Feature

The Flag

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Editor’s note: One purpose of Envision, a ministry of The Alliance, is for people of all ages to “encounter God—come face-to-face with Christ and follow Him more closely every day.” Joe Straw, an Envision intern, experienced just that while spending six months in Guinea. The following is his testimony of becoming a true disciple.

My name is Joe Straw, and I spent six months in Guinea, West Africa, as an Envision intern.

I grew up in Central Africa. As a missionary kid (MK), I frequently went to the Envision site across town to translate for any visiting interns or short-term teams. It was one of my favorite things to do. Plus, bossing around twentysomethings when you’re 13 is pretty cool.

Like many MKs, I went to a boarding school. It was one country north of where my family lived. At Rain Forest International School (RFIS), I had a blast playing sports, joining the worship team, and being the student body president during my senior year. I knew the ins and outs of the school and excelled in everything I did.

Center Star

Each student who graduates from RFIS receives a Cameroon flag with his or her name in the center star. Surrounding the star are words of encouragement from other students and staff.

Envision interns Braden Chaufty (center in purple) and Joe Straw (far right) strike a pose with students from the English Center in Guinea.

When I graduated, my flag—the “Joe” flag—was full. Kind words from the youngest students to the most experienced staff covered the fabric. Some referred to me simply as “president.” Others listed some of my accomplishments, praised my musical or athletic ability, cheered my leadership skills, or told me I’d changed lives wherever I went.

This flag became one of my closest comforts whenever I moved. I always packed it at the top of my suitcase. When I arrived at a new “home,” I hung that flag on the wall, usually next to my bed. I wanted to see it when I got up and before lying down.

For years, I couldn’t feel “at home” without this flag. It was my comfort.

Dashed Dreams

After graduating from RFIS, I enrolled at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. I had new responsibilities: work, a heavier academic load, finding a home church, managing my finances, and juggling relationships. In every area I struggled. I couldn’t pick up the everyday jobs of a college student as easily as I could the things in high school.

When something wasn’t going the way I wanted, I sat back and stared at my flag. It reminded me of a simpler time. Every goal I’d had back in high school, I reached. Everything I wanted to do, I could do and do it well. Students, staff, and even visitors applauded my skills and accomplishments.

“God, why isn’t this working?” I cried out. “Can’t You see how hard I’m working here? Throw me a bone!”

As the time for my internship drew near, I thought, Just wait until I make it back to Africa. Then life will be just like it was before. I dreamt of an internship where I would use all my skills to their greatest extent, and by my performance, I’d greatly impact the Envision site in Guinea. I’d receive high praise, and it would all be perfect.

Doubting God

Soon after I landed in Guinea, I realized I had been wrong. The internship’s major components were not anything like I had imagined. I thought there would be a lot of doing: teaching, filming, building, helping, mentoring, evangelizing, and planning. But I discovered an equal, or perhaps larger, emphasis on “being.”

Stephen Albright, the Envision Guinea site leader, didn’t judge my achievements. He sought for and encouraged Jesus in me. Whether my efforts were successful or failed, Stephen wanted to see Jesus through it all, not Joe.

Three times per week all of the site interns met together with Stephen and his wife, Lori, for discipleship. Once a week, we met with one of them individually for one-on-one discipling.

Stephen and Lori’s approach to discipleship was radically different from what I had previously experienced. It wasn’t a program; it wasn’t a list of things to do or memorize. It was organic. I could no longer come up with something impressive to say or do. Instead, they challenged me to allow Jesus to work in me. This was difficult.

At one point, the Albrights left for a couple of weeks to attend a conference. They asked us interns to work, while they were away, on a spiritual discipline with which we were uncomfortable. I knew immediately for me it was prayer.

As a theology major, I felt at ease talking about God but on edge talking to God. After a few years of unmet expectations, I had begun to doubt that God truly loved me and knew what was best for me.

When Stephen and Lori left, I went into an empty room and told God exactly how I felt and then sat there on my knees, waiting. I wanted to hear from Him.

All that Matters

After about 20 minutes of silence, I felt as though God said, Joe, you are My son, and I love you. It wasn’t audible; it was like a deep sense of God’s love washed over me. I immediately apologized for trying to live life my way and thinking I knew what was best for me.

That night when I went to bed, I noticed my flag on the wall. I tore it down. It was no longer a comfort to me; it made me sick.

Looking at this flag, with my name in the center star and people’s praises around it, I realized I had made my life all about performance. It fulfilled me for a season, but it wasn’t sufficient anymore.

When the Albrights came back, I quickly met with Stephen and told him I was ready to bury this flag just as I was ready to bury myself. I was done with trying to live life on my terms. It didn’t work, and it never satisfied.

Burial Service

Stephen and I took a pickax and a shovel to the backyard of the Envision house. As I dug, Stephen asked me why I was burying the flag and how God had brought me to this place. With tears rolling down my face, I swung the pickax again and again, striking to the core of my old way of life, my old comfort, my old self.

On our hands and knees, Stephen and I pushed the dirt back over the flag. As I looked up at Stephen, I knew that this is what he was doing the entire time. Stephen was inviting me to enter the Kingdom, to find God at the end of myself and start living with Jesus. This is the picture of discipleship I will always carry. Stephen was willing to get dirt on his hands and knees and sweat alongside me as I learned to bury myself and find true life.

That flag was never a true comfort. The only true comfort is Jesus, and I will gladly die so that He can live through me. I don’t know how to live my life, but I know Someone who does. I am now on a journey of learning directly from Him, my Savior, my comfort, my all.

My name is Joe Straw. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. And that’s all that matters.

11 responses to The Flag

  1. Joe, thanks for your testimony. We love to see how God is working in your life. This inspires us to remember that God’s plan is the only thing that matters in our future.

  2. Great testimony of how to trust God and not lean on our own understanding. My favorite Bible verse. Proverbs 3:5-6

  3. At times, on the mission field, it seemed as if God had me there because i needed the refining much more than the native souls whom i had gone to serve.
    Praise Him for he is faithful even when i am not.

  4. Joe, this is inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing your heart. God’s blessings.

  5. Hey Joe, your Dad is a newer friend of mine. I’ve been called to serve through the Alliance at Bongolo Hospital (am here, now, for the month), and I saw this link on his Facebook feed. Well done! I’m referring to both the quality of your writing as well as the profound lesson you share. Thank you for your authenticity!

  6. Wow! What can I say but Wow! I am so glad I had the opportunity to meet you, Joe, and work with you, even for a short time there in Guinea. God has big plans for you and what a awesome thing it is that you are allowing Him to fulfill them in and through you

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