Thursday, June 15, 2017

“And behold there was a loud voice saying ‘Come out to meet your bridegroom.”

“And behold there was a loud voice saying ‘Come out to meet your bridegroom.”
On June 16th that was one of the verses in her morning’s devotional reading. June 16, 2016 Marilyn Gibbs went out to meet her bridegroom. Out of this world and into the next.

Marilyn was a 20+ year veteran of the mission field, a beloved sister, friend and faithful servant of the Lord. There wasn’t even enough time at the two memorial services held for her (in Hungary and CA) to say all the good things about her. Her life was full of purpose. From the time she met the Lord she squeezed every drop of usefulness out of the time she was given. Marilyn was not one to dilly-dally.

And as her life was a channel for God’s glory to shine, so was her death. Marilyn would have wanted me to get to the point, so here it is:

Things I Learned from Marilyn’s Cancer
I had the honor of being with Marilyn the last nearly 3 months of her life. Marilyn loved to teach people about God and her last days were no exception to the rest of the pattern of her life. This is what I learned.

It Always Looks Better on the Flannel Graph
The first Sunday after Marilyn was admitted to the hospital in Debrecen with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia having invaded every blood cell in her body, I went to church. Pastor Bodi there at CC Debrecen was teaching on the story of the 5 loaves and 2 fishes.

Many of us have learned this story from Sunday School and remember the picture we saw on the flannel graph of a young boy gleefully holding up his last 2 fish and 5 little loaves, offering them to Jesus to help feed the multitudes.  But that’s not really what the text says. It says “then one of the disciples noticed a young boy with 5 loaves and 2 fishes”,

‘Now” Pastor Bodi went on to clarify, “its unlikely that they just ripped the fish and bread out of his hands and took it.” Everyone laughed, but I sat there holding back tears and thought, ruefully, “oh it happens. Believe you me, it happens.”

I had not wanted to be the one to stay and take care of Marilyn. I am unorganized, Marilyn was very organized. I do things off the cuff, flying by the seat of my pants and Marilyn always liked a well-laid out plan. I throw things together in the kitchen and Marilyn had great tested recipes, filed logically, specifying what kinds of ingredients (not just any olive oil, Spanish, gracias), kitchen tools to use, etc. etc. We were different. And more often than not, I felt like I wasn’t enough.

And now… now my “not enough” was needing to be her “everything” (or so I thought. Yes, it was pitifully “all about me”). No. I wouldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. But (thankfully) others saw that my “not enough” – put into the hands of Jesus and broken – would be (HAD to be!) “just enough”. Just enough to keep us both desperate, dependent on God to make it through each day. Just enough to be able to glorify God in every little answered prayer (“Oh good! The difficult nurse is not working tonight! Thank you, Lord!” or “Praise God the housecleaner that spoke English came through right as we needed translation to be able to speak to the nurses! Thank you, Jesus!”).

I would love to say that my serving Marilyn always looked like the boy in the flannel graph, beaming like an angel as he gave up his last fish and bread. No, sometimes I was scared. Often I was tired. Sadly, a few times I was even resentful. But like that boy in the bible story, as Pastor Bodi further pointed out in his sermon,  “however it happened, one way or the other, he agreed with Jesus’ plan and gave up the last that he had. Jesus was glorified. People were fed. And it was more than enough for everyone.”

Because God doesn't rob from one of His kids to bless another of His kids. If its a blessing for one, it will be a blessing for the other, sooner or later, also. 
Lesson #1: Don’t Get Hung Up on How You Get to Where God Wants You to Be, Just Be Grateful He Gets You There and Cooperate with His Plan

“…And Your Camels, Too.”
Remember that story about the servant finding a bride for Isaac? How he stood at the well and Rebecca approached him and – seeing he was thirsty - offered to draw water for him…”and your camels, too.”

That story has been romanticized, extrapolated and sometimes made to be something that I don’t know if it was ever intended to say. But bottom line, we see a generous heart in Rebecca.

