God's care for my oldest daughter's heart was healing and strengthening, but the roots of my worry about my children's hearts were still there. Just a week later, my heart turned to worry about the heart of my then youngest daughter. It was her birthday, and she was turning three. The problem was that we were in transition.
We had arrived in the country more than a month before our daughter's birthday. Though that should have been enough time to get settled into our new home, our landlord kept delaying. Staying in guest houses in the city was expensive, so we decided to go visit our old home in the bush for a week, though we stopped first at our soon-to-be home to leave the majority of our luggage. It wasn't until we arrived that I realized that we had nothing we needed for the birthday celebration.
My first problem was the cake. All of the cookware we owned was packed, and teammates had obligingly moved them to storage closer to our new home. We had no cake pans, no cookbooks, no stores to which we could run.
I solved that problem as best I could. Though we ordinarily had no phone signal there, I was able to call a teammate for a recipe. I didn't have all the ingredients I needed, but I substituted whatever I had and used the less than ideal pans available. So, I had a cake for her.
Then, there was the issue of presents. We had carefully planned for the birthday by buying presents before we moved, but in the confusion of the delays, I had not thought to bring the present trunk with us. How did I not think to organize better! I was grief-stricken that I could have messed up something so important.
I had to give something so I dug through the trunks I had with me to figure out what I could give. I owned two nice wooden hairbrushes, so I gave her one. I had a hand-me-down sweater from a sister, still a little too big, with a hole in one sleeve. The hole was unnoticeable when rolled up, but I knew. I gave it to her. I don't remember what else. I do remember that she absolutely loved both of those gifts, and I remember her dancing with excitement over them.
We gave her the other presents after we moved into our new house. That didn't take away the pain in my heart at my sense of failure. For the next year and a half, that birthday haunted me, and I told God how much it hurt me. One day, as I was mixing up muffins, my daughter, then four and a half, came to me and announced that it was her birthday in the game she was playing.
I knew that of all my daughters, this one was the one who most longed for me to take part in her play. I knew muffins would bake well in cake pans, so I asked her if she would like me to make a cake. "Oh yes!" she answered. So, I made the muffin cake and iced it.
Then I thought, she'll need presents. I got wrapping paper and wrapped up chocolates and balloons as presents to share with her siblings. Suddenly, I remembered a fairy tale book I'd felt led to buy, even though it wasn't anyone's birthday. I had done the same thing a few years before with three books. I couldn't understand why I was buying them until three children came to visit us, and they matched the books perfectly. This time, I realized this book was for today, and so I wrapped it too.
We all dressed up and had a birthday party! My daughter was thrilled! When her big sisters asked, "Why does she get a real party for her game, with real presents?" I told them the story I have just shared with you and told them God had just healed something. And God had, a brokenness not so much in my daughter but in me. My daughter didn't carry the burden I did. She had outgrown the sweater, but she still had the brush and loved it. I saw it two days ago. It is quite a bit beaten up but still treasured. She is seven now.
As I reflect on an accusation that our children will grow up to be resentful of all the deprivation, we, their parents, have put them through, I recognize that accusation as a fear which has haunted my own heart for many years. I don't think that this issue is exclusive to missionaries, however. It is an issue many parents dread. When a new baby comes, we fear our older children's reactions. When a new job requires us to move, we worry how the children will respond. If we find ourselves parenting in unhealthy ways we never intended, we despair. We remember the wounds we still carry from our own childhood, and so we worry about the wounds our children will suffer.
Lately, however, this fear has been fading from my heart. The more I grow in knowledge and relationship with God, the more experiences I have of His presence and provision and healing, the more this issue fades. 1 John talks about our hearts condemning us, but says that it is in God's presence that we are able to assure our hearts of the truth and bring our hearts into a place of confidence before God. I am amazed as I see this passage coming true in my own life. The voice of accusation in my own heart grows fainter and fainter as I gain confidence through my relationship with God. So, as I reflect on these stories, I want to share them with others, in hopes that they will awaken hope and inspire reflection upon their own stories.
