(September 2002) The ironies: who goes, who stays; the golds and grays that laminate our days— I give them now to you: you know the purpose in your ways. I see you gathering tears into a jar, squeezed out of losses and the griefs that are our daily bread as we compute the damage, near and far. And yet you bend your loving, listening ear to neutralize the acid of ripe fear, and hand out hope with glimpses of your presence here. I see just tiny pieces of your plan: the undeniable traces of your hand, applying pressure to our souls, reshaping as you can. And there are proofs that, way beyond what’s known, you’re still directing traffic from your throne, so that what you allow is all that comes to us, your own. The longed-for outcomes, dangled dreams, the prayed-for transformation in what seems right now to be all loss, I yield, relinquishing my schemes.
Twenty years ago yesterday, September 19, 2002, we were in Bouake, the big city in central Côte d’Ivoire, when gunfire began and kept on recurring. What was going on? Glenn and I had joined 15 other missionaries and seminar trainers to find out how to lead “Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills” workshops. We had brought our 15-year-old son, Bryn, with us, along with his computer to continue his tenth-grade courses with NorthStar Academy, via Internet. This was supposed to be a peaceful and invigorating time away from home, for growth in leading others to develop interpersonal strengths.
Looking back, yes, we did grow in many unexpected ways. But that week-long lock-down, gunfire blasting as rebels attacked various parts of the city and government soldiers tried to hold them off, was grueling. Our safety was a big concern. Twice we spent long hours lying down on the second-floor hallway of the SIL dorm-style guest house where we were lodged, the most protected space in that courtyard. Rebels were on one side of the courtyard, government troops on the other side, firing mortars at each other over the three-story building. I had never heard that kind of blasting before (and since then can hardly bear the sound of fireworks). There was real danger, and my son was there. Maternal instincts added to my angst. I lay across the hall from my dear friend Karen DeGraaf during those hours. We often held hands as we prayed.
And how did we pray? I know it did not occur to me at that time to pray the pattern given in our Lord’s model prayer:
–your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matt. 6:9 NIV)
I did cry out to my loving heavenly Father, begging for rescue, protection, and mercy. I pleaded the same for my friends left up north. We had no news, no way to contact them and know what threat they were under. My younger sister, Kayleen, and her family had just arrived 5 weeks before to begin ministry in Ferke. She had two toddlers—four kids altogether. How about our precious Nyarafolo friends? The other missionaries?
Desperation and lament are not new to God. He has heard them since the beginning of earth’s history. He is hearing them all over the world today. Wars are raging. Some places women are targeted, other places ethnic groups are searched out. Sometimes it is weather monsters tearing a country or state apart.
So why pray: “may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” ?
Looking at it from twenty years’ perspective, I can see that God did have a plan, hidden as it was from our eyes. His will was still being done through his servants as they continued to obey his specific direction for each one who was listening.
For example, on September 25th, we suddenly were confronted with a way to show his mercy. A crowd of Liberians (refugees from war over there) were at our courtyard gate, seeking refuge. Some people were evidently pointing fingers at them as responsible for some of the turmoil, and they were running in fear. Our group gave them the meeting room area to huddle in overnight.
The next day, September 26th, we got the long-hoped for word that foreigners with passports were going to be allowed to leave Bouake during a 24-hour ceasefire. The boarding school down the road, International Christian Academy, was evacuating about 200 people, missionary kids plus staff, via the backroads. We were going to drive south on the main road to Abidjan. What about the Liberians? They had no passports. And if they stayed in the courtyard, they could become targets. Glenn was given the heartbreaking task of guiding them out a side gate to escape into a bush area. We don’t know what happened to them.
We left, watching crowds of city residents lined up along the road eyeing the chain of cars that were allowed to drive out of town. It was so wrenching. And then we came to the barrier manned by government soldiers. Passengers were told to get out and show their papers to the soldier up ahead; Glenn had to drive the car around to a side station where it would be searched.
As we got out Bryn, our teen, remembered that his papers were in the backpack stowed in the back of the car. The soldier telling us to walk to the checkpoint was upset with Bryn and me opening the rear door, but as Bryn grabbed his bag I explained what we were doing. That backpack retrieval had made us the last ones in the line of our seminar participants who were now filing through the checkpoint. When we got up to the officer there we heard him viciously haranguing two of the Nigerian missionaries who had been passengers with us. It turned out that he suspected them to be some of those “northern rebels, Muslims”! The men had put on their dress outfits, long tunics, since they were planning to take a flight back to Nigeria that day, which made them look like they were in Muslim dress. Being Nigerian, they did not speak French so could not understand the accusations and questions the officer was shouting. I “just happened” to walk up to them at the right time to hear what was going on and explain to the officer that these men were our companions, Nigerian missionaries. The officer calmed down and let us all go on. God’s will was being done; he had ongoing plans for those servants. Later we heard that people with last names that linked them to the north were herded off into another area. What happened to them? In the coming months news sources said there were reported cases in some areas of those from northern ethnic groups being hauled off and shot.
The whole story is too long to include here but let me just underline that there were many amazing things that God did in our own lives due to that unexpected ripping apart of our plans and placement. Here are some highlights.
During the following three years that we were evacuated out of the country, I was able to complete the training that I needed as an exegete in Greek and Hebrew for Nyarafolo translation: an M.Div. from Moody Theological Seminary. We needed a place to live, since we would not be allowed to return until Bryn was no longer a minor; the Lord made it clear that he was providing the house in Detroit where we have been based ever since, each time we returned from the field. It became a home for several people dear to us, and for our son Bryn (who still holds the fort here, in community with us and during our travels).
And back in Côte d’Ivoire, the hospital stayed open, the only one in that region for several years, with some missionaries returning after a few months to work with the national staff. So many patients received life-saving care!
And Koufouhoton, a young man from the village where we had been discipling believers, Tiepogovogo, had just finished his first year of pastoral training in Korhogo when the school had to close due to the war. He returned home and used his years of waiting for the school to reopen to share the Good News and his testimony with friends in surrounding villages. The group of believers meeting together in Tiepogovogo doubled, then tripled!
I was still in that stew of grief and uncertainty when I wrote the poem above:
I see just tiny pieces of your plan: the undeniable traces of your hand, applying pressure to our souls, reshaping as you can. And there are proofs that, way beyond what’s known, you’re still directing traffic from your throne, so that what you allow is all that comes to those you call your own.
Yes, the Father of the Universe was not only working out plans we knew nothing about, he was also teaching us essential lessons. Being “reshaped” is not always comfortable. I like that illustration of the potter molding the clay. Pressure is applied, rough edges smoothed, new shapes created. And that is what was happening to us.
It is definitely worth it to realize that the King of Everything is our loving Father and is working out his plans—not always in the way we might expect, and sometimes through tragedy. In the end we will understand. Right now, we learn to trust him and follow him. He alone knows the path ahead.
May your kingdom among us come in all its fullness!
May your will be done in us and through us in this present time,
As we learn to relinquish our own plans and choose yours!
P.S. I WILL BE ON A BRIEF SABBATICAL. LINNEA’S LINES SHOULD TAKE OFF AGAIN IN LATE OCTOBER.