Running the Good Race

How do you know when God is asking you to do something?  How can you know the difference between what you want and what God wants?  There is a difference sometimes.  I’ll give you a “for instance” in my own life.  Twice I was asked to take in orphaned boys from Kenya.  The first time, a missionary friend asked, out of the blue, if we’d take in a teenage boy who desperately wanted to go to school in the United States.  The second time, three years later, the same friend asked us to take the younger brother.  Both times, I initially said “no”.  I did not want to do it.  But after much time spent in prayer there was a strong internal prodding that this request was from God.

Discerning “Our” Things

I did not say “yes” simply because it was a good thing to do.  After all, there are a lot of good things to do but that does not mean they are things meant for me.  Mother Angelica once related a story of getting on the wrong plane (unheard of in these days of fine-tooth-comb screening).  Imagine the panic of sitting on a plane going to New York when your destination is California.  Mother Angelica stated that there was nothing wrong with the plane, but it was not her plane — not her destination.  She explained that such an occurrence illustrates that the point is not whether the activities with which we occupy ourselves are virtuous, but whether they are our activities; those given to us by God.

Thus, the question was not whether taking in orphans was a good thing to do, but was it my thing to do?  There was only one sure way to know the answer: turn it over to prayer.  I have had lots of experiences where it seems I’m asking God for my marching orders, but I don’t discern what they are.  Then, I go back and pray more, waiting until I feel that internal compass pointing the way.  In a few rare instances, I’ve proceeded, still unsure.  In such a case, I will pray something like:  “I think this is what you are asking me to do, Lord.  So if this is not Your will, I trust you will let me know.”

In his book, Characters of the Passion, Bishop Fulton Sheen recalls the scene from Holy Thursday in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Christ had asked Peter, James and John to pray with him one hour.  Instead, they continually fell asleep but Jesus kept waking them, repeating His request that they pray.  When the time of trial arrived and the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter flew into action, cutting off a soldier’s ear.  Peter had not stayed awake to pray and, when the time came, he did not discern what God was calling him to do.  It was not to cut off the soldier’s ear.  Jesus healed the ear and went willingly into custody.  In the meantime, Peter was beside himself, still not listening to God’s voice.  Outside the high priest’s house, he denied even knowing Jesus.  Not until the cock crowed did Peter suddenly realized Jesus had accurately predicted that Peter would deny Him three times. Peter had neglected to pray when Jesus asked him to, and then he acted willy-nilly, not in accord with God’s will.

The point of these stories is that there’s only one way to separate our will from God’s will — in the event the two might conflict — and that is through prayer.  And when you do so and things don’t seem to be turning out very well, go back and pray some more.  Often, people assume that struggles, and the desire to turn back, are indications that it was not God’s will after all.  Struggles might very well mean you are headed in the wrong direction.  They could also mean that you are following Christ and experiencing the cross.  Or maybe the evil one is trying to throw you off course.  We can never figure out the spiritual battle plan alone.  Instead, we must keep praying so we feel the direction to which God is pointing us.

A Life Changing Story 

Since the story of taking in our two sons from Kenya is such a thrilling one and also an example of these thoughts, I will share it with you.

Calvin’s coming to us was an amazing answer to his seemingly impossible prayer.  Years earlier, Calvin had read a book about a boy who left Kenya to go to school in the United States.  ”Maybe I could go there someday,” Calvin dreamed.

“Dear God,” he began praying, “please let me go to the United States.”  Calvin prayed with the faith of a child, even though long ago, at thirteen, his childhood had been lost.  Both his parents had died of AIDS, leaving Rogers, 15, Calvin, 11, and Joash, 8, among Kenya’s 650,000 AIDS orphans.  When Calvin revealed his prayer to his older brother and an aunt, he was laughed at but he kept praying.

Evan Beauchamp, a missionary for the diocese of Bismarck, North Dakota arrived as a teacher at Calvin’s school.  He learned of the boys’ hardships and invited Calvin to live with him during the week and then return to help his brothers on weekends.  Calvin kept asking Evan to take him back to the United States.  Since Evan was seventy, he knew the U.S. State Department would never agree to such a scenario.

When Evan was back in the United States for sabbatical, he asked my husband, Mark, and me if we would take Calvin in.  Quite honestly, I did not feel like taking someone new into our family.  We said no because we could not afford it anyway.  Evan suggested finding donors that would pay Calvin’s expenses.  Our response was that we’d pray about it.  Calvin did not even have a birth certificate so we thought the odds were good it would never come down to that anyway.  We needed legal guardianship so Calvin could be covered by insurance; St. Mary’s high school had to agree to accept him at no charge; there were a number of obstacles to overcome.  When everything eventually fell into place, we accepted it as God’s will.  Almost seven years ago, Calvin stepped off the plane and became a much-loved member of our family.

Today, he attends the University of Mary on scholarship as a pre-med student.  He plans to eventually return to Kenya to help the poor.  In the meantime, Calvin is a top student, works and even finds time to volunteer.  He is a wonderful son and sibling to the others.   Had we followed our own feelings and not prayed our way through it, we would have missed out on untold blessings.

