Church, Africa Style

Driving up the rocky, dusty, partially-eroded tire trail outside of town, we know we are in for a unique experience. The little church sits at the top of a quiet hill, and we may have missed it if it weren’t for the concrete foundation that sets it apart from the other mud-and-bamboo, thatched-roof houses around. Most of the churchgoers live in these houses – each with its own small machamba to feed the family and perhaps bring in a few extra meticais at market. We have driven, it seems, right into the middle of these neighbors’ world – giggly children breaking from their play to watch the odd-looking strangers pass by, some carrying infant siblings in their three-year-old arms; mothers with sleepy babies tied to their backs, busily pulling weeds from among the corn stalks in their machambas; youths passing by intermittently on their way to or from market. Like its own little village out here, way on the outskirts of Nampula, past the reach of city water systems but, as of recently, within range of a single thin, precariously low electric line. Think “Africa,” and pictures like this one come to mind.

It is not quite nine in the morning, yet the sun is already beating down hard on this hilltop community. Come afternoon, everyone will be seeking shade under the front eaves of their huts, or under one of the few trees tall enough to provide cover. Many are already doing so. But the folks we’ve come to visit are seeking rest under a different kind of shade: the life-preserving shelter of the Word of God. I count three small Sunday School classes, and ours meets on the dirt-floor porch of the house next door. We arrive after class has already started: God’s quorum of two or three gathered in Jesus’ name, poring over their Bibles on old creaky wood chairs. They stand up to offer us their seats as they step inside to fetch more. We listen to the teacher – a well-dressed young man with his Almeida Bible (the Portuguese equivalent of the King James) – make logical deductions from the opening chapters of Genesis that we, in our Western mindset, had never thought of before.

Shortly, class ends, and we wander over toward the sanctuary, where the Swedish missionary couple who brought us introduces us to Pastor Alberto. All smiles, he shakes my hand and asks first if I speak Portuguese, next if I’d like to preach. Though I’m not totally unprepared for this, I politely ask if we can save that “for the next time” and am relieved to hear that the answer is yes. I had been warned that this could happen, but still am thrown on my heels by the shock of the request. The next time that I preach will be my first. But maybe I have to experience the emotion of being put on the spot before scraping up the motivation to spend Saturday afternoon preparing a sermon outline “just in case.”

The four of us are ushered inside to the front-row bench – a place of honor, we surmise, probably reserved for missionaries or other guests. Pastor Alberto, an ostentatiously pleasant man, stands up to remind his flock to rejoice because Jesus is coming back. There are those, he says, who think we’re crazy for believing in Jesus, but one day they’ll see. The church prays together – everyone in unison, each praying his own thoughts to God. It is beautiful, and yet I find it distracting to my soul, accustomed as it is to Western-style quietness and contemplation.

Then Pastor Alberto announces our presence and the whole church stands and says in unison: “We greet you, our brothers and sisters, in the name of Jesus. Be welcomed here.” After which, he invites us forward with our other missionary friends to share a brief testimonial. I shouldn’t be surprised, since the same thing had happened last week at a different church. But still, I stumble over my words as I try to explain who we are and why we have come here.

They say that the first cardinal rule of public speaking is knowing your audience, and I’m finding out just to what extent I don’t. The way I process my Christian experience is so different from how people do that here, what can I even share that will make sense? So I spit out a few disjointed thoughts about how I grew up in a Christian home and came here because I had heard there were people who still don’t have the Bible translated in their language, and I wanted to help with that. Bible translation, I wonder…is that even a concept to most folks here? Thanks to some courageous Catholic fathers, the Bible has a 34-year history in the local Makua language. Still, most people aren’t aware that there’s a mission headquarters just down the dusty main road dedicated to the translation of Scripture in the other línguas maternas. At least I know I am communicating something when I hear the pastor’s reinforcing “amens” behind my back and when I manage a few modest chuckles with a joke about our Brazilian accents.

