The Tyranny of Things

“The blessed ones who possess the Kingdom are…no longer slaves to the tyranny of things. Though free from all sense of possessing, they yet possess all things.” ~A.W. Tozer

Most of you who will read this blog post will know that our family just got home from almost 3 months of travel, up and down the East coast and then in California. We spoke at 13 different churches, presbyteries, or missions conferences, and attended a leadership training week in Atlanta. We now have 90% of our support raised and are on schedule to leave for Ethiopia in the middle of July. We saw Liz’s family and got to spend some time with them in preparation for our move. After living out of a car or our suitcases for so long, we’re glad to be back in the wonderful old farmhouse on our church property that has been home for the last year.

So how was it? Many people have asked how, exactly, we made it through several months of living out of a 5-passenger car as a 4-person family over 14 states. The short answer is that it was fine, minus the week of stomach flu and a few back-seat meltdowns. We are profoundly grateful to the friends who lent us their portable DVD player for Nathan. The stress of traveling was definitely worth the relationships with churches, supporters, friends, and family. One of the hardest things for me, however, was continually unpacking, relocating, repacking, loading, unloading, and reloading our stuff at homestays, motels, into and out of our car, in and out of airports, etc. We tried to pack lightly. It still felt like we were constantly managing luggage, laundry, and baby gear. Here is a picture of the contents of the back seat and trunk of our rental car after returning from our last pass through Balitmore. I still can’t believe it was all actually in there.

A large part of what I did on our trip was just try to manage the above belongings.  Did we remember to collect Nathan’s crayons? Where was Isaiah’s swaddle blanket?  And where, exactly, did we re-pack the shampoo and cell phone charger? We didn’t do all that well. Below is a list of the items we managed to leave behind:

Sippy cup, Thomas Merton book
First time through Baltimore
Sock, some of Nathan’s books
Toy Trains
Baby Tylenol, bulb nose sucker
White noise machine
Second time through Baltimore
Swaddle blanket, fish toy
Nathan’s Lamby, laptop computer
Jason’s fleece


For those of you who actually read through the list, don’t worry- Nathan’s very important nighttime buddy “Lamby” and the laptop made it home (and actually, most of the other things did, too, thanks to the kindness of friends and the U.S. postal service.)

Even though we’re home now, I’m still swimming in stuff. We’ve started the process of dismantling our household. It’s not cost effective to ship a container or anything large to Ethiopia, so we need to give away, sell, or throw away most of our belongings. We are planning to take about 15 medium sized Rubbermaid storage bins as freight on the plane, and hoping to find a place to store a few boxes of special things. That’s it. Everything else has to go somewhere else.  I feel such a mix of emotions as I’m sorting. A sense of loss, over leaving behind special things kind people have given us, anxiety as I try to plan ahead for what clothing, books, and toys my children will need over the next two years of their development, fear that I will fail to take some essential thing, and a sense of freedom and liberation when I actually manage to finish a pile. I will be so relieved when we are packed and our house is empty. There is something freeing, purifying, and exhilarating about getting rid of things that have before consumed my time and attention. We want and need to “live simply” once we get to Ethiopia, and admit we have no idea about what that will actually look like.

One of my aunts, in a Christmas letter years ago, said she was thankful for “more worldly goods than I can keep clean and organized.” I have thought many times that I would like to have only as many worldly goods as I can keep clean and organized, and only what I really need. As we move to a place where many around us won’t have even their basic needs met, that will be all the more important.

I sometimes have moments of panic- when I realize that I’m more attached to my stuff than I realized, when I try to figure out what my life will be like materially in Ethiopia, or when I try to navigate a house “in transition” full of homeless objects.  During one of the rare quiet times I managed to sneak in during our road trip, I read this:

Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ.

