Blow-Up Mattresses and Broken Promises

You guys need to meet my mom.

My mom is a supremely gifted and creative human being, especially when it comes to interior design and home staging.  She can turn any poorly decorated room into a beautiful work of art with just a few lamps, some rearranged furniture, and a freshly painted accent wall.  In fact, my mom is so creative that she managed to find a way to turn our family’s dining room area into a makeshift bedroom for yours truly.  The final touches included my very own clothing rack, a comfy blow-up mattress, and the privilege of being seven whole steps away from the refrigerator.  Midnight snacks never tasted so good.

During these past few months at home, things have been ‘n bietjie deurmekaar (as they say in Afrikaans).  Hectic, crazy, confusing, and pretty much “all over the place” sum it up quite nicely.  It started with a jetlag-induced emotional breakdown which then led to several weeks of slowly readjusting back to a relatively normal American lifestyle.  Then just for kicks, let’s throw in Thanksgiving with the family, several radio interviews, a high school human trafficking awareness presentation, my Grandma’s Birthday, an exciting weekend church fundraiser, Christmas shenanigans, a few biblical counseling sessions, dinner dates with old friends, New Years Eve firework watching, last minute sleepovers, oh… and breathing.  Let’s not forget breathing.

By the grace of God I’ve somehow made it to January 1st, 2018, and while the world is striving to make their New Year’s Resolutions, I’m just trying to muster up the motivation to make my bed in the morning.  While the world is trying to make promises and end bad habits, I’m just trying to find the energy to shampoo my hair.  The truth is—if I had the time to jot down a bunch of promises to keep for this new year—Jesus knows I’d probably just break them anyway.

On one hand, my brain thinks to itself, “Yes Sam, do the workout, pray the prayer, skip the dessert, read the book, get the sleep.”  On the other hand, my heart shoots back with, “Sam, what were you thinking?  That workout will make your legs burn for weeks and who really needs sleep?  Not you, you’re a superhero!  By the way, that thought you had last night about eating doughnuts for every single meal is a top-notch idea!  Do it.”  The struggle, people.

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So in the midst of this new and unpredictable season of life, I’ve decided to do things a little bit differently.  I’ve decided to take the pressure off of myself to perform.  Instead of making promises that I will most definitely break, I’ve decided to simply aim for progress.  Instead of planning for perfection, I’m choosing to embrace interruption.  That way, when things go wrong, timetables get adjusted, or blunders get made, I can brush the dirt off my knees, look for the teachable moment, and get up to try again.  (Pangs of guilt and shame no longer included courtesy of Jesus.)  Overall, I want this new year to be a season of learning how to walk by faith, a season of learning how to grow through mistakes, and a season of learning how to receive God’s undeserved and unconditional grace.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get so caught up in my shortcomings and in never reaching “the proverbial mark” that I forget to look back at how far God has brought me, and I forget to be thankful for the moment that I’m in now.

So my friends, while we (both awkwardly and enthusiastically) stumble together through this new and fresh 2018 year—let’s take a gigantic leap of faith, go against the flow, and cut ourselves a little bit more slack.

You are loved.

Uganda: Loving Simply and Simply Loving

Did you know that missions trips have a lot in common with surprise birthday parties?

Yeah, me neither.  Until now.

Think about it.  Sometimes the events of the day catch you totally off-guard, sometimes you experience anxiety, excitement, and fear all at the same time, sometimes you stay up until the wee hours of the night enjoying great conversations with great friends, and sometimes you just can’t wait for everyone to leave so you can be alone to sleep.

Oh, and sometimes there’s cake.

I just got back from my trip to Uganda, and it was totally like a surprise birthday party—full of excitement, exhaustion, and every other emotion you can possibly imagine. Continue reading “Uganda: Loving Simply and Simply Loving”

But the Greatest of These Is Love…

It’s always funny scrolling back through my old blog posts, reminiscing about the trials and the triumphs that I’ve had to walk through over these past few years.  It’s cool to see how far I’ve come, and it’s humbling to see how far I still have to go.  There are some lessons that I’ve been able to check off my “done and dusted” list, while some other lessons are still in the “under construction” pile.

Just the other day I sent out an email update to my supporters and my church back home.  It contained a bunch of sentences filled with anxiety, joy, fear, and uncertainty.

As I was typing out my feelings and my concerns, I became so wrapped up in my shortcomings and my doubts about being back in South Africa.  Can I really make a difference?  Am I enough?  Am I really supposed to be here?  And as I was typing, I tried to remind myself of the importance of holding on to truth, the importance of focusing on God, and the importance of prayer.

