Exercises in Stretching

Note: This is post #5 of My Journey into the Rubble series.

I was still in Bible school when Pastor Nick, our missions pastor, suggested that I go on a short-term trip. He had been over the singles ministry when I first started attending the church, so we had gotten to know each other well. He knew that roughing it was not my thing. But since all missions pastors think everyone should be a missionary, he kept bugging, er, encouraging me to go.

Jamaican Children

Posing with children from our neighborhood outreach in Jamaica. These kids brought their parents to our evening worship services.

He said, “One week could change your mind about missions and change your life forever. At least give it a chance.”

Soon plans for a trip to Kingston, Jamaica were under way. The team would be working with an inner-city church doing a neighborhood children’s outreach. Hmmm. Inner-city. Jamaica. I could probably do that, I told myself.

I was single. Nothing stood in my way. All I had to do was raise the money to go.

An Unexpected Gift

At the time I had begun singing solos for our women’s Bible study group and youth group, where I helped out on Wednesday nights. Up until then, I never believed my voice was solo material.

My prior singing experience had been in the choir and in the shower. Then, one day my friend who was over the church’s women’s ministry asked me to sing for the ladies in her Bible study group. I was petrified, but I did it. The positive feedback surprised me, but I secretly suspected the women were just being nice Christians practicing their gifts of edification.

Then I was asked to sing for the youth group. When the teens truly seemed to like it, I was even more surprised.

After that the invitations popped up everywhere. I was asked to sing at weddings, to be on our church’s worship team for corporate services, to be in an ensemble, duets, cantatas, and even invited to sing at other churches. Some of these gigs even paid me to sing.

Because my sisters had always rolled their eyes, pointed a finger in their mouths and made gagging noises when I sang my endless renditions of Barbara Streisand hits while growing up, I truly thought I had a poor voice. As a result, I was very insecure about this newfound gift. But I reasoned, as long as someone else does the inviting, I will accept the challenge.

I prayed a lot of desperate prayers and leaned on the Lord with each new invitation, as I had no confidence in my own ability. I trusted God alone to take the notes and turn them into a pleasing sound for his purpose. I said simply, “If you open the door, Lord, I’ll sing. Otherwise, I won’t.”

Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. (2 Corinthians 12:9, NLT)

Now, getting back to the Jamaica trip, when I asked our missions pastor if there might be a place for me on the team, he was thrilled. He wanted me to minister in song at the church services throughout the week, and serve with the others in the children’s outreach.

Jamaica Bound

The finances for the trip rolled in with almost no effort on my part. And within a few months I was bound for Jamaica on an Eastern Airlines flight with Pastor Nick and about six other members of my church.

Most of us were in Bible school together. We had been studying the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the weapons of our warfare, the full armor of God. We were Spirit-filled prayer warriors ready to take on the powers of darkness and storm the gates of hell in Jamaica! Who was I kidding? I wasn’t sure about the others, but I was scared to death.

Pastor Franz and Pastor Nick

Pastor Franz and Pastor Nick

We arrived on a Saturday evening. The team was split into two groups at the airport. The four men, including Pastor Nick, would be staying at Pastor Franz’s home, the four women would be staying with a mother and daughter from the church.

We said our farewells, knowing we’d meet up again at the church in the morning. When we arrived at the modest home, we had a look around. The bedrooms were adequate considering we were on a mission trip. I would be sharing a double bed with Cindy, a single friend who also worked on the church staff and attended the training center. When we got to the bathroom part of the tour, things got scarier for me. It was tiny, not too tidy, and rather primitive. It was the only bathroom in the house. Six women, including our hosts, were going to get ready for church the next morning in that? Remember, it was the ’80s, and a few of us women on the team had the hairstyles to prove it. This will be interesting, I thought. Still, I felt I could endure these conditions for a week.

Called to Missions or Not?

By then it was getting late. All four of our stomachs were growling. Our hosts had not offered us anything to eat or drink. We unpacked and settled in, hoping a late night snack would be provided before bed. But when the hosts said good night and turned out the house lights, I realized there wasn’t going to be any dinner.

And then an even greater revelation struck me. In that moment I knew I was not called to be a missionary.

In our adjoining rooms, the four hungry short-term missionary women called an emergency meeting. First order of business: dinner. “What are we going to do?” I asked. The thought that God might want us to fast had never occurred to me. But we did pray.

Then Bonnie, an extreme health food enthusiast, confessed to us that she had stashed food in her backpack, fearful she might not be able to eat what our hosts would offer. Little did she know they wouldn’t offer. Thank the good Lord, she had packed enough for a small army, and she graciously agreed to share her stash with us. Thinking this might be our only food source, we decided to ration our portions. We divvied up bananas, nibbled our health food, and drank water from the tap.

