A Posture of the Heart
No one can sum up all God is able to accomplish through one solitary life, wholly yielded, adjusted, and obedient to Him.
—D. L. Moody
The hot sun beat down relentlessly on sixteen-year-old Florence. Her stomach rumbled as she brushed sweat from her brow. As the firstborn of her siblings, she shouldered many household responsibilities, including finding adequate places for the family’s cows to graze. Like many other Rwandans in the 1960s, Florence’s parents had fled their homeland and crossed into neighboring Uganda as refugees fleeing political upheaval and bloodshed. Florence, born in Uganda, gave her life to Christ as a fifteen-year-old. She remembers praying and setting in her heart a memorial.
“You never, ever forget about this decision. It is a special thing you have done.”
On this particular day while tending the cows, Florence unsuccessfully searched for fruit among the bushes. Barefoot, hungry, thirsty, and hot, Florence longed for more. As she looked around at her environment and considered the projected path for girls her age, she knew unless something changed, her current circumstances would keep her walking long distances to fetch water and lacking opportunity to do what she most desired.
Florence recalls with both vividness and fondness the exact area near the rocks and stones where God led her. The rock she stood on became another memorial, the place she prayed her first prayer of deep commitment and surrender. As the first believer in her family, and brand-new in her faith, she didn’t know the exact mechanics of how to pray. She knew only to bring to God her deepest heart desire. With honesty and sincerity she prayed, “Jesus, if You are really real, would You give me education?” Added to this heartfelt prayer, she promised, “If You give me education, I will commit to serve You forever and tell everyone how great You are.”
Florence’s simple prayer of surrender released control of her life to her heavenly Father. Her hands now opened to have the Lord take and give as He saw fit.
Land of a Thousand Hills
A few years ago on a trip to Rwanda, I had the joy of hearing and seeing how God answered Florence’s prayer.
Rwanda. A vibrant land filled with vibrant people who are resilient and remarkable. The country continues to make tremendous strides after the horrific genocide that took place in 1994, when government officials carried out plans for the mass extermination of an entire ethnic people group and any sympathizers. Between April and July more than eight hundred thousand men, women, and children died from the mass slaughter over the course of ninety days. In addition to the torturous deaths, an estimated five hundred thousand women were raped and intentionally infected with HIV. The aftermath of the genocide left four hundred thousand orphans. The brutality, cruelty, and horror remain unfathomable. But I saw with my own eyes how out of death and what seemed irreparable, God brought new life.
I was privileged to be part of a team of twenty-two women who traveled to Rwanda to experience firsthand the beautiful ministry God is doing in and through the women there. The trip rose out of a mutually beneficial partnership between Africa New Life ministry (ANL) in Rwanda and IF:Gathering, a worldwide Christian movement founded by my friend Jennie Allen with a mission to gather, equip, and unleash women to live out God’s calling for their lives.
I have had the honor of teaching and equipping leaders through IF and have forged relationships with incredible women who, like Jennie, love God fiercely. For that trip in the summer of 2017, God put together a team composed of women from different parts of the country, with different stories, bringing different gifts, living in different stages of life, and experiencing different life circumstances. God used our differences to meet each situation we encountered. We lived out the truth of how we are better together. God taught me about faith, dedication, trust, and dependence through these new sisters when our feet hit the red soil of Rwanda.
Our first day in Rwanda, we toured the ANL ministry center. Still new to each other and learning names, while adjusting to the elevation and time change, our team assembled to hear about the early days of the ministry from one of the founders, Florence Mugisha.
Florence paced slowly back and forth before us as she recounted her story, including her teenage prayer of surrender. Eight years after Florence began a relationship with Jesus, she began attending a Bible college in Uganda. There she met her future husband, Charles. Both Rwandans, Florence and Charles longed to return home to minister to the orphan children left behind after the genocide. After they married, they served at a church in Uganda where they received no monthly paycheck. They welcomed their first son, Isaac, and entered a time of what Florence described as “crazy faith.” Their refrigerator sat empty when an unexpected gift of one hundred euros arrived from a donor in England. An opportunity to sponsor nine Rwandan children opened up around the same time. Charles asked Florence if they could give the money they received to the children so they could attend school.
Charles didn’t push. Florence struggled. They had no food. They needed milk. But something she’d once heard played in her mind: “Small, painful seeds give rise to huge ministries.” She wondered, Could this be the seed? She explained to us, “It wasn’t exciting, but it was an opportunity, and I knew I needed to say yes.”
In November 2000 God opened doors for their small family to move to Portland, Oregon, to study at Multnomah University. Before they moved to America, they sold or gave away their belongings in Uganda, including all their wedding presents. They lived in the basement of a home of a host family in exchange for babysitting and taking care of the laundry and housework. Everything felt strange and unfamiliar. Florence didn’t know anyone, her family lived thousands of miles away, and she felt lonely and out of place. But through her willingness to sacrifice and do whatever God asked, her relationship with Him deepened.
Florence dreamed of someday owning a house in Rwanda, a small two-bedroom home for her little family that they would not have to rent. To her surprise the host family paid her when she babysat. Florence saved up every penny. As much as she wanted to go shopping at the fancy malls, she refrained, saving every dollar for her future home. Over time she saved $1,000.
Two years later Charles and Florence traveled back to Rwanda to determine next steps for the ministry God had placed on their hearts. Seeing firsthand the orphans, the widows, the refugees, and the hurting families broke their hearts. The needs they saw before them compelled them to look into how they could formally begin to help. They felt led to rent a small home to start a preschool as a springboard for future ministry. Charles learned that in order to register a ministry to receive wire transfers and funds, they needed to set up a bank account.
