before I begin
This article was written mainly for my own benefit so that I can remember what has happened over the last year. However, I am posting it here so if anybody wants to know about my life in the last year they can. On the front end, I want apologize for my lack of skill as a writer. I only want to convey the power and glory of my God in my life and I hope my lack of skill does not detract from this point.
This is an account of victory, but not a victory of my own. In fact, if you were to take my life and sum it up I think you would find that it has been a series of personal mistakes that God has sovereignly and graciously worked for my benefit and His glory. Anything right I have done is on account of His grace and mercy. This is an account of the victory of God in my life to sanctify me and change me into a person who more closely resembles Jesus Christ.
The title of this document is a bit of a pun. I made it intentionally ambiguous because both of the meanings that the title implies are true. In one sense "The Journey So Far" means that I have taken a journey to a far away place. This is true. São Paulo is roughly five thousand miles from my home in Little Rock, Arkansas. The other meaning of "The Journey So Far" is just that this is an account of the events of my journey from the beginning up until this point in time. However, I digress.
MLC and shortly thereafter
One year ago today (today being January 15, 2002) I arrived in Rockville, Virginia. Rockville is a small town outside Richmond where the IMB's Missionary Learning Center is located. Here at MLC I was to learn how to survive cross culturally and work strategically to expand the kingdom of God. I was a little bit nervous when I arrived. I didn't know anybody. I wasn't sure what to expect. All I knew was that it lasted five weeks and soon afterwards I would leave for my destination. While at MLC I forged some good friendships. However, the thing that sticks out in my the most was the fear and the pain associated with the thought I would soon be leaving everything I knew for the next two years. At that point, two years in my mind seemed like an eternity. However, through it all my faith remained in Christ. The doubts at MLC were never so strong as to dissuade me from what I felt was my God given mission. It was at MLC that my first delays began. I was originally scheduled to leave the country two weeks after MLC was over, but they pushed it back almost one month - I am still not sure why. At this point in the game I welcomed the delay because I desperately wanted to spend more time with my family and friends. On February 15 MLC ended and I went home.
Trips alone on planes are lonely things. I had a lot of time to think between the end of MLC and my arrival back in Little Rock. During this time I recalled something my field representative said to me. We were talking about the visa application process and he told me to get on the ball because it might take longer than expected. He mentioned one person who had to wait 6 months. "Six months?! Thats ridiculous," I thought, "thats a rare glitch in the system." Reports that I received from other missionaries encouraged me. Many said it only took them a few weeks. It wasn't even until a few weeks into MLC that I was even able to apply for my visa because I was waiting on documentation from Brazil. I took what my field rep said seriously, but I didn't think delays were much of a reality because I already had another month of leeway. These thoughts, and the thoughts of what I was to leave behind were what consumed my mind as I flew back to Arkansas.
When I got back to Arkansas I was happy. I was amidst friends and family again and I soaked up the time with joy, taking time to savor each moment. I got all my visa application paper work in order and sent it to the Consulate in Houston. I anticipated a 3 or 4 week wait which will still put me on schedule for my projected departure date of March 2. During this time got more prepared mentally and spiritually for my impending departure. I got together with Lewie Clark and Steve Craig and learned more about the Cell Group model of church. I read scripture and other books. And I took time with my friends to tell them what they meant to me. I even went to Fayetteville where I had attended to college and my church up there invited me up front and prayed for me during a morning worship service. It was a wonderfully encouraging and exciting time, and my excitement for going to Brazil was rekindled. I desperately wanted to experience God in a way that I had never experienced him before.
As March 2 approached I became more and more nervous. I was saying my goodbyes to family and friends, yet my visa hadn't arrived and I was wondering if I might experience a small delay. March 2 came and went and I called the Consulate to see what the deal was. They said if there was a problem they would call me. I talked to the IMB and they basically said, "Wait it out, these kinds of things happen." There wasn't much they could do anyway.
So wait I did. I waited for several weeks in daily anticipation. However, my wide-eyed hope soon faded. For the next month I waited with the vague notion that "next week" it would come. I called the Consulate a few more times and received the same reply - "If there is a problem we will call you." I waited for another month. Then another. At this point I was not sure I was still going to go. I was not even sure I wanted to go anymore. I can't relate in words the frustration that I felt. Many days I woke up wondering if this would be the day. "Will today be the day I get my visa?" I thought, "Will today be the day the IMB calls and tells me enough is enough? Will today be the day I call the IMB and say enough is enough?" I asked myself many other questions as well. What am I still doing here? Had God shut the door? Am I supposed to call it quits and move on with my life or do I just sit here until my two years is officially up? My mind was in a tumult. My feelings ranged from excitement at the chance to be tested in this way, to depression because I had thought I had totally missed God and was wasting my life. I prayed often in tears of doubt and frustration. God held me fast, however. He always comforted my mind and soothed my soul with His truth. He showed me His goodness and kept telling me to wait it out. His word opened up to me with the examples of people in waiting - Joseph waiting in prison in Egypt, David waiting for the crown of Israel, Jesus waiting for his execution, Paul waiting to begin his ministry. I gathered strength from God's word in a way I never had before.
