Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe, so that you will overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. -Romans 15:13
Overflowing with hope. Praise God that this is His intention for us. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, the wise man said in Proverbs 13:12. But we set our hope fully on the grace to be revealed when Jesus, the Messiah, is revealed (1 Peter 1:13). Our hope is Him: not only when He physically returns to earth, but in our present days as He reveals Himself in and to us.
The past year and a half have changed the entire world in innumerable ways. It has also changed our lives and so our ministry. This is most evident in my (Mary’s) experience, but obviously impacts the whole family. There has been a necessary shift in focus and work, but we have seen the gentle leading of the Good Shepherd every step along the way.
Twenty years ago, when I gave my irrevocable yes to Jesus, I was all-in. I was as ready as I could have been to follow Him anywhere, and I felt specifically called to “the hard places”. I interpreted that to mean physically, geographically, spiritually difficult terrain. Places a lot of people just didn’t want to go, but where people were living and dying without ever hearing the good news that there is a Savior sent for them.
I’ve had a taste of those places, carrying the love and Word of God into eight different nations and all sectors of society: urban streets and parks, hospitals, prisons, garbage cities, orphanages, remote villages, famous marketplaces, administrative offices, slums, tent hospitals, classrooms, cornfields, airplanes, ancient ruins, and the world wide web, to name a portion. Some destinations did seem “hard”, and some almost too comfortable to believe that I was in the right place. While undeniably adventurous, I can’t say this is was my idea of a dream life before Jesus turned my world upside down and inside out… and a little more like His.
This year, “hard” has come more experientially, and with faces quite familiar to man. I suppose in many ways it has been the universal hard of growing up and learning perseverance while keeping a soft heart and walking in the light. “Hard” has come in the form of events, relationships, and wounds that are deeply personal not only to others I can walk alongside of, but also to me. In many ways my life became a harder place than I’d ever known before, and this happened by the sovereign and good design of the Almighty. It came by following Him to the impossible (for me) expressions of His heart: passionate love for the vulnerable and incapable everywhere. Medical care that faced acute trauma and death regularly. Loss of children. Adoption of (multiple older) children. Global travel with a large and somewhat unstable family. Hard has come as exhaustion, rejection, persecution, neglect, isolation, assault, confusion, loss, helplessness, fear, inability, and unspeakable sorrow… besides facing my own sin, and all of those issues in the lives of other people I love. Though I’ve delighted to deliver fresh new babies (physically and spiritually), far more often I found myself engaged in constant battle against dark forces of death and destruction.
The hardest place I have yet discovered was over the past year and a half, during a relapse of clinical depression accompanied by PTSD. Why I could have such diagnoses is not uncommon or surprising, given genetic predisposition, lifestyle, and experiences associated with the adventures I listed above… things I know came to me because I followed Jesus through other hard places.*
While spiritual health is a central piece in the mental health puzzle, psychological illness is often not sourced primarily from one’s own sin. Our own sin is compiled with the sins of others that profoundly affect us. Mental illess is also as physiological as hypertension, IBS, gout, or asthma, but even more effected by psychological and emotional strain. It is a bit trickier, also, to recognize and take captive every dark thought than it is to not buy donuts…
As it is, I had to seriously pursue Christ-centered and truthful understanding of these matters because they became my life’s complications. The experience of pain began to far overshadow joy, and suffering demanded far more attention than beauty. (If you’ve never experienced depression, not as a mood but as an illness, it can feel like falling into a pit with high, dark walls impossible for you to scale by yourself. It can feel like being perpetually suffocated, but never dying. It can feel like the soul’s concentration camp, starving to death while being driven to keep the pace day after day after day.) I’ve had one serious bout with depression before, but this time it came with a fury I could not have imagined survivable.
