Faith, Yoga

Confessions of a self-absorbed missionary

In my dreams, I had a clear “out.” It was almost like I was being protected from my own worst nightmare, because I never consciously worried about it. And in the dreams, I never had to do it.

“It” being washing feet, particularly on an upcoming mission trip.

The American surely wasn’t expected to cross the Atlantic and scrub the feet of African women.

The people would protest.

The leaders in the churches would do the washing.

God would personally swoop in and somehow rescue me, perhaps striking me with malaria or something.

I wasn’t keen on details — my dreams never come with vividness — only that somehow the very central component of my short-term mission trip to Sierra Leone would fall on someone else’s shoulders.

I never told a soul. To admit aloud that I was disgusted at the thought of washing the feet of African women certainly took my own self-worth down a few notches, and I couldn’t afford tarnishing my public image as a missionary if I confessed such a narcissistic tidbit.

But there it was. I was terrified of touching another woman’s feet. The honest-to-God truth was that I was afraid of touching anyone’s feet — except maybe babies and toddlers. It didn’t matter the color of their skin or how they spent their days.

I did not even realize this was a fear of mine until I was confronted with it. Soon my soul was seized with a fear much deeper than touching the feet of strangers. I had to question the dark side of my own heart as I wrestled with the possibility that my capacity to love others was not at all what it seemed.

I could blame it all on my friend Jan, who came up with this devotional spa experience. It involved facials, neck wraps and a simple foot treatment. None of it required us to touch the women we were ministering to. Feet were a very small part, and no water was even involved. Until our first big public event, when a woman approached us and offered to do foot soaks.

That was the birth of a spa experience that retold the story of Jesus washing His disciple’s feet. I wrote a script, and we held many foot soak events. I actually loved hosting these events and watching the live revelation of girls and women as they meditated on God’s word. Everything about this ministry is to share the love of our heavenly Father, to spread truth about who we are, how much we matter and how much God loves us told through the experience of Christ in his last hours before crucifixion.

Paula, my friend and full-time missionary in Sierra Leone, and I took so much delight in talking and planning an event for the women there. I was bringing my teen daughter on her first mission trip, and Paula’s daughters, who are about the same age as Abby, were all involved in the plans. We were going to do spas and lunch for the women at four church plants in small villages in the peninsula.

It was thrilling to get our creativity flowing on long phone calls while my baby napped and we prayed over details. Until we got to the foot spa. Clearly using water for each woman to enjoy a foot soak was not feasible there. Water is a scarcity, plus it had to be hauled from the well. We explored options, but it was clear that foot washing stations would be practical. It also occurred to us that such a hands-on component would truly be much more meaningful.

In the states, we avoid touch during ministry because we want to be particularly sensitive to triggers of abuse.

Only at one event — a spa for the board of a ministry — did we roll up our sleeves, get on the floor, wash and massage. At first, I was not only on board with the idea, but I loved it. However, as I rotated my hands to the underside of a woman’s feet, she stiffened. The soles of her feet were incredibly rough, like nothing I’d ever touched. She was so self-conscious she didn’t need to say a word because her body language was throwing up stop signs. I was sweating. I didn’t want to drop her feet so quickly that the entire room noticed, but I didn’t want to linger. I was determined to not let her think I cared, because I didn’t, but I couldn’t help but wonder if my own body language told a story of my shock when I felt her skin. The more I thought about it, the more awkward I felt. I was upset at myself, because all I wanted to do was help her feel loved. Because my heart was pure, I kept applying more lotion to her feet, insistent on giving her the foot rub she didn’t want. In the end, she simply felt more embarrassed. I was sweating profusely as her toes began to curl in protest.

Somehow in my naiveté, I had made this ministry all about me. Instead of asking this woman, serving her based on her comfort and her needs, I did what I wanted. I stayed when I shouldn’t have. I touched when I knew it was uncomfortable. It was a complete reflection of the way I had been serving in ministry to this point. It was all about me.

I wish I could say I figured this out later that evening or even the next week. It was still years before I recognized my own selfishness in this situation and so many others. Even in planning this mission trip, it was obviously still all about me — even if I wouldn’t admit it. I mean, the dreams were a complete manifestation of my selfishness.

