Sorry that it’s been so long since we’ve given you an update on what’s been happening in our lives and in the ministry here! We’ve been in Ambilobe the entire time (other than some necessary travel within Madagascar) making efforts towards beginning outreach anew to the Antakarana in this area.
Without a doubt, life in the trading/transport town of Ambilobe is very different than life was for us in the small royal village on the remote island of Nosy Mitsio. The mixture of people from various tribal groups, which includes a mixture of languages as well, and the greater differences in economic and social classes all make every interaction we have with people more varied and different. Since we’ve been visiting this town every 1-2 months for the last 5 years, we already knew many people when we moved here last July, but we’ve certainly come to know even more now that we live here. We’re also learning more of the differences in culture from village life to town life, but with the great mixture of people and different backgrounds, it’s hard to recognize any set standards here! So many of the people we meet are interested in us and in what we’re doing here, but each for their own, often very different, reasons.
Over the last six months we’ve had some great ideas about ways to get started here, many of them coming from some of our local contacts, and we’ve also made some great new contacts with people we hope to work together with in reaching the Antakarana in this area. Now that we’ve lived here for a while, we still strongly believe that Ambilobe is a great central location from which to continue trying to reach the Antakarana people, both those in town (many of whom have had some exposure to the Gospel, though in a language not their own) and the many more Antakarana living in the surrounding villages in this region (most of whom have never had any chance to hear about Jesus, just like those on Nosy Mitsio). However, during all this time, we still have not been able to really get started here yet. At least, not in the way we want to get started: with a more formal program of outreach efforts within an overall strategic plan.
During all of our time in Ambilobe so far we’ve constantly sought God in prayer regarding the way that he wants us to go about the work here. After all, it is his work, not ours. Our efforts are participatory at best, but only the power and grace of the Holy Spirit can bring them to fruition. But for quite some time we didn’t hear anything clearly at all from God regarding what first steps to take here. So we kept doing what we could to discover possibilities and to make new contacts.
By contrast, we ran into one obstacle after another, some of them persistent troubles from the same sources, but many of them just random and unconnected problems, though still immensely challenging. Taken together with the reason we recently moved off of Nosy Mitsio, these challenges began to build up more and more stress in our lives. Many of the specific problems we’ve encountered in the last year were ones where we acutely felt a sense of “betrayal”, both by people we had trusted and in places and situations where we previously felt safe. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that we were being “attacked” by the Enemy. Our feelings of discouragement and exhaustion continued to grow. No longer having a ministry team here with us to provide mutual support and encouragement, and with some of the specific instances of betrayal we experienced, we felt more and more disconnected, and at some points we even felt rejected, from the body of Christ.
A few months back, during discussions with our leadership in YWAM, we were encouraged to take a break from the ministry here. Lora and I both immediately thought the idea was terrible! We had just finished moving to Ambilobe and certainly the Antakarana people’s need to know Jesus hadn’t lessened at all, nor had our desire, even our burden, for seeing them be reached! We had no doubt that continuing ministry to the Antakarana was a role God wants us in. Sure, sometimes we need a break, we know that, but this seemed like the worst possible timing! It seemed like a foolish waste of all the time and resources we had just invested into our move to Ambilobe, and it seemed like a waste of all of our time since our last visit to the US… After all, what forward progress or momentum had we yet gained in all that time? Even the idea of taking a break at this time made us feel even more like failures, especially after the way things ended on Nosy Mitsio.
But our leadership encouraged us strongly to pray about it and to seek God’s leading. So we did. And God surprised us! Prior to that point we hadn’t even prayed about the possibility of taking a break. But when we did stop to pray about it, we really felt God leading us to step back for a time from the frontlines here, to spend time with a strong Christian community where we could be re-strengthened within the body of Christ.
Even though we understood the reason and could acknowledge it well enough, our hearts and minds still weren’t really convinced about this whole idea of taking a break, a “sabbatical”. Even when during prayer one time I felt like God was encouraging me that this time of rest is a “gift” that he wants to give us. Practically speaking, who am I to refuse a gift from God? It felt like it could be nice (during prayer).
So we started trying to make plans for it, but sort of begrudgingly, because our hearts weren’t really in it. We conferred regularly with our leadership to get help planning our time of sabbatical, but my mood still wasn’t right. My thoughts were always just about how to make it as obviously and practically beneficial as we could, and getting it over and done with and getting back to the ministry here as soon as possible. You know, that would maybe help us feel like we weren’t such big failures. But throughout this time, God was trying in many different ways to work on our hearts about it all, and he was slowly transforming us.
