Extending Grace

On a warm, summer South African January evening in 1994, I realized something. Three quarters of my two year missionary term was complete. Only six months remained. I was entering the fourth quarter of ministry with a people I could not now imagine leaving so quickly. 

If God would grant any request, if I could do anything that would make a lasting difference beyond my too short two years, what would it be? 

Officially, with the then Foreign Mission Board now International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, I was a Regional Youth Worker Missionary. Responsible for strengthening youth ministry in our 40 partner churches in the sprawling Johannesburg area of four million people, I had developed some amazingly close relationships with a handful of people.

What would be my legacy? What difference had I made? Had I done the missionary’s work as I been advised upon arrival of “working myself out of a job” since I’d raised up others to do my job?

Frankly, on that night, fourth quarter ahead, and difference made in question, I grieved. I knew in arriving that I’d be leaving. But I hadn’t enough life experience to have discerned how quickly I could grow to love folks so deeply. Leaving would be harder than I’d imagined. Yet, what would I be leaving?

I fretted. I wondered. I prayed. I wrote. And, yes, I cried. “Oh, God, would you be so gracious as to show me that my time here has been worth it? Would you let me see I made an eternal difference?”

In the days that followed, I muddled half-hearted through my commitments and must have seen not-so-much-myself to those who knew me. Then a meeting that changed my heart and opened the way for even greater things.

Our regional youth council was planning it’s next quarterly youth rally that would occur just six weeks before I was to return to America. They wanted me to preach. Four sermons. Would I be willing? 

“Of course, yes, I am honored,” I replied while immediately praying in my spirit, “Oh, God you have to help me know what in the world to preach on.”

Jonah.  A four sermon series, What Does God Ask of Me?, on the reluctant prophet is where God clearly led me. Our regional youth council had identified that few young people were answering the call to ministry, and all our pastors, though wonderful men, were older. I’d countered that in a year and a half I hadn’t heard a sermon or even an invitation inviting youth to surrender to vocational ministry. Jonah, in addition to confronting pride and sinfulness, allowed that invitation to ministry. 

Jonah was a prophet. He had been for some time by the time God called him to go preach to Nineveh. He knew how to recognize God’s voice. He knew how to deliver God’s message. He knew that God was gracious to save. And he knew that he didn’t like the wicked Ninevites and he wanted no part of their salvation. 

In disobedience to God, Jonah went the other way. Instead of overland to Nineveh to the east he boarded a ship to the way out west port of Tarshish.  

You know the story. Storm struck. Who you? Chucked overboard. Fish swallowed. Three days. Fish spewed. Repentance preached. Wicked turned. Preacher pouts. God rebukes, “Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left hand... Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

God’s grace extends even to the lowly likes of Nineveh. 

God’s grace extends to you. No matter what you have done. No matter where you have been. No matter what has been done to you. God loves you (John 3:16-18) 

And, let me not forget to finish my Africa story before you finish dealing with God’s message from Jonah for you. At that "six weeks to go what it God going to do" youth rally, six youth committed their lives to Christ for eternal salvation and SIX young adults surrendered their lives to vocational ministry! God was so present. So good to me. So strong among my dearly loved African friends. One dear brother who surrendered to ministry then, Thabiso Chapole, is still in touch today. What a blessing!

I thank God for extending His grace to me and my South African friends. He will extend that same amazing grace to you. Consider these questions: 

  • How many times have I sought to run from God’s plan?
  • How has that worked out for me?
  • What did/will it take for me to get back to obedience to God’s plan?
  • Am I willing to do obey now?

Pictured above is Matshepo Chapole, the wife of my dear brother, Thabiso, and founding member of the world-renowned Soweto Gospel Choir. Be sure to read or even listen to Jonah this week. And, of course, freely share this post and your comments with others. Extending Grace is the fifth post in a 12 week Minor Prophet series.

Moon Over Soweto

September 9, 1992 I landed in Johannesburg with my sleepy eyes wide open. A Journeyman Missionary. For the next two years. In Soweto. Twenty-plus formal & informal settlements that made up the SOutherWEstern TOwnships of apartheid-era South Africa. Over one million Africans. Add this one Texan.

I hit the ground running. Soccer on day one had the low-altitude Texan gasping dust at the altitude higher than a mile. Samp -- spicy, smashed lima beans -- & Ginger Beer -- think ginger ale with a wicked ginger punch -- on day two had me praying the missionaries prayer, "Lord, I'll put it down if you help me keep it down." And driving on the other side of the road on day three had my boss praying anything he could muster while he rode in the passenger seat!
Six weeks into my term I was past the "tourist stage" where everything different that was quaint a few days before is now an annoyance because "These folks just don't think or act or talk right! Agh!" Then I had a wreck.
Guy behind me is googly-eyed with his girlfriend. I stopped. He didn't -- soon enough. Swerve. Skid. Then. That terrible sound. Crushing metal.
Every Journeyman has heard the phrase. The Career Missionaries may not even realize how it sounds so contemptible. "Just a Journeyman." Implied -- not a RLM -- Real Life Missionary. As if because you are younger you are somehow less responsible. Any misstep gets you labeled as "Just a Journeyman."
My wreck. Not my fault. My first big failure. Wasn't even my fault. But. Brought the label. Just a Journeyman. Brought the shame. Just a Journeyman. Brought the despair. Just a Journeyman.
All the ideals. All the hopes. All the dreams. All that. Can be crushed. Just like a door in the way of collision bound Googly-eye.
We were having revival meetings for our little squatter camp church that week. A big yellow & white striped tent sat in the shack church yard. Yellow & white shining like the sun. Amidst brown, grey, dingy, rusty squatter shacks. A symbol of the Gospel. A symbol of hope.
Yet that night I stood outside the tent. Outside in the cool evening. Wanting to shelter my ears from the boisterous revival singing. Wanting to hide my eyes from the joyous faces. I had no joy that night. Only despair. Only regret.
I stood outside the tent plotting. To give it up. To go home. Face down. Dejected. Then I felt like a cartoon. As if two little beings alighted upon my shoulders. Redsuit devil guy with tail & pitchfork on one shoulder. Blond haired & haloed headed angel girl in a white robe on the other. Both whispering in my ears.
"Go home. You're a failure. You aren't made for this." Said redsuit.
"God called you. You can. You will make it." Said halogirl.
"You don't belong here!," said redsuit.
"Look up!," said halogirl.
"These people don't really like you," said redsuit.
"Look up!," repeated halogirl.
I interrupted the cartoon argument. "I don't wanna look up. I just wanna go home."
"LOOK UP!," she demanded.
I did.
I saw the moon. The moon rising over one million souls. The moon filling the horizon. The moon glowing molten nickel. The moon over Soweto.
Cartoons gone. The Holy Spirit of God spoke with authority Psalm 8:3-5.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon & the stars which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory & honor.
He continued. Speaking words just for me. From the Father.
I made you.
You are mine.
I called you.
You will love.
They will love you too.
That moon you see is the work of my fingers. You, my son, are made a little lower than angels. You are my creation. You are mine. You are called. Now serve. Now love.

I did not go back in that big yellow & white striped tent.
I stood there.
I could see the joyful faces of enthusiastic singing as I looked in. Yet I was in a quiet place all unto myself.
I wept.
The God of the universe loves me. He made me. He has called me. And now... now... He has affirmed me.
He loves you too.
He has called you too.