(*I don’t know if you guys realize this, but I actually write these blog posts for myself, because the Lord knows that for this stuff to actually sink into my thick skull, I need write it down—sometimes more than once.  Also, the Holy Spirit has me write it all down in a public setting, because He has a serious sense of humor and because it makes you all witnesses to the up’s and down’s of my faith walk.  This is what happens when you ask God to keep you humble, folks.)

Anyways, after I sent out the update, I got an email response from one of my pastors…

It was short, sweet, and smacked me across the face with truth:

“Sam, When all else fails simply LOVE”

Woah.  It’s only been 14 days in this foreign country, and I’ve already forgotten the most important thing about why I came here in the first place.  To love.

Yes, planting churches is important.  Building orphanages is awesome.  Educating children is special.  Street evangelism is excellent.  Feeding the homeless is great.  Hosting bible studies is wonderful.

But loving people…and I mean really loving people—that takes courage, that takes vulnerability, that covers sin, that casts out fear, that brings unity, that speaks volumes, and that changes lives.

It would be pretty sweet to have a long list of accomplishments and success stories added to my “missionary résumé,” but if all of those things were done without love—then it would all be meaningless.  Absolutely meaningless.

When I got to know the real Jesus at the age of 17, my life was changed forever.  It wasn’t because someone told me I would go to hell if I didn’t stop screwing up, it wasn’t because I got a fancy degree in theology, and it wasn’t because I joined a new church that played awesome worship music.

It was because I was loved…  I was loved in my mess.  I was loved in spite of my flaws, my weaknesses, and my misunderstandings.

Someone (Alexandria Rogan, you know who you are) chose to love me when I thought I was unlovable.  She decided that I was worthy of being loved and she decided that I was worthy of being found—and that changed my life.  She didn’t accuse me or judge me or try to fix me.  She just loved me, and that was enough to leave a mark that would impact my life forever.  And the coolest part?  She was able to love me, because she already knew exactly what it felt like to be loved in her own life.

But hey, that’s the gospel isn’t it? That while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  That although we’ve fallen short, we can have hope and salvation.  That, even though I am far from perfect, Jesus covers me in His perfection so I can be accepted and welcomed by God.

So to put it simply (and to sum all of this up)…  that’s why I’m here.  And that’s why you are exactly where you are right now.  To love.  So when you all see me having me a nervous breakdown or a crisis of faith, because it is likely to happen again, smack me in the face with truth.  Heck, send me this blog post.  I’ll thank you for it.

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It Takes A Village (To Raise a Missionary)

There is an old African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  But, over this past year, I’ve realized that it also takes a village to raise up and send out a missionary (especially a crazy and injury prone one like me).

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I was raised by a hard working, soccer playing, and joke telling dad who always has a knack for putting others before himself.  I was raised by a generous and caring mom, a teacher who has such a great love for her children – both blood and in her classroom – and who has an incredible ability to influence and inspire the people around her.  I have grandparents that taught me how to serve, how to pray, and how to go above and beyond for those in need.  I grew up in a community where your skin color didn’t determine your worth, where everyone spoke a different language, and where little girls could play sports with the big boys.  I was constantly surrounded by people that loved me, and I was given plenty of opportunities to succeed.  None of that had anything to do with me.  I didn’t pick my parents, I didn’t pick my neighborhood, and I didn’t pick my talents.  (Lord knows that I wish I could sing.  Unfortunately, for those who ride in the car with me – I can’t.)

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So, my job is to make the most of what I’ve been given.  It’s my responsibility to use my gifts, talents, and abilities for God’s glory.  He gave me everything I have, and He gave it to me freely, in love.  So how can I show my gratitude and how can I give back to a God who already has everything?  I ask myself daily what it would look like to live a life surrendered to God, and I think 1 Peter 4: 8-11 sums it up quite nicely,

“Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins.  Cheerfully share your home with those who need a meal or a place to stay.  God has given each of you a gift from His great variety of spiritual gifts.  Use them well to serve one another.  Do you have the gift of speaking?  Then speak as though God himself were speaking through you.  Do you have the gift of helping others?  Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies. Then everything you do will bring glory to God through Jesus Christ.”

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Frederick Buechner eloquently said that, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  I’ve learned that my life isn’t just about me.  My experiences, my wisdom, my failings, my abilities, and my successes are all meant to be shared with others – to bring growth, freedom, wisdom, love, understanding, and friendship.  Every single one of us is unique, we all come with a variety of strengths and weaknesses, gifts and talents, and passions and desires.  Not to mention, we are all created in God’s image.  So when I meet someone new, I am given the opportunity to experience God in a whole new way as well.  While I grow closer with others, I also grow closer with Him.  I get to see a different side to who He is, and I get to learn something about His heart that I never would have known before.

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We are all different, and I want to stress that different doesn’t mean wrong, it just means different.  (Hallelujah for that!)  We all have something to bring to the table, something of value to be shared and spread far and wide.

