On Friday's, we are going to go on a journey with Robert and Margaret Fortenberry. This journey has taken us back to 1994 when they left the U.S. to travel as IMB Missionaries to Botswana Africa. If you missed the first installment click here and read it! The journey will take us through key points in their time and ministry in Africa, and will conclude with their retirement and return to the states a couple of years ago.
We will follow them by remembering various newsletters they sent out through this journey. Today, we will begin with one that was written after several months on the field. I know you will enjoy looking over their shoulder and remembering.
Cold Waters, Part 2
"As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country."
At the Christmas season our thoughts turn naturally to the Scriptures. We hear the story of Christ's birth read from Luke 2. The visit of the wise men as recorded in the first chapter of Matthew comes to mind. Isaiah's incomparable, glorious multiple-name description of the coming Messiah is sung and preached. The fulfillment, in Jesus' conception, of the same prophet's amazing assertion that a virgin will conceive still inspires awe. It only seems natural that these much-loved passages are annually at the fore as we celebrate the entry of our Lord into history.
This year I have pondered all these old themes anew, for the purpose of preaching and for my own edification as well. But as I have charted the course of my thoughts during the Advent season I have repeatedly found them drifting to another text, one not normally associated with Christmas. It is a short phrase tucked away in the closing pages of the New Testament (Revelation 21:1 to be precise). It says "And there was no more sea".
I have been wondering what the effect of these words must have been on John when he first heard them. I expect it was profound. Out of all the images which he had been privileged to view on that Lord's Day when he was "in the Spirit", I think this may well have been the most arresting. You see, to us the ocean represents recreation or pictures of peace and tranquility. When we take a vacation we may go and stroll on the sand or splash in the warm salt spray. Thoughts of the sea are calming and reassuring.
To the aged apostle quite the opposite was true. To him the sea represented enforced separation. After faithfully serving the Lord for many years as pastor at Ephesus he was taken away from his "beloved children" and exiled to the island of Patmos for his teaching of the Christian message. Many must have been the times when he would make his way down to the shore, walk along the beach and wish that the interminable expanse of blue water which stood between him and his faraway flock was not there. We can, with ease, imagine him sitting on a high cliff gazing out toward his distant home and willing the waves to just dry up so that he could make his way unimpeded to those for whom he so deeply longed.
Then, in God's revelation to him of the events of the last days, he finds out that this very thing will ultimately come to pass. There will be no more sea. Never again will an ocean be able to serve as a barrier between him and those whose lives and welfare he values so highly. Never again will a cruel government stretch out its hand and interpose the aquatic part of God's creation between a man and his dearest companions. This symbol of separation, along with the reality which it epitomized for John, will be forever banished. What joy that word must have brought to his fellowship-famished soul!
Friends, I would freely acknowledge the many and significant differences between my state and that of the Beloved Apostle. I am where I am solely at the dispensation of the most benevolent of rulers, King Jesus. My stay in Botswana has been marked by a deep joy that comes only to those in the center of His will. My parents, people I consider among the closest of my earthly kin, have been to see us more than once in this first term. But as the December days have approached the 25th I have felt a distinct companionship of spirit with that long-ago saint.
Perhaps it is my awareness that our first furlough is now less than a year away that has made me so acutely sensitive to my desire for family and friends this Christmas. This time next year we will be on American soil. The next holiday season will find me in a place with frost on the ground, a nip in the air, and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Or perhaps it is simply that long-term separation is an inevitable part of the missionary experience and the cycle of feelings through which we all go while far from home has come 'round to this once again. Perhaps it has nothing to do with any of these. Whatever the cause, though, in these days I have found myself, like John the Apostle, turning my attention longingly toward that day when there will be "no more sea" - looking beyond the boundaries of time to the arrival of eternity when every hindrance to union with those I love - whether geographic, vocational, or emotional - will have ceased to exist forever.
In many ways it is surprising that I should feel this longing so strongly as 1996 draws to a close. My adjustments to Botswana and satisfaction in ministry here have increased at a regular, positive pace over these last twelve months. My competence in Setswana and insight into the Setswana culture have climbed steadily upward. Our work in Lobatse and the surrounding district has finally begun to develop a stronger foundation as an entire group of young people have given their lives to Christ.
In truth, the final months of this year have been one of the most amazing seasons of blessing which I have ever been privileged to witness. We watched as one youth after another would be saved and then go immediately to tell his friends what had happened. A day or so later the new convert would show up at my door asking me to explain the way of salvation to a thoroughly-convicted companion. At one point a couple of months back we were registering solid conversions at a rate of better than one a week, a truly astonishing development for our area. A chance encounter with the caretaker of a lake where I fish over in South Africa even led to his salvation! The pace has slowed just now but I finish 1996 still truly hopeful that the general awakening about which I wrote you in the last edition of Cold Waters will ultimately take place.
On a more personal (but equally blessed) note, I can also truthfully say that this year has been far and away the richest to date in my personal walk with God. I have seen prayers answered with almost monotonous regularity. (As if answered prayer could ever be considered monotonous!). My understanding of the ways of God, though still infinitesimal, has increased many-fold since our last annual report. I rejoice in telling you that I have become much more able to discern the Spirit's "still, small voice" when He speaks. The reality of Jesus as Immanuel, God with us, in my everyday affairs is clearer than ever before. To restate the obvious, it has been a good year. Nonetheless, the Western side of the Atlantic draws me to its shores these days as if the Sirens themselves were singing.
I count it one of the great paradoxes of human nature that two diametrically opposite, thoroughly contradictory emotions can be felt at the same time with near-equal intensity. But it was so with Paul (see Philippians 1:23-24) and it has just as certainly been true with me. I have deeply longed to spend these holidays in the midst of the companionships and comforts of my home stateside. Yet simultaneously this Yuletide I have experienced deep inner and outer affirmation of my status as a missionary residing in Botswana.
Of course, in the end it is God who gives rest to all such internal dilemmas. He always supplies precise direction as to His will and ample grace for it to be carried out. I know that His design for me is to live and work here in Africa. So this Christmas of 1996, like the balance of the year leading up to it, has been marked by a deepened surrender to Him as my Sovereign and a willing acceptance of His unfailingly good choices for me. That simple step has allowed Him to operate in my life not only as Savior and Master, but also as the Prince of Peace, giving rest to my potentially divided heart - irregardless of its locale - until that day when there is "no more sea."