Obedience is rarely what I think. When I say yes to God, I assume the story will take a particular turn or that He is concerned about a specific outcome, only to find new and different treasures He has in store for me. Maybe this is why obedience may cause confusion, disorientation, and pain. But it also brings beauty.
This is what the Bible story about Mary with the alabaster jar taught me, again, when I said yes to Jesus and went to Kenya for 6 months. My term with EMM was spent at Amani Gardens Inn in Nairobi, where I served as a hostess to guests who were traveling through the country, most of them in between one thing and another, themselves navigating seasons of losing and finding.
The call to love
My “yes” to Jesus was a “yes” to learning more about Kenya and its people — a place I had visited several times before. This kind of call isn’t difficult to obey; the call to love, when there is already desire.
It wasn’t until a few weeks before I went — after I left my stable job and was in the middle of securing all of the funds I needed to raise and making decisions that had no clear answers — that I found myself fearful and full of anxiety about what the future would hold. Would the health insurance I chose cover all my needs? Would I be able to find a job when I returned? Would my car weather the six months of use by a friend, and did I set up the insurance right? Would my money run out, would my body get sick, would my life fall apart? Even small things added enormous weight to my fragile survival.
Here is where I realized that my obedience might result in Jesus healing the darkest, most fearful places in my heart.
The anxiety of the last few weeks before I left for Kenya traveled with me, a heavy load I wished I could have left packed up with all the boxes I left in my apartment back home. I felt it rush through me as I walked to the store and a matatu (mini bus) rumbled recklessly by, so close that a small part of me was surprised to still be standing. It taunted me when I got ready to go to the nearby school where I volunteered, convincing me that I was wasting my time and had forfeited any promise of professional success. It squeezed on my heart when I looked at my bank account and wondered if the number I saw there would sustain me, or run out.
It was during those early weeks when, praying before I left to catch the bus to church, I asked the Lord to give me a word to give me hope. Church was one of the few places where I had been able to lay down my anxiety and experience the joy that I had always known when visiting Kenya, if only for a brief hour or two. After worship, all of us in the congregation sat down in the rickety plastic chairs.
A closed palm
One of the pastors came forward and took the microphone to bless the offering we were all about to give. I held my shillings in my closed palm. Before he prayed, he read to us from John 12, in which Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with oil. Even as I listened to a story I had heard many times over, the Spirit answered my prayer from that morning and helped me to hear a new word from the Lord. “It was worth a year’s wages,” is how the people who are dining with Mary and Jesus estimate the cost of her obedience.
It was there in that church tent, surrounded by my new church body, many of whom knew how to give more freely and trust more radically than I, that I learned again what obedience is like.
Obedience is costly. It can mean forgoing a year’s salary, relinquishing a job and title and identity. And obedience is beautiful. It is like expensive perfume that, when poured out, creates an unmistakable fragrance.
A year’s wages. A livelihood. The very thing I had been fearful about was right here, being broken and poured out in an act of obedience and worship that Jesus values more than any other use for the things that are most precious to us.
Betsy Stewart served with EMM as a mission intern in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2017. She lives in Pasadena, Calif., where she works as a writer for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and serves as prayer coordinator at Vision Christian Fellowship.