Now to bring this blog full circle…

I am going back to South Africa.  I am going to put my feet to my faith, and actions to my words.  I want to make a difference, I want to change lives, and I want to bring hope and love to the people in this world that need it most.  But like I said earlier, I can’t do this alone.  I need your help.

As a missionary, my mission is my job, my donations become my salary, and my workplace becomes my home.  It’s a 24/7 lifestyle that doesn’t have an expiration date.  It’s risky and exciting, and I couldn’t imagine doing life any other way!

So here come the logistics.  I have a charity visa that allows me to do volunteer work in South Africa, but that means my only source of income must come from the money I raise here via donations.  Before I am allowed to head back overseas in March, I need to have at least 50% of my total required amount to live for a year in SA in the bank.  (Just to give you guys a quick example, it costs $25 to pay for electricity, $35 to buy groceries, and $450 to pay for my rent… every single month.)  I will need about $1,000 monthly to cover absolutely everything to live in South Africa for this next year, which is pretty incredible because of the exchange rate.  So any amount helps – big or small, even if it’s a $5 monthly donation or a one time gift of $15- I can put it to good use!

I always struggled with guilt when it came to asking others for money, but I quickly learned that if I don’t ask, I won’t receive.  Wayne Gretzky was right when he said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”  I also learned that by asking, I am giving others a chance to participate in the awesome work that is happening in South Africa and the awesome things that God is doing (rather than selfishly keeping the experiences to myself), and that’s pretty cool too!  The Lord has taught me so much about His faithfulness through the donations that I have received.  It’s been a challenging experience for me, but it’s one that has grown my faith and trust in Him in more ways than I can describe.

So I am taking a shot, and I’m humbly asking…  Will you come alongside me on this journey?  Will you walk with me through the dark places?  Will you help me to share hope and love and grace with the brokenhearted and hurting in South Africa?  If so, let’s do this together, as a village and as a family.  Even though you may not be with me physically on the mission field, you play a significant role in everything that happens there.  Through prayer, donations, and encouragement, things get done – great and life changing things!

I want to thank you all for the love and support that you’ve continued to give me as I walk this journey.  Through all of the up’s and down’s and triumphs and difficulties, I have never once felt alone.  Thank you.  Lastly, I want to end this super long blog post with a passage from one of Paul’s letters (Philippians 4:10-17).  His words connect with all of the emotions and thoughts racing through heart and mind so perfectly, and my hope is that it will connect with you as well.  He writes:

How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Even so, you have done well to share with me in my present difficulty.  As you know, you Philippians were the only ones who gave me financial help when I first brought you the Good News and then traveled on from Macedonia. No other church did this. Even when I was in Thessalonica you sent help more than once. I don’t say this because I want a gift from you. Rather, I want you to receive a reward for your kindness.

If you would like to make a donation online, please visit:

http://ssmfi.org/missionary/samantha-stokesberry/

If you want to donate by mail, then please make a (tax decidable) check payable to Shepherds Staff and write my account number #6020 in the memo section, then mail it to:

Shepherd’s Staff Mission Facilitators

6739 Academy Road NE, Suite 320

Albuquerque, NM 87109

 

Preparing for a Porn Conference: This Christian’s Walk on the Wild Side

I never thought these words would ever come out of my mouth, but here it goes… In exactly one month, I will be attending a porn conference in Vancouver, Canada.  

Now before anyone freaks out – or rushes over to their cell phones to call my parents and tell them that their 24 year old daughter has fallen off the deep end – let me tell you why I will be attending this conference.

First things first: Jesus loves porn stars.  No, really – He’s crazy about them.  He doesn’t just like them, He loves them.  And you know what else?  Jesus loves people who watch porn too.  Yes, you read that correctly.  While I was in South Africa this past year, my faith and knowledge of “who God is” was challenged immensely.  I realized that His love ran deeper than I ever could have imagined and that His healing power was greater than I ever could have anticipated.  He is a God of inclusion, and His arms are always open to receive anyone who runs to Him (no matter how dirty or how sinful that person might be).  Isaiah 59:1 says, “Listen! The LORD’s arm is not too weak to save you, nor is his ear too deaf to hear you call.”  

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Jesus had a talent for drawing in the people that everyone else pushed away.  The whores, the murders, the diseased, the liars, the cheaters, the arrogant, and even the dead.  Not only did he draw them in, He made it a point to chase after them.  When the religious leaders looked at a deadbeat or a criminal, they saw a waste of space – but when Jesus looked at them, He saw a daughter or a son who needed restoration and freedom.  If Jesus, brimming with perfect holiness, was willing to walk into the most dimly lit and shameful places of the world to find the people who needed Him desperately, then I must be willing to do the same.

