A couple years into our marriage, my husband and I returned to his homeland, Kenya. He had been living in America for almost ten years, and this was his first opportunity to go home. It was a pretty big deal for both of us. He wanted to see Grandma, Grandpa, aunts, uncles and cousins and gorge himself on chepatis (a fried bread all the aunties make on special occasions). I wanted to get to know him in ways that only immersion into his culture could allow.
(Glenn, Marlin, Auntie Helen, and Sharon before chepatis)
In this same season of our lives, the Lord was revealing His grace to our congregation in new ways. My pastor preached on grace every Sunday for a year or two. This is not an exaggeration. This wouldn’t go over well in some churches, but I honestly believe it was absolutely necessary for where God wanted to take us. Our pastor’s life was being totally turned upside down by God’s grace, and he took us along for the ride. It changed the culture of our church family in a beautiful way. Personally, I knew I needed to go deeper in grace. I pursued it, reading books by Watchman Nee and others, going through a grace counseling ministry, asking the Lord to break my performance mentality in my relationship with Him, and lead me into truth. As only the Lord can orchestrate, these two experiences became intertwined.
For the first week, we stayed in Nairobi with Uncle James. When we left Nairobi to visit Marlin’s grandparents, we had a long drive and arrived at their house at dark. This was in part because I was still jet lagged, and they let me sleep in that morning. Driving at night was against Marlin’s grandfather’s wishes, because of safety.
(Grandma Ochari, who danced around me)
Still, as I walked toward their home in the dark, the cause of our late arrival, never having spoken to her, or seen her in my life, Marlin’s grandmother danced around me, laughing and rejoicing. She singled me out. She spoke words in my ear in Kisii that I couldn’t interpret, but I knew their meaning. You are loved. You are an honored guest. She had been looking forward to this day for a long time. There was enough love to go around. I felt something powerful happened, but I didn’t understanding fully. Later, Marlin’s explanation deepened the event’s significance for me. In Kisii culture, the young dance around the old to honor them, not the other way around. She humbled herself deeply to pour out acceptance on me with her dance. She also gave me her name that week. That week with Grandma Ochari was one of the sweetest in my life.
Several days later, back in Nairobi, I had another warm welcome with Auntie Esther. She invited us into her home and we sat around the living room talking. When my eyes grew heavy, she offered me a bed in her mother’s bedroom. I snuck into the dark to the bed indicated quietly to me, not wanting to wake Auntie Esther’s mother. I slept soundly until morning.When I woke up, there was a lot of noise coming from the living room and kitchen. The bed next to mine was empty. I walked out to a breakfast of chepatis, eggs, tea, and fresh squeezed juice. Kenya is a little like heaven in these moments of banter between cousins and mouths full of delicious foods.
All morning there was a stir wherever I would go. Auntie Esther’s mother kept saying something and looking at me. “She’s so beautiful when she sleeps,” Ombogo interpreted. Over and over again. When you don’t speak the language, and the tribal language someone speaks isn’t even one familiar to your husband, you kind of get used to tuning out what isn’t English. Still, over and over the cousins would laugh and almost be embarrassed to interpret, “She’s so beautiful when she sleeps.” Their grandmother kept saying it over and over again until I left their home.
I knew God was speaking to me, not about my looks, but about my rest. I had had anxiety that year so terrible I had lost twenty five pounds. I’m petite, so that was a significant amount of weight. I’d really never had anxiety that way before or since. I wrestled daily being accused in my mind of not doing the “right” thing, saying things the “right” way. A mistake at work meant much wrestling that night and little sleep. Cruel words from my past echoed in my mind. The enemy did not want me to grab hold of grace, and he was fighting hard against me.
In contrast, God was saying, “You’re beautiful when you rest, beloved.” Rest. When you’re striving, trying, wearing yourself out to be accepted, you’re missing it. You’re most beautiful to me when you rest in the fact that I loved you before you knew My name. Nothing you do will ever be able to add to or diminish my love for you. Being welcomed by Marlin’s grandmother, I was a prodigal coming to my senses. I had forgotten, or maybe I was just beginning to know deep, that love wasn’t something doing the “right” thing could earn me. I was loved, not for anything I had done, but because I was family. I’d been grafted into all this love, all this wonder.
In the same way, Jesus did not wait for us to look for Him, He stooped low, put on skin, and bled to be with us. He rejoices over us with song and dance. It’s not much of a stretch to say, He watches with wonder as we dream. He is Love, and He does not sleep. What else does Love do when the loved sleep? What joy it is to start from there, to live from there, instead of constantly grasping and stretching and trying harder to earn what has already been gifted to us.
Beloved, you don’t have to go to Africa to learn this. It’s true for you, too. You were grafted into love and acceptance when you invited Jesus in. You are never more beautiful to Him than when you rest in His finished work on the cross and Christ’s abundant love and grace. Let His kind gaze define you. Walk with and rest in Him today.
“So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience.”
Hebrews 4:9-11 NASB
“”The LORD your God is in your midst, A victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.”
Zephaniah 3:17 NASB
“Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.” John 15:9
“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love.” John 15:9 MSG