A different continent with a completely unique culture meant that there wouldn’t be the kind of American self-consciousness I had experienced, so I wouldn’t be blindsided this time. For me, washing feet was associated with its own trigger — one of my own ignorance and arrogance. I just didn’t know it at the time.

Instead of exploring the reasons I was resistant, I ignored my feelings. I became emotionally numb as I planned and thought about the spa in Sierra Leone.

I had only one thing going for me at this point. I trusted God. I knew if my fears were warranted on even the most self-absorbed level, He would protect me. In that sense, I did not think much about it, though it didn’t stop my fears from surfacing in dreams where — oddly enough — I was never required to wash a single foot.

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My lovely friend Paula who was a gracious host and leader, never hesitating on foot washing. I admire her so much! 

We had a bumpy transition into Sierra Leone. My daughter fell ill, vomiting and getting a low fever in our first day. She was not feeling great even two days later when we held our first event for the female leaders from the churches.

 

I could have been worrying about her. I could have been obsessing over the feet washing. Instead, I was calm and at peace. I often marvel about God’s grace, that it would extend even to me and even when I was awash in self-absorption.

As I spoke and looked into the eyes of these beautiful women — these devoted mothers and hard-working entrepreneurs, these grandmas and committed Christ followers, worship leaders and spiritual servants — something completely unexpected transpired. I actually desired to wash their feet, so much so that I got defensive about it. I practically didn’t want to share the blessing of washing their feet with anyone else. This euphoric feeling blew over me like a wave just at the sight of these lovely ladies.

And then in the cramped, dark church with hard, dirty floors, I knelt down and began to wash — scrubbing with one washcloth and then drying with another. Some feet were tiny, some surprisingly soft; others were long, most were rough; some were wrinkly and scarred. But they all told stories.

Can you imagine all these feet have borne witness to? Lost love. Grief. Suffering. Indescribable joy. Back-breaking work. Loss of faith. Miracles.

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I did it!!! Here I am, absorbed in foot washing! 

I only had precious few minutes with each woman, so as I washed, I prayed. I prayed over her suffering — past or present — and her story. I prayed for God to pour out His blessings on her. I did not look away or sweat or feel anxious in any way. I let the Holy Spirit guide me, and I watched. I took my cues from the women. If something seemed to tickle them, I stopped. If they seemed to enjoy a touch, I lingered there for an extra moment. My eyes absorbed every scar, every wrinkle, every unique marking and I held reverence and esteem there. Rather than being numb to what they’ve experienced, I invited my presence to acknowledge the difficulty of a life lived.

 

I may never understand a reality of an outdoor kitchen, cooking over fire or hand washing laundry and dishes in plastic tubs all while living in one-room hut-like houses. With these sweet sisters, I shared the common emotions of grief, anxiety and fear, just as our deep faith bonded us in the feelings of faith, peace and joy. As moms, we knew patience — or perhaps the challenge of holding onto it — well. We could both testify to the resolve of self-control and discipline. Without sharing a language, we both knew the pain of childbirth, the agony of teenage hormones and the beauty of nursing.

I stored these truths in my heart and pondered them. What a treasure for me to learn that I could, indeed, love more deeply.

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My beautiful daughter coming out of her shell, playing and singing for a crowd of kids who lingered to learn what we were doing with their moms!

As the days passed, we continued serving at these events. My daughter was beginning to come around, to be present and aware. Word was spreading about the spas, and when we arrived at the third church, the leaders in Bunga Wharf must have gathered every woman in the entire village. The pavilion was bursting with estrogen and energy.

 

At the same time, one of Paula’s daughters was becoming sick with malaria. Unbeknownst to me until later, the loud chatter among the crowd as we washed their feet included some who were mocking Christ.

I briefly exited the event to be with Paula’s daughter, to check on her and comfort her.

When her dad arrived, I left her to go back to the pavilion. As I stood just outside, the obnoxious noise of demanding women in my sightline, I lifted my gaze. Framing the pavilion was the most gorgeous view of the mountains, lush with trees. Behind me, though I couldn’t see it, was the ocean. I imagined what the view would be like from up high, surrounded by the most beautiful of all creation and looking at the infinite gorgeous water and beaches.