Only God can turn our ashes into a thing of beauty.  The Lord has an amazing way of redeeming our pasts.  He can take something that was once ugly and disgraceful and He can turn it into something worthy and full of hope.  It’s my turn to get free with ya’ll.  I had a really bad porn addiction in high school, and I had an incredible talent for hiding it from the people closest to me (which meant that no one knew I needed help).  I used porn as an escape, as a coping method, and as a way to “take the stress away” until it finally began to consume me.  Some serious damage was done.  My perception on love, sex, and “healthy relationships” became completely disfigured, I felt so much shame and guilt that I started to lash out on my family members and I distanced myself from God, and I started buying into the lies that I was worthless, broken, and most definitely gross.

BUT GOD.  Those are two of my favorite words in the universe.  But God… put me back together.  He reached out to me when I was deep in my self-made pit of despair, and He pulled me out and grabbed ahold of me (despite the fact that I had no strength at the time to hold onto Him).  Romans 5:8 says, “But God showed His great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.”  He cleaned me up, set me free, healed my hurts, and He told me who I was in His eyes: valuable, beautiful, righteous, blameless, cherished, loved, and most importantly… His.  He’s given me a heart to reach out to those who struggle like I did, to reach out to the women who think they aren’t worth something (or someone) of value, and to reach out to the brokenhearted and abused.  He had taken the messed up pieces of my past, and He redeemed them for His glory and for my benefit, and let me tell you… it’s the greatest feeling in the world! Now, I get to find others who are in need of hope and healing.  I get the opportunity and the honor of sharing the love of Christ with those who have never experienced love before, and it’s all because of His mercy and grace.

Even though this trip (with Calvary Chapel Ft. Lauderdale and xxxchurch) will only last for a short week in February, my mission to create change and to bring hope and love to others will last for my entire life.  It’s not going to be an easy journey.  It will be dark one, a dangerous one, and the fight will be a spiritual one.  Sex trafficking, prostitution, and pornography are all over the world.  The battle is a big one, and it’s one that ends in death, both spiritually and physically, for so many.  I was recently challenged with the thought… “What would happen if I loved those people (the johns, the strippers, the porn stars, the addicts, and the pimps…) as much as Jesus loves them? How might the world be different?  

I’ve decided to give it a go and find out.  Partner with me in prayer and with steps of faith.  Let’s be bold together as a community (all over the world) and as a united church.  We are commanded by God – Who is the Mighty Warrior fighting on our behalf – to not be afraid, so let’s be strong and courageous, and let’s inspire change. Jeremiah 32:17 says, “Nothing is to hard for Him.”

If you’d like to donate and support me in this fight, please visit:

http://ssmfi.org/missionary/samantha-stokesberry/

To Sin Less or to Be Sinless: That Is the Question

Sometimes, I get so tired of being a Christian.  Literally, I get exhausted to the point of needing multiple power naps a day.

This week I finally decided to sit down and ask myself, “Why the heck do I feel this way?”  If the Christian life is supposed to bring freedom and abundant joy, then why do I constantly feel worn out and enslaved?

I finally got the answer.

For so long, I believed that being a Christian meant that it was my duty to “sin less.”  I don’t know if anyone else has tried that, but for me, “sinning less” is absolutely draining.  It usually lasts about 5 whole seconds from the moment I wake up, and then it’s all downhill from there.  Heck, I’m pretty sure I even sin in my sleep.

But here’s what I learned (and this may sound radical so bear with me).  Jesus never ever asked me to “sin less.”  He asked me not to sin at all.  Jesus never demanded progress, He demanded perfection.  After Jesus taught the famous beatitudes, He said in Matthew 5:20, “But I warn you — unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Oh, snap.  If my salvation is dependent on my level of perfection and my good works, then I am in big trouble.  (Houston, we have a serious problem.)  I can tell you right now that, even as a missionary who’s walked with the Lord for just over 8 years, I do NOT measure up.  I will fail the test of righteousness every single time, and that’s a promise.  So if Jesus demands perfection, (and if I am an imperfect person) then how is the Gospel “good news?”

Here’s where I got my answer.

In Matthew 5, Jesus was preaching to the Jewish people.  He knew His audience from the inside out.  He knew their thoughts, their hidden agendas, their traditions, and their mindset.  Jesus knew exactly what He was teaching, and it must have sounded insane to those with listening ears.  The Pharisees were some of the most legalistic, religious, and obedient people alive in that day and age.  Jesus knew that no one could be as righteous as them in terms of lifestyle.  They set the tone for perfection.  The Jewish Pharisees were only concerned with the external appearance of their actions, but Jesus wasn’t stupid.  It is written in 1 Samuel 16:7, “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him.  The Lord doesn’t see the things the way you see them.  People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” 

Jesus was making a point.  He saw what was hidden in their hearts.