Unable to sleep, Cindy and I lay in bed discussing the heavy sense of oppression we both felt in the house. Later, we woke with a start, hearing a rustling noise in our room. We began to pray, casting out demons and rebuking the devil as we turned on the light and marched quietly but purposefully around the bedroom. Soon we discovered that a giant cockroach had crawled inside a plastic bag in the corner of the room, producing the demonic rustling sounds.

Long before daylight, the roosters rose, and we listened to their crows echoing both near and far across the island. Sleep and food deprived, we readied ourselves for church.

Again, no breakfast was offered to us that morning, so Bonnie supplied the ration. We weren’t sure if our hosts were poor and couldn’t afford to feed us, or if they just didn’t know they were supposed to feed us.

Mary and Bonnie in Jamaica

Mary and Bonnie, looking content after their first real meal in Jamaica.

After church we were taken to the pastor’s house, where the men were staying. It was early afternoon and we were ravenous. As we walked into the home, we found ourselves standing in front of a large banquet table overflowing with the most delicious looking dishes I had ever seen. My Italian grandmother’s spreads barely held a candle to this.

In disbelief, I pulled Pastor Nick to the side and asked, “You mean, they’re feeding you?”

Equally disbelieving, he asked, “You mean, they’re not feeding you?”

“No,” I nearly cried.

So, Pastor Nick talked to Pastor Franz, who talked to our hosts. Apparently, a miscommunication had occurred. That afternoon we feasted at the pastor’s table, and from that point on we were fed, albeit modest meals, nothing like what we now knew the men were enjoying.

Adventures in Missions

In spite of the food shortage, our adventures in missions that week were outstanding. Through the neighborhood outreach, many new families joined the church. God blessed each of our meetings with several people making decisions to receive Jesus as Savior. And we met some wonderful new brothers and sisters in the Lord.

There were two singers for special music, me and a powerhouse Jamaican woman. I don’t know what they needed me for, but God blessed our praises and used them to prepare hearts for his message. The most incredible thing for me was to experience worship in a different culture with unfamiliar people and yet sense the exact same presence of God’s Spirit, his overwhelming love and power, among us.

Each night, however, we experienced a dark and oppressive spiritual battle at our host home. We learned that the daughter was a Christian, but her mother was not. The daughter had wanted us to stay in her home, hoping God would use us to free her mother from witchcraft and lead her to salvation in Christ. That week we saw neighbors place tiny sacrifices on the sidewalk in front of the house in the middle of the night. There were chicken bones and candles and other dark tools used to cast spells, curses and hexes. It was an exhausting week of spiritual warfare. Some battles were won, and some still had to be fought. The mother did not accept our message that week, though she warmed up to us and listened intently.

And thank God, she fed us, too.

Exercises in Stretching

As we piled into the van that last morning, we ladies were ready to go home. But when we arrived at the airport, the news wasn’t good. Eastern Airlines was faltering, their workers were in the middle of a lockout and sympathy strike, and our flight home had been cancelled.

Once again, I pulled Pastor Nick aside. Resisting the urge to grab him by the shirt collar, I blurted out, “Look, I don’t mind if I have to pay for the whole team to stay in a hotel tonight, I’m not going back to that house!”

And that was the moment Pastor Nick knew I was not called to be a missionary.

God’s mercy prevailed, and our flights were re-booked that same day on a different airline. My introduction to missions was complete. My exercises in stretching, however, had just begun.

Over the next several years God would use the vocal gift he’d given me to open doors of ministry, especially in outreach and evangelism. Oddly enough, an invitation to sing at a wedding in Brazil paved the way for me to become a full-time missionary there, so stay tuned for more.

I know now that I have a good voice, but I don’t have a strong ear. I took vocal lessons when I was singing a lot, and learned techniques to strengthen my voice and breathing, but I never stopped depending desperately on God for the ability to sing with his anointing.

My insecurities have always reminded me of Paul’s thorn. The Message Bible seems to capture the idea best:

… so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations … No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

… It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness … I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9, MSG)

Looking back, in the same surprising way God opened doors for me with singing, he has opened every ministry door since. This was a pattern, in fact, he wanted me to learn right away. Serving him would require constant stretching because God wanted my total dependence on him and not on my own ability. I needed to have complete confidence in him alone, and not self-confidence.

With every challenge, I’ve had to face my fears and exercise faith. It’s been a scary ride, and an exhilarating ride. But I think that’s exactly how he wants our lives to be.

God has never stopped stretching me, and in the stretching process, taking me beyond myself to places where he alone is glorified.

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7 Responses to “Exercises in Stretching”

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  1. godsy says:

    hi Mary!

  2. nelco says:

    Called to Missions or Not… i like this topci mam ..

    • Reveler says:

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! When you join in with comments it encourages me to keep writing and also helps develop our sense of community.

  3. Mom says:

    This is good…you will have a journal of your life.

  4. Mom says:

    I am enjoying learning more details about your life, daughter!

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