Charles turned to Florence. “Can we use your money?”
Florence did see the money as hers. She had been the one to work the long hours watching the hosts’ children. She had been the one to wash and fold all the laundry. Of the money she had earned, she hadn’t spent a penny on herself. She had sacrificed to save for her dream. Now Charles had the audacity (or perhaps the faith?) to ask Florence for the money to open the bank account and rent the small home.
Charles didn’t push. Florence wrestled. It didn’t seem fair. But more than to own her own home, the desire of Florence’s heart was to please God and glorify Him. Once again she opened her hands, and in faith she gave what she had to the Lord and to Charles.
Hearing Florence share her story, I couldn’t hold back tears. We were sitting in the Dream Center, which grew out of the seed money she’d relinquished to the Lord. Her example of living with open hands and a willing heart touched tens of thousands of lives. I marveled thinking about the more than nine thousand children now sponsored by their organization. Florence continued to be burdened for the women in Rwanda, so she also began a ministry to help at-risk women learn vocational skills. Our team worshipped with the ninety women enrolled in the year-long sewing and beauty-school program. Another ministry sponsored by ANL is the Africa College of Theology. The 576 seminary students enrolled come from all over Rwanda and neighboring countries. The seminary trains and equips pastors and recently added book-printing facilities. Multnomah University donated twenty thousand books to the seminary library, now one of the largest libraries in Rwanda. Later our group toured the Dream Medical Center and visited the schools and churches established in other cities across the country. Over and over Florence and her family had sacrificed and followed God’s leading, and He had shown Himself faithful.
As women after God’s heart, you and I desire to please God and be aligned with His will. We want to be used by Him and experience the peace and fulfillment He wants for us. It’s all too easy, though, to fall into living mechanically, with a rule-based approach to the Christian life, or to get too focused on what we want when we want it. When life isn’t unfolding the way we thought it would, we wonder if we’re on track with who He would have us be and what He would have us do. We long for more fulfillment, contentment, and meaning, but above all we want to see our lives from His perspective and experience more of Him.
The path to saying yes to whatever God asks often feels scary, though, and the distractions of this world get in the way even when we want to be willing. But open-handed living is worth everything it asks of us because it makes our day-to-day lives more purposeful, powerful, and pleasing to God. When our hearts are surrendered to Him and aligned with His will, we draw closer to Him in a way that unleashes His grand purposes for our lives.
What I have learned over several decades of following Jesus is that the essence of surrender is in the posture of our hearts. It is the spirit of following Jesus with hands and hearts open, humbly letting go of whatever we tend to clutch and control as we seek His perspective in all things. When we are in this place of surrender, we give the Holy Spirit free rein to direct and sustain our journey and we realize that our lives are part of a much greater story: God’s story of hope and restoration in the lives of individuals, families, communities, churches, and society.
Not long before his death, Henri Nouwen wrote in Sabbatical Journeys about some friends who were trapeze artists. They shared with Nouwen about the special relationship between flyer and catcher on the trapeze. The flyer lets go, and the catcher catches. As the flyer swings high above the crowd on the trapeze, the moment comes when she must let go. She arcs out into the air, where her sole job is to remain as still as possible as she opens her hands and waits for the strong hands of the catcher to pluck her to safety. One of the trapeze artists told Nouwen, “The flyer must never try to catch the catcher.” The catcher will catch the flyer, but she must wait in absolute trust. Similarly, open-handed living calls us to let go in the midst of risk and uncertainty, aligning our heart posture and choices with God’s will for our lives.
My first big surrender came shortly after beginning a relationship with Jesus in high school. My dad went through a midlife crisis, which included a fancy sports car (woo-hoo!) followed by a perm (another story, another time) and then the news that we would be moving right before my senior year from Colorado to Hong Kong. Angry and confused, I unleashed my frustration and let God know exactly how I felt about the situation. But at the end of my tirade, I added a sincere “In my heart of hearts, I really want to know You and do Your will.” In Hong Kong I gave God control of my life at a whole new level. I moved over and let Him have the driver’s seat. He would be the Good Shepherd who would lead and provide—the center, the source, the focus. I would give Him first place in my life and let Him take me wherever He thought best.
I came to another crossroads as I graduated from college. Law school? Vocational Christian ministry? Serving God in an international setting seemed exciting and even glamorous to my twenty-something self. I wasn’t afraid to minister overseas, but I did wrestle with what I considered my worst-case scenario: driving an ugly, outdated car and living in complete isolation and obscurity doing boring, mundane work day in and day out. Nevertheless, I remember praying a tearful but sincere prayer of surrender: “God, I will go wherever You want me to go—even if You ask me to drive one of those old station wagons with fake wood paneling on the outside and to work and live all alone. Even then I will choose to follow You.”
Each time I’ve placed my heart, life, plans, hopes, and dreams into the hands of my loving, good, strong, faithful, able, and all-knowing God, it has simultaneously been easier and harder. Looking back, I see that His faithfulness has proved to be unwavering, so making the choice to trust Him seems the most reasonable option. Yet what God asks me to trust Him with sometimes requires more of me as my life progresses and grows more complicated. I find there is more at stake.
When faced with my own cancer diagnosis a few years ago, I prayed another surrender prayer. Every morning I awakened in the dark with my mind racing, wondering if the diagnosis was a bad dream. As my mind cleared and the heavy reality set in, I would make my way upstairs to my little nook where I poured out my fears to the God I have learned to trust. I wrestled with what seemed like reasonable, honorable desires of living to witness the major milestones in my three kids’ lives. I wanted a front-row seat. The willingness to yield my plans and open my hands, even to let go of my very life, became a moment-by-moment choice.