Their obedience to the law wasn’t good enough.  They still fell short because their hearts were impure; every good thing they did was tainted with nasty sin.  But before I get prideful and start judging those guys for being so ridiculous, Paul makes it very clear in the book of Romans that we all fall short of the glory of God too.  In Galatians 2:21, Paul says, “I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless.  For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.”

Halle-flippin-lujah.  There’s hope!

Then it hit me (like an overly pumped up soccer ball to the face).  I realized why I had been so tired.  I was trying to live in perfect obedience to a law that I was never required to keep.  The law condemns me every time I try to live up to it.  All it does is reveal how sinful I am.  I was trying to work harder, seem wiser, look purer, be better… and sin less.

When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished,” and Jesus always means what He says!  If He says is it finished, then it’s actually finished!  It’s done.  I like to think of it this way:  Imagine me walking up to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and finger-painting smiley faces all over it.  Then imagine me looking him straight in the eye and saying, “Check this out Leo!  Doesn’t your painting look so much better now?  Talk about a masterpiece!  Those smiley faces are flawless!”  I could’ve just as easily slapped him in the face.  (And I do the same thing to God every day when I try to add to the finished work of the cross.)

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Does that mean that my salvation is a “get out of jail free card?”  No, God is (and will always be) a representation of perfect justice.  Someone had to pay the price for my disobedience and my unrighteousness; a debt was still owed.  Jesus took the punishment that I deserved by living a perfect life that I couldn’t live.  He fulfilled the law that I could never fulfill (Romans 3:23).  He nailed my sins to the cross (Colossians 2:14) and died a terrible and shameful death in my place (2 Corinthians 5:21).  He loved me enough to meet my unreachable requirements of perfection, knowing ahead of time that it would cost Him everything.  This is the Gospel.  This is good news.  This is love.

Let me share one last thing that convicted me this week about the character of God.  The man on the cross next to Jesus in Luke 23: he didn’t have a holy resumé to hand over to Jesus, he didn’t try and convince Jesus that he was good enough to enter heaven, and Jesus never gave Him a penance requirement before he died.  The man’s belief was enough.  The man recognized his sin and his need for a Savior, he acknowledged Jesus as his only hope, and he called out to the Lord in faith.  And Jesus saved him.  That is grace.

Just like the criminal on the cross, I was justified (undeservingly), and now I am being sanctified.  The good works that I do now are not what make me righteous before God.  Instead, those good works are responses to the love and mercy and grace that I have received from Him.  They aren’t the means of my salvation, they are the outflow of it.  God loved me while I was a mess.  He saved me when I had nothing to offer Him, and that’s what makes grace so amazing.  C.S. Lewis said it this way, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.”

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So now, instead of wasting my time trying to “sin less,” God calls me to believe that I am sinless.  And instead of growing tired and worn out from failing to measure up, God calls me to rest in the fact that Jesus measured up for me.  I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Steve Brown:

“The good news is that Christ frees us from the need to obnoxiously focus on our goodness, our commitment, and our correctness. Religion has made us obsessive almost beyond endurance. Jesus invited us to a dance… and we’ve turned it into a march of soldiers, always checking to see if we’re doing it right and are in step and in line with the other soldiers. We know a dance would be more fun, but we believe we must go through hell to get to heaven, so we keep marching.” 

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And Let Us Run with Endurance

Yesterday, I ran my first trail race.

I can describe the experience in two words: terribly wonderful.  “Terribly” because it was freezing and I could barely breathe the entire time.  “Wonderful” because of the adrenaline rush, the incredible views, and the satisfaction of finishing 5th out of 40 women.  

While I was striving and struggling to put one foot in front of the other (without tripping over rocks or getting lost), I had some revelations.  The first revelation was, “Dang, I definitely should not have tied my shoelaces this tight because I can’t feel my toes,” and the second revelation was, “Life is just like a long distance trail run.”

Throughout the race, God was reminding me of bible verses that perfectly correlated with what I was going through over these past few weeks.

Psalm 18:32-36 – God arms me with strength, and He makes my way perfect. He makes me as surefooted as a deer, enabling me to stand on mountain heights. He trains my hands for battle; he strengthens my arm to draw a bronze bow. You have given me Your shield of victory. Your right hand supports me; Your help has made me great. You have made a wide path for my feet to keep them from slipping.

The hardest parts of the trail run were the single tracks that weaved back and forth up the mountainside.  Only one person could travel up the path at a time because of it’s narrowness, and it was much harder to see where you were going because the path wasn’t straight.  When I ran on the single tracks, I couldn’t look up to enjoy the view of the vineyards because I was too scared that I would twist an ankle or take a wrong turn.  I ran with hesitation and I doubted my ability as a seasoned athlete.  But I was reminded that in the moments when I am weak, God is strong on my behalf.  When my feet falter and my legs grow tired, He carries me and establishes my steps.

