I’ve said it often: articulating the realities of life abroad is difficult at times. These past three and a half years have been among some of the most difficult in my life. To live in a culture not my own is a challenge to be sure. It’s a challenge that is overwhelmingly about surrender & loss. To be sure, there are gifts, many gifts, but more than not it’s full of sacrifice. Most of which goes unnoticed and unseen to the naked eye. Now, we said yes, so we are in no way victims, but rather, willing participants in an adventure with God and learning to live from his perspective. We said yes without fully knowing what would lie ahead. For most likely had we known, we may have rethought many of our choices. And yet here we are. We’re still here by God’s grace.
Perhaps the single most important thing I have learned over the course of our time is just how very present our Lord is to us – always. Even when you can see nothing. Even when it looks like an overwhelming chasm lay before you and you’re simply asked to jump in – he is there, God is present. Often we are so consumed by what we see in front of us that we miss, or rather are unable to see God’s perspective, but God deeply desires to teach us to see as he sees. 2 Kings 6 is a great example of this – there’s always much more going on than meets the eye.
The truth is, we are in the midst of a dramatic battle. For years I thought my engagement in that battle meant I had to fight and fight as hard as I could. What I’ve been learning is that my role is simply to learn how to stand as Paul says in Ephesians 6. The armor that Paul talks about, which we’ve been provided, was given not so much for us to don and then run headlong into battle. Rather, it’s provided so that we’d be able to stand and withstand the forces of the evil one and his army. It’s actually God himself who battles on my behalf. It’s God who disarms, who disrupts, who causes to cease the violence and vitriol left in the wake of the army of darkness. My part is to, with him, learn to withstand the attacks of the evil one and in doing so, shine light brightly in the darkness. I take ground only when God instructs or invites me to. This is quite different than the “warrior for Jesus” image I grew up with. I am not to be the warrior gloriously riding into a battle and cutting through the enemy lines, instead I’m to listen to the voice of God and obey.
Most often I found that obedience is much less glamorous than I’d like to admit. Often obedience requires sacrifice, humility, a laying down of my own ideas, desires and self. This can feel like death, and in a way it is. A lot of little deaths. This surely is the way of Jesus. I must die to myself, for my way is not THE way. That’s difficult to really hold, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s true.
Over the past few years I’ve had all sorts of grand plans to “do” some kind of ministry, to make some kind of impact, to go do this or that…those plans, when they didn’t go as “planned” revealed a lot about my heart. I want what I want when I want it; there can’t possibly be another way. The thing about death and loss is that for most of us we’re so terrified of it because we don’t know what’s on the other side, it often feels pretty final. But if we actually, actively practice dying, dying to self and surrendering aspects of our life to God, we see that in God’s economy death for us, as with Jesus, is not the end. That’s because our God is a God of resurrection, redemption, and life.
That’s where our hope lies – that God is good and will bring about good for me (Rom. 8:28). God is love and love always brings and works towards the good of others. Love works always towards good and that good leads to life. As I lay down my own thoughts, plans, ideas, hopes, dreams, or my very life before God, he in turn brings life to my life. Death to life.
As I’ve recounted over the years, we’ve certainly lost quite a bit in choosing to live here in Italy. We’ve lost the ease of being known or understood. We’ve lost the ability to always carefully and intentionally communicate with clarity. We’ve lost closeness to family and friends. We’ve lost options, choices, opportunities and even some freedoms. We’ve lost the relative ease of knowing how a culture works and functions and what’s needed to navigate it. With each of these losses (and a myriad of others) we’ve had to fully hold them, look at them, mourn them – in a sense, bury them.
It’s been disorienting and in some ways it’s forced us to take a hard look at how we view ourselves: what makes me me. This has led to the death of who I thought I was. We’ve also been forced to let go of all control and release the whole litany of things we can’t control to the Lord. This led to the death of the illusion of control.
What’s interesting is the death of who I thought I was has actually allowed me to see with better clarity than ever who God has made me to be. When I live in that way, I experience life. But it required me to actually and intentionally choose to lay down the old way. The death of control has allowed me to see that the only real control I have is what I think about, everything else is out of my control. If that’s true, I can stop trying to get people to do what I think they should do and trust God will do his work in his time. It allows me to live freely rooted in hope, trusting and knowing that God will bring about good, even if I can’t see it at the moment.
All of this death to life is really learning to live from a Kingdom perspective. It is the process of bringing my kingdom – the range and dominion of my will – under God’s rule and authority and allowing him to accomplish good in me and through me. This is why passages like Psalm 23 or Matthew 11 are so important to cling to – because kingdom living promises life. It promises an easy yoke and light burden and that we’ll have what we need when we need it. God promises good for us. The problem though, as previously mentioned, is that we have an enemy. Jesus reminds us in John 10 that that enemy is a thief, liar and a murderer and he desires to undermine the good that is promised us.
We’ve certainly seen and experienced that intensely here in Italy. We’ve heard the lies that we won’t have enough. We’ve been fed fears trying to convince us that we’re all alone. We’ve felt the looming death that tries to convince us of the futility of our work and our lives. This is, in fact, the opposite of the abundance that Jesus promises. This is death.
And so it’s even more important for us to remember and understand things like when we say that Jesus overcame death and death was defeated we’re actually saying that these lies, fears, visions of death when met with the light of Christ, don’t stand a chance and are shown for what they really are. We bring the light to bear in the darkness when we hold up the truth of Scripture and the words of the Spirit to our souls to the lies. When we do that, we are reminding ourselves that our God always works for our good and he always works for our life. But we have a choice – to take Jesus at his word as a bringer of abundance or not.
The past three and a half years have been an exercise of trying (with a ton of grace) to actually hold Jesus’ words as truth and to put them into practice. We have come face to face with the darkest darkness we’ve ever experienced in our lives. We’ve sat in some of the most intensely lonely and isolated places we’ve ever been. We’ve been to the depths of depression. We’ve been hit with wave after wave of rejection. Often it feels like we’re saying goodbye more that hello. We’ve heard the voices of doubt, fear, listlessness and death hiss around us. But throughout it all we’ve never faced any of it alone.
Often I’ve wanted to run as far in the other direction as I could from those things so as to avoid the pain and discomfort. The thing I’ve learned though is that every time I run away, whatever I’m running from just follows me. These years here have been about learning not to run away but instead to stand, with Jesus and face these things together. The most magnificent thing happens when I do that with Jesus, fruit begins to appear. When I face life with Jesus, the rootedness and fruitfulness of Psalm 1 becomes more and more real. Then a shift takes place from viewing pain in life as a thing to avoid and instead understand it as a grace that leads to life. James and his words on perseverance through trials becomes much more real when you walk with Jesus into the storms of life and see him show up in mighty ways. When we die over and over again and see that life is on the other side you undoubtedly will be filled with joy which is simply a pervasive sense of well being. That well being of course, is guaranteed because our Lord is our shepherd and reminds us that even in the valley of the shadow of death we’ll be ok because he’s with us.
That is the promise of Emmanuel. God. With. Us. We are not alone. Death is not the end. God is good and has good for me. These are the truths that God has been reminding us of over the past few years and truths that invite us to live squarely planted in the kingdom of heaven – a kingdom full of life.