It was 4 a.m. The sky was clear and the stars, uninhibited by city lights, were bright and overwhelmingly numerous. I had just heaved two, sixty-pound suitcases down the staircase and into the stone portico. Our carry-ons waited beside them. All that remained before our departure was the quick jaunt up the steep hill, the climb over the stile, the wonderful cup of Kenyan chai that awaited us in the school’s kitchen and, of course, there was also that small matter of the arrival of our driver.
As I stepped away from the suitcases to start walking toward the dinning hall, I looked out the large, rectangular hole in the wall that served as one of two windows in the spacious area. At just that moment, a star shot across the sky. I couldn’t help a grin. No one could have scripted that better.
I left the portico and stepped out into the night air with my teammate, Laura, and a young woman named Gladys following and chatting at a distance behind me. Again, my eyes drifted heavenward and again a star streaked across the glittering, black expanse. Two! I had seen two shooting stars without even looking for them. Excitement swelled within me. It was as if God had sent one last parting blessing upon our trip.
I continued walking, knowing this would be the last time I would make this climb for many months, memories echoing with each footstep. The place where the path turned brought the memory of Laura’s miserable meeting with an army of ants. A little further was the place where Rachel Sang had shown us the beans she had planted in her garden and told of the thief who had stolen her phone and 2,000 shillings on her trip to Nairobi. A little further up the hill was the hole, in which I almost always stepped and nearly turned my ankle. Then came the stile and the memories of trying to carry our supper from the kitchen to the house well after dark by the light of cell phones and flashlights.
Just as I reached the kitchen, a third star made its trek across the sky. I didn’t want to go inside by then. I didn’t want to miss another star, but time was not on my side. I found Rachel busily pulling together a few items for a light breakfast. The others soon joined us. We had tea together, basking in the smoky warmth of the cooking fires, dreading the goodbyes that would come in just a few short hours, savoring the flavor of that warm liquid and knowing we would not have it again together for so very long. We discussed our journey and made frequent trips to the door to look up the long hill toward the road in search of the driver. Finally, he came. At Rachel’s request, Gladys went to send him and his car to the house to fetch the suitcases while Laura and I went to begin our wait at the road.
The hill from the road to house is steep. There is no road, per se, but more of a footpath that meanders through the long grass that is mown only by the occasional munching of the two milk cows. It had not rained the day before, so, in theory, there was little mud to contend with; but the grass was damp with a heavy dew that even made walking a bit precarious in places.
Laura, Gladys and I waited at the road. We could hear the voices of the Sangs and Walter, our driver, and others as they loaded the bags into the trunk. The car doors slammed. The headlights turned toward us…and then it happened. The engine revved, the tires spun and the car went nowhere.
Walter tried again, this time making it half way to the kitchen before having to roll back down toward the house. Again, the high-pitched whine of engine and tires reverberated off the walls of the valley. The lights came closer, closer, closer…then sank back down the hill. By now we could tell the others were trying to assist. They tried the climb a fourth time, but still with no success. Over and over they tried, but they just couldn’t get past the point where the path passed the stile.
Gladys giggled beside me, “Everyone in the village will know what time you left for Nairobi.”
It was true. That hideous, mocking sound of the wet grass tormenting the engine and tires carried through the dark and hit a dozen or more homes. I looked at Laura, and she back at me. We had waited long enough. It was time to see if we could help. We hurried back down the path that led to the kitchen, not really able to see a thing, hoping not to step in a hole – or any of the piles we had seen deposited there by the cows the evening before.
Just as we reached the long iron-sheet building and turned down the skinny path that led to the stile, I could see the car approaching. Instinctively, I quickened my pace, nearly running down the path. As I reached the top step in the fence I could make out the shapes of three men at the back of the car, silhouetted in the red glow of the taillights. Rachel Sang was behind the wheel; someone else was coming up the path behind them.