Beyond the obviousness of that, think about it. After traveling across the desert his camels were probably stinky (camel sweat…ewww). Camels are not the most endearing creatures to begin with (in my mind) and tired, stinky camels…well, we’ll just leave that there.

Often I think of serving as giving someone what they need…water for their camels. But (even after years in ministry) I’m sometimes caught off guard what that really entails once you get up close and personal with dessert weary camels, let alone world-weary people. (First and foremost, yourself!)

We all have our “specificities”, (as we say in Russian).  Things that are odd, or annoying, or just wearisome for others. Not sin, just the lovely little “uniqueness” that makes us who we are. We all have our camels. And when we’re serving others those things need to be served, accommodated, as well.

Marilyn was amazing, and she had her camels; like I do, like you we all do. Sometimes drawing enough water for her and her camels wore me out. (And I can only imagine how mine were for her!) But you know what? When she went to be with the Lord one of my many thoughts was “Wow. None of those things make any difference now. “ Not my camels or hers. Silly, I know. Maybe you’re really struggling with how basic this is and how in the world could I not realize it. I get that. Bear with my camels. Thanks.

When Jesus welcomes us home he won’t say “well done thou good and faithful servant…but lets have a talk about those camels.” No. This corruption will put on incorruption. Halleluia!

So if they weren’t offensive to Jesus (not now and not then when he receives us) why shouldn’t I hesitate to humble myself, like Rebecca, and bring them water after a long, dusty journey? When I love someone, I learn to love their camels, too.
Lesson #2 God’s Love is All Inclusive

Gratefulness Makes a Difference
If I initially didn’t want to be there in the hospital with Marilyn as she received chemo, imagine how much SHE didn’t want to be there?! But you know what? She never resisted God’s hand.

I’m tempted to say she never complained… because that wasn’t her nature. But she did express her pain, discomfort and overall frustration at different times. But complaining is different from sharing your heart. Complaining springs from a heart of perceived injustice in light of what we “deserve”.

Marilyn never saw herself as a victim. She trusted her heavenly Father. She once said “I would never have chosen this path that He is taking me on, and it is hard, but He is leading me.”

Every night as I would have to leave her in the hospital and go to our rented apartment she would say “I love you very, very, very much and I am so thankful for everything you are doing for me. I couldn’t do it without you. Thank you so much.” It still humbles me to my core. What was I doing? Not much except battling my selfish weak flesh to try and give her the most basic comfort and encouragement that she needed. She could’ve done it without me, other patients were there without any visitors. I don’t know how they did it, but they did. She could have, too. But that wasn’t God’s plan. And I’m so thankful for that.

Marilyn understood her condition and where she was. If you don’t know, hospitals in Eastern European countries are quite different from those in the United States. Although we were in an excellent, clean, modern facility…friends or family of the patient still need to provide their own towels and toiletries, toilet paper, drinking water (which she was downing at almost 3 liters a day!), etc. She knew she was very sick and that, along with her specific medical care, all but for a very few of her most basic needs she was dependent on others.

Do I realize my condition and how much others do for me? Did the lights go on when I flipped the switch today? Thank the power company. Did I have hot water to take a shower? (My personal favorite because as I write this our home is on its second month of no hot water!) Did I eat something today? Do I have a church that I can go to freely – with no fear of bombings, police raids, etc. - and worship God? Was there a sermon, worship team, Sunday School that I let myself criticize? That means they were actually there and not still just needs being prayed for as in so many parts of the world without churches, let alone various ministry leaders.

