Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.
I Corinthians 16:13-14(NIV)
The whole of Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian church in this first letter is summarized in five exhortations contained in two verses. These clear commands, issued to a struggling community, were meant to provide the encouragement and confidence they needed to continue on their path to spiritual maturity. “Be on your guard”, he says. Paul knew they were susceptible to division from within their own body of believers. He tells the Corinthian church to “stand firm in the faith”. The phrase is a military one, meaning “to hold one’s ground” 6. He tells them to “be courageous and strong”. These verbs are frequently combined in the Old Testament to exhort God’s people to have courage in the face of danger, especially from one’s enemies.12 Lastly, he encourages them “to love”, for it is this love for the Lord and one another that is the underpinnings of all else we do in the Christian life. Though these commands are easily issued and simply said, they are hard to follow. If we let our guard down, circumstances can be overwhelming. We are often frozen with fear and loving is always a self-sacrificing work in progress. We become weary and disheartened so easily. My youngest daughter Hannah experienced this very thing recently. I hope you find encouragement in her story. By her example we can learn that when we ask for courage, God will give it, in full measure, to face whatever tough circumstance we have before us.
“Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” General George Patton
“Dad’s back from Bagh…dad,” came Jeff’s cheerful announcement as he came through the front door.
“How was Baghdad….Dad? Did you get all your bags….Dad?” came the dry witted reply from Hannah, as she ran to greet him and they both burst into laughter.
Jeff and Hannah’s father/daughter banter is natural, unscripted and incredibly funny. Many times I have witnessed this rapid fire dialogue between the two of them, typically ending with an expectant sidelong glance that says, “Did you get the joke?” It is a natural and common occurrence in our household. They share the same weird sense of humor, the same tall, lanky build, the same facial expressions and the same distinct Italian eyebrows that give them both a very intense and scary gaze. Their shared weirdness is evidence of the special nature of their relationship. In many ways it is indicative of a family dynamic that defines how and why we find ourselves living in Dubai for Hannah’s senior year of high school.
When Jeff began to travel in and out of Iraq on business in November of 2009, we knew there was a good chance he would be offered a position that would require a more permanent move to Dubai, where the project would be headquartered. That chance turned into reality in early 2010. We sat down as a family to discuss the implications of such a move, especially as it related to Hannah and uprooting her for her senior year of high school. There were three options; Jeff could turn down the job, he could go unaccompanied with infrequent trips back to Houston or we could all go together.
“I can’t be the reason Dad turns down the job”, she said without hesitation, “and I definitely don’t want him to be gone that much”.
The thought of being separated from her Dad was incomprehensible in Hannah’s mind. The departure of another member of the family was too much for her to accept. She loved her Dad dearly and cherished his presence. Hannah agreed to move with us to Dubai.
“But what about high school, and your friends? What about your Houston home?” we asked her. “You will be moving to a new school and a new city in a Muslim country where you don’t know a soul”, I anxiously reminded her.
I questioned whether it was right to expect so much from our third child. Our Houston locale had been her home for 17 years. Some of her friendships were from pre-school. The youngest of our three children, she is funny, creative, very relational and the epitome of flexibility. We often joke that Hannah spent half her younger years relegated to the car seat, forced to attend her brother and sister’s sporting events so I wouldn’t have to pay for babysitting. When her brother and sister left for college, some of her spark left too. Now, with Jeff’s frequent and dangerous travel into a war torn Iraq, Hannah was noticeably quieter, more distant and more introspective. She missed her siblings and her dad immensely. Worry about her father’s safety left her preoccupied and school had become oppressive. The stress and strain of her academic load kept her from many of her favorite sports and activities. The traditional high school environment had never been Hannah’s cup of tea. She often expressed her desire to break free from the restrictive, day-to-day monotony she found so distasteful. All these factors certainly influenced my daughter’s desire to want out of her current circumstances; however there was one incident that uniquely prepared Hannah for the decision to move to Dubai.
In the summer of 2009, Hannah took part in a wilderness experience at JH Ranch in northern California. Designed to encourage spiritual growth in teens, it was a watershed moment for her. An integral part of her two weeks at JH Ranch was her 24-hour solo excursion into the woods. During this time of solitude and prayer, she confronted many of her fears that were quenching her joy and her deep desire to really live.
“In my time alone, I asked God to give me the courage to do extraordinary things and to have the faith to trust Him completely in all that came my way”, she told me. “The next morning, there was a bear next to my campsite! I realized I had forgotten my bear whistle and there was no one around to help me. And I’m still alive! I think the message was pretty clear”, she laughed.
Hannah returned from California with new found courage and confidence. Her character was strengthened from the inside by a Holy God that answers our prayers and knows are deepest desires. Her ability to see through the chaff and focus on the wheat, allowed her to make a tough choice with courage and conviction. And, she recognized the opportunity to move to Dubai exactly for what it was; a chance to do something extraordinary. I think she was acutely aware that one season was ending and a new more adventurous one was beginning. A new season that continues to stretch her beyond her years. Her trust in God has given her the strength to navigate every challenge presented to her in Dubai. He is faithful and has lovingly seen her through the adjustment to a new city, a new culture, a new school and new friends.
Upon recently reflecting on the past year I asked Jeff, “What kind of parents move their high school senior overseas?”
He replied with a smile, “What kind of high school senior agrees to go?”
This devotional essay is dedicated to Hannah Ralston, daughter extraordinaire