As I pushed the branches out of my face and carefully eyed every step, I was also reminded of how important it is to focus on being “in the moment.”  Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”  If I spent too much time trying to find the next turn sign past the endless amounts of shrubbery, I probably would have fallen flat on my face or stubbed my toe on a rock.  I needed to be content with focusing on one thing at a time by making the most of my situation in that moment.  I have to laugh because I am such a planner (aka: control freak).  I love to think ahead and strategize about the future,  so this part of the race not only slowed me down… it convicted me as well.

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Proverbs 4:11-12 – I will teach you wisdom’s ways and lead you in straight paths. When you walk, you won’t be held back; when you run, you won’t stumble.

Just call me Samantha “Stumbling” Stokesberry.  Ask my mom, I am a klutz.  I broke my toe by tripping into a wall for goodness sake. How does that even happen?  Anyways, I probably rolled my ankle 4 or 5 times during this run.  The track was a dirt road that went through a vineyard and up a mountainside, so it was full of gravel, dips, and tree roots.  I honestly don’t know how I didn’t face plant.  I’m sure the woman running behind me wondered the same thing.  I somehow managed to “catch” myself before I twisted an ankle, and each time I would let out a nervous chuckle under my breath followed by a, “Whew, thank you Jesus that was a close one.”

There have been so many times in my life when I deliberately chose to take a wrong step in a very wrong direction, and the Lord was always there to meet me in those moments.  He has never met me with anger or judgement.  Instead, He continually rescues me with love and mercy.  I’ve lost count of how many “close ones” I have encountered overall, but I can say that I’ve grown and matured through all of them.  Every time I make a mistake, God is there to teach me wisdom and to set my wandering feet back on His straight path.  Sometimes, it takes multiple mistakes for His wisdom to sink into my thick skull, but eventually… it resonates.

My favorite parts of the run were the sections where the single tracks opened up into broad and smooth downhill roads.  I could run without holding back, I could pick up speed without difficulty, and I could look up to admire the beautiful landscape in front of me.  In those moments, I was reminded of God’s grace.  There will always be tough times in life when we are forced to trek up a steep and hazardous incline (uncertain of what we will face once we get to the top), but God is also gracious enough to give us the easy and exciting downhill portions to enjoy as well.  I believe both types of circumstances are meant to be savored and cherished, and we should praise Him for them all.  I mean, how can we ever really appreciate the good in life without having experienced the bad?

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Lastly,  I realized that “how I run my race” plays a significant role in how I finish.  I could have cheated and cut corners, I could have turned back around when things got difficult, or I could have pushed one of my competitors into the lake next to the trail so they wouldn’t beat me to the finish line (I may or my not have considered all three of those options by the time the race was over).  The “long distance trail run” of life is where we are meant to grow and develop.  It’s where our character is reveled, where the steadfastness of our spirit is tested, and where we face challenges and victories of all kinds.  It’s where we learn from what is behind us and look forward to what lies ahead.

So, my conclusion: Above all else, I want to be known as someone who ran her race well.  Someone who ran with integrity, passion, love, and grace.  Someone who finished strong and someone who helped others to do the same. Who’s with me?!

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Hebrews 12:1-2a  Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.  We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.

To Donate towards my mission in South Africa: http://ssmfi.org/missionary/samantha-stokesberry/

“An Other” Kind of Love

There are days when I would love nothing more than to throw my bible off a cliff. A really high cliff.

Let’s be real.  Sometimes I don’t like what the bible says.  However, just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.  The bible commands me to do things that I don’t always want to do, and the reason I don’t want to do those things is probably because performing them often requires a significant amount of humility and/or courage.

Forgive.  Love.  Be kind.  Be honest.  Confess.  Let go.  Wait.

Those things are tough.

Loving people that you don’t want to love is especially hard.  I may not have a husband to experience this truth with yet, but I do have a mom and a dad.  Just ask my mom about all of the “lovely conversations” we’ve had from across the house when I was a teenager (I dare you).  There were moments when my mom and I desperately wanted to send each other on a one-way trip to the tropical island called  “Stop Giving Me Such A Hard Time.”  Maybe you’ve heard of it?  It’s only 200 miles from the “Because I Said So” Rainforest.  Despite those rough patches, there were plenty of moments when loving my family was easy.  It came naturally and flowed out of me without a second thought, and those are the moments I cherish the most.