I quickly stepped down from the stile and hopped in line beside Walter, positioning myself just behind the right, rear tire. It occurred to me that I was not likely to be much help, that the car was likely to slide backwards and roll over top of me, and (as a sizeable chunk of mud hit me in the face) that I was about to get absolutely filthy, but it had to be done. Then suddenly, to my great surprise, I realized that as small as it might be, I was making a difference. We were moving. We were really moving. We passed the stile. We passed the hut on the right. We passed through the cow gate.
Suddenly, I realized that we were passing the spot where the second grade classroom used to stand and I saw the ground drop away. In that instant, I knew I was going to fall. There was nothing I could do about it. We had too much momentum for anything else to happen. In that brief moment, I also realized that, thanks to the red glow that surrounded us, I could choose how I would land. The car lurched away from me. With nothing to push against, all the force that had been put into pushing the Toyota up the hill was transferred into a headlong dive toward the long wet grass along the path. I could hear Walter beside me, in true Kenyan form, saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” And I in return called, “I’m ok. I’m ok. I’m ok.”
Then it was done. We were at the top. I had barely gone to my knees and was quickly back on my feet, panting, sweating, muddy and amazed at what had just happened. We looked at one another, making sure everyone was safe. I realized for the first time that beside Walter had been Eric and beyond him, Richard, the night watchman. We all sighed. Then the grinning began. The thanking one another. The praising the Lord. The laughs of relief and disbelief. We had made it.
It was Gladys who pointed out my predicament. We were three hours from Nairobi. We were late. I was wet and muddy from head to toe. All I could do was smile and say, “It’s alright. I’ll change when we get there.” I wasn’t worried, because I knew a secret about this “princess” and her wardrobe.
The night before our little adventure, Laura and I had debated long about what to do with our rubber boots. Should we leave them in Kenya? Would we need them in Uganda? I knew that I would not have much need for them in Billings, but would I need them when I got back to Kenya? Then there was the issue of how to pack them if we decided to take them. I just kept praying about it and praying about it. By morning I was convinced that not only should I take them to Uganda, but I should wear them on the plane to save room in my suitcase. I was also convinced that I shouldn’t wear what I had originally planned on wearing. In my thinking, it was because it needed to be ironed and I didn’t really have time, nor desire, to iron it at 3 a.m. But God’s reason was much more than that.
I put on the outfit that the Lord seemed to lead me to, the boots and a rain jacket. The rest of the story you pretty much know. The beauty is that instead of open-topped, mesh shoes, I was wearing boots as we pushed that Toyota up that hill. Instead of a lightweight, light-colored skirt that would have shown every bit of that red mud, I was wearing a brightly colored, striped and somewhat speckled skirt that absorbed most of the spattering of mud into its pattern. Instead of a stiff, dressy top, I was in a comfortable sweater that was covered by the rain jacket that wouldn’t fit in my suitcase. My King had seen to it that His daughter was properly attired for the task at hand.
In the end, I didn’t have time to change when we got to Nairobi. I wandered around looking for a currency exchange with muddy boots, a mud spattered skirt and jacket, dirty hands and mud in my hair. But, as much as Laura and I laughed about what people must be thinking about the two Musungus in their gumboots in the middle of downtown Nairobi, no one really seemed to notice that much. The King had chosen garments for His daughter that would hide the muck that came with the work He had given her to do. I ended up flying in that somewhat comical get up. We laughed about it on the plane and agreed that it was good there was no one sitting beside us because I wouldn’t get anyone else dirty. In truth, I was still amazed at the grace of God who not only put me in the right clothes, but Who put those beautiful reminders of His power in the sky for me to see as I left the place that has such a precious spot in my heart.
