Backed Against the Red Sea

“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today…. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Exodus 14:13, 14

My senior year of college, I promised God that I would go wherever in the world He wanted me to go on whatever mission, only I didn’t want to raise support. As a missionary kid, I grew up around fund development; I was familiar with church visits and courting potential supporters and funding letters and support banquets. I despised the lifestyle. God lead me to intern with Campus Crusade for Christ at my university, the University of Kansas, which meant I would be staying put and would have to raise support. I knew that I needed to trust God and take a step of faith.

The stress began when I told my grandmother about my decision. We share the same verbal impulsiveness, the same introversion, and the same disdain for popular opinion. When she was a child, the neighborhood kids used to call my grandma “Red Hot Pepper,” a name she acquired by fighting the boys who bullied her older brother. As an adult, she endured despite battles with diabetes and cancer. I figured that if there was anyone who could encourage me in my upcoming struggle with fundraising, it would be my Grandmother. Maybe she would even offer some advice about people to contact. I was wrong.

Over dinner, I gauged her response while I spoke about the internship. Her response was veiled. Grandmother worried that I would lose sight of writing as I tasted a career dedicated to people rather than creativity, a concern which made sense because she loved to paint. Rather than encouraging me about fundraising, she informed me that her church didn’t have any money to spare. It was then that the doubts took seed.

I went fishing the next morning hoping for solace, tranquility in the face of the encroaching tempest. It was springtime. After the sun rose to midday, the bass took to deeper waters and stopped striking artificial lures. The water was murky, almost opaque, but I could still see that bluegill had excavated circular beds in the mud bottom near the shore of the ponds and patrolled their nests with all the truculence of expectant parents. With the use of worm and bobber, it was easy to persuade the fish to bite, much as it injured my fisherman’s pride to use live bait.

The day should have been relaxing, but it wasn’t. My thoughts were like the bluegill: restless, relentless, and obsessive. How could I ask people for money? What would they think of me? Would the money come in? Did I have enough in my bank account to support myself in the meantime? What if I failed? Should I be making a backup plan?

In time, the thoughts overcame me. I fled the water, wandered the trail back to my car, and raced onto the road home, hoping to leave pensiveness behind. Then, without warning, my engine malfunctioned, and I lost a third of my acceleration power; it was as if I was suddenly driving a go-cart. As I worried whether my car would make the remaining miles home, financial questions became paramount: I already fretted about whether I would have enough money to last through the summer, and now an unknown amount of money was destined for car repairs. If I escaped my fears for a moment, they returned the moment I pressed the gas pedal and the engine with a buzz instead of a rumble.

I made it home safely, though my thoughts were in turmoil by the time I got home. I snuck to my bedroom, and after shutting the door, I knelt on the carpet. Then I told God everything, my worries and my insecurity. I prayed until the tears dried up. In time, the emotions melted away, not fully, but enough for me to return to work.

Weeks later, I began calling my potential supporters, most of them family members or friends. I had prefaced each of my phone calls with a handwritten letter briefly explaining that I was interning with Cru and planned to call within the next week about possibly setting up an appointment where I could share about the internship and my needs.

When I sat down with a list of numbers to call, actually picking up the phone to make the first call was a nightmare. I ran through my spiel in my head. That didn’t alleviate the nerves. I tried taking deep breathes. That wasn’t helping either. Finally, I just punched the number in and listened to the ringing.

He answered. I wanted to panic. He was an older gentleman who I knew from my Sunday school class. He didn’t sound friendly today.

I started to ramble my way through my speech, but he cut me off.

His wife had cancer. It was a bad time.

I said that I was sorry to hear that, and we hung up.

That call and many more to come taught me about myself. I hated imposing on anybody, no matter how closely we were acquainted—not even my parents—and here I was fundraising, in a position where I was guaranteed to be rejected repeatedly. I didn’t think of myself as someone who catered to others’ opinions about me, but abruptly reality hit: My identity was intertwined with how I was perceived. I loathed the humility required of being in need.

The phone calls weren’t all negative, of course; the majority of the time, nobody answered, and I left a voicemail, though people rarely returned my calls. Most refusals were mild and straightforward, while many of my contacts encouraged me in my endeavor or gave me referrals. Then, about every tenth person, someone agreed to meet with me or even gave without our even meeting.

With few exceptions, the support meetings were amiable, even invigorating, experiences. Although I have never viewed myself as a salesman, I had total confidence in Cru’s ministry—after all, my father became a Christian through their ministry—and I believed God directed me to the internship. I was passionate about the opportunity. Meanwhile, I had an almost sadistic love of job interviews, having never had a bad one; there was even a degree of thrill to the feat. The dialogues required charisma, salient details and statistics, and a subtle ethos. Still, even as I introduced others to Cru’s ministry and asked for funding, I knew the weight of the conversations rested on divine shoulders.

Still, there were two looming obstacles in my course: First, as a missionary kid, a substantial number of my friends and acquaintances already funded my parents’ ministry. I didn’t want to harm Dad and Mom’s financial situation, so I resolved to avoid those contacts unless I already had a close relationship with them. Second, my home church started a momentous fundraiser months before, raising over four million dollars in pledges. It was as if I was gleaning after the harvest. Repeatedly, people explained that they could not give because they had already given as much as possible.