Throughout this wait I had resigned myself to a certain degree of loneliness. Even though I was maintaining my old friendships, I did not want to become involved in a cell group at church or make new friends because I would just be leaving in a little while anyway. However, if I learned anything by waiting, it was not to assume that I would be leaving soon. That being the case, I began attending a cell group at the invitation of Mike Biggs, and I volunteered my time at the Summit working on their computer network. Through these things I made some awesome friendships. The cell group community was great. I forged relationships with Mike Biggs, Steve Craig, Derrick McGuire, and Tim Smith who were all great encouragements to me. I got connected to a body of people that loved me and supported me. This was a time when I forged most of the prayer support on which I rely. Throughout this time I was also maintaining and strengthening my friendship with Lewie Clark. He was there every step of the way listening to my thoughts and feelings, understanding, and giving me scriptural encouragement. Yet the wait continued.
Near the end of July I got encouraging news. A friend I had made at MLC who was waiting just as I was had been given notification that he was to receive his visa soon. I thought mine would be just around the corner since we had submitted our paperwork on almost the same day. But I received no call.
It was now August. Many of my friends were returning to school. I reflected that this was the first August in almost two decades when I had not begun a new school year. My friend received his visa and departed for Brazil. I was becoming more involved in ministry at the Summit. I went on a trip to Fayetteville to help Lewie Clark and Steve Craig teach the campus BSU about cell groups and another similar trip to UCA. I helped Tim Smith on a project for when Louie Giglio came to town to speak at the Summit Church's building. Lewie and Tim both reflected that if I didn't go to Brazil I had a place on their team. This was enticing. I was tempted to call the IMB and tell them I was through and I no longer wanted to go to Brazil, but God gave me no peace about such a decision.
August was coming to a close. Lewie invited me to dinner, as he did many times, and we talked about the situation at hand. He told me that, practically speaking, a decision on whether to stay or go was needed soon. A new trimester for cell groups was starting and if I wanted to teach one I had the opportunity. I also thought and felt that some sort of concrete decision would be necessary soon. I always told God that I would continue down this path until He shut the door, and I felt that the door to Brazil was finally creaking shut. I told Lewie that I didn't have a strong preference either way I just wish something would happen and the decision would be made for me. I felt immense pressure. People on both sides seemed to be counting on me - the missionaries who had requested my help in Brazil and those who I felt led to help in Little Rock.
On August 31 the decision was made. I received a call from the Consulate that my visa application was approved and I would be receiving it shortly. On September 4 my visa was finally in my hand. Many thanks were offered to God and congratulations were a dime a dozen. My feelings were mixed. There was elation on one side because I was finally going to go, but sadness on the other side because I was finally going to go. However, overall I had a great sense of relief and reaffirmed faith in Christ who had never failed me during my wait.
I made all the necessary arrangements and scheduled my departure for Tuesday, September 11 at 2:00 PM. As the day approached I was in a mad rush to complete my packing, say goodbye to all my family and friends (again), and reflect on how good God had been to me during my endurance.
September 11 arrived. I got up early to accomplish last minute tasks. Again, feelings were mixed. I was excited to go, but scared at the same time. I was sad to leave family and friends, but happy to be going to meet new ones. I went to Wal-Mart and then to the hospital to visit my uncle. I walked into his hospital room around 10 o'clock. As I entered, my aunt hugged me and asked me if I was all right. I said sure, I was good, it was my uncle that I wanted to know was all right. She then asked me if I was still going to leave for Brazil today. I asked, "Why would I not go?" In response, she merely pointed to the TV. I turned and watched as the second plane smash into the second tower of the World Trade Center. I didn't really know what was going on. I turned to my aunt and said, "Surely there aren't people in there, are there?" Indeed, people were in there. I felt like the breath had been knocked out of me. I wished my uncle well, hugged my aunt, and left. I was in a complete daze. When I got home my dad was waiting at the door. He asked me if I knew what had happened. I acknowledged that I did. There was no way I was going to Brazil, but that wasn't foremost on my mind. The people in those towers were foremost on my mind. I must express again, the mix of emotions was staggering. I was crushed that I would again have to endure delay, but what did that matter in light of the devastation in New York? Lewie called and I talked to him for a bit. It was hard to hold the tears back. Yet, not failing my historically unemotional personage, I maintained my composure. My faith in God remained. I talked with a few other people on the phone, but I do not remember what happened the rest of that day. Over the next days I spent more time with family and friends and waited for the IMB to make a decision on when I would attempt to leave again.
They scheduled me to leave on September 19. I had everything packed already, so that wasn't of any concern. I had prepared myself to leave my friends and family so that wasn't much of a concern either. However, I had made a friend in the last few weeks that I wasn't as ready to leave. That friend was (and is) Holly Alford. It wasn't as if I was looking for female companionship. In fact, I was set against it. However, God brought us together just as he had done with all the good friends I had made during my wait. It was harder to leave Holly because I had waited a long time (sometimes patiently, sometimes not so patiently) to meet a woman of her caliber. To meet her and then have to leave her was wrenching to say the least. She has an awesome heart for God and we became close friends quickly. She is a great encouragement to me and I thank God for how she supports me through prayer. I stay in touch with her more than anybody else in the States. We make a concerted effort to keep Christ at the center of our union because we know that is the only way we can have a successful relationship.