Marilyn regularly said, with her impish grin and “So Cal beach girl” voice (that she could turn on when needed) “Jesus loves me so much.” Whether it was that we finally got the Wi-Fi working just as it was time to listen to CCCM’s Pastor’s Perspective online, or that instead of the questionable hospital’s Hungarian mystery meals they brought her a yummy pastry (that she would be able to eat a whole two nibbles of), Marilyn saw the world through the filter of God’s love for her. It wasn’t rose-colored glasses that denied reality. No. Cancer was horrible. But God, in His love, was leading her there. She would not resist. She hated being hooked up for sometimes up to 11 hours of chemo. But God, in His love, was using this too as part of His plan. She would not resist. It was the reality of His love that she knew so well that simply put everything else in a different light.

I want to be more openly grateful. I want to value others in my heart so much so that it pours out of my lips freely and regularly. I want to swim in the deep water of God’s love so that even the hardest things can be received as part of God’s love for me.
Lesson #3 Gratefulness Lived and Expressed Makes Things Easier

Any Empty Vessle Will Do…
Sometimes, (not often) as a single missionary the enemy of our soul can start to attack me with thoughts like “when you’re old and feeble there will be no one to care for you since you have no family of your own and you’re far from your birth family and your homeland”. Ridiculous, I know. God always cares for His own. Still, sometimes these thoughts would swirl around the periphery.

But through this experience I powerfully realized that although people (who were only seeing the – shall we say -  “flannel graph” online version of my caring for Marilyn) thought that I was an “angel”, etc. I knew that I was just an empty vessel that God had chosen, filled with His spirit for just this task. A cracked pot, at best. A jar of clay carrying great treasure.

So, when I thought about it, what an encouragement! I know for a fact that there are plenty of empty vessels running around on this planet! God can easily find one of them and call and fill them as He did me so that there will be help for me (and for you!) when needed.

Lesson #4 God is still in the job of creating “ex-nihilo”  (something from nothing )and is not limited to the resources I see.

“I’m Sinking.”
There were times while I was caring for Marilyn that I began to think – “I’m sinking.” Whether it was being in a completely foreign country (as opposed to the other foreign country where I serve) where I didn’t speak the language or know many people, or simply that God was using Marilyn’s sickness to begin to pick away at a scab over my own unhealed wounds, or just utter sadness at seeing my friend so sick… I don’t know  what….but there finally hit a point where I really thought I was sinking. I felt like I was about to go under and never come up.

I cried out to some trusted pastors and godly friends and the Body of Christ came to my support. I was blessed and humbled at their care for me. And I learned a really invaluable lesson.

What sinks? Among other things, anchors. And what is an anchor’s job? To keep things afloat and stable. That ‘s what I was trying to do with Marilyn – keep her afloat and stable during a really hard time. So it was completely understandable that I felt like I was sinking. That’s what anchors do. They sink.

But I wasn’t created to be Marilyn’s anchor. Jesus was. I am only called to be a compass. A compass that points people to the only true anchor in life – Jesus. Jesus is the only anchor that can keep us afloat instead of being crashed by the waves, and keep us stable in the midst of the storms. And I am not him, nor are you.

So often we try to keep the people we love, our church, our ministries, our nation, ourselves (!?!) afloat and stable and as a result we feel like we’re sinking under the weight of it all. I think AA had it so beautifully right when they said “Let go and let God.” We aren’t anchors. We were not created to be.

But we can shine a light. We can mark a path. We are called to be compasses in stormy seas, pointing the way to safe harbor and the anchor of our souls, Jesus.

Lesson # 5 When I feel myself sinking, its probably because I’m trying to be an anchor and not a compass.

As I write this in a few hours it will be exactly a year ago today that Marilyn went out to meet her bridegroom. I really am happy for her. Happy that she’s with Jesus. Happy she is not fighting cancer anymore, and all the discomforts that came with it. Happy that she’s where she always longed to be – with Jesus.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not still sad. A few months after her death someone was concerned that I was still mourning. Not long before that I had been concerned too. The voice of our enemy was whispering in my ear that “you are too broken, you can never be fixed”.  I knew it was a lie, but I just couldn’t seem to pull myself out of it.

