Ok…so maybe a long story here, so I may break it up into parts. And this is my first time to try to put it down in words, though I’ve spoken about it to small groups, or at least sections of this story. I usually write like I speak, so bear with me if it isn’t beautifully written prose, but this is just me…a little bit raw, a little unrefined, and a little too passionate at times.
This is the story of who I am, right now and where God has brought me, right now. I’m a very different person than I was a few years ago, and I’m thankful for that. God has done a lot of work in me, though I’ve got a long way to go…anyway, here we go.
When I was a kid, my grandfather was the pastor at our church. And, I’ll say right off the top that being a pastor’s grandkid was good and bad. Everyone in town knew me. EVERYONE. It didn’t help that my dad was on the city council and then served as mayor, and that it was a typical small town where everyone knew everyone anyway. But there were some really cool things about being a pastor’s grandson, too. One of my favorite things was getting to talk to some of the missionaries that came through our church, hearing their stories of far away and exotic places.
One particular missionary just completely enthralled me with his stories of Africa. His name was Ernest Green, but all of the kids called him Uncle Ernie. One Sunday when I was about eight years old, he came and spoke to our church and told his amazing stories of life in the African savanna. Towards the end of his talk, he mentioned that he would have his books for sale on a table in the back after the service. He had a book called “Uncle Ernie’s African Stories” that I HAD to have. Not wanted, not really wanted, but I HAD TO HAVE IT.
So, once he started praying to close out the service, I started making my plan. For an eight year old, I had to have a plan…I had no money on me and I could see that there were only a few copies of each book. So, as soon as the prayer was over and we started singing “He Lives” (we closed every service with that), I quietly slipped out of the pew and made my way to the table and waited. After the song, when someone came to man the table I asked how much it cost. Five dollars, maybe…I don’t remember, but anyway, I ran, bobbing and weaving through the crowd of elderly people making their way to the exit to get to my parents. “Mom, I need five dollars to buy the book.” Of course, she had questions…”What kind of book?” “Is it exactly five dollars?” “Where did you get that stain on your shirt?”
“Mom, I don’t have time, he’s only got three copies of the book, I need to go NOW.”
“I don’t have any cash, you’ll have to ask your dad…”
I was gone before she even finished…more bobbing and weaving…”Dad…five dollars…book…hurry!”
He gave me a five dollar bill and I sprinted. I probably caused an old lady to break a hip or something, I don’t know…I was focused. I was on a mission.
But I failed. By the time I got to the table, they were sold out of “Uncle Ernie’s African Stories.” I was crushed. It was the end of my eight year old world. So, I went and sat down in a pew and tried not to let anyone see that I was crying. I failed at that, too.
After a few minutes, I felt a large hand on my shoulder and heard someone say, “What’s wrong, son?” I looked up and saw Uncle Ernie himself, looking down at me.
“I tried…*sniff*…to buy Uncle Ernie’s book…*sniff*…your book…but there weren’t any more.”
He smiled a big smile and said, “You’re Brother Shiflet’s grandson, right?” I nodded. “Well, I have something for you here…” And he reached into his big leather satchel and pulled out a copy of “Uncle Ernie’s African Stories.” I was in shock. There was another one! He opened it up to the title page and started writing, then closed the book and handed it to me. I tried to offer him the five dollar bill, but he refused and said, “No, son, this is a gift for you. Who knows, maybe God will call you to the mission field some time and you’ll end up in Africa like I did.”
His words kind of soared past me because I was too busy digging into the book already. He tussled my hair and walked away to answer questions from the grown ups. I was on cloud nine, showing everyone how he had signed it (without actually reading what he wrote), telling them the story of how the real Uncle Ernie had given me the book.
A week or so later, after reading the book a hundred times, what he said to me that day hit me. What if I do end up in Africa? What he wrote on the cover page was simply, “May God lead your steps to where He wants you to go. – Uncle Ernie” The sudden realization that God could just pick me up and move me to Africa scared the crap out of me. Big time. I wanted no part of that. The biggest fear for eight year old me was picturing myself alone in Africa, no family, no friends, just people in tribal clothes, speaking a weird language…and the crocodiles. Especially the crocodiles.
So after a few days of my parents trying to calm my fears, my dad called in the big guns when it came God. My granddad. So, I was handed the phone and just told, “Here, it’s for you.” And my granddad, who was one of the most approachable, loving and kind grandfathers anyone could ask for, said in his deep voice, “This is Brother Shiflet.” So, this is was Pastor granddad, not granddad granddad.
I don’t remember exactly what all he told me (it’s been 33ish years), but I do remember one thing he said, “God will never call you somewhere that He hasn’t already prepared for you to want to go.”
Aside: I still have that copy of the book. I’ve saved these 33 or so years.
Ok, so now…fast forward 30 years or so to 2011. My brother had been on mission trips to Russia, Latvia, Lithuania and other places in Eastern Europe, but I still had this deep down fear of the whole idea of missions. But I was asked by the campus pastor at Liberty Christian School to go on the school’s Spring Break mission trip to Guatemala. I would love it, he said. It would change my life, he said. We could really use your Spanish speaking, he said. I finally decided, that yes, it would be fun. It’s missions, but it’s just a week. God’s not going to hang me out to dry in the middle of Africa for the rest of my life, so I think I can do this.
The day before we leave, I see my brother in the parking lot of the school and he calls me over to his car and says, “Hey, I want to pray for you before you leave on your trip.” So I kneel down beside the car and he starts praying.