So September 19 arrived along with all the mixed emotions I have spoken of previously. I arrived at the airport nearly two hours ahead of time in order to go through the new security. I got in a short line at the Delta Airlines counter with my two rather large duffel bags and waited my turn. When I got up to the counter and tried to check in they told me I couldn't leave the country with the ticket I had. They said I had to have a return ticket. I told them I wasn't going to return within a reasonable amount of time, however, they insisted because if they let me go errantly they would incur a heavy fine. Laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, my thoughts turned to the time I could spend with family and friends (especially Holly) if I was delayed again. At this point my mom, dad, sister, brother in law, and Holly were waiting to see what was happening. I returned to them and relayed the strange news. Despite my desire to stay I felt that if I just gave up now I would regret it, so I found a pay phone and called my travel agent. After calling my travel agent I went back to the counter and talked with the Delta representative some more. This process repeated 3 times. However, in the end, I was granted passage, my bags were searched and checked, and I was set to go through security which my family and friends were not allowed to pass. I hugged each person in turn as we exchanged sentiments. It was very difficult as you can imagine. Then I turned and walked through security and down the terminal turning and waving as I went. I don't know if I can say that walking down that terminal was the hardest thing I have ever done because I have had other tough "walking aways". Nevertheless, it was a hard thing to do.
At this point, the fear set in. I prayed about it. I fought with it. The doubts and fears were numerous. What if they lost my bags, what if I got stuck in customs, what if nobody showed up at the air port to pick me up, what if this is the biggest mistake and waste of time in my life. However, in the end, the peace of God prevailed on my mind and soul. He put me at ease.
on my way
My flight was bad. It wasn't that bad emotionally or spiritually, it was just really uncomfortable. I didn't want to just sit and think about all that I was leaving behind so I tried to occupy my mind with reading. I tried Scripture and then "Let the Nations Be Glad" by John Piper, but I couldn't focus. I was reading the words, but they didn't make much sense to me. I prayed a lot, but for most of the ride I fell in and out of uncomfortable sleep.
Flying into São Paulo was quite an experience. I had never seen anything like it in my life. The city just went on and on as far as I could see. I sat in my chair looking out the window with my mouth gaping open. I thought, "This is going to be my home." It was pretty overwhelming.
I got off the plane not knowing what to expect. I just followed all the other people because they seemed to know where they were going. I arrived at a counter where they were collecting paperwork - baggage declaration and something else I can't remember. I was asleep on the plane when some of this paperwork was passed out so I had to fill it out at another counter. I handed the man my paperwork and passport. I got a stamp and went through. Next came the baggage claim. I grabbed a cart and waited for my bags to come around. It didn't take very long and I got my stuff and proceeded through the next gate. I was not quite sure what this was, but they let me walk right on through and out the door to the main lobby. There were a lot of people crowded around the exit waiting for friends on arriving flights. I didn't see anyone who looked remotely American so I just kept on walking. After a few seconds I heard my name and looked over with great delight to see two Americans leaning against a wall waving me to come over. They introduced themselves as David Spiegel and Ed Royals. My first friends in Brazil.
From there we drove to Campinas where I was to have language school for the first three months. I spent the first few days with a fellow journeyman whose final destination was Fortaleza, a coastal city in northern Brazil. After that, I moved in with my Brazilian host family and started language classes soon after that.
During this time I went through a mini crisis. I sent an email out and asked for prayer support. What happened was this. That day at the air port I had physically walked away, but I hadn't broken emotional ties in the way I needed. I endeavored to maintain strong ties with many in the States, but I was being ripped in half by the pressure to have a meaningful existence here in Brazil and my desire to stay connected to home. I received some encouraging emails and sent this response back to my support team. This breaking of ties, so to speak, opened the door for me to start really adjusting to life in Brazil. From there, things really started to get better.
The rest of my time here has basically been laid out already in the emails I have sent to my prayer support team. You can gain access to them on the main page.
the year to come
As I have reflected on what the last year has meant to me I always come to the same conclusion. God is sovereign and always acts with the greatest good of His children in mind (among other things). As I have struggled with the pain of my wait and then leaving everyone I love I have clung to two specific Biblical promises. One is in Romans 8:28 and says "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." The other is in 2 Corinthians 12:9 and it says "And He has said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me." Indeed, these have been my battle cries as I have waged war against the pride, fear, and doubt that Satan consistently throws at me. The Bible never promises that our pain will be taken away in this life, but it does promise that God's grace will be sufficient. So then, I look for God's grace and I see it in everything around me - in the separation, in the loneliness, in the new friendships, in the excitement of living in a new place. All things in life add up to one thing for God's children - His grace.
And so, as I look forward to this next year I fall on the grace of God. I echo the sentiments of James when he said "Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.' Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.'" If God wills, I will prosper in this city. If God wills, I will return home once again.