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My Front Row Seat to Gospel Transformation

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Life transformation can come in all different shapes and sizes. 

There’s superficial, shallow, and trivial life transformation. Like when I sink my teeth into one of Patisserie Justina’s fresh out-of-the-oven cinnamon rolls on a Thursday morning, the icing making my fingers a sticky mess, and the comforting warmth of butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon melting in my mouth. Those moments make me sigh in contentment and think, “My life will never be the same again.”

Then there’s actual, substantive, and legitimate life transformation. Like when I receive a diploma for years of study that open endless doors of possibility to me. Or like moving to a new country, a new home, a new people group. Those moments make me flinch and think, “My life will never be the same again.”

But then there’s deep, profound, and lasting life transformation. Like when the Creator of the cosmos breathes life into my heart of stone, draws me out of the pit, and gives my life purpose. That moment, dwelt on again and again, makes my heart cry out, “My life will never be the same again!”

Last week was full of life transformation. Some moments were inconsequential (like eating one of those cinnamon rolls for the first time), but the majority of the days were filled with moments that have the capacity to reshape lives. Through the local church in Haiti, deaf families were given goats, which provide them with a source of food. Deaf families received solar lights, giving them safety and the ability to communicate after the sun goes down. Deaf families received water filters, giving them access to clean, safe drinking water.

But the weightiest transformation took place in a dimly lit room with drapes askew and knick-knack porcelain figures scattered on a shelf. A chaos of colorful paintings clothed the table and the medley of colors melted into an odd assortment of pots and pans stacked under the table. Yoyo (the man on the left in the image above), a deaf man from the village of Leveque, stood leaning against his doorframe, his relaxed body language belying the intense focus and attention he was giving Mike, a deaf man from Canada. In one hand Mike was holding a small slip of white paper, three small tears defacing its otherwise smooth surface. In the other hand, Mike held a small slip of white paper, whole and unmarked. One hand held a life broken and marred by sin. The other hand held a life of righteousness to be freely accepted. I sat back and watched as Mike laid out the gospel, giving visual representation to what Christ had done for the world He so greatly loved. My eyes flitted back and forth between Mike’s face, intent and joyful in the truth of the gospel, and Yoyo’s face, intent and pensive in the decision that was laid before him. Mike’s hands stilled as he came to the end of the gospel story and Yoyo stood, unmoved for several beats. And then a broad smile stretched across his face. “I have heard people talk about the Bible, but I have never clearly understood what Jesus did for me. I want that. I want His righteousness and forgiveness.” And in the space of that tiny room, with only the buzz of mosquitos breaking the silence, Yoyo’s life was transformed by the power and love of a great and gracious Savior. 

That gospel life transformation doesn’t stop in that moment of belief; not for Yoyo, not for me, and not for you. Our journey of life transformation will not be over anytime soon. The good work that was started when Yoyo humbly placed his faith and trust in Christ is only just beginning (Philippians 1:6). What hope there is in that promise! The reshaping of my heart when I bowed at the foot of the cross is continuing degree by degree, from glory to glory (1 Corinthians 3:18). What assurance there is in that truth. The bruises and hurts your heart has sustained since that joy-filled salvation moment are all being turned to God’s gospel purposes to grow in you hope, perseverance, and the character of Christ (Romans 5:1-5, 8:28-29). What a blessed assurance. And, Believer, we were not drawn out of the mire of sin to stay safely within boundaries of comfort. No, we were created in Christ for good works (Ephesians 2:10). We were saved to be sent, to be stewards and ambassadors of a message replete with reconciliation and hope (2 Corinthians 5:20-21). 

Having a front row seat to life transformation this week made my heart pause in thanksgiving and reflection. What beautiful, simple truth the gospel is. And how powerful it is to transform lives. Be encouraged that it has transformed yours. Be challenged to continue that transformation through the Spirit. Be willing to be used by the Spirit in the transformation of others. And be overwhelmed by the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice. Let it transform your life.

My Unchanging God in My Ever-Changing Life

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Change – unsettling, disquieting, and ominous. It’s a small, six-letter word that can knock the wind right out of you. As a missionary in Haiti, my home is in a place where the sands of time and shadows of change shift slowly. But there are people I love in the States where time is a raging river that carries change at immeasurable speed. Change is impossible to escape. 