We sit back down, and the singing begins. One song with everyone together. Then, one by one, just about every conceivable demographic segment dances up to the front to share a special number or three. The children. The youth. The women. Three sisters (plus some friends). Several other combinations of people where the unifying factor isn’t quite clear to me. The music is beautiful. Rhythmic, harmonious, acapella. Accompanied only by a bongo drum. Mostly in Makua, with a few Portuguese hymns mixed in. We don’t know what they are saying, but it is obvious that besides praising our Lord, everyone is just having fun. I imagine how up on this hill, away from schedules and smartphones and social media, worship must become a sort of recreational activity. People look forward to Sunday morning because the singing and dancing give them something to enjoy together. And enjoy it they do, making joyful noises to the Lord with little thought for the hour. I suppose even the non-believing neighbors must look forward to this event.

The time comes to collect the offering, and I reach preparedly for the coins in my pocket. Generosity is one of the highest values in Africa and tithes an important part of the worship here, so we decided our first week in this country that we would always try to bring something to give. Even if it’s just a token amount. Once everything is collected – an amount that couldn’t have exceeded a few dollars – Pastor Alberto looks at me and asks if I will pray to bless the offering. This too is not standard practice in my culture, but since I saw it done every Sunday last year in Brazil, I have at least some idea of what to say.

Maybe it was good that I didn’t preach today, because standing in my place is a gray-bearded visitor who has been sitting quietly next to the pastor combing his well-worn Almeida Bible. He is a simple man, and missing half his teeth, but his dignified appearance alone spells wisdom. Hearing him preach is something I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. He is 95 years old, and the fact itself is proof why you should follow Jesus, he says. Even a much more conservative estimate would have him a survivor of Portuguese colonial rule, the Marxist revolution, and the Mozambican civil war. A walking history book – if only I had the chance to sit down with him over tea.

“Faith has no color,” the old man announces in a weathered, raspy voice, as he points to the missionary foursome and reminds all that, black or white, American or African, we are united by our belief in Jesus the Son of God. The elder’s words – all of them – are translated into Makua, an auditory reminder that there are more dividing walls in this room than meet the eye. He goes on to urge the church from Matthew 10:41 to receive us white folks as fellow believers in Christ. From there, we travel all over the New Testament, making several stops along the way but finally coming to rest on the theme of Jesus as the Son of God. “[Other religious leaders] – all they know how to do is kill,” he tells us. “Only Jesus raises the dead. Hallelujah!”

“Amen!” we respond, and back comes Pastor Alberto to conclude the service with an altar call. Three girls come forward to pray with the evangelist – a young, energetic man with a large gap in his front teeth. It is all in Makua, but the content is something like the “sinner’s prayer” we grew up with. Next, the pastor invites anyone to come forward for prayer for healing or general life needs. At his request, we each lay hands on and pray for one of the dozen or so parishioners who have come forward, while he and the deacons take the rest. The service is now over. In no time, we shake hands with everybody on our way out of the building.

On the bumpy drive home, I ponder that church is not something I can or ever should think of as a passive experience. Gone are the days when I can show up and simply consume. Maybe that’s not the point anyway. Because like it or not, here in an African church, everyone participates – from the pastor to the nervous green missionary to the two-year-old girl in her Sunday best imitating the singers as they dance down the aisle. It is exhilarating and nerve-racking and delightful. It enlarges your heart, and it keeps you on your toes.

Next week we’ll be visiting a different Mozambican church, in a different region of the country. But I plan to go prepared with a sermon outline. Just in case.

The Sender

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I’ve heard it never gets easier. We wave a goodbye that will last for years, and I wonder about you. You’ve assured us of your prayers and this call of God. You’ve given us a wealth, and we leave full of your kindness. You were a crowd behind us as we took that commissioned vow stretching open, praying hands to strengthen our spines.

Some people call it an adventure, others call it a sacrifice. Our life in Mozambique will be all that and more. No doubt about it, you’ll pray and give and encourage even more than you’ve promised. And I know this deep, and I want you to know it, too: we cannot do it without you. I’m cradling your face in two hands and saying it straight: you have given us courage. It will be our faces on the church wall and our skin on the stage in a few years. And we’ll all know that it was you and our great Father who stand behind and hold it all together.

