August 20, 2019 | Sharon Iskra

Showing Up Empty-Handed

Sharon Iskra is a lawyer from Charleston, West Virginia who recently traveled to Kenya on an Expeditions Trip with her son Ian – who has been involved with Young Life for two years. Sharon has years of experience in youth ministry and teaches Bible lessons to elementary students at an after school program. On this trip, she was able to do the same thing at an orphanage in Kenya.  


Lily appears to be 14 years old, at most, but she has suffered more in her lifetime than I can imagine. I learn that this girl, a child herself, is the mother of two children living here in the orphanage with her. Lily’s mental disability had made her a target for repeated rape by several of the men in her village years ago.

That initial reality shrinks me. Then there’s the fact that I know but two words of Swahili,  one of which is “mizungu” (white person) and does nothing more than accentuate another of my many inadequacies at this moment.  Sitting longer, I grow utterly ashamed of the fact that I have yogurt and vegetables rotting in my refrigerator back home (the Iskra family tires easily of leftovers); meanwhile, the orphanage directors here tell our team that prior to our arrival, the only thing they had left to feed the 74 young residents was flour. I ponder all of these things as I read a verse I know well, painted behind Lily on the orange plaster wall of the meeting room: “Let us not tire of doing good…” Galations 6:9.

But how? Oh good Lord, what am I to do? And with what?

We couldn’t really speak. Lily couldn’t really participate in the games our team was playing with the other kids. So I just sat there awkwardly until it came to me: just do what we have come here to do, and let God have His way.  You can always expect a miracle when you do that, but I never dreamed I would be a beneficiary of the miracle.

I pulled up music I had recorded in my phone two years ago in a similar dusty village outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  The teenage girl who had led worship at that orphanage had a voice as rich and beautiful as her coffee skin and deep eyes like Lily’s. There had been a language barrier there too, and yet I still cry every time I play her music, because I had encountered God so powerfully through her singing. What would happen if I simply shared those Creole and English worship songs here?

Lily’s face transformed with a huge smile. She recognized the melody! Our eyes locked, and when the English translation poured out, we began to sing along, “Jesus, Son of God, worthy is Your Name…” In an instant, we were no longer strangers, but sisters in that sweet family of Christ.  Halfway around the world, I connected with a Kenyan girl on a level I have yet to reach with neighbors on my own street. I shivered, realizing this was possible because two years before we met, God had reached out His hand in a similarly unexpected place and given me something He meant to bless us that afternoon.

Before I went to Kenya and people asked me why I wanted to go, I said I wanted to draw near to God and to serve Him in whatever ways were needed. Kenya is a far way to go to do those two things, but maybe it takes saying “yes” to this trip to experience how they actually happen together.  In fact, the times I felt Him nearest were those times of service when I was least adequate and He was all-sufficient: in my moments with Lily; as a helpless passenger in crazy Nairobi traffic (it’s like looking death in the face multiple times a day); teaching lessons in classrooms without Smart-boards or even much in the way of school supplies; and in the Campaigner camp where we were honored to pray one-on-one with Kenyan teenagers who were seeking Biblical answers I nervously feared I would not have.  At the end of myself, I realized that I often didn’t have what I thought I needed – but that I could trust God 100% to come through with everything I did need.

On a few afternoons, we joined children playing soccer with a ball made of wadded-up plastic bags, or playing baseball using plastic 2-liter bottles as bats. “We waste nothing here,” one of our hosts said proudly, himself a former Compassion International child who had once been utterly empty-handed.  As the trip drew to a close, I realized how his words summed it all up for me.  Even the lesson I taught the school children that week about Jesus’ first miracle was a message to my own life: when Jesus turned water into wine, He did it with the help of empty-handed servants who, having come to the end of their supply, simply obeyed Him and filled ordinary stone jars with water.  How blessed were those servants, then, to pass and serve the wine He created, not only witnessing the miracle, but having a hand in distributing it to everyone at the party!

Now it is the turn of everyone on our team, and your turn, wherever you may be, to pass on the blessings He has bestowed upon us.

Yes, God continually and purposefully gifts each of us with experiences, talents, and blessings that are meant to be shared, and the mission field is not limited to countries far away. Will the riches of my trip or your own experiences stay only in our memories, as the song might have remained stored only in my phone, replayed only in private? Or will we take them out and pass them to others, even if they make us cry, even though we feel awkward and inadequate, so that nothing He has given is wasted just sitting in our hands?

Oh Lord, I am still ill-equipped and inadequate, but if You will continue to fill me along the way, may You always find me at the end of myself, empty-handed and ready for Your service.


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