Being a missionary in a country that is forever fixed in the sweltering sway of summer has its advantages. Vitamin D deficiency is virtually non-existent. This fair-skinned bookworm has started to take on a skin tone that no longer matches the color of the pages she reads. Precious storage space isn’t necessary for bulky sweaters, coats, and scarves. Your wardrobe is virtually the same for the whole year. The palm trees are always green, the ocean is always blue, and one never has to worry about the treacherous nature of snow, ice, and slush. 

Being a missionary in a culture where the pace of life equals the slow, steady rhythm of a gentle stream eroding a rock bed also has its advantages. The flower of change is slow to take root and even slower to bloom here. You learn to take life day-by-day, moment-by-moment. You learn flexibility and to make the best of the situations you are in. You learn to value quality over quantity, depth of relationship over surface acquaintanceship, and intentionality over casualness. 

Perhaps it is these virtues that weave together to create a web of false stasis around my life, an imagined sense of constancy and permanence. But it doesn’t take long before that facade of predictability is shattered. 

Sometimes it is simple changes that make me smile at the blanket of constancy I cling to. For example, I fly to Haiti in January, leaving the bitterly cold, snow-blanketed plains of Iowa behind. When I return to Iowa in May, my eyes still expect to be blinded by the glare of sun on ice, my skin expects to recoil at sub-zero temperatures, and my ears expect to ring with the silence of gentle snowfall. Instead, the shroud of white has been replaced with a patchwork of recently plowed farms and green sprays of spring, the cold replaced with hints of warmth, and the stillness replaced with the chirps of crickets and hum of cicadas. The Christmas trees have all been tucked away and the rich colors of the season have been replaced with the bright palette of new life.

Other times it is weightier changes that make my heart ache with their heaviness and import – The church I called home for fifteen years of my life is no longer being pastored by my father. My sister’s family grows by nine pounds, one ounce and 19 ¾ inches. The soul of a bright, joyful young man in my home church is no longer for this world but is finding rest and repose in the arms of his Savior. He is shortly joined in Glory by a fellow missionary from my home church who labored hard for the Kingdom and made lasting impact. My kindred spirit, my partner in interpreting and all things adventuring meets a man, dates, gets engaged, and is married. My little brother – my greatest childhood antagonizer, partner in crime, confidant, and friend – meets a woman, dates, proposes, and is married. 

In the midst of change my heart is unsettled, trying to grasp at straws, clinging to what I think I know, and trying to find purchase in a world that is always shifting. And my heart is so quick to jump to the realm of “what-if’s.”

Fear. What if the changes in the lives of those I love causes them to love me less?

Worry. What if my relationships with the people I love are never the same?

Regret. What if I had been able to be present for the entirety of all those changes?

But it is in the middle of these thoughts, this churning of emotions and agitation of spirit, that my heart in all of its flailing finally finds purchase. The Spirit whispers and imprints the words of the Father on my heart – 

I am the Lord, I change not… Malachi 3:6

I am the same yesterday, today, and forever… Hebrews 13:8

In Me there is no variation or shadow due to change… James 1:17

How do I combat the dark hands of change clawing at my throat, threatening to steal peace and stillness of heart? I turn my heart to the One who never changes. Just as David remonstrates his heart to hope in God in the midst of his depression and turmoil in Psalm 42, I must preach to my heart the truth of who God is and what His promises are. God is constant. In a world where the best laid plans often go awry, I can rest in my Heavenly Father who is immutable and unaffected by change. I don’t have to fear the loss of love because I have a profound love that is richer, deeper, wider, and stronger than anything in this present earth (Ephesians 3:18-19). The Redeemer will never love me more or less than He does in this moment. I don’t have to worry about losing relationship because I have identity and purpose in my relationship with a Father who adores His children. The Restorer who pursued me in the wreck of my life will never leave or abandon me (Deuteronomy 31:6). I don’t have to regret not being present. The Creator who sees, knows, and hears is present for me (Psalm 139).  

In the wise and discerning words of A.W. Tozer, “All that God is He has always been, and all that He has been and is He will ever be.” His promises will never be rescinded or overturned. His unchanging nature shines brilliantly against the backdrop of change that is inherent in the world of mankind. And it is in this nature that my heart must rest. 

