Glimpses of Glory

Insanity. That’s what the few onlookers thought as they watched him—relative to some, rich neighbor to others—head into the desert with his wife, nephew, and train of livestock and servants. What could be crazier than turning away from a comfortable and profitable life and setting out into the desert towards an unknown land and an insecure future? Besides, there were no phones or mail service in those days, making contact with the friends and family left behind virtually impossible. Would they ever see him again?

But Abram didn’t think about those things. He didn’t let his mind dwell on the impending separation or the “Unknowns” that lay ahead. He didn’t feel insecure or uncertain for one profoundly simple reason: This was a journey commanded by God. Abram bore God’s promise to bless him and make him “a great nation”; he believed God’s word that “in [him] all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”[1] Thousands of years later, the journey of Abram—whom God did indeed bless and rename Abraham, the “father of nations”—was commemorated by the apostle Paul with the words, “[by] faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country… for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.”[2]

Abram is not an anomaly. There have been many throughout history—and still today—who have turned from the known into the unknown, following the command of God. And none who maintained their relationship with God have ever regretted the decision.

Today, student missionary programs allow college students the option to take a gap year and work in mission service. After spending three years in college and realizing God was calling me to change my field of study, I decided to spend a year as a student missionary reaching the unreached in the world before continuing with my new major. Much less sacrifice is required to serve in this age of internet communication than in Bible times, but it still takes faith in God’s leading to put off our own future plans for a year and follow Him into the unknown. God surprised me; that year quickly became two, and then three, mostly spent teaching English at an elementary school in the southeast Asian country of Cambodia. There, I met Sreyleng[3], one of my fourth grade students. Sreyleng was one of my best students; she worked hard and paid attention in class. Though from a Buddhist family, she seemed interested in Christianity and would remind me to pray at the beginning of class whenever I forgot .

One day as I walked into the classroom, Sreyleng immediately started questioning me excitedly, “Teacher, what is it? What day is it?” I already knew what day it was–her birthday! She had reminded me several times over the last few weeks and I had kept track. But I had a plan, and so for the moment, I pretended to be clueless. “Huh? It’s Monday!”

“No, teacheeeerrrr! What happens today?” But we needed to begin class, and I delayed answering her question. The questions continued whenever we had a spare moment, eventually turning into pointed looks. But I think she was losing hope that I had remembered her special day.

I had a plan, and made sure we had a few minutes at the end of class to play Hangman, a favorite game of the students. I called up two of them to help direct the game, and after instructing them to not reveal anything, showed them the phrase for the class to guess: “Happy birthday, Sreyleng!” They both covered their mouths to hide their laughs, one involuntarily glancing in Sreyleng’s direction. The students led the game, big smiles on their faces. It took a few minutes, but as the blanks filled with correct letters and the phrase was nearing completion, Sreyleng suddenly leaned forward, puzzled. Then a huge smile spread across her face as she realized what it said. After that, we all sang Happy birthday to her and I closed class with prayer. When I returned to the classroom a few minutes later, Sreyleng was still sitting at her desk, a little cluster of girls around her. They saw me enter and said, “Teacher, Sreyleng cry. Sreyleng happy!” It was true. She was beaming—so happy that her teacher hadn’t forgotten her birthday! I felt in that moment a little of God’s heart, and the joy He feels in making His children happy.

I recall another day when I had just finished teaching and the classroom was empty. I still sat at the desk, grading some homework, when Sreyleng silently walked in. She wasn’t her usual exuberant, bubbly self. I could sense something was wrong. She walked quietly over and stood in front of the desk, watching me for a minute. Then: “Teacher?”

“Yes?” I asked. By then I could speak Khmer[4] (the local language) pretty well, but she preferred talking to me in English. “My parents—” she paused, searching for the word, or mustering her strength to continue. “My parents divorce today.” My heart sank. “My dad—he not nice to my mom,” she said. What could I say? I didn’t know. I stood up, and she stepped toward me for a hug. We stood there for a minute or two, Sreyleng blinking back tears.

What can we do in times like this? We can’t solve the pain; only God can do that. But we can comfort, and in that instance, I again felt a piece of God’s heart: the pain He felt on Sreyleng’s behalf and gladness that she considered me worthy of her trust.

A few weeks before leaving Cambodia to return to America, I was sitting at my favorite overlook one evening, where I could see the lights of town below and the blackness of night beyond, praying for my students. I acutely felt the pain of leaving them, knowing most—including Sreyleng—hadn’t fully accepted Christ. In that moment, as I prayed, I realized that both the pain and all the joys I’d experienced along the way provided a glimpse into God’s heart. Jesus had many joy-filled moments during His ministry, like when He was able to bless others. But He also left earth without seeing the results of His work. Jesus only had a few small glimpses of the success from His work—Mary Magdalene, kneeling at the foot of His cross, crying her heart out; and the thief hanging on the cross next to Him, who right there committed His life to God. Yet, even though Jesus’ life may have seemed fruitless, there was more to the story than met the eye; just a few weeks later at Pentecost, from the roots Jesus left, thousands were converted in a single day, and the Christian church grew exponentially.

At the call of God, Abram responded. He did not reason the instructions away or demand to know what was ahead; he understood he was being called apart for a special purpose, and his response indicated as much. Willing to risk everything for an inheritance promised to his descendants, he was referred to by God as “Abraham, My friend.”[5] In all his efforts to follow, he was rewarded with relationship, the privilege of God placing him in His very name.[6] 

At the call of God, how do we respond? Set apart with the distinctness of the declaration of the Three Angels’ Messages, we still seem hesitant to fulfill our special purpose. Sharing in His mission to save His hurting and lost children is far more than just a command we were given by Jesus in the Great Commission, far more than a small way to thank God for all He’s done for us. Leaving the familiar to follow Christ into the unknown teaches us how to trust. Walking in Jesus’ footsteps of service and sacrifice enables us to better see His heart. Will we too be willing to risk everything not for the reward, but for the relationship? To risk everything for the glory of God declared through His final message to a hurting world?

I, and many others who have gone to serve, may never see the results of our mission service on this side of heaven, but God gave the commission, and so He will bring fruit from the frail seeds we plant. Like Abraham, we must dare to follow God into the unknown, and there we will find God’s glory. In Sreyleng’s story, and those of so many others, we experience His pain and His joy, share His compassion and love. We see glimpses of His glory, glimpses of the very heart of God. And you can too.

What are you waiting for?

[1] Gen. 12:2, 3
[2] Heb. 11:8-10
[3] Pronounced ‘Srah-ee-LENG’
[4] Pronounced ‘Kuh-MY’
[5] Isa. 41:8
[6] Gen. 28:13; Exo. 3:6

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