As 2006 begins that labored breathing which signals that its end draweth nigh, I am facing significant personal decisions and challenges. Not all are crisis level, Must-Decide-Now issues. Some are, but have been that way for years. All are critical, to me; and all affect the entire course of my life and ministry.
Decision-making is something I've grown not to love (litotes), and these are thorny and involved issues. Some involve elements beyond my control. I'm very much feeling the truth of Jeremiah's words: "I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps" (Jeremiah 10:23). These matters loom very large to me, and I feel very small. So, as I've taken to doing in recent years, I'm about to take some time apart to evaluate, think, pray, as we approach the dawn of 2007.
As I go away to do that, some faces breeched my perimeter (as Jack Bauer might say), and hit me pretty hard. Some are new to me, some not. All serve to put some perspective on my concerns. Think about them with me. If they don't have a similar effect on you... I'd encourage you to worry.
First, look at this face.
"Pretty girl," you think. "But yikes—what's with that scar?"
This is a girl whose life isn't characterized by complaints about the pastor preaching too long, or Bible studies being too boring, or family members not behaving perfectly, or gas being too expensive, or a few extra pounds from Christmas, or traffic. This is Noviana Malewa. She had Islamists try to chop her head off in October of 2005. Her crime? Being Christian. In public. The scar represents their best effort at beheading her.
In Noviana's case, the Islamists failed. In the cases of the three girls Noviana was walking with in Indonesia, they succeeded. Read about it in WorldNetDaily.
This happened when Noviana was fifteen. Noviana's problems since? Continuing physical issues such as nerve damage and a dislocated jaw, problems with her right eye winking spontaneously, involuntary twitching of the right corner of her lip; ongoing therapy and treatment. Plus hellacious memories. These are the sorts of realities this young girl has to deal with. All that, plus living in a society where that sort of thing could happen to anyone, simply for being a known Christian.
We have problems? Those are problems.
[UPDATE 6/2009 — Noviana still prays for the salvation of her attackers.]
Look at this face next:
I noticed this picture while at Carla's blog, innocently checking out one of her links for reformed baptist churches. The face of one of the webmasters, Johnny Farese, caught my curiosity. I clicked on it and watched his ten-minute story. It was Johnny's story, his family's story, his brother's family's story. My jaw sagged, my eyes stung with tears. I was nailed.
At the start, you see the pictures of this young "normal" looking boy, smiling and happy, bright with the happy optimism of youth. As the video progresses, you watch his physical deterioration to his current state. Johnny's just a little younger than I. I won't share with you my personal issues. But I certainly did compare them with Johnny's, as I watched and listened. You might do the same.
Johnny Farese is a man utterly dependent on others, for just about everything. I temporarily left Dr. Atkins aside for the Christmas season, so I could munch on my wife's amazing peanut brittle, chocolate chip cookies, and the like. This man takes his pasty-looking food through a tube, directly into his stomach. He does work on the internet, as I do. But I use my perfectly healthy hands, while Johnny must rely on voice-activated software.
Johnny's attitude? Johnny is praising God, leaning on Him, giving Him glory. Johnny is upheld by such verses as Psalm 119:71—"It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes." That verse has meant a lot to me, too. But "afflicted," as I apply it, and "afflicted," as Johnny Farese applies it, are very different concepts.
Watch Johnny's video, and visit his home page.
At Johnny's home page, you'll see another face that has often had an impact on me.
If you don't recognize her, again perhaps you think, "Pretty lady." Then, "Um... so why's she in this post?" She's Joni Eareckson Tada, and while you've been worrying about (supply your own specifics), Joni has been paralyzed from the neck down for nearly forty years. If I'm doing my math right, she's a bit older than I. When Joni was a pretty young teen, she took one ill-advised dive, snapped her neck, and has been a quadriplegic ever since.
Joni has a very effective ministry. She speaks, sings, is an artist, writes. And she needs constant care, of the sort you and I would find grindingly, devastatingly humiliating. Joni feels all those emotions as well.
Joni spoke at Desiring God's 2005 conference, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. I have listened to Joni's talk maybe a half-dozen times, and will probably listen again in the next day or two. It is funny, engaging, moving, humbling, arresting, encouraging—and very perspective-giving.
One of the people to whom I gave a copy of Joni's talk — though he could have given it in his own way, himself — is this man:
That handsome gentleman is Terry Rose. God gave me the great gift of meeting Terry a couple of decades ago, and I've had the honor of counting him as a friend since. Terry is a genuine war hero. In the Korean War, a grenade went off near Terry, and among other physical injuries, it permanently blinded him.
Maybe a clam would be unmoved by Terry's testimony. Not me. I can still recall the first time Terry told me of finding himself blind; then, later, of being outside, feeling the sun on his face, looking straight up at it, and not seeing a glimmer of light. It was a rough, rough time for Terry.
Terry has now been blind about as long as I have been alive. But he is a funny man, a happy man, a delight to be around. Terry is constantly glowing about the love, grace, and mercy of God in Christ. He lives in the Sierra, where he jogs (!) every day, does counseling, speaks at churches, and dismays his dear wife with his terrible puns. Terry also likes to garden. Terry placed each of the rocks in his yard, by hand. To be around Terry is to be humbled and encouraged, all at the same time.
I'm so glad Terry slums, when it comes to picking friends.
Four more faces in the cloud of witnesses surrounding us (Hebrews 12:1). Four folks who, we'd all agree, were dealt a pretty rough hand by Providence. All still standing as testimonies to Christ.
As you face your new year, I've no doubt you have challenges, as do I. And to you they're very large, as mine are to me. (I hasten to say yours may very well dwarf mine.)
But let's keep some perspective, shall we? I've come to the conviction that tribulation is what tribulates you. It's tribulation.
But not all tribulation is The Great Tribulation.
Here is our challenge: What are we doing with the life-situation that God's providence designed for us? Do we really think our obstacles, trials and burdens exempt us from God's call...
- To "Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer" (Romans 12:12)?
- To "be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58)?
- To give "thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Ephesians 5:20)?
- Always to be "prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15)?
These thoughts I leave with you, and take with me.