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But while we step into the adventure that is the blank, you are heading back to an emptiness. A vacant basement bedroom. One less sister and brother to crowd your house at Christmas. Two fewer places to set for Thanksgiving this year. One less hug on a hard day. One less friend to marvel at the beauty of the bride you’ll be on your wedding day. A missing aunt and uncle to cheer on your first steps. We’ll miss your first words, your first soccer goal, your first job, your first boyfriend, your graduation, your hard decision, your doctoral recital, and your stories of the way it used to be. We’ll be absent the week you get the flu and need some soup and a fresh flower or the time you take up a new job and load the moving truck early on a Saturday.

Do you know that we will miss sharing life—all big and normal—with you? I ache to share your load, but life is an irony and I’ve laid that load on you. Our leaving leaves you with a heaviness, and I am overcome because not enough of something can be altogether too much.

How much easier it would be for all of us if Sam and I would just stay home. It makes me tremble to know that our leaving costs you. What courage you have to let us go. What strength you have to send—to propel—us forward when you would rather us stay. _DSC0256

Hear me when I say it: God’s work in you is wonderful and I know that full well. I can see you leaning into the Spirit and doing something you never would have chosen. And I’m so proud of you for being humble enough to follow Him when it’s hard.

In that moment before Sam and I have started the engine or boarded the plan, I’ve wanted to leave nothing unsaid. And my words have fled, and I have stood awkward. How could I sum up my heart for you in seconds? That last hug can’t express the gift that you are to me. And the last words won’t say how much I will miss you. It all feels awkward and not the way to end.

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It hit me a week ago watching you turn and head for home after a day or two of sweet moments together: good goodbyes are said long before the last farewell. We’ve done it, friend. Our bond is a treasure that needs no convincing because we have been living it in the everyday moments. I’m freed from the need to say it all because it’s all already been said.

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If Jesus has said anything clearly in these leaving days, it’s that He holds these things. These little losses that we carry, quietly, matter deeply to Him. You and I, we matter to the Living God. Our God is full of compassion. He knows how we are formed; he knows we are dust. He is close to the brokenhearted, and in Him, all things hold together.* In Him, we are held together. He is with me, and He is with you, and in Him, we are held together. In leaving, I leave you to Him, the best Shepherd.  There’s none better. And, dear sender, I leave you with the ancient blessing.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace.**

*Ps. 116:5, Ps. 103:14, Ps. 34:18, Col. 1:17

**Num. 6:25

A Looking Back

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The rain, it’s coming down finally. Hard and heavy and just what we need. Our grandfather of a doorman, an old Brazilian man with slave roots and good stories, looked to the sky and said satisfied, “See, an answer to prayer!”

It should be normal this time of year, heaping clouds and afternoon rain bearing down on our skyline. But the sky is mostly dry these days, and the ground gets harder, and the water reserves for this city of a million dip low. Too low. And I’ve worried more about having enough water to do the laundry than about having a sunny day to hang it out.

So in our piece of the southern hemisphere, we don’t complain much when the skies do open. Tonight, we’re breathing a sigh of relief for the shower. Dry, hard ground finally softened.

We are not forgotten.

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It’s beginning to be the end of things here. A change of seasons, you might say. It’s the longest we’ve lived anywhere together yet, this eleventh story apartment with a tiled veranda and a bad couch. Eight whole months of this view, and we’ll leave it on Saturday for good.

Our stuff—and our hearts—are scattered as we pack up a life here. It’s a week of last things. At times, I’ve just felt heavy from the weight of an emptying.

But in being emptied of more people and places I’ve come to love, there’s the chance to live full of the present goodness of God. Leaving usually makes me look back long at the season passing. And this time, God’s hand is large in my looking.

The park a block up. Mango ice cream. Family and friends we miss. A home with a view of the sky. Dozens of hugs every day. Sufficient provision. Lunch with friends downtown. That doorman who is always giving God thanks and makes us glad to be home.

A missionary family whose kids call us Uncle Sam and Auntie Seesabeth and who buy us mango ice cream to celebrate small things.

A church family who spoke truth to us and taught us to know God better and told us they wished we would stay.

Friends, like Wellington and Souza and Dirlei and Ebenezer and Cristina and Rafael and and Beatriz and Thamires and Flavia and Brunno and Lais and Jonatas, who were really just our friends. Not just nice or good church people but friends who like and love you as you are.