But there is more…
I would not go so far as to call myself a minimalist, but over the years of regularly having to pack the majority of my life into two, seventy-pound suitcases, or having them shipped via the postal system from one, one room living space to another, or having to load them all into an economy car to move across town…after doing that so often I have fallen into the habit of choosing the basics, the functional, the most reliable, the most necessary over the pretty, the soft, the comfortable and the pleasurable. I have done it because the beauty of serving the Lord, my King, Who has done so much for me far outweighs the meager benefits of pretty clothes, fancy houses, decorated walls and hours of leisure. A skirt is a skirt. Black goes with more than purple. Solids stretch further than prints. A shoe is a shoe. It should be functional first, fashionable second. It should never be ugly, but it should do its job.
The Lord, however, has a way of breaking our habits with His amazing truth. I’m not even sure when it started really. As I look back, I can see Him working it into my life and me missing it as far back as my first trip to Russia and those beautiful, yellow napkins lit up by golden sunlight on that wonderful Easter afternoon after so many long, bleak winter days. I can see it in apple orchards in full bloom and lilacs along my way, in friendships, in gifts, in the land that I have the privilege to call home and its mountains and rivers and sunsets. IT is called beauty. And God created it so that we would better understand Him.
I have always been a lover of nature. It is the one “beauty” in which I can hardly keep myself from indulging. It declares plainly the order of our God and the amazing intricacies with which He created all things. But God has been showing me more and more of how He desires to set His beauty upon us, not only spiritually but in an eye-pleasing manner as well. He wants His beauty to shine first out of our hearts, but also to be exemplified in the things we wear, the way we prepare our homes, keep our cars, prepare our yards. Not extravagantly or faddishly in a way that honors men or feeds our lusts (or the lusts of others), but with a simple beauty that honors Him and somehow says, “My Creator did all of this.”
It was that same desire of His heart and the teaching process that He has been taking me through, I believe, that led me to the fabric that I was wearing that morning as we left Kenya. It was the first “splurge” that I had “allowed” myself clothing-wise in a long time. I hadn’t intended on buying anything really. I had gone to the store to get ideas for the sewing classes. But God had led me to that fabric. As soon as I saw it, I knew that it somehow fit into our trip. I set it aside to be used in making a sample for the sewing classes. Even as I made it up and realized that not only would I have to make it per my measurements but it would have to be one of the few skirts that I took along for the entire trip, I could not believe that I would be able to have something so bright and colorful, so pretty. I think back and I see how it served me faithfully every Sunday in Kenya and how fitting it was for our departure, and I see that sometimes, not only does God want His children to be attired beautifully for His glory, but also for their protection. He put all of that together so that one of His daughters wouldn’t have to look like she had fallen in a mud hole, even though she nearly had. He doesn’t want us to look shabby, or like a cardboard cutout. He is our Father and therefore we are children of THE KING. God has a great desire to set His beauty upon us. He wants our inner man to be adorned with the beauty of His redemptive power and holiness, and He wants it to shine through so that others can see the difference He has made in our lives.
I say all this because of a Facebook conversation I recently had with a friend. We were discussing being relevant and how easy it is to be drawn aside into the material and miss the spiritual. To be attracted by the pretty bobbles of the here and now and miss the everlasting crowns that are hidden in eternity. It is so important that we not get caught in that trap.
But I am also learning, that it is equally as important not to get caught in the trap of neglecting to see God’s beauty for what it is. God made color so that we could understand the splendors of heaven, the beauty of His throne room, and the glory that surrounds His very throne. Sometimes being relevant requires not only that we step “out of sleeve-brushing distance and into someone’s life”, but also that we step in with a little touch of beauty. There are some pretty miserable places in this world, but I know that even when one of God’s children is stuck behind a mud-slinging Toyota, He still chooses to dress them for His glory and even with a bit of their delight in mind. It is important to let Him lead us to the balance. His work, His Word and those that do not know Him are so much more important than fashion, style, success, fame and the gathering of things – but don’t forget to take a little beauty with you. He created it because it helps to reveal Him and His glory.
PS – The mud came out – which is a miracle in itself!