One of these stories is about God meeting my oldest daughter in an area of inequality. One gift I have given to each of my children is a name song, with words of blessing and affirmation unique to them. Sometime after our family had grown to three daughters, I noticed that our oldest daughter's song was much shorter and less rich than that of her two sisters. I began to pray for God to give me more words for her song, but I couldn't seem to match any words to her tune.
I prayed for over a year regarding this. During that time, our son was born, and his song was also richer and fuller than his oldest sister's song. About three months after our son was born, I remember sitting on my daughters' bed singing their songs. I started with the youngest girl and ended with the oldest. As I was singing, I was praying. "Oh God, please give me more words to the song. I want her to have a richer song before she notices that her song is so short. I don't want her to feel hurt and unloved. Oh Father, she is six. She is going to notice soon. Please hurry."
Suddenly, I heard, "Maybe I want her to ask me for it." At that very moment, I finished my oldest daughter's song, and she started to cry, "My song is so short." I felt like I was dreaming. "Did she really notice tonight?" Then I thought, maybe I didn't actually sing her whole song; after all, I was praying at the same time. I sang her song again. She continued to cry and say it was short.
Still feeling as though I were dreaming, I told her what I had been praying and what I had just heard. I told her God wanted her to come to him for her song. We prayed together for the right words of blessing. Over the next few nights, my daughter would tell me, "These words came to mind, but I don't know whether they are from God." We would pray about them and work with them, shaping them to the tune. In two or three nights, we had two more verses.
With two more verses, I was satisfied with the song; however, my daughter wasn't done. She kept praying. Over the next year, she kept telling me she was still praying for more. She prayed until she had one more verse. Now her song is four verses long, and three of them came through her own experiences with God. I had thought her noticing the inequity in the songs would bring hurt and resentment. Instead, it built up her relationship with me and with God, and my relationship with God was strengthened at the same time.
We recently had someone ask us about the many things from which we are depriving our children. He suggested that when they are grown, they will be filled with resentment and anger towards us. Though it was written in a hurtful way, I think it is a true issue, but one we're not good at addressing within the church. Really, it is two issues. One is the issue of deprivation, the other is hurt and resentment. And right now, I am focusing on the first.
As I think about deprivation, I remember a time in college when I was invited somewhere. I didn't respond to the invitation because I was hoping to be invited somewhere else. I don't remember the outcome, I just remember seeing clearly that accepting the first invitation would mean having to turn down any other invitation. And in that way, deprivation is going to happen in my children's life. No matter what choices my husband and I make, those choices are going to eliminate other possibilities. One of the things I have had to learn over the years is what I call hanging up my hat. I have to make a decision fully. I can't keep my hat on my head in case a better option comes along. A few years ago, as I was reading the Bible, I began to notice that the Bible speaks of unbelief and of doubt as two separate things. I had always considered them as synonyms, but I felt God asking me what doubt was. I had never thought about it, but I looked up the greek word and its definition. In the New Testament, to doubt means to sit in the judge's seat listening to both sides of a case. To doubt is not bad in and of itself, but it has a purpose. That purpose is the ruling, the decision. There was a reason God asked me about those words at that time. I was at a point of indecision, of refusing to make a ruling, in a couple of areas of life. I kept asking for more evidence. One of those areas was whether God was really speaking to me. Was I just imagining it all? Was I really talking to myself? Was I insane? I had a picture at that time of me standing in the doorway listening to God urging me to come out and follow Him, but I was afraid to shut the door behind me and follow.