I know this passage is not talking about material stuff- the gains he is counting as loss are his pedigree, his education, his reputation, his external spirituality. However, it has ministered to me in this season of leaving, in what sometimes feels like “the loss of all things.” I wish I could say that just clearing stuff out of our house makes me know and love Christ more. What I can say is that I am thankful for someone to hope in whose love for me matters much more than the “stuff” of my life- whether here or in another country.  I sense that the act of moving will be a purifying process, and I’m trying to submit myself to it. I’ll let you know how it goes.         ~Liz

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Family of Four

After months of anticipation our second son, Isaiah Emmanuel Polk, has finally arrived.   The score is tied– Adults 2, Kids 2– and it has been a wild and wooly ride thus far.  As I type this blog entry, Isaiah is sleeping soundly in his bouncy seat and Nathan is running around the house playing with his toys and occasionally patting Baby Isaiah on his head. Good thing Isaiah seems to be a sound sleeper.

Nathan is gradually growing into his big brother role.  At first Nathan’s response to Isaiah could best be summarized as “dramatically underwhelmed.”  When we brought Nathan to the hospital to meet his little brother, he took one look and then pronounced that he was leaving to ride the elevators (so much for dramatic Hallmark family moment).  But as the last couple of weeks have passed, Nathan is gradually growing in interest.  Thus the random head pats and kisses that Nathan bestows.

Nathan shows a little "brotherly love" to Isaiah

As for Isaiah’s part, he spends all of his time eating, sleeping, and pooping.  But at least he is cute while doing it.  We are gradually getting tiny glimpses into his little personality, and are eager to continue getting to know this person that God has added to our family.  Liz and I feel incredibly blessed to have these two amazing boys.  We don’t deserve such a special gift, but we are thankful for the joy, chaos, and beauty that they bring to our lives.  We have so much to learn as parents and as a family, but we are thankful to be on the journey together.  So here we go, a family of four, taking it one step at a time.

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O Canada

That’s right.  This blog entry is coming to you LIVE from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  I have been travelling through Alberta for the past week, visiting churches and sharing about our ministry in Ethiopia. Last Sunday I had the opportunity to preach and share about Ethiopia at both New City Church in Calgary, and at Westminster Chapel in Lethbridge.  Both churches were very welcoming, and we have met several people who want to partner with us in prayer and finances.  I am so deeply encouraged and humbled by the generosity of God’s people.

It has been a great trip so far, though I must admit that after 5 weeks on the road, I am definitely ready to be back home.  Liz and Nathan were with me for the first month of travels, but they are now back in St. Louis and I am missing them greatly.  Please pray for endurance in my final week and a half on the road, and also pray that Liz and I would be able to use the month of November to prepare our home and lives (at least as much as possible) for our new baby.  Pray too for Nathan, that he would adjust well to being a big brother!

Signing off for now, from the far reaches of Canada…     Jason

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“It’s a tractor.”  That’s what Nathan said the other day pointing out our front window.  Liz and I were amazed—first of all because this was Nathan’s first grammatically complete sentence, and second, because when we looked out the window we were greeted with the sight of a large bulldozer devouring our front yard.

The sudden demise of our front yard

The road construction crew has been coming closer and closer to our house over the past month, and just a few days ago they finally reached our yard.  The bulldozer did twists, turns, and other impressive large machinery gymnastics, and within a few hours our front yard was gone and replaced with a flattened track of dirt that will soon become the new path of Missouri Highway N.  Our immediate reaction at seeing familiar grass uprooted was sadness, but the bulldozer worked with such speed and efficiency that we couldn’t help but be a little impressed as well.

Seems like a metaphor for quite a few areas of our life right now.  Lots of changes, lots of uprooting of familiar things, but all with a bigger purpose of making way for something new.  A new path, a new mission.

Please pray as we continue to walk this path before us, and all the changes that are or will come with it.


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Going All In

Today is a big day.  September 1, 2011, will forever be marked as the day that the Polk family decided to “go all in.”  For those of you who have ever watched those Poker Tournaments on television, you know what I’m talking about.  The cards are dealt, the calculations are made, and then in a move of drama and flourish, one of the players pushes all of their chips into the center of the table. 