Despite the challenges, I persisted in my efforts, and there were moments of encouragement. On one occasion, a retired gentleman and his wife approached me about my internship, we set up an appointment, and they gave substantially. There was a businessman who was referred to me by two of my contacts; when I called and explained my mission, he gave one thousand two hundred dollars, even though he didn’t know me until I called. I met with a childhood friend and his fiancé the day before their wedding, and he surprised me by pledging six hundred dollars more than I asked. Time and time again, I was humbled by people’s generosity.

Then my support raising plateaued for a month. I placed two hundred and fifty calls, had sixty-seven phone conversations, and attended fourteen appointments, all with mediocre results. What new pledges I garnered totaled almost two thousand dollars; the new commitments on their own would have been encouraging, but then my phone rang.

When I answered, the elderly man on the other end said that I had been trying to contact him. I knew exactly who he was: we talked over a month before, and he committed to giving two thousand four hundred dollars. I had been surprised by his liberality. Although we attended the same Sunday school class, we weren’t personally acquainted.

Now he didn’t seem to recall our prior dialogue. He acted as if we were conversing for the first time and expressed interest in giving, only this time he offered a quarter of the amount.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I thanked him. A few minutes later, we both hung up. I was bewildered, dispirited even. What was I supposed to do?

A few hours later, he called again. The conversation was déjà vu. The elderly man said all the same kind of things:  I had trying to call him, he said; he repeated how he believed in Campus Crusade for Christ’s ministry; and he was interested in helping, at fifty dollars a month. He had no recollection of our previous conversation that day or the one a month before.

When we said goodbye, for the second time that day, I was dubious. Weeks later, I got a check, written by someone else, on his behalf. The amount was for fifty dollars, and on the check was written, “That is all.”

During the last few days of that month, my family went on vacation in Kansas City for a couple days, where we planned to visit a few amusement parks. I fretted the entire time; I couldn’t focus on anything other than my support goal. How was I going to raise the extra money? I was exhausting my savings in the process of raising support, but I didn’t have any income. What if I didn’t raise enough money and couldn’t intern? Then I got food poisoning on the first day of vacation, spent the night violently ill, and was anemic the next day. Far from being restful, by the end of the time off, my emotions were a mess.

I was talking with my older sister, Anna, about my fears when she mentioned the sermon her pastor had recently given in church: it was derived from the story in Exodus where God frees the Hebrews from Pharaoh. After they leave Egypt, God guides the people into the desert, where they camp beside the Red Sea. Then Pharaoh changes his mind, rallies his army, and the Hebrews are pinned between the Egyptian army and the sea. The Hebrews recognize how close they are to a macabre ending, and in terror, they cry out.

Then God answers: He separates the Egyptians from the Israelites with the pillar of cloud; parts the Red Sea so the Israelites can escape; and when Pharaoh pursues the Israelites, God returns the sea to its place. In the morning, Israelites see the Egyptians lying dead on the shore.

As I pondered the story, it was as if God was saying, “Wait and watch; rescue is coming.”

By the end of the month, I was where I began: sixty-one percent. My contact list was exhausted. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. My prayers seemed stagnant, and while the deadline encroached, my feels were raw. Then Jeff, my missional team leader, called: It was Monday, and I had until the end of the week to reach ninety percent.

“It’s impossible,” I told Jeff. “My funding is only at sixty-one percent right now. It’s not going to happen. As far as I’m concerned, that’s impossible.”

“I’m sorry,” Jeff said. “I was hoping you’d be given more time, but my boss said Saturday has to be the deadline.” I didn’t respond, so he continued, “Just do your best. Keep praying. Don’t give up.”

I said little else for the rest of the conversation, but in the silence I seethed. I’d been at sixty-one percent for about four weeks, despite my best efforts. Time was almost gone, I was out of contacts, and my bank account was nearly empty. After three months of raising support, I was exhausted, discouraged, and now angry.  Still, I picked up the phone.

Within the hour, I saw results. I was able to set up an appointment for that same day with a doctor I had been referred to, whom I’d been attempting to reach for weeks. People in my Sunday school class, which had over a hundred members, prayed fervently. Friends called in with referrals. Couples I’d met with weeks before called with generous commitments. I could barely keep abreast of the sudden influx. My mother frequently writes messages on a decorative plate on the mantle, and she began tracking the remaining support goal on it; the number kept shrinking. By that evening, I was shocked and hopeful.

The next couple of days exceeded my imagination. Decisions poured in. People who weren’t going to give changed their minds. Strangers heard about my internship and the impending deadline and elected to give over a thousand dollars. Within a few hours of each other, two different churches—one that I had approached four months before and another that I had contacted the week before—committed to hefty and identical pledges. By the time Saturday arrived, I wasn’t at ninety percent; I was at ninety-eight percent, an influx of about twelve thousand dollars in three days.

I was stunned. I’m not one in whom happiness overflows into mirth. I was surprised, elated even, but hardly knew how to express it. In the calm that trailed the flurry of activity, reality crept home: What I declared impossible had happened. The promise in Matthew 6:33—that those who seek first the kingdom of God will be provided for—proved true. What’s more, because of the way events transpired, I couldn’t credit myself with the provision; it was divine. Over the next few days, I rested and celebrated, and my family along with me.

Years later, that summer lingers in my mind. It was one of the hardest periods of my young life, a painful and challenging time where I was reshaped, yet it’s one that I reflect on with fondness because of what I experienced at the end. In seeing the impossible, I saw God. Perhaps not visually, but the way one perceives the wind, through a touch or feeling, and by watching as it molds the world around us.

 

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