Don’t Be Shakin’ Your Head

In July, my husband and I, along with 200 plus kindergarteners through 4th graders, celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. Our ministry was hosting a children’s outreach that day in the rural South African village of GaPila. Thankfully, later in the month, we were able to enjoy a special honeymoon getaway. Chris and I, as a couple, think it’s important to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and special occasions. We just don’t always celebrate them in traditional ways.

In the majority of life’s arenas, my husband and I think alike. Yet once in a while, we find ourselves viewing things differently. Sometimes those differences are based on gender, and, at other times, they are based on personality, thought processes, and life experiences.

In my book, The Whispering of the Willows, there’s an engaging and comical example of a young couple’s struggle with different aspects of navigating love.

“Emie, ain’t I always told you that you’re the prettiest girl in the holler? I ain’t changed my mind.”

“Mimi is so sophisticated, and I’m some homely holler girl. She can dance the Charleston and sing like a lark…Did she dance or sing for you, Rudy?”

“I already told you, Emie, we were standin’ in front of my daddy’s store. Of course, she didn’t dance or sing.” Rudy shook his head in frustration.

“And don’t be shakin’ your head at me, Rudy. It makes me mad.”

“Seems like you’re plenty mad, and I ain’t done nothin’, Emie. I’m gonna head on home. When you’re back to normal, let me know. I’ll come callin’ again.”

Navigation can involve celestial guidance. I am not talking about astrology. I’m talking about looking to God who is enthroned in the heavens and asking for direction. Relationships can be tricky. It’s a relief for me to know that the Lord is very concerned about my relationship with Him and my relationships with others.

 

img_1094.jpg
Students at the student outreach our ministry hosted in the village of GaPila.

Rattlin’ Bones

In 2008, Shane Nicolson and Kasey Chambers, an Australian couple, wrote and recorded the song “Rattlin’ Bones.” The music is haunting. The lyrics are gripping and shrouded with soul-stirring metaphors. I found the chorus immensely thought provoking. “But I cut my hands and break my back dragging this bag of stones. Till they bury me down beneath the ground with the dust and rattlin’ bones.”

The Book of Ezekiel tells about the Valley of Dry Bones. The Lord set the Prophet Ezekiel in a ravine full of human bones. As Ezekiel walked among the skeletal remains, they began to rattle. The dry bones came together but were without life until God divinely imparted a breeze of breath.

Like the song “Rattlin’ Bones,” in my book, The Whispering of the Willows, I use the metaphor of dry bones and death to depict a traumatizing situation for the book’s heroine, Emerald Ashby. Emie is falsely accused of lewd behavior and is summoned before the church to confess her sins. “I’ve been asked this mornin’ to confess my sins. Well, my sins are many…In the Bible there was a valley of dry bones. The bones were dry because of sin.” In the book, Emie reaches into a satchel and removes two dry bones. She then hears a voice from the back of the sanctuary. “Why, Emie, those bones aren’t like in the Bible. They’re cow knuckles…Charlie bought the pair for a few pennies.” The death bones are used as evidence to bring justice and life. “That day at Big Creek Church the truth was told…When Emie talked about Charlie’s abuse, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”

The metaphor of dry bones also has personal application. When physical, spiritual, or emotional death knocks on our door, God is more than able to impart a breeze of breath and restore what seems to be bitter, broken, and barren. Ezekiel prophesied to the dry bones in the valley. As he spoke about God’s greatness the remains began to rattle.

May the Lord bless you and minister His grace to you.   

For additional information or questions, please feel free to contact Tonya at christonyablessing@gmail.com

  

MISSION TEAMS: Yes, No, Maybe?

mapsuitcase

At the age of fifteen, I went on my first mission trip. I traveled with a group from my local church to Bemidji, Minnesota, where we worked with a local pastor and his family hosting a week-long vacation Bible school. The attendees were Native American children who lived on a nearby Reservation and varied in age from pre-schoolers to teens. My job was to work with the “littles.”In addition to the giant statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, “Babe”, located in the small town square of Bemidji, I have a number of vivid memories from the trip. The local tourist shop sold t-shirts declaring the mosquito to be Minnesota’s state bird, I had a secret crush on the young man who led the mission team and ended up heart- broken for a brief period of time,and I experienced a miracle. On the last evening of VBS, while sharing the Gospel with a group of children and their parents, I was stung by a wasp. Though painful, I said nothing about the sting and continued to focus on my message about God’s great love. As a child, I was highly sensitive to bee stings, yet I experienced no side effects – no swelling, no itching, no nausea – nothing.