Two people that are more one now than when we arrived. There’s been long conversations after dinner and stilted ones sitting on that bad couch at the end of a bad day. There’s been every Friday night together as each other’s only best friend. There’s been these months as foreign ones with moments that make us laugh or cringe or hold hands a little more tightly. This kind of bond doesn’t come easy or fast, and it’s God’s gift to us.

Goodbyes given with blessings—that God would go before you, that He would go behind you, that He would be a Rock underneath your feet, that His Name would be known and praised in your going. Must have been dozens of them on Sunday, and I left knowing I had been in the presence of God among His people.

And just today, words from a friend back home who said it’s okay to feel all the feelings, it’s okay that it’s hard to leave. Be gentle with yourself, she said.

The naming of God’s hand here brings water for the thirsty ones like me. The shadow of God’s hand is big and black and bearing down with all the weight and wonder of His goodness. It’s like the lifting of a drought. I breathe deep; I am not forgotten.

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Campinas, Brazil

We’ve loved living in Campinas these last eight months.  Here’s a look at some of the people and places we treasure.

Thanks in All Things Small

I came home with a harvest and twenty-five dollars fewer the morning I went to the market with a friend. And I spilled it all, green and red and the tropics, on my one kitchen counter and grinned at Sam. And it was five minutes of telling him about all the nothing—fruit vendors, a cobblestone street, sample pieces of pineapple, buying more oranges than I’d planned, and I want to go back next week.

I had gone out on my one morning at home, purchased produce in Portuguese, and liked it. It’s no lie that he said he was tickled. Because sometimes buying two mangos almost ripe is the biggest accomplishment in a day and worth celebrating. It’s small, but it’s good.

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I’ve lived over six months a child in this place, and there are things I do now successfully in my world here. Not fluent or genius or even more than a ten year old, but I can ask for tomatoes and get them. I can greet a stranger and make small talk. Or, as happened last week, I can get stuck in an elevator and call for help. It’s a relief to do simple life tasks without the need of a two-hour nap.

But even so, I can look at a day, and it was only a class and homework and a meal and one conversation at small group—and it feels small. Too small for small talk. My task is to learn a language, and language is learned one word at a time, and some words are very, very small. And with all the talk of thanksgiving that comes this time of year, I look around at my small, very ordinary day and wonder. What’s big enough here to say thanks for? Where is God in all this everyday? Inevitably, I thank God for all that I gave thanks for yesterday: the same piece of sky, the same sun, the same Sam who loves me real. Then I’m stuck because my life, it’s little sometimes, and God must be too big for my smallness.

It’s happened that as my world gets bigger, God gets bigger too. Or maybe my eyes that see Him just open a little wider. My mind frays to think of Him creating this world I see only in slivers. I know more of His creativity in creatures, fruits, flowers, and people than I ever have, and they are only a fraction of His masterpiece. It’s so much more abundant and stunning and hard than I ever imagined, and it’s just the beginning. And He’s vast and transcendent as I think of His love for the million in my city who live different from me. But as I see the world large, I feel small. What if I’m just lost in the crowd of this great, big, beautiful world? Does the Almighty see me in my corner of Earth in my piece of history? Can God be small too?

Sometimes this is my doubt, that God is big enough to be small. That He is great enough to live here in my little life.

But it’s also happened that I’ve leaned in and asked God to help me go out and buy tomatoes. I’ve asked Him to give me courage to walk out the door and greet my new friends. I’ve asked Him to be with me as I walk in a shop and ask for coriander. And He has, and that’s worth celebrating. He is worth celebrating because he has entered into my smallness—which is smaller than it’s been in awhile—and walked with me here.