Just as change is an arrow that points to the immutability of God, it is also an indicator of hope. As hard as it is to swallow, the reality is that fundamentally, change is a good and gracious gift from God. Redemption’s ongoing story is one of change, transforming from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18). And without God’s sanctifying hand of change in my life, where would I be? The changes God has wrought in my heart and life all happen for the greater purpose of conforming me more into the image of His Son. The changes that God gently, or perhaps not so gently, introduces into your life all fall under His sovereign, omniscient hand that works for your ultimate good and sanctification. It is because He loves us that He changes us, our loved ones, and our circumstances. What hope is found in this truth!

That small, six-letter word has taken on new connotation in recent days; the disquiet is replaced with rest, the unsettledness with peace, the ominous fear with hope. Let change point your heart to the one who is changeless. And be thankful with me that He continues to change us in order to bring to completion His good work in our hearts.

 


Courtney Johnson lives and ministers to the people of Haiti.

 

I'm Not, but I Know the One Who Is

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There are some days in Haiti where the hours simply fly by. I reach the end of the day, float up the steps, waltz through the door, sink onto the couch, and my heart sighs in contentment as it looks back and smiles at the joy-filled, productive, and victorious moments of the day. 

There is the stooped and wizened old man who leads me from the hot, dusty road of Leveque past the cactus fence, through the bent and angled corrugated tin gate into the cool shade of his front yard. His eyes become animated pools of simple joy as he gives me a botany lesson about each vegetable, flower, and herb in his garden, his hands gently informing, telling a story. It is the simplicity of moments and friendships like these that my heart cherishes.

There are the moments when I step on to what feels like thin ice. I sit down next to Lydia or Rosenie in a room thrumming with sewing machines and chatter, take a deep breath, attempt to draw forth the entirety of my Creole knowledge, and talk about the weekend. I listen carefully, brows furrowed, trying to discern the sounds of abbreviated and shortened words and connect what I’m hearing with the vocabulary files that feel like they are at the far, far reaches of my brain. My face relaxes and my mouth tips up into a smile as I start to put the pieces of a story together. Moments with family. Days spent cooking. Hours of laundry. Mornings filled with church. Time spent in prayer. And then it is my turn. My brain scrambles to remember grammar and syntax. Amidst smiles, encouragement, and shared laughter, I haltingly verbalize my weekend. Moments with my own Haiti family. Adventures in Port Au Prince. Sweet mornings worshiping and learning in church. I come to an end of my known Creole vocabulary and my voice trails off. They smile at me and they tell me how well I am doing with my Creole. I grin back and say that I have the best teachers with the utmost patience. We laugh, share a hug, and continue with our work. It is small victories that deeply encourage my heart.

There are moments when the joy that comes from using the gifts God has given completely overtakes my heart. 142 pastors, shepherds, spiritual leaders converge on our pastoral conference center. Framed on one side by the uninterrupted stretch of azure waves and by interminable mountains on the other, they sit, gathered around circular tables ready to learn from God’s Word. The comfortable murmur of chatter rises and falls as I make my way towards a table where chatter does not break the air with vibrations of sound, but instead cuts through physical space with hands that are transformed into tools of communication. Three Deaf pastors are joining the training, and I, along with another interpreter, have the privilege of opening the door to communication access. Old Testament survey. New Testament survey. The authority of Scripture. How to understand the words of God. Questions. Answers. Prayer. Worship. My heart swells with gratitude as I see the light of comprehension on the upturned faces before me, the nods, the knowing smiles. Here are three pastors who will take the light of understanding, the light of truth, the brilliant light of the Messiah to which Scripture points to their churches, to the people of their village. Facilitating understanding for the ultimate end of spreading God’s glorious gospel... this is the best kind of productivity.

But then there are other days, when I reach the end of the day, drag myself up the steps, trudge through the door, collapse onto the couch and my heart laments the frustrations, calamities, and difficulties that have passed. 