There is no going back.  They are “all in,” and it is time to either go big or go home.  Well, I don’t know about the flourish, per se, but today is an important “point of no return” for us as a family.  After 8 wonderful years, I have officially resigned from my pastoral position at Grace Presbyterian Church.

The church hired me as the part-time worship director in the summer of 2003, just as I was beginning my studies at Covenant Seminary.  Over the years I gradually grew into more and more areas of ministry, and in November 2007 was ordained and called as the assistant pastor of the church.  It has been a tremendous blessing to serve Grace Church—loving our congregation and our community, and being loved so graciously in return.  I am so thankful for these past 8 years.

But as of today, I have stepped-down from my pastoral position…stepped away from active up-front ministry at our church…stepped away from our church salary…and we have now officially transitioned to full time support-raising as we prepare to move to Ethiopia.  I have a strange mixture of emotions about all of it— excitement at finally being able to dedicate my full attention to our next season of ministry in Ethiopia, sadness at stepping away from a church and ministry community that I love, uncertainty about what the next months will look like for our family, and faith that God will provide for us as he has so consistently done over the years.  I’m sure it will take us a while to sort through all the emotions, but while we do so, we have confidence that this is the next step we are supposed to take as God leads us on this journey.

Thank you for your love, prayers, and support as we make this transition.  It is a profound blessing to our family.  The chips are all on the table, and our hearts are set on Ethiopia.  Stay tuned…

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Summer Ministry

Summer moves on, both here in New York City where Liz and I are completing a month of cross-cultural ministry training, and also in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the Aids Care and Treatment Project is hard at work with its summer ministry activites.

First, New York.  The Polk family landed at La Guardia airport on July 1, and it has been pretty much non-stop ever since.  We have really been enjoying the city, with all of its diversity, energy, and life.  New York is a great town.  We are living in the Forest Hills neighborhood on the east side of Queens, and have been helping Ascension Church with its Vacation Bible School program.  This week we have been corralling and teaching 150 kids from the local neighborhood through the “Kingdom of the Son” curriculum, which takes the kids through the Lord’s Prayer using an East African safari theme.  Last Friday night, we had our big VBS closing program.  Liz’s class of 1st and 2nd graders (the Amazing Antelopes) recited their memory verses and sang a song about how much our Father God loves them.  Jason’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders (the Lively Lions– and boy were they “lively”) sang a couple songs as well, and then for the grand finale they recited the entire Lord’s Prayer in Swahili.  We were very proud of all of them.  In addition, the closing program gave the opportunity to share the gospel with the parents and families of all the kids, many of whom are not believers in Christ.  It was a tiring, but really good week.

Next– Addis Ababa.  Our Aids Care and Treatment Project teammates have been hard at work leading various ministry activities this summer.  Kids Programs, School Uniform distributions, continuing AIDS care, community development and income generation projects, and the list goes on.  Here’s a brief video that captures some of the moments from this summer.

Thank you to all who are praying and giving toward these ministries.  It means so much to us.  Blessings from the Polks…

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Kendi Anderson, a previous AIDS Care and Treatment Project intern, wrote a brief reflection of her return trip to Addis.  I think you will enjoy it, and have posted it below:

I was able to return to Ethiopia exactly one year after I left.  Leaving Ethiopia the first time, after living there for seven months, I had a lot of doubts about what the future held for the people I worked with through the Project.

During my time in Ethiopia I saw many people make progress and regain health through the Project, but I also watched several kids slip away.  I flew away from Addis a year ago scared about what would happen to the people I loved and wondering if I would ever see them again.

Flying back into Ethiopia the second time I did not know what to expect.  I knew I was going to be at the wedding of some good friends and that I would get to stay with other dear friends and catch back up on their lives, but when it came to the Project I tried to have no expectations, because of my apprehensive heart.

This second time that I flew out of Ethiopia I looked out the window with a sense of hope.  I was encouraged by what I saw and by this one story in particular.