A year after Calvin’s arrival, Chuck and Tip Reichert, one of the couples helping to support Calvin, took him back to Kenya for his brother Rogers’ wedding.  Tip, the mother of seven who had also fostered seven more, was drawn to Joash, Calvin’s younger brother.  “He looked so lost,” she told me.  ”He needs a mother.”

Evan agreed with Tip that maybe he could follow Calvin to the United States.  “I know this seems crazy,” Evan emailed me, “but what would you think about taking Joash in, too?”

Could I handle one more? I wondered.  No, I determined.  I found another family who wanted to take him.  Mark insisted that Joash belonged with his brother and told me he was going to pray about it.  ”Fine,” I said, “Go ahead but I’m not going to change my mind.”

I prayed too and a few days later, I changed my mind.  One morning, I read an email Mark had stayed up late to write, full of reasons why we should take Joash.  ”If we died, wouldn’t we want our kids to stay together?” Mark argued.  I called him at work.

“Okay, Mark.  He can come,” I said to his happy surprise.  Then, I hurried off to morning Mass, as was my custom.  I was not really paying attention to the reading, when the words from Hosea 14:4 penetrated my reverie:  “In you the orphan finds compassion.”  I was in awe at the timing.

A few months later, Joash arrived.  We assumed the loss he had experienced was much the same as Calvin’s.  Only later did we gradually learn that his pain cut deeper and affected how he encountered the world.  Joash was only eight when he sat desperately by his mother’s side as she lay dying.  Joash adored his mother, Yovencia, and she always loved and protected him — her youngest.  The older boys had grown more independent, but Joash usually preferred to be at his mother’s side.

Joash hoped that his mother would not die, as had his dad and so many others in his village.  Charles had been away from home, working to earn money for the family.  There was no AIDS education and people lacked understanding as to how it spread.  Teenage girls and young women, needing money for their own families, often gathered around male work crews offering their services as prostitutes.  Although Christianity is spreading, the Kenyan culture traditionally has not been strict about sexual fidelity in marriage.  Charles died of AIDS on December 14, 1996.  Fourteen months later, Yovencia followed.

Joash had been at his mother’s side only moments before she died.  Someone told him to go take a shower but then he heard loud weeping.  He ran back towards the hut and forced his way in to see his mother.  In horror, Joash realized she was gone.

Joash ran to the river to be alone.  There, he cried out in anguish.  How could he go on? God must be punishing me, he thought, He has taken my mother and left me all alone.  Joash sobbed for hours before a cousin came for him.  His grandfather took him in for a time, but the gruff old man resented the responsibility.  Joash bounced among relatives and his brother Rogers.  Since Rogers began attending school for masonry, he could not adequately supervise his younger brother and was just a teenager himself.  Often in frustration, he disciplined Joash firmly.  If my mother was still alive, they would not be treating me this way, Joash often thought.  He built a wall around his emotions.  If people did not care about him, he wanted them to know he did not care about them either.  His angry defenses became ingrained.

At the airport, five years after his mother died, Joash again broke down and cried when Calvin left for the United States.  Calvin had always been kind to him and he loved his brother very much.  Now, he would not even have him.  One evening, after Rogers had been angry, Joash grumbled, “I wish Calvin were here.”

“Then you better start praying if you want to go to the United States and see Calvin again,” Roger had answered.

That night, before bed, Joash said the first prayer he had ever said on his own.  He prayed the “Our Father,” a prayer he had learned in school.  And every night after that, he said an “Our Father” before going to sleep.

prayinghandsman.jpgAbout six months later, Rogers let Joash know that Evan wanted to make arrangements for him to join Calvin. Initially, Joash could not believe it was true, fearing it was some kind of a joke.  For the first time since his mother’s death seven years earlier, he had something to look forward to.  But Joash’s defensiveness and pursuing his own agenda for so long had become habitual.  Very soon after his arrival in July of 2005, struggles began.  I knew his negative behaviors were born of pain, but I could not seem to make things better.  We prayed hard and asked God to help and guide us.  Still the struggles were constant.

After about seven months, Mark and I decided the situation was more than we could handle.  I wanted to teach my kids not to jump ship in the face of trouble, but limping along seemed to be hurting everyone.  Joash knew he had crossed a line one day, and for a couple of days, we were all pretty quiet around each other.  On the evening Mark and I planned to reveal our plans to find another placement for him, Joash approached us first.

“I know I’ve messed up,” he said, with pleading eyes.  “I stopped at the chapel at school today and prayed.  I’ve asked God to help me.  Please give me another chance.  I promise I will try harder.”

His pledge was salve to my heart.  I did not want him to go away, I just wanted a manageable family life.  Afterwards, for the first time, things started getting better.

Instead of grudgingly doing chores now, Joash worked at being helpful.  He also worked hard at his studies.  We could see Joash actually trying although sometimes, situations were beyond him.  His vulnerability often left him feeling attacked by others when such was not the case.  But I also noticed something Joash had no idea I was aware of.  When one of the younger children was upset about something or sullen over getting punished, Joash comforted them.  He would try to stop the tears or just talk with them and suggest a fun activity.  I knew this boy, who had built a wall around his heart, had a big one indeed.