There is the rough, calloused hand that grabs my own hand, noticeably absent of callouses, and pulls me to a front door that has recently been marred. There is something missing. The lock, meant to keep the safety and comfort of home in and the danger of disorder and peril out, has been destroyed. The door looks vulnerable, bereft of its shield, telling a story of loss. I turn and listen to the story unfolding from the hands of a beautiful, resilient, aged woman with streaks of black peaking through the striking white hair pulled behind her head. There is no vulnerability in that face; only strength and simple peace that echoes the story of trust in God amidst the suffering that her hands so quietly tell me. She drops her hands, her story told, and I smile and thank her for her hospitality. I squeeze her hand, turn to go, and catch her eyes one last time. The question floats between us, unvoiced but looming. Can’t you help me? My heart catches as I feel the weight of being white and hearing come crashing through my equilibrium. 

There are other moments when the question is voiced. I sit across from Guy, merriment spilling from eyes where I can see the wheels turning, anticipating the next moment to make me smile with a clever quip. I laugh out loud as he looks at me slyly, his hands unfolding for my eyes a story of exaggerated proportions. He leans back in his chair and grins in satisfaction, and then the amusement is replaced by concern as he tells me about the people in his village, members of the Deaf community. The frustrations and difficulties pour off of his hands. Water. Jobs. Commuting. Safety. Theft. Discrimination. And then his head tips forward, his face even graver than before. What do I think about this? My brain goes silent. And then the call to action. What can I do to solve these problems? And my heart again bows under the expectations that come with the color of my skin and the ability to hear.

There are the moments where grief and sorrow rip through the heart. It’s Friday and I find myself in a church sitting on a bench next to my friend. We are the minority here. Like two small flecks of sugar that accidentally got thrown in with coffee grounds. The pastor’s voice rises, falls, stops, and a young woman in the front rises to her feet. She squares her shoulders, turns, and I look into the broken and wounded eyes of one of our employees and friends. I am at a funeral for her mother. The ache to understand the purpose in the loss of life is almost palpable.

There are such highs and such lows. Extremes on the spectrum of emotions. And as that spectrum starts to tilt and tumble from the heights, I can hear whispers of defeat.

The need is too great and you are too small.

The hurt is too deep and you are not equipped for this ministry.

You are not in the right place. You are not meant to be here.

How easy it is to blindly believe the lies of the enemy. But as I center my heart on the timeless, ancient words of Scripture, I find the lies dissolving in the face of truth. I hear the quiet reassurance of the Spirit.

Friend, I see the great need. Know that I am greater.

Beloved, I am the healer of all hurts and have equipped you for every good work through my Word. My power is perfected in your weakness.

Child, I knew you before the foundations of the world were put in place. I am holding you in the palm of my hand.

The wild worry and ache of my heart calms as I rest in truth. Truth that I am not the healer of broken hearts. But I know One who is. Truth that I cannot heal the hurts of the world. But I know One who can. Truth that my presence cannot bring peace. But I know the Prince of Peace. Truth that I cannot inherently instill hope. But I know One who is hope. Truth that I am powerless to use something evil for good. But I know One whose power is limitless. Truth that I cannot grasp the big picture plan. But I know One whose understanding is infinite. And He is good. He is faithful. His heart is kind.

My heart again sighs with contentment as the frustrations, calamities, and disappointments find their divinely appointed purpose in Christ. The victorious and joy-filled moments are juxtaposed with difficult, painful days. It’s a trade-off. And I find myself thankful for both sides of the trade.

Rest at the Cross

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I was planning to write a blog about faithfulness. How it is important to be faithful in the small things. How impact is not found in quantity but in quality. How sometimes the day-to-day feels monotonous, one day melting in to the next, with nothing extraordinary to show for it when the clock ticks 12:00am. How change oftentimes happens in slow, incremental shifts that go unnoticed; unseen until hindsight sharpens to 20/20. How seemingly insignificant words and actions have far reaching impact.

It’s funny how the best laid plans can go awry.  

Because these words have been wiped from the slate of my brain, which feels uncharacteristically empty; a reflection of a heart that is broken, battered, and bruised.  

A heart that is aching for all things to be made right.

It’s easy to think of Haiti as a place of never-ending summer, beaches, and sunshine. Sometimes, believe it or not, it’s easy to forget how broken Haiti is; how broken humanity is. After living here for just over a year, the things that were initially shocking have become normal life. The sights, the smells, the experiences; I find myself on autopilot more often than not. I settle into my daily routine, content and happy in the sphere God has placed me in, forgetting the messiness of life. And then something happens to bring the neat, self-constructed scaffolding of my falsely secure world crashing down around my feet. I am reminded afresh of the ugly nature of sin and the brokenness of this world.