When I was in Addis working with the Project there was a mother and daughter who were both dying of HIV.  The mother was on medicine and regaining health, but she refused to put her sick daughter on the drugs that would restore her life.  Her daughter was rapidly losing her strength and her childhood and after having to rush her to the hospital one afternoon the Project decided that it was time to talk to the mother more strongly about saving her daughter’s life by beginning her on ARVs.

It was a couple month process of me visiting these two friends and pleading with the mother to save her daughter’s life.  Slowly, she began to understand that I cared about her daughter and would not ask her to do this if I did not believe it would make her better.

I left just as this mother was beginning to help her daughter take her ARVs and I was excited to watch the progression in her daughter’s health in the few months I was there, but nervous that after I left her mother would become hesitant to continue providing her daughter the medication she needed.

Going to visit them on my return trip I was scared at what I might see when I stepped into their house.  I did not want to see the daughter stuck in bed again, malnourished, and afraid.  I was blessed to walk into the house and have the mother go running up and down the street looking for her daughter who was now able to come home from school and go play outside with her friends.  I got to see a healthy family who was taking their medication properly and who were able to live life amidst their HIV.

The Project is changing lives and I am honored to have been able to work with them and come back and visit.  How arrogant of my heart to leave a place and fear that God’s work would leave it too, when actually during my time away He has been actively working through the Project and I am so thankful that He allowed for me to come back and see His goodness in the midst of such blatant brokenness.


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Still Living on the Ground

May 21, 2011 came, and May 21, 2011 went.  And no earthquakes, no cataclysm,  no rapture…  Now what?  Many other friends, pastors, and Christian leaders have written and blogged about the theological and pastoral implications of Harold Camping’s end times date setting, and I will not attempt to rehash any of that here.  But, this recent focus on the end times does provide an interesting opportunity to explain one reason Liz and I have named our website and blog “Living on the Ground.”

The Bible is clear about God’s passion for redeeming and restoring his Creation.  In the first chapters of Genesis, God makes the heavens and earth by the power of His Word, and makes man and women in his own image.  The delight of our Triune God drips from the pages of Scripture as He pronounces “GOOD” over all that He has made.  Then, in the greatest tragedy of all history, sin enters the world through the rebellion of Adam and Eve bringing disjoint and chaos into every aspect of life.  As J.R.R. Tolkien so graphically describes in the creation story of the Simarillion, it is as if discordant notes are violently inserted into the most beautiful and resonant harmonies.  But, Tolkien is quick to say that no matter how discordant and strident a sound the forces of evil sought to make, they always ended up being rewoven into the grand symphony of sound in a way that made it all the more beautiful still.  So it is with our redeeming God.  From the first moments after Adam and Eve’s original sin, He tells them that the “seed of woman” will come to crush the head of the serpent.  And this theme pulses and grows throughout the grand story of Scripture—culminating in the coming of Jesus Christ, who makes possible by his life, death, and resurrection the redemption of a people unto God. No matter how discordant and destructive the powers of evil become, God by His sovereign hand weaves them back into his grand narrative of redemption in which God becomes man and dwells among us.  But God’s redemption does not simply stop with the coming of Jesus.  It rushes forward, rippling into eternity, as the final pages of Revelation speak about the full and final redemption of the new heavens and new earth.  God’s Creation is restored in perfect peace and harmony, and the redeemed people of God will spend all of eternity declaring God’s praise for his incomprehensible work of redemption.

Now that’s an amazing story… but what does that have to do with our blog?  In a word, everything.  God is at work, right now, bringing about his restoration and redemption of Creation.  It is partial and messy, and won’t be fully completed until Christ comes again…but it is happening right now.  That is what Jesus means when he says, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”  God’s Kingdom of Redemption has broken into our universe through Jesus Christ, and the effects of that full and final redemption are even now breaking into our midst through the power of God’s Spirit.

