Spirit would convict of sin and lead the marriages to restoration. We could not have one this alone and we are grateful to you, our friends here, and to God.

Don’t Grow Weary

I recently shared Jesus with a pousse-pousse (rickshaw) driver in town in Toliara who decided to accept Jesus’ blood on his behalf. We keep track of how often we share and how often people make decisions. According to our records, I have personally shared the gospel 142 times in the past six months. Counting this man, Solondraza, this is the 3rd  person we have seen decide to follow Jesus this year. Of course it doesn’t actually work like this, but statistically I shared the gospel 47 times before I saw anyone accept the offer. To this point, 3 men have made decisions and they have all been different:

First, there was Erik, also a pousse-pousse driver. He had stopped by our cell-group, heard the gospel, was convicted, but rejected the offer. Only later when he was at home at thought through what he had said again did he call out to Jesus. He told us the next week in our group what he had done.

We have been sharing with Efanake forever. He is husband to one of our women leaders who shepherds a cell-group of women out in the bush. Efanake is an ombiasa (witch-doctor), and is scared to let go of his proffession. Grant and I both have share with him numerous times. Only after he ran away from his wife, returned, and then joined her at a recent marriage retreat did he make a decision.

Solondraza was just ready. As I got out of the pousse we talked about churches. He immediately shared with me that he did Catholic mass but felt like there was more. I shared with him how Jesus sacrificed himself once and for all time for his sins and only by submitting to Jesus and receiving his blood could he be free. He immediately asked what he needed to do. God had already prepared his heart.

We consider ourselves to be serving God in a very open environment. It is very easy to talk about spiritual things here. And still it takes our time, effort, and endurance to continue sharing the gospel in hopes that people accept. I am encouraged to see the variety of ways God works to bring people to himself: One guy needed to mull over things a spell. One couldn’t run away from God. One was already hungry for more. I do wish people accepted the offer more often. But I am encouraged to not grow weary in our labor here (Galatians 6:9).

I encourage you to not grow weary where God has you. It is worth it every time to stand and pray with someone and feel the spiritual jolt in the air as a dead man comes to life. This is not our work; we only cast the net. And I am encouraged (and encourage you also) to keep casting, even to cast more often, to find the 1 in the 47 that God is preparing.

 

Suffering and Mission

Part of what we are doing right now is crafting and translating stories from church history into the Mahafaly dialect. We want to connect them to what God has been doing through the church through the years. We are now working through the story of William Carey, the so-called father of modern missions.

There were a couple of insights from that session I wanted to share with you. In the story, we pointed out that Carey was poor but taught himself constantly in order to be a better missionary. The word “mission” we ended up translating in Malagasy as “God’s work to be done.” Basically, because there was work to be done, Carey, despite his poverty was doing what needed to be done in order to do God’s work still to be done.

But our Mahafaly partner and friend, Edia, raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean he was poor?” I went on to describe that Carey was bi-vocational, working for free as a pastor and making his money as a cobbler. He also struggled to put food on the table, did not have ongoing educational opportunities, and often sacrificed food, clothes or other belongings if he wanted to buy a new book. I already knew it was coming as the words left my mouth. What I had just described was almost everyone’s life here. Edia said, “Carey wasn’t poor. He was just suffering. People here say every day, ‘Yeah, I’m suffering, but I’m not poor.'”

(Turns out, the word for “poor” here is better translated for us as “beggar,” someone who is no longer working but solely depending on others for survival. The “poor” or “beggars” here are very different. Almost all are physically or mentally handicapped. Everyone else is only suffering.)

That is one of the greatest lessons I, personally, have taken from our time here: Everyone suffers. We forget, having built our lives around comfort, that we live in a dying world, where most struggle to survive, and all of us suffer. It’s been that way since we fell from grace.

But even by their own standards, the South is suffering badly. The rains have come less and less over the past five years. Now, the Mahafaly are in a crushing drought. They are facing a year in which none of their crops produced. The only food right now is coming from a crop harvested a couple years ago in another area of the south. Therefore, stale, old cassava (from another area, from another year) is their only food source at the market now. What happens when that runs out? In times past they have harvested food from the forest. But deforestation and a slowly intensifying drought (linked to said deforestation) have also drained the dwindling forest.

This year, US Aid invested $4.3 million for 1,870 metric tons of food to help the South. That’s after pouring $39 million into the Southern drought crisis since 2015. Recently, we heard the story of a young, single mother. Her joke of a husband left her and their young child to find a better life. Having no food and no husband to get any food, she cooked the only thing she could–tree leaves. It is a huge problem we are constantly trying comprehend and help address. It is a new level of suffering for the Mahafaly.

And yet, just like Carey, the Mahafaly are doing what needs to be done in order to do God’s work still to be done. That young mother was helped by one of our churches (and God provided for her). Even as some move away to find work, they take the gospel with them. More churches and more Bible studies continue to be started. Leaders continue to go on empty stomachs and teach those new in the faith. Are they worried? Yes. Do they understand why this is happening? No. Do they even doubt God’s plan? Oh yes. But they learned a long time ago–and not from us–that suffering is inevitable but survival is a choice.

Please, do not misunderstand, the Mahafaly are not victims. The believers here struggle to be sure, but they do believe God has a plan to turn this evil for their good. And they work hard to do his work. They can’t stop the drought; none of us can. But they believe what God has said: There is beautiful new world coming back with Jesus, free of all suffering. And in the meantime, there is God’s work still to be done in making sure everyone knows about that–that everyone who will can be there.