My boss from Ambassadors Football, Ben Marais, spoke about what it meant to love one another while we were hosting a bible study in prison this past week.  During the study, he did something so simple, and yet so incredibly profound.  Ben broke down the word “another.”  Instead of solely identifying the word as a reference to “an additional person or someone of the same type,” he challenged us to think of the word as “an other.”  Someone who is different from us in one or multiple ways, someone we may not agree with, and/or someone who may not even like us.

For example, it’s really easy to love my little brother Brian because he’s just like me (sorry mom, I feel your pain) but in lanky boy form.  We both enjoy playing video games, watching sports with Dad, drinking Starbucks coffee with mom, playing practical jokes on our unsuspecting sister Melissa, and laughing over the fact that Grandma is so terrible at texting.  Loving him doesn’t take much effort.

But what about loving a friend who “stabbed you in the back” or the boyfriend who cheated on you?  What about loving the racist who lives next door or the Christian with the cardboard sign on the street condemning everyone to hell?  What about loving your opponents on the soccer field or the kid who broke into your car and stole your favorite handbag?

The Bible doesn’t just say to love those who are easy to love, the Bible also says to love your neighbor (which is everyone), to love your enemies including those who persecute you, and (drumroll please) to love each and every person as you love YOURSELF.  Yep.  It says that.  I’m dead serious.  You won’t find that in the Book of Sam’s Opinion’s 4:2.  You can find it in Matthew 22:37-39, John 13:34-35, and Matthew 5:44.

When I love myself, I don’t hesitate.  It’s practically reflexive in the sense that I don’t have to second guess what I am doing or why I am doing it.  If I am hungry then I will eat, if I am tired then I will sleep, and if I am bored then I will watch a movie or sketch.

So what does this mean in the life of Sam?  It means that if I see the girl who “wronged me” on the side of the road in desperate need of a lift, then I will immediately pull over and welcome her into my car (instead of speeding past her in raging fury).  Not because she does or doesn’t deserve it, not because I am trying to make her feel guilty for how she hurt me, and not because I am trying to prove what a wonderful person I am.  None of the above.  I do it because Jesus commands me to.  If God is love (1 John 4:7-8), then I have the opportunity to share Him with anyone and everyone I meet through what I say and what I do.  Since His love is powerful enough to shine through the broken cracks of my life, stifling it would mean hindering another from being able to experience God through me in a beautiful way.

Quick reminder to all of my fellow imperfect human beings out there:  I will fail.  There will be days when it may take me a lot longer to love or forgive, and there will be days when I don’t do it at all,  but that’s what grace is for.  It’s also a great reminder that even when my love fails, God’s never will.

So as I enter into every situation, I will strive to love with an open heart and without fear because I am reminded that in my “unlovable moments,” God never stopped loving me.

Uncharted Territory

“There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by reading.  The few who learn by observation.  The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”   ― Will Rogers

(In case you were wondering,  I’m the kind of woman who needs to pee on the electric fence to learn a proper lesson. Stubborn is my middle name.)

If you were to ask me about what I’ve learned so far while living in South Africa, I would tell you these two very important things:

  1. Be Flexible
  2. Fail

Fail?  Yep.  I said it.  Fail.  I am what some professionals like to call “an experiential learner.”  I like to learn by “trial and error.”  I take a step, I fail, I learn, I change, and then I try to do it better the next time.  The concept seems simple enough, but, in the moment of realization, it can be pretty heart wrenching.  Messing up isn’t fun.  It hurts.  It takes humility to admit a wrong, and it can leave scars and memories that seem to only fade with time.  Not to mention, our culture has an awful way of reinforcing the broken idea that we must constantly strive for perfection, and if we fail to reach it, we should just crawl into a hole and let someone else give it a shot.  It’s why we hide our weaknesses, it’s why we are ashamed of our flaws, and it’s why some of the most successful businessmen in the world are the greatest liars.

But hey, there’s good news.  Jesus gave me the freedom to fail.  In fact, I have the freedom to screw up BIG TIME over and over and over again.  My identity isn’t in my volunteer work, it isn’t in my soccer playing abilities, or in the number of bible verses I have memorized.  My worth and my value don’t come from my accomplishments.  God could take all of those things away from me, and I would still be deemed precious in His sight.  His love doesn’t change when I fail.  His love isn’t conditional or dependent on me.  His love and approval do not come with a disclaimer.

So when I go through a trial, how do I respond?  Do I sulk and give up?  Or do I learn and grow?  Do I beat myself up? Or do I choose to move forward and try again?

Quick example.  Today, I had to pull the plug on my high school futsal team.  I love those girls (and I also hate feeling like a quitter), so it wasn’t an easy task for me.  I had to humble myself enough to admit that the program wasn’t going in the direction that training4changeS needed it to go.  I had to swallow my pride and admit that it simply wasn’t working…. but that’s okay.