An introvert, I very much enjoy time outside, connecting with God through nature. At our house in Athens, there was a vast field with one rather large, intricate old tree of thick, winding branches rising up from the middle and perfectly framed by our bedroom window. Every day, the sun would rise behind it with a new spectacular display of live art — a daily kiss from my heavenly Father.

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Foot washing in Bunga Wharf, where it was loud, crowded and spiritually challenging. 

Anytime I felt overwhelmed with the stress of life and relationships, I hopped on my bike either on back country roads or to a nearby bike trail taking my Bible, journal and snacks to stay and pray as long as I needed to in order to recharge. I often went on nature hikes with my children near our house, exploring the creek, woods, trails. When we moved from Athens to Springfield, I can now hop on a bicycle trail that crosses Lake Springfield just around the corner from our house. Our back yard is adjacent to the woods. Deer come into our yard, which attracts all kinds of gorgeous birds. The sun doesn’t rise to an open field, but it peeks through the trees creating a different kind of awesome display.

My soul is calmed by the beauty of creation. It inspires me, reminds me of God’s love for me, offers me peace, recharges my energy and faith. So in that moment, I peered above the rambunctious pavilion and mentally transported myself to the mountain.

God, I prayed, how I wish I could be up there communing with you in that peaceful sanctuary surrounded by your MOST beautiful of creation — mountains, the sea, forest.

He so quickly interrupted my thoughts with a correction I didn’t even know I needed.

Amy, my most beautiful of all creation is indeed nearby. It is there, in that pavilion. Can’t you see these women are far more precious to me than any of these other living things?  

Gulp. The realization hit me fast and intensely. He was, of course, right. It was the message I needed to hear.

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My friend Paula is speaking truth over one of the women after a spa. I admire this lady so much and love being her student, though she’d say she’s not trying to be my teacher. She’s the best kind of teacher; I learn so much from her!

Here I was halfway across the world not so I could do some great mission for Him and get accolades for it. I wasn’t here to sprawl out on beaches or climb mountains or even to enjoy sunsets — even if I was blessed to experience all of those things. It was here where He needed to remind me what a blessing it is to have the opportunity to love His most important, beloved of all creation. And it was as much about those loud, mocking women as it was the women back in Springfield, my friends and even my family. Those hardest to love, like the ones being unkind and — if we’re totally honest — our own kids some days, we can only love by the power of Christ in us. It’s only by drawing on His truths and grace that I can act in love toward anyone, myself included.

God’s correction wasn’t done because He was angry with me or even frustrated with me. He loves me so much that He wanted to remind me the sacredness of humanity above all. He got my attention. Because as beautiful as that setting truly was, He says I’m even more beautiful. What an amazing truth!

God prying open my heart was just the beginning of my year and of my healing. Once He had it open, He began ministering to me in unexpected ways, filling cracks with more of His love.

A horrendous back injury that began in Sierra Leone persisted days and weeks after my return. Once I had succumbed to the fact that I couldn’t exercise the same way I had been, I decided to try yoga. It seemed like the only type of exercise my body would tolerate.

Not only did my body tolerate it, but it found healing in yoga class. The absolute comfort and repair that happened on my mat naturally led my thoughts to the healing power of Christ. I wondered if anyone was combining yoga and Christianity. Later I began my search of a Jesus-centered yoga class.

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I find it amazing that God will use our weaknesses, our struggles and our failings to be a witness to others. I love the ministry of Holy Yoga that takes a “go first” approach. Leaders aren’t special; they are simply called to be servants in their own suffering. Only in confessing and healing my own hurts am I any good to come alongside others in ministry. 

I discovered Holy Yoga, which wasn’t offered anywhere around Springfield, and I couldn’t put it out of my mind. I was praying about whether God would really want me to pursue a certification. Normally, this would be too big a cost for me to even consider, but in late 2016 a friend gifted me a large amount of money to use in a way that would help me help more people. I didn’t even know what to do with that sum of money, so I was waiting for God to speak. As I recounted my story to a friend as we were driving and told her I was praying for God to be clear as a billboard sign about it, we pulled behind a car at a light that was covered with yoga bumper stickers. He sent my billboard, and it was time to trust and obey.