According to today’s mission team trend, the group I was privileged to partner with was not successful. We did not build any sustainable projects. We did not start any businesses hoping to boost the local economy. Instead by bringing clothing, food, toiletries, and toys we probably took away from area businesses. We also raised the bar and did things that the local pastor would not be able to maintain.  In my mind, however, we were extremely successful. Hungry children were given food. Clothing was distributed to those who could not afford even thrift store prices, and, most important, numerous people heard the saving message of Jesus. I think the children, who received toys for the first time in their lives, would say that our brief period with them was extremely successful,and for those who received Christ as their Saviour the success of a band of travelers from semi-rural Ohio cannot be measured.

My husband and I currently live in South Africa. We are the founders and directors of Strong Cross Ministries, a non-profit organization that provides support for local churches and missions organizations. We build sustainable projects that include gardening, animal husbandry, and sewing just to name a few. We provide business training for entrepreneurs and are starting to process micro loans. We also focus on supporting local businesses and boosting the regional economy. We have tried to adapt to local customs and have not tried to Americanize the people we serve. I am convinced, however, that mission work is so much more.

Missions is first and foremost about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The humanitarian side of being a Christian includes providing food, shelter, and clothing to the poor. The spiritual side of Christianity includes sharing with the spiritually-deprived about the hope we have here on earth and the eternal hope we have in heaven.

Each year we sponsor U.S. mission teams. They are a valuable asset to our work in South Africa. They provide training, financial gifts, goods, and services that are valued by us and are well received by the local people. We have explained to the people we serve that Americans pray for them, want to meet them, and help them with both natural and spiritual resources. Ministry sometimes looks different when we have guests, but we don’t see that as a bad thing. Over the years, we have learned to educate American teams about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. The translators who assist us also help visiting mission teams to aid and not hinder the work of the Gospel.

For us, mission teams help in numerous ways. U.S. guests minister to those we serve and those we serve minister to U.S. guests. Future missionaries are born on the mission field. Callings are sometimes birthed for future supporters and prayer warriors by hands-on experience. In part, traveling and serving Jesus is about helping others. It is also in part about growing in God and ministry encounters. Most importantly, however, it is about the Famous One, who created the world and travels even to bottom of the sea.

A vision for Africa was birthed in my husband’s heart because of spiritual adventures told to him by an uncle who served in Mali. My vision for Africa was birthed by seeing a map of the continent. Together our vision was confirmed when we made an exploratory trip to South Africa and saw first-hand the need for the Gospel to be shared.

When thinking about the “yes, no, maybe” of missions teams, please consider the following:

  1. Is the journey about those going, those receiving, and most importantly about Jesus being glorified?
  2. Is there adequate instruction and on-going guidance for everyone involved?
  3. Is the individual or the organizational host reputable?
  4. Is the agenda two-fold: humanitarian aid and, even more vital, spiritual assistance?
  5. Is there a local person or ministry available who can provide on-going and hopefully sustainable help to those the mission team serves?
  6. Is there follow-up provided for the mission team that will explore future callings, areas of service, and ways to grow in sharing the Gospel?
  7. Is the ultimate goal for people to receive Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour?

“The spirit of Christ is the spirit of missions. The nearer we get to Him, the more intentional missionary we become.” (Henry Martyn)

A Clear Conscience

“Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority.” (Romans 13:7 NLT)

I often have a bad attitude about income taxes. This year, I prepared the information, sent it off to the accountant, and then received a coupon of sorts which I was to mail to the I.R.S. with the additional taxes owed. I realized when reviewing the income tax return that I made a mistake. To correct the mistake would mean additional tax preparation fees and additional money owed to the government. In all honestly, I went back and forth for a couple days about correcting the information. I am not sure what that says about my character but since the amount was trivial it didn’t seem worth my effort, the efforts of our ministry bookkeeper, or the efforts of our already extremely busy accountant. THEN, during my personal devotions last week, I read Romans 13.

The passage begins by discussing the importance of submitting to governing authorities. During this season of political turbulence in America, the words were a great reminder that authority comes from God, and that those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. Romans 13:2 goes a step further in saying that those who rebel against authority are rebelling against what God instituted. Romans 13:4 (NLT) states, “The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course, you should be afraid for they have the power to punish you.”