So we planned one thing for sabbatical and then the option wasn’t available anymore. Frustrating! So we planned another thing and even though it wasn’t our first choice, it was starting to look like it was really good and was going to work out. Then at the last minute we ran into a problem with visa paperwork that made that plan no longer possible as-is (and this was after an uncomfortable 25-hour ride to the capital city). Talk about frustrating! We felt like we were already in the timeframe to get our sabbatical started so we could get it done and get it over with, and here was another insurmountable obstacle! We had no idea what to do next, because every decent plan seemed to be closed to us. We had in fact been praying regarding our sabbatical time, that God would close the doors for anything he didn’t want us to do (and of course, that God would open the doors for what he did want). But we would’ve thought God would close those doors a bit earlier, before we were just about to squeeze through them, you know? We were so frustrated.
So we did the only thing left for us to do. We prayed some more. Basically starting from scratch, as we were bewildered by that point – what did God really want us to do? We weren’t aware of any other practical options left to us. But we knew he wanted us to take this time to be re-strengthened in the body of Christ and we just needed to figure out how he wanted us to do that. So, rather than spending the next few days following up on paperwork as we had anticipated (and which had just become pointless), we decided to set aside those days to spend more focused and intentional time in prayer, asking God to light a path that seemed only dark to us. Each of us: myself, Lora, and even Matimu would spend time praying separately from each other and to see if God would lead all of us the same way.
And God did lead us! But again he surprised us, perhaps more so this time. Matimu was the first one to tell us he heard from God regarding the time ahead. He was walking towards us that first morning after his prayer time and he had a funny look on his face. He told us that God spoke to him! It was the first time that Matimu (7-1/2 yrs old) said he’d heard God speak, but he said that “now he knows what it sounds like,” and how it’s different from his own thoughts, so he thought it would be easier to hear God again in the future. We were so excited about that! But we asked him to not stop praying, and Lora and I also continued to pray and seek God for specific leading and for confirmation over the next few days. For me, I felt like God speaking to me quite clearly, but quite surprisingly, so I didn’t share the specifics until the end of the few days and we all shared together. During those few days, God spoke to each of us in different ways and with different emphases, but when taken together it was very much a confirmation of what our sabbatical plans are now.
First (beginning in the second week of February), we’ll spend roughly three months in South Africa. There we’ll join a large and experienced ministry team from our same organization – YWAM Worcester. We’ll join them as volunteers, helping part-time in a support role and also participating in some of their local community outreach and training activities. We’ll also have very frequent times of prayer and worship and Bible study with them and we’ll be able to join a support group for those doing “Frontier Missions” as we do. They even have people available to do debriefing and counseling, so I’m sure that will be helpful for us. As American citizens, we automatically receive the visa that we need to spend three months there, but not a day more, haha!
Then, we’ll spend a few months in the US to continue our sabbatical. This is the part that was so surprising to all three of us, when God spoke to each of us in our prayers about it. We never really considered going to the US for this time. It’s so far from where God has called us to do ministry. It’s expensive. At this point we had absolutely no idea what we would do for sabbatical in the US, no options that we knew of. But in prayer, I very clearly felt God leading that we should spend the first three months in South Africa and then go to the US. That actually seemed like an even worse idea, to split our time between the two, haha! More money for extra flights, less time to spend in one place (which I thought would be most helpful for maximizing the resting/healing time of a sabbatical). It just seemed like a bad idea, and certainly one I would’ve never considered on my own.
But I clearly felt God communicate it to me, and even though I instantly reacted with a question of doubt, I felt God give me strong reassurance that it is good – he gave me that sense you sometimes get when you can see things from his perspective, and not your own. So then I asked God how long, trying to figure out when we’d leave the US and get back to Madagascar (I was still in the mindset of trying to get it over and done with as quickly as possible). And God just responded by encouraging me not to worry about it, to leave the specific timing and dates and our return up to him and we’ll figure that out later. I even got the sense from him that the timing of our return to Madagascar would be right; that while we’re gone, God will be doing whatever it is that he does to prepare things here, to get things ready in our absence, so that when we return things will be ready. There certainly weren’t any specifics in all of that, so it was plenty vague, but at the same time it was a strong reassurance that God’s got it taken care of, it doesn’t depend so much on us, and the way he’s working it out (even with hopping from one country to the next) is good and the timing is right. Truthfully, the longer the time was in between time spent in prayer, I started to doubt it again, thinking it was a terrible idea. But each time I brought it back to God in prayer (even when doubtful), he reassured me that it’s good. That whatever it is he wants to do in us, through us, or around us during our time of sabbatical, both in South Africa and in the US, it will be good and we can just receive that and rejoice in him. He finally had me convinced. He finally changed my mood about it all.
So after those few days in prayer, we all conferred and realized how God had confirmed it to each of us. We were finally just happy that God was leading us and we knew (more or less) what decisions to make! In the few weeks since then it’s also been great to see how many of the specific details are falling into place and how God is putting it all together! Some of these details are specifically related to our upcoming sabbatical and some of them are related to other obstacles and challenges we’ve faced over the last year. But now we’re beginning to see how God is working out each and every detail and we’re trusting him to continue working out all the necessary details for the work he’s called us to here.