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I grew up with parents who celebrated. It was usually ice cream or pizza after report cards, bike rides without training wheels, band concerts, Christmas vacation, job interviews, and last days of school. It didn’t take much for them to stop and rejoice over an accomplishment. And somehow, since leaving their nest, I forgot that celebrating is this continuous thing that draws you right up into the goodness of God. Life is lived right here in the small, and I miss much when I wait to rejoice only in the noteworthy. Celebration breaks the routine and my hard heart and speaks God here. Paul says to give thanks in all things—without measuring the size. Maybe celebrating small is also my thank offering that shows me the salvation of God? (Ps. 50:23)

Hagar and David and Bethlehem, they all say, “Yes, God can be small, too.” Hagar names Him the God who sees because he noticed her, the servant woman thirsty and abandoned in the wasteland. David praises the One enthroned in glory who stoops low to look on the heavens and the earth (Ps. 113:6). And Bethlehem is the smallest of all the tribes of one small nation chosen to welcome the baby Savior of a whole world.

So tonight, Sam and I sit on the couch and eat baked oatmeal with peaches and remember that one time we went to Maine, fresh in the glow of our covenant. We’re together on a Sunday evening at home, and that matters. And I’m giving thanks on the inside for gifts like these that speak God’s goodness in my story. Like my market morning, it’s hardly worth writing home about, but both these moments, they are worth seeing God in and giving thanks for. Because thanks for the small or the big is, in the end, all praise for this God who is as small as He is big.

 

Linking up with Velvet Ashes because there are weeks when God speaks the same word again and again, and I’ve thinking on this for days.

A Life with Blanks

Mozambique is a real place, and we’re moving there. Six months counting, in the spring. Some days, this place seems about as far away as it actually is. And other days, like yesterday, it’s somewhere my mind runs quickly, and the thought leaves me staggered: the faraway is about to become my home.

And I’ve never even seen it.

Its smells, colors, peoples—all are unknown to me. I’ve heard a few stories, seen a few pictures, but it’s still hard to imagine life there. This African land where I’ll put down some roots for some time, it’s mostly shapeless in my thinking. Its profile blurs because there are no details of our life there that we know with certainty. Where will we live? How will we dress? What other language will we learn and use? Who will our friends be? How long will it be home for?

In the wisdom of the team waiting for us, we have no answers to these questions. With no tightly-held expectations, we’ll be ready to change even the few plans we already have. This is good, and it’s God grace that I don’t every day clamor for answers to what I cannot know now. It’s easier to live only in the life I see and not think too hard about the questions that raise the fear that’s sleeping.IMG_2753

But still, I’m wondering. How to hope for a place you can’t picture? How to long for a life that has blanks? How to love a home you’ve never seen?

My journey has been years in the making. It was three years in college of God carving a place for his gift of Word-for-all-peoples right there in my being. Then it was three more carved years of God setting me in step with Sam on his own journey to Mozambique. Six years that the Lord has been bending me, gently, firmly, toward this purpose, and I’ve been following with slow, shaky faith, and now I belong to the man who sits at a computer researching one-way tickets for two to the other side of the world.

I’ve been all caught up in the journey itself. But some day Sam and I will reach the place we’ve been taking the long way to.

Reminds me somewhat of the Israelites and their promised land. God had given it years before to their childless ancestor, Abraham. He left everything behind, too, in search of an impossible promise from an impossible God: land and descendants to fill it. He didn’t know what shape the land of his promise would take, but he went and became one of the faithfuls who are certain of what they do not see.

Fresh out of four hundred years of exile in Egypt, Abraham’s descendants waited in the wilderness for this land promised. Forty Passovers wandering to the home they’d heard stories about but didn’t know. The gift of God to His covenant people where they would finally put down some roots. The goal of their own journey, years in the making. The dream longed for but not seen. A whole, collective life tilted toward it, and the promise beyond the Jordan was mystery. What would it be, this place God was leading them toward?

But they pursued a place they couldn’t picture. They kept chasing a life that had blanks. They were hoping for a home unseen. Because it’s loving and longing for a land that keeps you steady in stepping each day faithful.

Turns out Israel’s land at the end of the road was full of the mess of another whole story, the hard-won delight of knowing Him and making Him known. The journey to the unknown place ended, but it didn’t mean arriving. It meant that the gritty history of their life with God kept right on going in the light of promise fulfilled.

And there’s another Promised Land—a final promised land—already in the making. Hard to say too much about it. Can’t contour a map of it. Can’t explain exactly how you fill an eternal Day in worship of the all-glory God. The metaphors that say it’s more beautiful than I imagine—foundations of jewels, streets of gold, peace. And there, His Kingdom reigns full. It’s good, and it’s whole, and it’s everything made new.