Then, while taking each day one at a time, Joash made an amazing discovery that changed his life.  After lackluster seasons in soccer and basketball, track season began.  Joash had once tried to run a race in sixth grade but quit when people laughed after he tripped.  In eighth grade, he entered a race once more and seemed to be off to a good start, running past everyone.  Unfortunately, he was quickly pulled out and disqualified.  He had no idea it was a walking — not a running — race.

As a freshman at St. Mary’s Central High School, he decided to try track one more time.  That’s when he discovered that he had wings on his feet and could fly.  At his first track meet, competing with nine schools for the western region of North Dakota, I accidentally brought Joash two hours early – not realizing the track events started an hour after the field events.  Joash ran around the track for well over an hour to warm up.  He’s going to wear himself out, I feared.  When the starter’s gun fired, Joash bolted ahead of the pack for the 1600-meter race. Oh dear, I thought, he doesn’t realize he needs to pace himself; he’ll never keep that lead.  Then, he kept turning and looking behind him — another big no-no that slows a runner down.  Still, Joash managed to cross the finish line at 5:07, nine seconds behind first place.  Not bad for his first race.

At a meet later in the year, I watched nervously when Joash again took a big lead right from the start, fearing he would tire. The crowd on the inside field ran from one side to the other yelling: “Go, Joash, Go!”  When he crossed the finish line in first place, tears came to my eyes — not because he had won, but because I knew that his victory was far more than just a foot race.  I understood how much those cheers meant to him, lifting him off the ground in more ways than one.

At the end of his freshman season, running for only 3 months of his life, Joash took seventh at state for the 1600 meter at 4:40 and fourth in the 3200 meter at 9:47.  At the end of his first cross-country season as a sophomore, Joash was the second fastest runner on the 5K course, four seconds behind the winner.  By the end of sophomore track season Joash came in third for both the 1600 and 3200 with times of 4:33 and 9:37. By his junior year, Joash took first in cross-country in the fall and in both the 1600 and 3200 in the spring.

During this past cross-country season, Joash broke every course record — most of which he himself had set the previous season.  He took first with a time of 15:57.  It was not his best time, but harsh temperatures and brutal winds slowed everyone down.  By season’s end, he was rated 10th in the country.  At that time, we discovered that his frequent upset stomach and illness was not caused by food allergies as suspected but by ulcers.  We were shocked to realize how well he had done in spite of such physical struggles.  Medication began to heal his ulcers but he was still not 100% by the this past December 6 when he competed in the Nike National race in Portland, OR.  Still, he came in third with a time of 15:18 against 199 of the fastest runners in the country.

The boy who came here, struggling with school, now has colleges lined up, offering him full scholarships.  His coaches and teachers love him.  We all love him and hate to think of him going away in the fall.  He is so much help around the house, a beloved brother and cherished son.  And to think that I originally said “no” to him and his brother.  Who knew?  God did.  And had it not been for a heavy reliance on prayer, we would have missed out on all of it.

I thank God for the joy Calvin and Joash have brought to our family.  More importantly, I thank Him for the lesson so powerfully driven home to us: to navigate our lives with prayer.

(To watch the actual Dec. 6, 2008 Nike National race you can go to the website: http://www.runnerspace.com/video.php?do=view&video_id=7960)

Patti Maguire Armstrong

By

Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on TV and radio stations across the country.  Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and children’s book, Dear God, I Don’t Get It are both available now. To read more, visit Patti’s Catholic News and Inspiration site. Follow her on Facebook at Big Hearted Families and Dear God Books.

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  • Cooky642

    Thank you for this particular article on this particular day. This is an answer to prayer.

  • DonHudzinski

    This sound like my prayer life…

  • yblegen

    I got chills running up my arms as I read your story. I was stunned when I read your first lines because I was thinking the same thing on a venture I am about to embark. Thanks for sharing this incredible story.

  • http://catholichawk.com PrairieHawk

    Thank you for the beautiful story. It was the inspiration I needed to help solve a problem I have been wrestling with this very morning.

    My Grandmother was a Beauchamp from Langdon, North Dakota. Probably a connection there with Evan Beauchamp, since everyone in North Dakota is related anyway.

  • http://www.RaisingCatholicKids.com Mark

    The funny thing is people will always tell you what a great it is you are doing when you help kids like Joash and Calvin. And yet the opposite is what happens, kids like Joash and Calvin actually help you. We often think about making a difference in the world and how to achieve that, when all we really need, and often can do, is make a world of difference for those put in our path. And indeed to discern where that path may be for any of us, we must listen, to listen we must pray. As always we hope the story inspires.

  • tarasz

    Thank you.

  • jmtfh

    Wonderful article, Patti!

    Ask Joash if he remembers Calvin and I emailing Evan from your computer room about 9 months after Calvin arrived in the US to see if he might come to the U.S. and live with us. Evan said at that time that he just didn’t think it was possible, but he would pray about it~

    Jann

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