This time it reared up right before Covid struck the earth, and it came with PTSD at its side. (There will be more written about this because I think it’s tremendously important for us as believers to understand as much as we can about mental illness and how deeply Jesus cares about it. It matters both for our own sake and most certainly for the sake of loving others well. For now, I’m just giving you an overview.) So I have spent the past 15 months in intensive trauma counseling/work with a God-sent, God-fearing and excellent trauma therapist. I have an amazing, board-certified, believing psychiatrist that humbly and zealously serves missionaries bearing uncommon stressors. (I actually got connected to his group at the medical missions conference in 2019, noting their services to be a valuable resource.) I have rested my body, my mind, my heart with great intention. I have limited my activities and work, and even abstained from DART deployments since last April, prioritizing time for healing and honoring my present limitations, however much I dislike them.
This spring I discovered another new limitation: rheumatoid arthritis, again likely triggered by overwhelming stressors. Again explainable, but not the type of hard I had anticipated. Again, the way I did everything had to change, from how I held a pen or if I could handle my suturing tools or braid Anna’s hair… to how long I could grip a steering wheel, walk on level ground, or even think before exhaustion overtook me. The last four months have been filled with appointments in neurology, rheumatology, chiropractic, functional medicine… in addition to my trauma work, kids’ needs, and various work and ministry responsibilities. It’s been a lot. I am so thankful to say that all of my symptoms are much improved and I can do most things again, just more slowly, gently, with more rest in between, and more stretching and mobility exercises. I am also so thankful the kids are mostly older and can help a lot. The boys are certainly learning how to routinely use their strength to serve the weaker.
I do continue to work in urgent care to cover the kids’ tuition, confident that God has directed us to their schools. The schools are excellent and founded on Biblical worldview, but obviously require funding. I’m careful to work in double-coverage sites and schedule shifts as sustainably as possible, and so far it’s been manageable. (If you have desired to contribute to the kids’ tuition, we use their SC 529 plans for some tax benefit; please just shoot us an email for a link!)
Bob continues to work full time with Sports Friends, and they have been busy! I still write for their blog and other publications as needed, but have stepped back from further engagement at this time. It remains a delight to receive and write up stories about what God is doing through sports coaches “stuck” in poverty and pandemic. If you haven’t checked out the blog lately, please do!
The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest
Christian who lives beneath the cross of Jesus.
Besides/alongside my new weaknesses, the Lord has been moving me in a new direction that does accommodate an overall lower-adrenaline lifestyle. A significant focus in medical missions over the past year and a half has been to better address mental health needs worldwide, both inside and outside the church, with a particular emphasis in recognizing and treating psychological trauma, not just physical trauma. The pandemic has absolutely multiplied this already-huge need. You remember I did training with Trauma Healing Institute last fall, and I believe Jesus is leading me in deeper. I’ve enrolled in online classes for an MS in Psychology, likely in pursuit of a PhD. Over the past 10+ years, my ministry and secular careers and personal life both have made me profoundly aware of the need to serve people well where their spirits, minds, and bodies all intersect.
People are suffering, including millions within the church. The young and the old, the rich and the poor, the faithful and the doubtful, and everyone in between. I want to serve them, well-informed with the best understanding God has given, and to help others learn how to do so. Please pray for me in this endeavor, for God to provide everything we need to accomplish this learning. Pray He will continue to prepare me to be a voice for the vulnerable (I am among them) and join others in speaking His heart and healing ways into mental healthcare.
Please let us know how you are! We love to pray for you and hear what you’re up to!
Thank you so much for being with us. It is the greatest gift to know we’re not alone.
*Before you start a sin-hunt over why a Christian would have severe depression, please remember I’m analytical and start with spiritual things, so I’ll just tell you about that contributing factor: primarily it was my disregard and disobedience to keeping Sabbath over years of time. Imagining that obedience to Christ meant freedom from certain human constraints, I accumulated stressors and wounds that were never given the necessary time and space to heal. Obviously there are many factors, but I’d urge you to keep this risk in mind.