Interestingly, what God was calling me to was a life of less deprivation, of less self-sacrifice. That was scary to me because the Bible talks so much about taking up your cross. How could it be right to let God delight my heart? Should I allow God to make me comfortable? Surely that would negate the taking up of my cross. Yet, I realized that though Christ took up His cross, he also rose. He did not remain on the cross. The Apostle Paul said he had learned to be content in all circumstances, in both need and abundance. I was afraid of abundance, or even comfort. Yet God did not want me to stay forever in a place of deprivation and sacrifice of everything that would give me comfort. I could hear God calling me out of that place of deprivation, and I was scared to follow. I am thankful I did, though. Ecclesiastes says there is a time for everything. I learned that there is a time for the cross, for dying to self, but there is also a time for resurrection, for life, and that in abundance. Kenya has become home to me. To be honest with you, I don't miss America. I enjoy many things while I am there, but when I am here, there is so much blessing and so many friendships that I can't miss America. There are hardships here, but there are hardships there as well. And what I've gained from my interactions with my Kenyan friends is invaluable. Those in the marketing or advertising business talk about branding. Branding has to do with the image a company or organization presents to the world. When people from the West see Africa, we tend to think of deprivation. That is a branding issue, and it is a false image, because it isn't a full image. It is as false as picturing America as inner-city life or as an ivy league college or as an ocean playground. Kenya is made up of people, and they are as varied and intelligent and beautiful as people everywhere in the world. Kenya is a place for living, for abundance — especially in relationships.
When I was struggling with whether to believe God, He said something to me. He told me that Christ had completed the work of incarnation. He told me that I don't have to become Maasai to be able to work with the Maasai. I don't have to change my culture to work in Kenya. He told me He had created me, and I was to give myself to others, as I am. I recently taught a Sunday School class for 8-9 year-olds. The lesson was about "You are the light of the world, a city on a hill that cannot be hidden." The curriculum focused the message on all the things we need to do in order to be the light of the world, but it occurred to me that the passage isn't saying we need to do anything. It just says that is who we are. I started thinking and realized that a light doesn't light itself, and a city doesn't build itself. The message of that passage isn't that we need to do anything; rather, it is that the one who lit us, the one who built us, thinks we are so incredible He doesn't want to hide us but put us on display! Wow! A few years ago, I asked my friend Wamzy, who is an amazing artist, to show me some of the jewelry she makes. She was happy to show me. As she did, she put one on me and asked me what I thought. I was struggling to figure out a way to say it was beautiful but that I couldn't wear it, when another good friend, Nyamatha, said, “No, that's not our Ruth.” She took it off me, putting it on herself instead, and it fit herself beautifully. The Bible talks about Mary treasuring things in her heart; well, that has become one of the most precious treasures in my heart. My friend saw me for who I am, and even though I am different, she valued me without any desire to change me. In fact, she claimed me, with all my differences, as “ours.” That is rare. Even when I am in America, the expectation is that I should change myself and become like those around me. It is a unique and special thing to valued for who you are.
As I nurture my children, I want them to see the incredible beauty of the earth and the people God has created. I want them to focus on the things God wants to display. I point out to them their own and others’ uniquenesses, even though seeing others’ uniquenesses means seeing something you lack. I want them to be able to enjoy the gifts and opportunities others have been given, without regretting that they themselves have been given different gifts and opportunities. Once, when I was asking God’s direction about a decision where I felt tradition would dictate certain things, God replied, “I don’t want all the flowers in my garden to look alike.” Then He told me that He had created me with different desires than others and asked me what I wanted. I was shocked. Frankly, I hadn’t a clue what I wanted. I had spent all my life trying to live up to others’ expectations, and here was God setting me free. To be honest, the freedom was scary. Couldn’t I just stay in the cage, painful and constricting as it was? I told God I would rather Him just tell me what to do. Though I still struggle, I am starting to enjoy the freedom, and that is what I want for my children. I don’t want them live in a cage or even long for a cage, and I’m not saying American life would be a cage. I am saying a deprivation view is a cage, a thought that we have to be like everyone else is a cage. I want them to live the light of the world, the city on a hill that cannot be hidden, the incredible and unique person set on display by our awesome Creator.