In practice, what does this mean? If God is at work right now bringing restoration and healing to his Creation, then that is what I want to be about as His follower and adopted child.  Like Father, like son.  If there are families suffering under the weight of HIV/AIDS and urban poverty in the slums of Addis Ababa, then I want to follow the Spirit of Jesus Christ in seeing his work of healing and restoration in their lives.  If there are men and women who do not know the saving grace of their God, then I want to be sharing that gospel grace with them through the very words and actions of Jesus.  Unlike Harold Camping who is looking to a coming rapture to remove God’s people from the sin and brokenness of the world, I instead believe that God calls us to be active in the world, right here and right now.  He calls us to be “Living on the Ground’ right in the midst of his creation, laboring through the power of the Spirit to see his salvation and redemption move forward.

Now, I believe whole-heartedly that Jesus Christ will come again some day…  maybe tomorrow, maybe thousands of years from now.  But regardless, when Christ does come back it will not be to “rescue” us from his creation.  That isn’t God’s way.  Rather, Christ will be coming back to bring his work of salvation and redemption to fulfillment.  There will be judgment, but not a judgment to discard his creation.  No, it will be a purifying judgment to restore his creation to what it was designed to be.  And if his purpose is to purify creation, and not to discard it, then that means there will be some form of continuity between our present existence and present labors in the world, and our future resurrection life in the new heavens and new earth to come.  What we do now while “living on the ground” will matter then.  Amazing, encouraging, wonderful news.

So, with that—the Polk family signs off.  If you need to find us, we’ll be right here… Living on the Ground.  Join us.  It’s a great ride.

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In the presence of God, these witnesses, and all those crawfish…

I love being a pastor, especially on days like last Saturday. I had the joy of attending and helping lead a crawfish boil / wedding vow renewal ceremony on Saturday for some dear friends, James and Steph Thomas. They have done a great job posting pictures and sharing about the evening… so rather than recreating their post, I’ll let you read it for yourself at their Life in the Gateway blog.  Good times and good crawfish!

Wedding Vow Renewal for James and Steph Thomas


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Living in Grace

At the end of May, Liz, Nathan, and I were able to attend the “Living in Grace” conference at the Ridge Haven retreat center in North Carolina.  We had a wonderful time in the mountains, being refreshed in the hope of the gospel and meeting some of our fellow Mission to the World missionaries who are also preparing to move overseas.  Loading up the family for a 1500 mile road trip is never “easy,” but all in all things went surprisingly well.  This was due in large part to the wonderful help of Lydia and Libby, friends of our family who travelled with us to help care for the “little guy.”  Nathan seemed to enjoy himself thoroughly—particularly meal-times in the Ridge Haven cafeteria where he was able to waddle around the tables “working the crowd.”

The week was good for Liz and me.  It would be an understatement to say that we have been living the past several months at an intense pace.  Between trying to work full-time at Grace PCA, support-raise for Ethiopia, remodel and rent out our condo, and parent a very active toddler, life has been incredibly full.  Too full.  Thankfully May brought some significant “relief’ from the hectic pace.  First, we were blessed to find some wonderful renters for our condo, and thanks to the late-night help of a couple friends I was able to wrap-up the condo remodel right before they moved in.  Second, starting in May I have gone down to 2/3 time in my staff role at church so that Liz and I will have more flexibility to travel and support-raise.  Both of these developments have been a big relief, and have finally given us the space to start realizing what a toll those early months of 2011 took on us as individuals and a family.  Our time at “Living in Grace” helped me to realize the ways I have been relying on my own strength in the midst of the busyness rather than the empowerment of the Spirit.  As a result, I have been putting more strain on myself and our family than I had realized, and some of the costs have started to show. As hard as it is to admit my self-reliance before God, it was good to talk through these things together in a gospel-centered way, and to have hope in God’s ability to change my heart.

You can be praying that God would continue to lead me in repentance, as we seek to establish a more God-honoring pace and rhythm for our family life.  I increasingly become more and more aware of how even in the simple moments of the day, I can commit the idolatry of forsaking God’s fountain of living water as my life and strength, and instead turn to my own broken cistern of “self.”  I desperately need the help of the Spirit to make these changes in my life and schedule, and would deeply appreciate your prayers to that end. Our God is faithful, and I know he will continue to grow me in these areas as I learn to trust and rest in Him as my daily portion.


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