Then one day, in a conversation with a dear sister who had tragically and instantly lost all her family in a car accident years before, she mentioned (simply as an aside) that during the aftermath of that tragedy she was so afraid that she couldn’t hear God’s voice because she was so broken. Of course I leaned in.

“But of course that was wrong” she went on to say “because we know that God is near to the broken-hearted”. Oh! In an instant the lie was broken! Oh for the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony that defeats that old dragon, the devil!

I was in the perfect place for God to do what He needed to do in my life. He wanted to heal. He wanted to restore. He wanted to refresh and strengthen. And being broken was drawing me near. Being broken-hearted was exactly the diagnosis I needed to bring me into the doctor’s office. And He was ready.

I know this is Christianity 101 but sometimes we lose sight of the most basic things when our hearts are overwhelmed. So if your heart is broken, know that you are in the exact right place for God to work. Do not resist His hand. Don’t get hung up on how you got where you are. Simply be grateful that you are where He wants you to be and He is faithful. Don’t worry about the camels. He has living water enough for you AND all your camels. HE is your anchor. He is close to the brokenhearted. He loves you so.

So thank you, Marilyn, for teaching me even still. I’m rejoicing you’re with your bridegroom and I look forward to seeing you at the marriage supper someday soon.

"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."
II Corinthians 4:16-18

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Far From Home...

"Wherever you are, be fully there".
Jim Elliot

Great words, right? But if "home is where the heart is" now and then some things make it painfully obvious that our hearts and our homes are divided. Or is it just me?

When I first decided to move to Ukraine I asked a dear American friend (who already had lived here a few years) how he dealt with living between two worlds.

"How - when you're in America - do you not feel guilty with all the abundance that we enjoy knowing that so many of your friends in Ukraine are in need?", I asked. (Even after just a couple of trips to Ukraine I could see ahead that this would tear at my heart.) "And how - when you're back in Ukraine - do you not feel jealous for all that excess that seems taken for granted in America?"

Not pretty - the thoughts of my heart - are they? I'm not proud of them, but I also doubt I am the only one that has lived in between two worlds that hasn't thought these things. And knowing the blackness of my soul, I knew I would struggle with these questions. (And I don't live in India, or Africa or elsewhere in the world where basic clean water is not even available!)

"You pretty much can't really think about one when you are in the other", was my friend's advice. Enjoy blessings when you have them and be happy for the blessings of others even when you don't have them, is what I've taken his advice to mean. Add to that - be thoughtful in how you live in order to bless others - and it's a good way to live. Comparing is such a slippery evil slope.

But then - worlds collide. ;)

Little 8 year old Yanna from Kyrgyzstan comes to have surgery in Ukraine because the medical system is so much better here than there. But still the days are filled with running to the drugstore every day to get her medicines, buy food to cook for her and bringing in a fan to combat the sweltering humid summer heat. (I helped somewhat, but really it was mainly Yanna's aunt with some help from girls from our church that carried the load). Here you bring your own soap, towels, sheets, toilet paper, etc. etc.  Yanna's aunt Anya squeezed into the same hospital bed with Yanna to stay there to be able to cook for her and be company before the surgery. And then sleeping on a rollaway (or in the chair!) after the surgery to help feed her and turn her when she hurt (Yanna had back surgery to combat spina bifida) and give her medicine as needed, even eventually having to learn to place the catheter. After Yanna's surgery she couldn't walk, so if they went outside Anya carried Yanna outside to sit on a bench if the beat-up child's stroller they used as a wheelchair wasn't available. And on and on.

Then my mom has a stroke back home in Oregon. I show up late at night to the hospital after a really long flight and a crazy overnight layover in the Moscow airport. The nurses help me make out the couch bed in mom's rom, get me sheets and a pillow, show me where the coffee maker is and fridge stocked with juice, pudding, etc. is and repeatedly ask "you're sure you don't need anything else"? There are 3 or 4 nurses that are openly Christians and are encouraging with words of Scripture, etc. (even one playing the piano and singing praise songs with me!) and all the others who are all equally kind. After two brain surgeries things were tough with mom...emotionally, physically, etc. But regularly nurses would come in to check her vitals, administer her meds, or just see how she was doing. World's collide.