My journey to discover the depths of my capacity to love continued during my Holy Yoga certification and retreat. I found myself again struggling with self-love in some of the darkest days of my life. Fighting an infection in my gut for months of lingering digestive issues and irritation, I sank into a depression that I could not manage. I woke at 2 a.m. one morning thinking that my unmanageable illness was such a burden on my loved ones that perhaps they might be better off without me. The thought fully woke me, and I grabbed my Bible and journal, bringing my thoughts into His healing light was the only thing I knew to

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Another of my favorite things about Holy Yoga is the beautiful sisterhood. Encouragement and non-judgement required. I had an amazing cabin of sisters in Christ. 

do. He reminded me then of the importance of loving myself so that I can love my neighbors, a message He continued to pour into me in heavy doses in the spring. God filled more of my heart with His love in the crevices of doubt and despair.

But it was my first time teaching Holy Yoga where He showed up with yet another challenge. I was blessed by the touch techniques used on me at my training retreat, where instructors would come and — almost like the laying of hands in prayer — lightly massage our shoulders, faces, hands and feet during yoga classes. I sensed God wanted me to step out in faith and do the thing I most dreaded and offer massage during my first three classes.

I felt awkward and unqualified not only to teach Holy Yoga but to bring a healing touch to the 15 ladies who worshipped at the retreat with me. As the event came to a close, I shared with them this story — my experience in Africa and how very much I did not want to touch them at the start of the weekend.

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The women at the summer retreat. They were able to experience the love and healing power of Christ thanks to ministry donors and scholarships. 

But as I stood over these women, laying on their mats eyes closed in very vulnerable states, I felt like God offered me His perspective, showing me the unique beauty of each of these lovely ladies. He revealed to me the depths of His love for each one. I was so completely overwhelmed by the power and immensity of His love and the beauty in their faces that I was brought to tears.

As we worshipped together, it became obvious the hurt and abuse so many of them had suffered, often at the hands of family who professed to love them most of all. We shared our stories, were exposed together, confessed deep hurts, prayed audacious prayers and cried a river of tears. Women at all stages of life were present, including teenagers, and in various states of belief. What Satan intended for us to keep in darkness, we dragged out into the light.

I believe it was a microcosm of society, and exactly the reflection I needed to see to be encouraged to continue on — in loving, in ministry and in using the tool of Holy Yoga and the spa messages to bring healing and hope through the light of Jesus Christ to everyone.

Best of all was the kind of love I learned to have. It wasn’t theologically prideful (believe me, I’ve had plenty of that in my past) or selfish. If 2017 taught me anything, it was that my ability to love knows no boundary. It runs deeper than I’d imagined, and it has the capacity for a grace that mirrors the grace I’ve been given.

What this meant in my home was the best news. When I travelled to Sierra Leone with my teen daughter, we were barely tolerating one another’s presence. We were hugging on occasion upon our return. Yes, I kind of pushed myself on her as I realized that just because she was pulling away didn’t mean I had to. I teased her with texts linking to studies about the scientific benefits of hugs and touch. But we had serious talks, too, to assure her I would always be there. Hugging reminded her subconsciously as the endorphins were released and emotionally as memories of our affectionate past flooded her mind that touch is therapeutic. As the days, weeks and months passed, we began to have long, honest conversations. Tears have been shed. Hugs have been deeply healing. My ears are finally open to hear all of my children and my husband, too. And even my strong-willed, independent toddler is getting a little more freedom as I learn to love her in ways that matter to her and aren’t self-serving.

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Here I am at the orphanage in Sierra Leone with all the girls that we did the spa for. I love how every trip and mission opportunity, no matter how small, changes my heart. God is so good!

In this way, God has been preparing me to minister — in my home, in my community, on mission trips and in my own heart.

When I contemplate the variety and stunning exquisiteness of hundreds of unique sunrises I have enjoyed from just one vantage point, when I feel the softness of sand as I take walks on breath-taking beaches, when I stand small beneath the mountains and take in the wonder of creation, I get glimpses of a loving God. But when He performs miracles in a stubborn, hard heart, His powerful light casts out shadows of doubt to reveal the transforming beauty within that makes even the most picturesque of creation seem dim by comparison. Yes, Jesus loves me. Even me.

“We must not forget that true power, at whatever level, is service,
Which has its luminous summit on the Cross.
For God, authority is always synonymous with service, humility and love.
It means to enter into the logic of Jesus, who bends down to wash feet.”
— Pope Francis

 

 

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