Now, I move forward. I learn from this experience, and I choose to become a better coach.  I adjust my strategy, I adapt to my environment, and I appreciate the trials and the challenges that I have walked through over these past few months.  As a training4changeS team, we went back to the drawing board and we decided to target a new age group.  We are hoping to develop a girl’s futsal program within the local primary schools instead of the high schools.  We’ve realized that the world is changing fast.  To make a lasting impact, we need to start teaching, loving, and coaching younger aged kids.  By the time these girls enter into high school, their habits and lifestyles are so deeply engrained into their minds and hearts that change just doesn’t stick.  The chance for long term impact decreases more and more with each birthday.

So, I am venturing down a new road that will lead me into uncharted territory.  I am going to start traveling down this “one of a kind” path that God has so graciously paved for me.  This path could very well be full of sharp turns, steep hills, and some potential thunderstorms, but I am willing and ready to face the elements.  I am willing and ready to have my roadmap torn to shreds, my travel plans tossed out the window, and my destination expectations rerouted.

I know that I’d much rather trek up a dangerous and scary mountain trail with my Creator, than sit in the comfort of a palm tree without Him.

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We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. 

Romans 5:3-5 (NLT)

According To Plan

I have to admit, I never thought that I’d need to type a blog post with one hand, I never thought that I would’ve fractured my wrist playing soccer, and I never thought that my best friend would need to wash my hair for me over the side of a bathtub.

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I thought that my journey was going “according to plan,” but then it hit me… according to who’s plan? My plan? My boss’s plan? My parent’s plan?   If I genuinely believe in a Sovereign and Loving God who is in complete control of everything, including the tiny details of my personal life, then I have to trust that everything is going exactly according to His plan (whether I like it or not.)

I never saw this coming, but God did.  I was caught completely off guard, but God wasn’t.  So, with that in mind… I step forward.  Without seeing or knowing the bigger picture, I walk forward with my two healthy and completely uninjured legs, and I keep my eyes fixed on the One who sees and knows everything.

One of my prayers lately has been to embrace God as my Dad.  To see Him as full of grace and love and mercy.  I used to view God as a “recorder of my wrongs,” and as a scary guy who was constantly disappointed in me, but that’s not who He is.  He is faithful, and I know that through this experience, however painful it may be, He will use it.  It’s been two short days, and I have already received so much love and encouragement from my friends and family all over the world.  The word “grateful” just doesn’t cover it.

Then there’s my best friend, Rencia.  She has to live with my flaws and she has to  witness my shortcomings every single day.  Not to mention, she gets the wonderful privilege of experiencing me in my stubborn and “hangry” moments (hangry = hungry and angry.)  For anyone that doesn’t know this about me, if you ever notice that I seem “hangry”… run for your life before it’s too late.

Now that I can only use one arm for anything that I do, Rencia has to help me with pretty much everything.  It’s a huge blow to my pride.  I can’t help cook, cut up my own food, or braid my own hair.   Yet, she lovingly and willingly helps me do it all with no expectation of receiving anything in return. John 15:13 that says, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Rencia is daily “laying down her life” for me, and to be honest, I can’t stand it.  It hurts and it’s not fair and I argue with her about it all the time… but Grace isn’t fair either.

When Jesus died for me, I didn’t deserve it.  I mean, heck, He took my sins with Him to the cross before I even knew who He was.  He gave up everything for me, and now nothing can separate me from His unconditional love.  So when I see how Rencia goes out of her way to love and serve me, it shows me a beautiful picture of the love of Jesus.  The love of a Father who wants nothing more than to spoil His children.  It makes no sense, and it goes against everything that I know about our human-made scale of “Reward and Punishment Love.”

So when I prayed for this truth to be make clear in my life, I didn’t know that I’d end up needing surgery. I didn’t think that my arm would need to be put in a sling, but it’s okay because Romans 8:28 says, “we know that God causes everything (*the great things and the bad things) to work together for the good of those who love Him…”

So, as I am fighting hard to let go of my pride, I am simultaneously learning to hold onto truth.  It’s the absolute truth that gently whispers over and over, “Sam, your identity and your value does not rest in what you do, your identity and your value rest in the fact that you are Mine.  Nothing you do or don’t do will cause Me to love you any less.  No one can take you away from Me because I have engraved your name on the palm of My hands and I have placed My Spirit in your heart.  Sam, you are loved solely because I have chosen to love you.  Now, let Me love you.”

My surgery is Monday morning.  God has already gone ahead of me to prepare the way, so in the meantime, I am going to rest and enjoy the quiet before they knock me out and put screws in my wrist.  I am going to cheer on my soccer team from the sidelines, and I am going to coach my players to the best of my ability.  Last but not least, I am making the conscious decision not to worry,

AND I am going to let Rencia wash my hair…