Yes we pay through the nose for that kind of care in America. And yes not even everyone can afford it. And yes my mom's hospital is a particularly nice one. And in Ukraine there are capable nurses and doctors who give good care even if they don't have all the trimming that are standard in America. I'm not criticizing or complaining. It's not about that...those issues are all important, but other posts for another time or even another writer.

I'm just's collide. A young American on a short trip here tells me I lack compassion. Maybe so. A dear person in America tells me I'm ungrateful. Maybe so. You know how they say "the best offense is a good defense"? I've decided the best defense is no defense. ;) "I am what I am by the grace of God" and - thank God - I know He doesn't let me stay in one place for long so all these defects will be addressed in His time. :) All I know is that life is not as neat as some would like and guessed it...worlds collide.

Sometimes, thankfully, worlds collide in beautifully serendipitous ways, too. :)

A hard day, my back in real pain for days, caught in traffic on my way to the post office over an hour away from where I live (which is just across the city!), I'm told I'm at the wrong post office. :( Argh. Get to the "right" post office and pay to pick up a package (a couple of dollars only) sent from someone whose name draws a complete blank for me. BUT..I see the name of my hometown on the return address and soften a little. I open up the package to find...what I can only call "a hug from home". A copy of the Grants Pass Daily Courier (our local town's little daily newspaper that I used to deliver!), mint chocolates (a combination not found here, as far as I know) all the fixins for S'mores and MAGAZINES IN ENGLISH!!! :) It was a care-package from folks in Calvary Church in GP. I nearly cried. :) Not because any of those things are necessary to life. They're not. And not because life is so hard here. It's not. I love it here. I have amazing friends. A beautiful home and even a car (after years of public transport). My days are filled with the joys and heartaches of helping people finding their way in this world and I couldn't be more fulfilled. It was just....worlds colliding. Ya know?

And then today...awesome sermon in church Ukrainian. ;) I speak Russian and although I understand Ukrainian to a great extent it is still an exercise in concentrated listening to get the most out of my pastor's sermons. After church my absentee ballot from America is in my mailbox (!) and I enjoy a quiet lunch of tuna sandwiches and salad (ok, fried potatoes, too! I do still live in Ukraine! ha!) with Vica - the latest girl to live here at our transition home. The day before dear friends from a sister church came for a baby shower. It was a raucous, LOUD, totally fun group of young families with their kids (LOTS OF KIDS) whom - it seems to me - only yesterday those parents were the kids! Great! Tiring (I'm getting old!), but great! The day before a young Ukrainian couple - the pastor and his wife - came and stayed overnight. We stayed up late talking - alternately in Russian, English and both at once! - about life, and making ends meet and the mystery of people and God and life. And then tonight catching up on laundry and emails and what-not watching "Walk the Line" (the Johnny Cash story) with Russian, of course. ;) Good thing they didn't translate the songs, though. :) World's collide...but sometimes in the nicest, craziest cacophony-of-cultures way. dear friend Lori used to call me "her all or nothing friend" and here I am - the "anti-blog Queen" again proving that to be true. No posts forEVER and then this epic saga. Oh well... :)

So what's my point? "Wherever you are, be fully there" where are you? Where am I? I am not in Grants Pass with my dear mom as she continues to recover (but my beautiful sister Janice is, and her wonderful daughter Caitlin was, and my brothers Mark and Matt are not far away, and as ever our great dad is there - and God willing I will be again soon...we are blessed), my heart and my prayers are there. I am not in America facing the struggles that many of you are with the current economic and social issues, but I got my ballot and pray that God will give me wisdom for my vote to be there. I am here in Ukraine, but not being Ukrainian, not having grown up here and endured through the hardships and victories that has made Ukraine into the nation it is today, even if my body is here till it lies in the grave I can never expect to ever be "fully" here feeling and understanding everything as those who were born and raised here.