It goes something like this: “God, I pray that you make this trip as hard as possible on Tom. That you put obstacles in front of him every step of the way, that you bring resistance to everything that he tries to do and generally make his life a living hell.” Ok…so maybe that’s what I heard…but not actually what he said. But at the end, he prayed, “I just ask that Tom realize that he can’t do anything without you…do whatever it takes to bring him to rely completely on you and not on his own strength.” That part I remember for sure. But whether Rob knew it or not, all those fears from my childhood came flooding back to me as he prayed. And whether he knew it or not, he prayed for exactly what I needed.
Aside #2: Yeah…I’m definitely going to need to break this up into parts. This is already getting long…
Ok, so I go to Guatemala. God broke me very quickly. I stood up in front of a crowd of a few hundred kids and promptly forgot how to say hi in Spanish. I just looked down and said, “God, I can’t do this, but I believe you can…help me.” I then spoke for 8 minutes in Spanish without thinking about it, quoting verses in Spanish that I didn’t have memorized (in any language), and was able to pray with a group of kids as they committed their lives to following Jesus. Over the course of that week, I watched as a kid who had been lame from birth was miraculously and completely healed, able to walk without crutches for the first time in his life (as his teacher turned to me and said, “I want that Jesus…the Jesus that can make him walk.”). But for all the ridiculously amazing things that God did that week, I still had fear that was bigger than my faith.
Then, we went to a school in Chimaltenango. And there, for the first time on that trip, we faced real resistance. In the middle of the drama presentation that our group performed, the kids at the school were laughing and cursing and insulting our kids. When the drama showed the crucifixion of Jesus, many of the kids cheered. When Jesus was resurrected, they boo’d. This was a stronghold of the native Mayan religion and they didn’t want Jesus…even the Jesus that completely healed a boy the day before.
But as I was speaking after the drama, looking at the faces of the 1200 students at that school, I kept coming back to this one particular girl. She was listening. Intently. Her friends weren’t, hardly anyone else was, but she was. So, by the end of my talk (which was shorter than normal, because of my stupid fears), I was just talking to her. As soon as I finished, I went straight to her and said, “Hi, I’m Tom, what’s your name?”
“Sonia Delila and I want to follow Jesus.”
Bold, I thought. But she was just getting started. Her friends were laughing at her, calling her names, cursing her (literally, I think, because they were using the names of the some of the Mayan gods). I asked if she wanted to move away from her friends so we could talk more privately and she said, “No, they know who I was, they need to see this moment right so that they see who I become and know why.”
She completely ignored every comment from her friends, except one. One of her friends said, “Your dad is going to kill you.” Not like, “Haha, your dad’s gonna kill you! Hahaha…” No, this was dead serious, straight faced, “Your dad is going to kill you.” That comment stung her, I could see it in her face. She hesitated for a second before continuing, “Will you pray with me?” I asked if she needed me to lead her in a prayer, and she said, “No, I know what I need to say to God.” So she prayed.
“God, I know I’ve done a lot of bad things. I know I’ve been far away from you for my whole life, but I believe that Jesus died for that. And I believe that Jesus died so that I can come home to you. So, here I am. I give you my life, and I ask only that you give me a new life so that my friends can come to see how much you love them, too. Amen.”
I’ll admit, I was a mess by the end of her prayer. After she prayed, her friends had mostly moved on to torment our students. So I asked Sonia about the comment her friend made about her dad. Her dad was the local Mayan priest. He was powerful, influential and not someone who be happy for his daughter publicly committing her life to follow Jesus. I asked if she would be safe if her dad found out and she just said, “Maybe…but he’s going to hear all about it, so I’ll find out tonight.”
In all that day, there were three people who publicly chose to follow Jesus while we were at the school. Far cry from most of the schools where we saw dozens, if not hundreds, giving their to follow Jesus. But that school made a HUGE impact on me. In all honesty, it was a bigger impact that watching a lame boy walk for the first time. And I can’t even say why.
I can still close my eyes and picture that fourteen year old, sitting on her knees wearing a floor length, homemade Mayan skirt, on a dirty, extremely hot basketball court at that school, beaming with life. And joy. And faith. There was no fear, at all, even though she had every logical reason to be afraid. She had faith bigger than her fear. And my fear was still bigger than my faith…I was still letting Satan push my buttons. But God was setting all the pieces in place for a breakthrough still yet to come.
Ok, so this is a good stopping point for now. I’ll pick up here another time, soon I hope.
Aside #3: Due to making close friends with some of the Campus Crusade for Christ people in Guatemala, I was able to communicate with Sonia twice and hear how she was doing. The first time was about 6 months after our visit and she had led almost all of her friends to Christ, many of her teachers, her two brothers and one sister and her mom. She was teaching a daily Bible study at her school where about 150 people attended every day. The second time I heard from her was a little over a year after I met her. Her Bible study had more than 300 people each day, including about 30 teachers. Her dad had stepped down as priest because he wasn’t convinced any more that their religion was right…he often went to the Bible studies to hear his daughter teach about a perfect, powerful God that loved, instead of the gods he taught about that were vengeful, faulty and ultimately powerless. She would be 18 now…I haven’t heard from her in almost 2 years, but I can tell you that she is likely to impact her country and her culture in amazing ways. And I can’t wait to meet up with her in heaven to hear of the amazing things that God did through her.