Home again – in the familiar pew of a hometown church, I touch the wood and upholstery and then look down to see the scuffed leather of my familiar shoes set against the deep, clean carpet. My mind wanders for a moment and I imagine these same shoes against the red dirt of Kenya where they were just a few short weeks ago. I remember the dust and the heat, and think about all the places they have walked on African soil. We stand and sing a familiar hymn that reminds me of when I was a young boy or a young student in this church. I am holding a thick, crisp hymnal in one hand and, with a glance, briefly notice the age on my other one. It looks worn, calloused, and carrying a few recent scars. I imagine it gripping the contoured control yoke on the Cessna Caravan, gripping it hard as I steer through a rainstorm with a backache and a soiled flight shirt at the close of another privileged day. I see these hands lift and load the boxes that fill our airplanes with the stuff that makes missions happen. I see my white, bony hand wrapped around a black one – one more worn and rough than mine. And I see the face of a friend, a pastor in a difficult place, and a hero in my eye. I think about him and his persecuted congregation worshiping in their church of sticks and mud. And I see the blessed church I am in today, gathering in peace under the Stars and Stripes. I slip into moments of disbelief. Where have I been? Did these boots actually step across seven countries in Africa? Did these hands really serve God’s unsung heroes there? I look at some of the familiar faces around me – people who have sent us and have prayed for us faithfully while we have been away. I see them praying now, some literally on their knees. I take the liberty to pray with my eyes open for once and look over the bowed heads of the Church. And for a moment, the length of a congregational prayer, I revel in what is happening here. My memories flood the moment and I put the pieces together as they must be seen from God’s point of view…
Knees on carpet – The Caravan blasting through a muddy rut on a Sudanese airstrip – Folded hands – Hands strapping in Congolese children as they flee a village in flames – Whispered words at the altar – Squeals of joy across the ramp as refugees are reunited with their family – A tear from the eye of an average American – Tears of pain and suffering across a continent met head-on by the love of Christ at the hands of a missionary – Quiet supplication – An engine’s roar at a hundred and fifty miles per hour – sound, fury, calloused hands, and ministry happening on the other side of the world.
It would be hard to understand if I had not stood in two places so far apart in so short a time. But what I was seeing now at home was a silent barrage – the same battle being fought simultaneously here… and there.
If the work of “making disciples” is a battle, then we have seen the front lines. Where I set my wheels down in Africa from day to day are places of unbelievable need. They are places where all our efforts sometimes seem hopeless – a drop in the proverbial bucket. But they are places so dry, that a mere “drop” makes all the difference. The difference is so astounding that those on the front lines consider it a privilege to be there, and so keep going back. It is, by far, worth the calloused hands and the worn-out knees of our trousers. It is probably true that no one really knows the effective power of a single prayer. But I plainly remember those times in the field when I felt God’s protective hand over me or sensed His wisdom guiding me through another impossible day. And now I wonder who was praying for us at that moment, here in America. I think about these friends praying now. I think about our family picture on Clara Fillers’ refrigerator door. I imagine her with her morning coffee, in her humble home, alone, seventy-something in years and pausing to pray for two young missionaries a world away. I wonder if God nudges her to pray when we need it most. And I wonder if she knows she’s a warrior. Being home among our friends and churches again we are amazed at the unfailing commitment of the people who have sent us to Africa. And we are reminded how lucky we are to be the ones who went. The surprise, perhaps, is how much our lives have been intertwined, 6000 miles apart, and how much our ministry is carried along right here on the carpets of the average American church and around the ordinary kitchen tables of the Saints.