This trip to India was a blessing in many ways- there is so much we could talk about. But surely, one of the highlights of this trip was the privilege of living together with an American couple who had given up most of their lives to serve in India, first joyfully in a rural area, and then now, after a heartbreaking forced separation due to unexpected events, in the old, smoggy city of Vizag. The trip was peppered with meeting characters whose spirit of servitude, humility and dogged determination resulted in the longevity and fruitfulness of their ministries to the poor.
From the old preacher who had survived his home getting burned and bomb-blasted, to the doctor couple who runs a hospital for the needy while forsaking much higher-paying jobs elsewhere, to the American pastor’s wife, J, who tirelessly works each day, day in and out, serving the community around her, there was an indominatable spirit within them, a force larger than themselves, driving them to live life for a Purpose greater than themselves, in this weary, rusty, and crumbling city of dust.
Early in the morning, J, a fifty-five year-old feisty red-haired American lady who had served in India since she was a young adult, would be cleaning and baking for her family, guests like us, villager friends and people they ministered to, and with a limp too, no doubt, because she has muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that causes a certain degeneration of her muscles. She has never allowed it to hinder nor slow her down.
When we first arrived at this couple’s home at midnight, it was a breathtaking mess. Rags were strewn across the sofa, utensils and cereal boxes were sprawled across the dining table, boxes of stuff were scattered across the small living room area, and the floor had an unmistakable layer of dust, blown from the smoky city filled with the urban pollution from honking tuk-tuks and giant trucks.
I admit, I had judged J almost immediately, wondering how she could have allowed their home to be like this. But no explanation was required- time itself relieved them of my false accusation, as we saw how the mess was really a beautiful statement of their busyness and total immersion into the Christmas outreaches and programmes they were a part of. Besides, this mess was not usual: a closer look showed that the “rags” were partially-completed Christmas costumes and props for J’s Sunday School class of children with special needs, who were performing for the very first time on stage for their parents, an undoubted milestone; the dining table’s unglamourous state was a reflection of its disuse, only because this well-loved couple had been receiving invite after invite to be hosted at people’s homes as a form of gratitude for their dedicated service.
J showed me the tireless, uncomplaining, hospitable spirit of a pastor’s and missionary’s wife, something I hope I will grow to have. As if their day-to-day schedule wasn’t already busy enough, she would still find time to bake cake after cake for people’s birthdays, for a villager who had come far off to pay them a visit, and for us. Sensing that I loved to bake too, she did not hesitate to involve me in her creation of brownies, lemon meringue pies, apple cakes and carrot cakes (all made from scratch and without any fancy electric mixers or kitchen equipment, by the way), and baked with love in an ancient stove oven. With simple local ingredients, she would find ways to be creative.
A picture of an apple cake I helped to decorate, using candied cherry bits found in their local stores.
It was for a boy she had watched grow up into a fine young Indian man.
Lemon meringue pie we made together for dessert for another family-
with the egg whites painfully (manually) beaten till nearly-stiff by none another than Muscle-Husband Cliff Tam.
I will share the recipe sometime!
To be honest, I took a while to warm up to her. She was straight-talking, candid, and I guess the spoilt part of me had expected some word of thanks for my helping around the house with the dishes. But again, it didn’t take very long before I realized that it was probably because while my primary love language is Words of Affirmation, hers is primarily Acts of Service. Early in the morning on one of her busiest days, she had got up extra early to bake jam muffins- simply because she had overheard Cliff and I agreeing how yummy they were, over a casual conversation.
Her observation was astute. Within a few meals, she had quickly picked up my love of vegetables and curd (yoghurt), and ensured there would be some at every meal we were with her. Just before we left, she took the trouble to print me a copy of her favourite recipes, each specifically tailored to be suited for wives of pastors and people living in the mission field, where conditions were rougher, kitchen equipment scarce and certain ingredients either expensive or hard to find. It meant a lot to me because we all knew she wasn’t IT-savvy, and Cliff had found her scrambling to look for the computer files containing the recipes before we left. Handing it to me, she smiled and said, “Hope this’ll be useful for you when you guys go to Africa.”
She served everyone with vigor. Her limp was invisible, shrouded behind a well-worn sari, so beautifully folded and wrapped as if she were Indian herself. “When you get to Africa, “ she told me, “Always watch how the pastors’ wives dress. Then take your dressing cue from there. You don’t wanna be committing some cultural no-no at your first visit.”
Her random statements always contained heavy and precious nuggets of wisdom.
One day, as we sat round the dinner table waiting for some muffins to bake, I asked her what her greatest piece of advice was to us, given that we would likely leave for Africa next year for a year or more.
“Adjust and carry on,” she said without a flinch. And with a glint in her eye, she continued, “And without complaining.”
A few days after she had said that, we packed for a long road-trip to cyclone-devastated Orissa to assess the situation. Four hours into the road-trip, our guide learnt that his father-in-law had passed away suddenly. He was distraught, and a four-day trip to the disaster site was cancelled.
With what she said in mind and from our past experiences of “going with the flow” and throwing away our obsessively programme-driven mindsets, we took the change of plans smoothly. Instead, God opened up the way for us to visit a local hospital ministry, visit the village outskirts, and gave Cliff numerous opportunities to preach and share God’s word with people hungry to know more.
Us and Dr James, a general surgeon.
His wife and him run Rapha Hospital and they have touched many lives.
We were touched by the villagers’ hospitality-
they had prepared garlands of flowers which almost reached our knees as a form of welcome!
Cliff sharing the Christmas story to an attentive audience
A crowd of 150 gripped by Cliff’s preaching on a Sunday morning.
For his first-ever full-fledged sermon, Cliff had decided to preach on the topic of “the Fear of the Lord”
and when we reached the church, which was an abandoned school building out in the open,
who would have guessed that the bible verse that Cliff had intended to share was emblazoned on the building’s walls.
It could only have been God.
When things don’t go according to plan, sometimes, all it takes is a little change in mindset and perspective for us to fully throw ourselves into the present and enjoy the moment for what it’s worth. If we had been upset and hung up about the missed trip to Orissa, the rest of the trip would have been ruined.
But as what J said, adjust and carry on.
Actually, this American couple had left their lives behind in America to serve in Africa- but an interesting twist brought them to India instead. They adjusted, carried on, and ended up serving a fruitful ministry in India for decades.
We were supposed to go according to the itinerary, but as God would have it, we ended up having a most memorable time serving people in different locations and having many eye-opening experiences which were equally enriching. We had to adjust and carry on.
This end of year season, as you reflect back on the year gone past and wondered why certain things did not go according to plan, ask yourself if some of these circumstances were perhaps out of your control. And if they are, adjust, keep adjusting, and most importantly, with steel and humility, acceptance and hope, carry on.
Adjust, and carry on.
Because only then, will you be able to fully exult in and enjoy the ride that God has in store for you.