After reading the beginning of Romans 13, I felt an overwhelming sense of urgency to pray for the United States and South Africa (where I currently reside). I don’t believe in blind obedience. I don’t believe in following someone or an institution who doesn’t follow God, but I do believe God puts people in all types of authority (family, church, communities, politics), and, as a Christian, I am mandated by God to recognize authority, pray for those in authority and to be respectful and honoring of those in leadership.

As I continued my study in Romans, the following verse gave clear direction about my tax dilemma, “Pay your taxes, too…” (Romans 13:6 NLT). After talking with my husband, I sent the corrected information to the accountant, and I am currently waiting for our amended return and the adjusted tax preparation invoice.

Do I think that taxing people is just? It depends. In some cases, taxes are needed. In other cases, taxes are an over burden. In South Africa, there are personal income taxes and a 15% tax on everything that is purchased. In my opinion, in the U.S. taxation seems extreme as well. However, like it or not, I still need to pay my taxes.

Are you frustrated by income tax season? Is preparing your return an overwhelming experience? Are you cranky about the injustices that occur with taxation? I can relate. Yet, we need to be encouraged and reminded about the principles shared in Romans 13. One final thought, the Bible teaches us that when we respect those in authority that we will keep a clear conscience.

Storyteller

“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.” ― Brandon Sanderson

I recently heard a story about John McKnight, the founder of Asset-Based Community Development. He was speaking to a group of urban workers and had previously arranged to introduce himself. He began his introduction by saying his name and then looked downward to expose thinning hair on the crown of his head. “I’m going bald,” he said. He then proceeded to discuss his recent eye exam and the need for a stronger prescription. Among other things, he shared about jobs he had lost, and then, for an introduction grand finale lifted his shirt and exposed a large scar on his abdomen.

I have introduced myself on a number of occasions. I generally open with my name, information about my family, personal achievements, and ministry information. I have always considered an introduction to be a way of pointing out the best things in my life. Yet those types of introductions leave out the more interesting side of who I am.

I was privileged in December to do a podcast interview with Eric Nevins. The experience was amazing. Eric and I, along with Laura Bartnick from Capture Books, met at a coffee shop on the beautiful grounds of Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado. The campus is located near the Rocky Mountain foothills. The day was brisk but my excitement and nervousness kept me warm.

Eric instantly put me at ease. His questions were thought provoking, drawing out the storyteller in me. I talked about accomplishments, but more so, shared about my life’s journey:  the good times and bad times, the seasons of well-being and the seasons of surgery that have left scars similar to John McKnight’s abdomen.

I hope you enjoy listening to the podcast – the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

http://ericnevins.com/podcast/halfwaythere/036/?embed=true

My Father’s Business

It is common where we live in South Africa to see a business of mongoose. A group of such animals is called a “business” because of the way they stand up on their hind legs. A local belief says that the animals stand to show importance in order to conduct business. In actuality, they are standing to spy out the land for potential threats. I remember as a child reading the story, “Rikki, Tikki, Tavi.” The story centers on a mongoose who protects a child from a venomous snake. I moved to Africa knowing that these amazing creations of God were snake fighters, but I didn’t know that they were gigglers. They communicate with each other by making noises that sound like giggling.

 

When Jesus was 12 years old, He traveled with his parents to Jerusalem for Passover. Because of the large number of people traveling together back to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph didn’t realize right away that Jesus was missing. They looked for their Son among relatives and friends, and then traveled back to Jerusalem in search of Jesus. They found Him in at the Temple. The Bible says in Luke 2:46 that Jesus was sitting among the teachers (present, watching, and experiencing), listening to them (hearing and understanding), and asking questions (respectfully inquiring and interrogating). When Mary asked about Jesus’ actions, He told His earthly parents that they should have known He would be about His Father’s business.

 

In Jewish tradition, when a boy is 12 or 13 years old, he is considered mature. He is responsible for his choices and actions. He is dealt a stricter punishment when sin occurs, and is considered age appropriate to experience fasting for 24 hours. He is ready to be about his Father’s business.

 

We need to be about our Father’s business. As Christian women, it is more important that we concern ourselves with the business of God than anything else. We can get distracted by the business of our neighbors, our employers, our church, and even the business of ministry, but the most important business is God’s business.