So where am I? "In Your presence oh LORD, is fullness of joy, and at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore". (Psalm 16:11) Aaaahhhhhhh.... if I were my cat right now I'd be purring with  my eyes closed. Where am I? With God, I pray. He's my home, my love, my life. What can I lose if all is in Him? What is the tragedy of my life but only to lose Him? Still, my body is here. And I lose sight of the reality of God SO often, but He is so faithful to woo me back, take me by the hand and invite me to turn down the noise, listen to the music and dance again. Mmmmmmmmm.....

So, I need compassion. ("Everyone needs compassion"...or so I hear.) ;) I need to be more grateful. I want to be there, but I am here. I am happy to be here, but my heart and thoughts are there. Where am I? Safe in His embrace. Lost in His arms. Holding on and being held onto. And I wanna be "fully there" each time worlds collide.

Just some thoughts I had tonight.... Love you all, dear friends and family. :)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


So, these kinds of things always happen to me. :)

I had just gotten out of my car to take a picture of a sailboat that had run aground on the beach in Santa Barbara. I don't know what happened, but because the area was having some of the worst storms in quite some time, it wasn't too much of a surprise. The streets were littered with huge palm branches that had been blown free from their towering trees. Streets and lawns were flooded and everything in this celebrity locale known for keeping up appearances was quite out of sorts.

There was an ambulance at the ready (not that I saw that anyone had needed it) and many other "Lookey-Lous" like myself taking pictures and taking in the sight. It was quite impressive. Here was this beautiful, lithe boat stopped, stuck in the sand, just sitting there like the subject of a painting by one of the great masters. But, and I know this is silly, because it was still upright, it almost seemed as if it was letting itself be pummeled by the waves. It seemed that at whatever moment it might choose it could simply pull away from the shore and sail confidently back out to sea. Of course this wasn't to be, but that was the feeling I had, something of grace and dignity about this tragic event.

As I stood there (this is the part that seems to always happen to me) a woman shuffled by swathed in one green army blanket and carrying another one over her arm. She mumbled something and I said "Excuse me? What?" (which I suppose probably explains the reason why these things always seem to happen to me.) She came closer and at first I thought she might be homeless. I couldn't really see her clothes under the blanket, but she wore new looking soft suede deck-shoes. (The shoes usually are the clue). Homeless or just California eccentric? Who knows. Here in Santa Barbara, where "artists" of all types abound and homeless folks once registered to vote using a huge historic tree near the train tracks as their address, anything is possible.

She walked on past me and then abruptly turned around and - with one hand half-covering her mouth and the other still clutching her blanket - she started in.

"This! All...this!" she proclaimed with a wide expansive wave of her hand, blanket still in hand. "So, so, so much....things, and material, and, so much, just material stuff. And you know, just abandonment. Abandonment! Just abandon it all to, to, to the ruler, the ultimate ruler, the ruler of everything, and just abandon, just abandon to Jesus".

She was on a roll. She went on to say that maybe the owner of the boat, "maybe he was in counseling, and maybe his counselor told him to just, you know, let go. And he just, you know, let go." And on and on.

Then, just as abruptly, she stopped, slapped her free hand over her mouth and - sort of smiling, sort of sheepish - she said "but then, maybe YOU are the owner! Maybe that's your boat! Oh no. Oh no. Oh no." But she was smiling and even laughed a little. It was actually cute.

"Oh no. I'm with you all the way" I quickly added. "Sad, what happened. But I get your point - abandon yourself to God".

With that, she shrugged her shoulders, palms upraised, turn and walked away. And I took a few more pictures. This kind of stuff always happens to me.