by Karen Fancher
In the year 2000 I first traveled to the region of southern Sudan, which was embroiled in a devastating and long-standing civil war. As a counselor from a Christian college who has worked cross-culturally, I was asked to speak on forgiveness to men and women who had experienced the atrocities of war. I realized that the issues of long-term exposure to trauma, limited access to Bibles or Christian teaching, a unique spiritual context, and a myriad of cultural issues—all combined to create a tremendous challenge in providing appropriate support and encouragement to those who were persevering in the midst of war. I realized that God had given me the privilege to witness His work in Sudan, and to build relationship with brothers and sisters there. I knew that I could not say, “The Lord bless you” and walk away. Yet, I was acutely aware that I needed to think through these complex issues in order to walk with them well. In His grace, after several years and several more trips to Sudan, the Lord allowed me to come to Western Seminary to complete the Doctor of Missiology program. Although I have not singlehandedly figured out all of the complexities of effective ministry partnership in the context of Southern Sudan (now the world’s newest country—the Republic of South Sudan), I have learned much that helps to guide the next steps of my journey of faith.
True education is not about the acquisition of knowledge or data, but the formation of an individual. My studies at Western Seminary have provided a life forming experience for which I am grateful. Although I most certainly have not arrived (as our education makes us even more acutely aware), I am also not the same as when I began. When I consider the factors that have shaped and impacted my life over the past several years, three simple truths come to mind. These are foundational principles that I now understand in a more profound manner.
1. God Goes Before Us:
For this woman from Portland, Oregon to connect with men and women in Sudan who were living in the midst of war makes no sense from a worldly perspective. But as I look back, I can see the bridges of relationships and experiences that God had been building to bring me the place where this became my passion and calling.
In the same way I saw that God had gone before to the people of the Murle tribe to prepare their hearts to respond to the gospel message, long before any missionaries arrived. From their animistic background there an awareness of one God the Creator and their separation from Him long ago, a sense of the immanence of God, and the rituals of blood sacrifice to redeem one who had been ostracized from the tribe—all of which had prepared hearts to respond to the message of Christ.
2. The Gospel Marks a Life:
I have appreciated meeting fellow students from around the world, Africa, Asia, and North America, many of whom had endured hardship for the sake of the gospel. As I saw that their response to hardship had been to be more consecrated to serve Christ, I was reminded that when we truly have come to know Christ and the revelation of the gospel, our lives are forever marked, and we cannot turn back, but are compelled and strengthened to follow Him with all of our hearts.
One man from from a tiny village of Kaiwa in South Sudan reminded me of this truth of power of the gospel. The people of Murle tribe in Kaiwa were previously animistic, believing in a distant God and the spirits of their ancestors who mediated between them and their Creator. This man from Kaiwa had suffered greatly in the war, and had lost an arm in battle. When I asked Him what would have happened to him if he had died, he said, “I would be with God.” When I asked him how he knew that he would be with God he told me, “because of Jesus.” I then asked him how he knew about Jesus. He said, “Jon told me.” Jon had been a missionary in the area 25 years before. Though there was no physical church building, few Bibles, and little access to formal Bible teaching, faith and hope in God had been sustained throughout the war. This was a testimony that the truth of the gospel marks a soul, and that our offerings of simple service are used by His grace beyond what we can see or understand.
3. Christ is Known through His Spirit and His Body:
God brings us to people, experiences, and opportunities to challenge and mold us, but ultimately He is the agent of transformation. As I look back at the people that the Lord has woven into my life, and the moments that He has walked me through, I realize that anything accomplished is due to His grace.
I am thankful for professors who live lives of consecrated service to Christ, calling us up to professionalism while caring about our personal journeys, friends and family who prayed, encouraged and gave resources to help me travel, classmates who had experienced God in unique ways and helped me to reflect on my life in Christ, and men and women of southern Sudan who were willing to share their lives and stories—who were all instruments of God’s revelation in my life. I’m so grateful for each one.
My goal now is to develop materials that may be resources for churches in Sudan as they seek to support those who have been impacted by trauma. I want to walk well with brothers and sisters across the globe as we seek and worship God together, learning from God’s work in one another. I’m thankful for the D. Miss. program, and how it has helped me to grow in relationships, perseverance, and faith. God Goes Before, The Gospel Marks a Soul, And God Accomplishes His Work Through His Spirit at Work Through His Body. These are three simple truths, yet the essence of our life and ministry.
The journey continues, for each of us. William Butler Yeats stated, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” May God light a fire in each of our souls to know and honor Him above all else.
This summer, we’ll be offering a series of posts from our 2012 graduates reflecting on what they’ve learned from their degree programs. Karen Fancher graduated from the D.Miss., where she focused on understanding the impact of war-related trauma in the country of Sudan. She currently serves as Dean of Spiritual Formation & Wellness Programs at Multnomah University.