 

In Luke 2:47 we learn that those present in the Temple were amazed by Jesus’ wisdom and understanding. In the Greek text it indicates that Jesus was able to explain deep spiritual truth. His ability to communicate spiritual understanding caused others to respond and give audience to the Son of God.

 

When we are about our Father’s business (sitting, listening, and asking), we can have confidence that the Lord will impart to us wisdom and understanding. He will also give us the ability to explain spiritual truth in a way that others will listen and take notice.

 

I find it interesting that a mongoose fights snakes and giggles. I know that doing God’s business involves fighting in heavenly places. I also think that there is amazing joy in living for Jesus and fulfilling His purposes. I want God’s business to be my business.

Help, My Shoes are too Tight

“From my distress I called upon the LORD; The LORD answered me and set me in a large place.” (Psalm 118:5)

A couple of Sundays ago, we had an unusual service in the village of Moshate. When we arrived at the meeting place, the gate was locked. While standing by a busy road, seventy plus children were waiting to enter. Our first concern was the safety of our small friends. Then we attempted to locate someone with a key. We finally ended up meeting in the parking lot of a small convenience store across the street. Ebenezer, who owns the store, had no idea what he was agreeing to when we asked permission to use his property. The children met under a canopied car port, and the adults met under a tree in a neighboring yard. Songs of praise for Jesus filled the air. Ebenezer kept looking out the store door, but thankfully did not ask us to leave.

 

When I started the service for the adults, one of the ladies acted oddly. Though normally friendly and talkative, she placed her chair apart from the group. She was invited to move closer and join the others, but was content to be separated. During the service she fidgeted in her chair and kept rubbing her feet through her shoes. It finally occurred to me that her shoes were too tight. Following the service, during the meal time, I suggested that she remove her shoes. She slipped her heels out of the canvas, but kept her toes hidden. I promised to take her home so she did not have to walk the few blocks to her house in shoes that were too small.

 

There have been seasons in my life, where I have felt like my spiritual shoes were too tight. They did not fit, and matter what I tried my feet continued to hurt. I have learned that generally when I am feeling hemmed in and pressed for space that the Lord is about to make a change in my life. My friend was grumpy. She was satisfied to sit by herself and rub her feet. Relief only came when she removed the shoes. Spiritual life can be the same.

 

What makes us feel hemmed in spiritually can vary. For me, it is mostly a feeling of not belonging any longer. What worked in the past is not currently working. Relationships feel strained and there is no clear vision of who is responsible for what activities. There is also a lack of joy. Ministry feels like a situation where I have overstayed my welcome. Sometimes, there is also an underlying current that I am headed in a different direction than everyone else. Seasons of life change, and if we do not change with the seasons, we become grumpy and dissatisfied. We can also become content to separate from others and nurse our pain.

 

The interesting thing about my friend’s shoes is that they were the correct size. The imprint on the inside heel of the shoe indicated the size she generally wore. The same can be true of life. What should be the correct size may not work any longer.

 

Psalm 118:5 tells us that when we are distressed (when our shoes no longer fit), and we call upon the Lord for help (recognizing that we need relief from feeling pressed on all sides) that He will enlarge our space. God will make our shoes bigger, so they will fit us properly. May the Lord bless us with shoes that fit and strength to walk in whatever direction He takes us.

“The Book”

While visiting the home of a new friend, Mpho noticed several children’s books sitting on a worn table in the living room. The books were torn at the corners and ragged along the edges. When her friend left the room, Mpho asked the oldest child present about the books. At first, he shyly hid his face and would not answer. Mpho talked with him briefly about the importance of taking care of his books, and then questioned him further. Again, the boy wouldn’t look at Mpho. This time she recognized the look of shame on the boy’s face. She began to encourage him about reading and caring for materials. The young lad interrupted her. “You don’t understand. When we don’t have enough food my mom feeds us and then eats the books so she isn’t hungry.”

Mpho was moved to tears and to action. Nutritious food was delivered to the family, along with new books for the children.

I am so thankful for Mpho who was not afraid to ask questions, listen to answers, and respond to needs. The Bible says in Psalm 119:103, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.” Mpho’s friend was eating words, but not words of life, hope and strength that would satisfy – empty words without physical or spiritual nutrition. Mpho, a partaker of the sweet ancient words of God, was able to make a difference – to provide delectable honey to a single mom and her children.