And my heart breaks.

Two weeks ago, a bridge in Port Au Prince collapsed, causing a chain of events to unfold that resulted in the brutal, senseless murder of three Deaf women.  

Murder.  

The word feels as ugly as it is. Three beautiful, vibrant, precious women gone, who just days before were laughing, loving, and living. When I was in their village that Monday after the bridge collapsed, the worry was palpable. No one had seen or heard from Monique, Vanessa, or Sophonie since Friday when they left for Port Au Prince. One of Sophonie’s sons grabbed my hand to tag along as I visited friends to catch up on life. And life was okay. Relatively speaking. There were, of course, the normal concerns of clean water, jobs, and night-time lights for a community of people whose language is visual. But the underlying current of concern pulled and tugged at conversation, was seen in the way my friends looked at Sophonie’s little boy, and was felt in the way they grasped my hands to say goodbye. And then the call came Monday night.

Those three women would not be returning home.

Shock. Anger. Confusion. Fear. Doubt. Sorrow. Weariness. My heart felt like it had imploded. And as I looked across the table into the eyes of a dear friend and one of the leaders of the Deaf community, I saw my own emotions magnified and amplified. The tenuous blanket of security felt by the Deaf community had been cruelly and suddenly stripped away. The grief leaked out of the corners of my eyes, tracing a hot path through the sweat and grime on my face.  

Six children now without a mother. A community that lost a skilled artisan and entrepreneur. A church that will miss the joy and grace of one of their song leaders and members. A tightly knit community of people who will keenly feel the loss of three beloved women. This is the raw reality of life, the ugly, savage nature of sin. And it’s horrible.  

How does one even begin to process this? How do I quiet the tumult of questions in my mind? And how can my broken heart and the shattered hearts of a community of people find healing and rest?

The answer is the cross.

The past two weeks have been wrought with heaviness, hurt, and darkness. But in the midst of the oppressive weight, I can feel the Spirit drawing the eyes of my heart to the cross. And I know the truth that is there. But sometimes what I know to be true is overwhelmed by the lies and deceit of my sinful heart. And that is why I must let truth dictate thoughts and emotions. Not the other way around.

I know that at the cross the One who said He would never forsake me was forsaken by His Father. The One who had lived in perfect unity with the Father and Spirit was suddenly bereft of that unity and experienced the agony of utter abandonment. He underwent hell so we wouldn’t have to.

I know that at the cross the perfect, sinless One willingly chose to drink the full cup of God’s wrath for me. He emptied it.  The furious anger meant for me was absorbed instead by the Spotless Lamb. He knows suffering that we cannot begin to fathom.

I know that the cross is indisputably the best and most perfect picture of God’s love for me. “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16).  “He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all…” (Romans 8:32).  “Yet the Lord was pleased to crush Him severely…" (Isaiah 53:10)  All this for us. There is no doubt of God’s love. The cross persuades us of this.

I know that at the cross there is victory. Because sin and death did not overcome. It is at the cross we find hope for future restoration, hope for a King who will rule and reign with justice and goodness.   for a day when He will right all wrongs.

In Matthew 11, Jesus beckons those of us who are weary and burdened to come and learn from Him. And every single one of God’s promises finds their “yes” in Him (1 Corinthians 1:20).

So, when I am doubting the promised goodness of God, I look to Christ and remember that He is unspeakably good and loves me and this community of hurting people beyond measure.  

When I am feeling lost and broken, I look to Christ and remember that He was forsaken so that we never will be.  

When I am feeling the crushing weight of sin and despair, I look to Christ and remember that His power is greater and that He has already overcome.  

When I am feeling suffocated by hopelessness, I look to Christ and remember that He is our hope.  

When I worry for these six children, I look to Christ and remember that He is a father for the fatherless.  

When sorrow threatens to overwhelm my soul, I look to Christ and remember that that He intimately knows our sorrows and tears.  

When I falter in my weakness, I look to Christ who is my strength.  For it is in Christ that we find healing. He is the mender of broken hearts, and the giver of hope. It’s simple really; just a rehearsal of God’s promises, but, oh, the life-giving power that is found in God’s words to us. It is here, as my heart settles on these truths, that I find rest; rest at the foot of the cross. And it is here I want to stay.