We recently found out that our organization also has a ministry team (YWAM Ozarks) in Arkansas, not far at all from where my parents live! They’ve just accepted us to come and spend a few months or more with them along the same lines of what we’ll be doing with YWAM Worcester in South Africa. During our time in the US we’ll stay with YWAM Ozarks and join them for daily times of prayer, worship, Bible study, and fellowship, as well as volunteer part-time in support roles and in their ongoing ministries and trainings. We also found out, very surprisingly, that nearby lives a family who are veterans in Frontier Missions, having started a church-planting movement among the unreached in Mongolia several decades ago. Now they live in Arkansas and coach others like us. They’ve already reached out to us and said they’re looking forward to hanging out with us!
Now that we’ve come through this time, and are just about to begin our sabbatical, it’s becoming easier for us to see how God is working this out, how he has been working it out all along. But it’s certainly been a long process that he’s brought us through, one in which he’s foremost had to change our hearts about it all. Though to us the process often seems crooked and messy and we frequently feel like we’ve wasted a lot of time and efforts, but for God it seems that it’s often the process itself in which he teaches us more about how to rely on him, in which he transforms our character into what it needs to be. Though God has wanted to offer us a “sabbatical”, an actual time of rest and trust in him, we’ve tried to turn it into something else, into a task to be accomplished, nothing more than a step to be hopped across along the path toward our goals.
Perhaps he let us follow these dead ends (in our plans) long enough so that when he fully closed the doors, we’d have no other choice but to rely upon him… as we should’ve been doing all along. In truth, the goals of our work – to see a church-planting movement begin among the Antakarana and spread throughout northern Madagascar – can not be accomplished just by our plans. It can’t be accomplished by relying on our own wisdom or strength, by doing only the things that “make sense” to us or which appear to be “efficient”. In truth, these movements only happen, when they happen, when founded on lengthy and significant times of prayer. Plenty of research has been done that demonstrates that. But prayer has never really been our strong point, neither for us, nor for any in the team we led on Nosy Mitsio. But God appears to have led us on a path that led to a dead end except for prayer. And then God spoke and then he acted. Maybe this is part of his way of founding us again upon the principles and character necessary to participate in the work he’s called us to.
Perhaps also God allowed us to waste so much time and effort, and only after that showing us specifically what we need to do, in order to demonstrate to us that his economy doesn’t really work like ours. Efficiency doesn’t often seem to be something that God strives for (unlike myself). In the gifts that God offers to his people, he’s always been extravagant. He’s always gone above and beyond. In his greatest gift he offered his very self, his only Son, to the people he knew would mostly reject him and destroy him. Perhaps God’s gift of a sabbatical to us isn’t the quickest way to get done whatever needs to be done, but it’s what God wants to give us. We can be happy in seeing it as an extravagant gift, not something he’s giving us only to minimally meet a need we have. An extravagant gift should be all the more enjoyed for its very extravagance!
In Matthew 26 when the woman came and anointed Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume, the disciples were upset over the waste (and I’m sure I’d feel the same way in that situation). But Jesus didn’t see it as a waste at all; he saw it as a reasonable act of love, and one that would prepare him for his impending death (an event which seemed impossible at the time to his disciples). Maybe much of our time and effort and expenses that have felt wasted to us are somehow recognized in God’s eyes as our gifts to him, as things he’ll somehow use in his plan that is currently incomprehensible to us. At the very least we need to see that whatever we offer to God out of our love for him is for him alone to value its worth. Judging it by our own normal standards of “efficiency” and “waste” is itself mostly just a waste of time, haha!
Ultimately, what we’re talking about here is a “sabbatical”, which is just an extended “sabbath”. The whole point of taking a sabbath is to stop doing what we know has to be done, and from that place of rest, trusting that God himself will complete both his work and ours. Inasmuch as we’ve tried for years to do the right things here, sometimes not taking any break or rest while doing it, always trying our best to intentionally fulfill our responsibilities in this work, in all of those efforts we appear to have failed. But it was only ever God who could complete those efforts, who could take a tiny seed planted and cause it to grow, and eventually to bring it to fruition. To take a sabbath is to demonstrate that we truly trust God to do his part in all this. We literally have to stop doing what very much needs to be done.
And God has brought us down this winding road to that very point where we have to stop for a time. And he’s reassured us in prayer that during our absence, during our sabbath, our rest, he will be preparing things, he will make them ready… he’ll also make us ready to rejoin him in the roles he’s called us to in the work here. He hasn’t changed our roles in this work; he hasn’t lifted the burden he’s given us for the Antakarana who will be his people here; he isn’t “sending us home” to the US, or anything like that.
God is simply reminding us that our roles are limited, and he’s helping us live out that reality. He’s giving us a gift of rest and he’s reminding us that it is him, and it’s always been him, who will bring this work to fruition. And when God works, it is always good. So we’re excited to see what’s in store for the year ahead! We’ll rejoin God in his work here, as he’s graced us to do so, after this time of sabbath is over.
Adam, Lora, Matimu and David Willard