“Holy words long preserved for our walk in this world. They resound with God’s own heart. Oh let the ancient words impart. Words of life, words of hope, give us strength, help us cope. In this world, where e’er we roam, ancient words will guide us home. Ancient words ever true, changing me, changing you. We have come with open hearts. Oh let the ancient words impart. Holy words of our faith, handed down to this age. Come to us through sacrifice. Oh heed the faithful words of Christ.” (Michael W. Smith)

My prayer is that like Mpho we would be moved to tears and to action in sharing the ancient words of God, imparting words of life, words of hope, and words of strength.  “Oh let the ancient words impart.”

Are Your Feet Taking You Somewhere?

Our ministry recently hosted a children’s outreach in one of the villages. Close to 100 children participated ranging in age from two to thirteen. We set up stations and divided the children by age. They enjoyed music and dancing, face painting, making a special craft, and hearing a short devotional about God’s great love for them. We served the kiddos pap and gravy for lunch. It was a great day for everyone involved! So much fun!

When the day was drawing to a close, I left the church building and headed down the road to meet Chris. While walking, an adorable little girl about five or six years old joined me. She asked, “Are your feet taking you somewhere?” I explained that I was meeting Papa Chris. She seemed satisfied with my answer and ran off to play with the other children.

I have thought about her question a number of times over the past couple weeks. “Are my feet taking me somewhere?”  According to Hebrews 11, I need to live by faith. It fact, the passage says that without faith it is impossible to please God. Sometimes faith is tangible, and sometimes faith is simply praying, walking, and letting our feet take us somewhere.

The Bible says that by faith Abraham left his home and journeyed to distant land. A place he didn’t know, yet his feet took him there. Distant lands can be physicals places, and they can also be places of the heart. I traveled to Africa in my heart before my feet ever landed here.

Where are your feet taking you?  Are you physically moving, or is your heart changing and taking a journey?

 

 

 

 

Pucker Up

“Emie stood to her feet. ‘Rudy!’ she yelled. ‘I’m sorry.’

He turned back toward her and without thinking, she blew him a kiss.

Rudy ran his fingers through his red tufts of hair, making his cowlick even more pronounced, then he sighed. ‘Emie, I’m frustrated, but it does my heart good to see you jealous.’

When he finally smiled, Emie knew that all would be well.

‘And by the way, Emerald Ashby, next time you kiss me, it won’t be your sweet breath carried to me by the wind. It will be your lips on mine, and not just one little smooth neither.’

She felt her face grow hot, and was glad that Rudy was some distance away. ‘That’s naughty talk, Rudy.’

‘It ain’t naughty talk when two people care for each other like we do…'” (Tonya Jewel Blessing , The Whispering of the Willows)

Kissing is a phenomenon onto its own. In kindergarten, a boy in my class spent the whole year chasing me on the playground wanting a kiss. I was definitely not puckering up. Then in middle school, I shared my first kiss with a boy. It was at a birthday party, and we missed each other’s lips the first time and have to have a “do over.”

Animals kiss as a sign of affection. People kiss in different ways in different cultures. In some cultures noses are rubbed. In other cultures lips are locked and then followed by an air kiss. In some Asian countries kissing is done sparingly and only in private. Some endearing kisses are shared by the touch of one’s lips to another’s cheek. In some European cultures, the etiquette of greeting is to place one’s cheek against another’s cheek, where a smooch is to be heard and not felt.

When I met my husband, his kisses were and still are sweet and lovely, the kind of kisses that made me dream about a life shared with him. “Oh, give me your lips for just a moment, and my imagination will make that moment live. Give me what you alone can give a kiss to build a dream on. When I’m alone with my fantasies, I’ll be with you weaving romances, making believe they’re true.” (Louis Armstrong, A Kiss to Build a Dream On)

I’m not one of those people who take kissing lightly. Maybe it is my Mid-Western upbringing, or the fact that I have been married for almost 35 years and still enjoy my husband’s kisses. They still weave romances and cause me to dream. My kisses are reserved for those who are dear to me.

I believe that kissing and touching should be embraced by us with those we care about. Even medical professionals agree that physical contact keeps us healthy. People who kiss have less stress, better immune systems, lower blood pressure, fewer headaches, and an increased sense of well-being and self-esteem. (8 Amazing Health Benefits of Kissing Your Loved Ones – articles.mercola.com)

1 Peter 5:15 says, “Greet one another with a kiss of love.” So pucker up and kiss someone that you love today and every day.