And one day, Jesus will call his pilgrims from all ages home to it. We’ll live a whole different story there from the one we do now in the hard faith, the fearing trust, and the fragile love. It’s a story of dwelling present with God and seeing the longing to belong fully, fully fulfilled. And wonder of wonders, I’m beginning to love a Place I can’t picture, to long for a Life that has blanks, to hope for the Home I’ve never seen. It’s this heaven-land that I’m waiting for and trusting is worth the journey a lifetime in the making.

For now, an unknown African home tells me of God’s faithfulness to an old people and whispers of the promise of a home eternal. It’s still not natural to love a place I haven’t seen. But the Spirit’s all about supernatural work, and it’s this unknown that He’s using to build faith. Because unknown is real life, and who really knows the shape of even a day except for Creator God? The mystery here brings me into a deeper knowledge of Him and a deeper desire for His home there. So I’m leaning into the blank, because the Shepherd, he’s always good, and Perfect Love, he casts out fear.

What to Do with All the Pieces

It was over dinner that we remembered the weekend three Octobers back. That weekend where it was time for Sam to meet my family and know my world. It was campfires and fall in the Ozarks and awkward moments of meeting eyes and staring too long. Too scared to act normal, we almost didn’t make it past that weekend. And now, joined by covenant, we know each other better than anyone and live farther away from those hills burning with fall than I’ve ever been.

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Sam and I are just beginning this life of fragmenting ourselves into pieces that no one will ever know all of. My parents won’t walk these city streets with me and drink coconut water. And my Brazilian friends won’t ever walk the trails through my Arkansas woods in the fall and roast marshmallows. This being known isn’t harder for me than anyone else; IMG_2878it’s just hard. Being known, it takes years of minutes and words and shared experience to be understood in a new space. And time and words are just what I don’t have here in our eight months of language learning or in the two months of training following or in the move to Mozambique next year. I am temporary, and I feel it. And sometimes the fear whispers and makes me wonder how long I’ll have to wait to be known deep.

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There’s this Story I know about Someone Else who wanted to be known. He was good and perfect in every way and still wanted relationship, for it’s normal, natural, and good. He pursued the most unlikely people and promised to be their God and invited them to be His people. He gave them the word of the Law so that they might know him, but the people got it all wrong and just did all the right things and missed Him. So Almighty God sent the Christ-Word and walked right among them. And this God-man, he did what the Law never could and fleshed out God’s love and justice so that you couldn’t miss it.

Except some did. And as he hung by nails on two beams, people mocked God to His face. They taunted him and laughed at the thought that the broken, bleeding one before them was the Word, the Son of God Almighty. If He was really the Christ, like He said, then he should prove it and come down.

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And the One who wanted to be known and had already come down from heaven to make it so, hung hurting without a word. When I read Him there this morning, I kept wanting Him to show Himself in all His glory and make the bad guys cower. To manifest His power and strength and show the mockers just exactly who He was and always had been.

But He never demanded to be known. He only offered Himself for those who were ready and needy enough to want Him.

And this is eternal life: to know the Father and the Son he sent.

He gave me that life when I was too small to understand it, and I’ve been growing into it ever since. And one thing I’m learning is that He who called me to know Him and be known by Him promised to never withhold a good thing (Ps 84:11). He is my Shepherd; I have all that I need. I shall not want when the empty spaces get bigger. I shall not want when lonely cries strong. I shall not want when I’m only known in part. Because there is One who knows me whole, who sees the pieces of my fragmenting life and understands each one.

And all these empty spaces are his invitation to lean in, to draw close, and to be known. By Him. So there’s no room here for whining or pity parties or cynicism, no room for demanding that I be known now. Because Jesus is here—in the lack—and he knows all about wanting to know and be known. He sits with me here and understands and offers the life that is relationship with Him. It’s this life that I’m really wanting and too often forgetting; so slowly, I’m unwrapping the infinite layers of Him who has known me deep for a long, long time. And this knowing, it lasts.

 

Linking up with Velvet Ashes because there are others known in pieces.