This week's blog is by my good friend Ed Windhausen from my Word Weaver's group. I am thankful to walk alongside him in his writing journey and share this story from his mission trip to Zambia. His words are so vivid and compelling that I experience his emotions as I read. May his story bless you too!
A Heart of Flesh
Ezekiel 36:26, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
I thought you couldn’t die in your dreams. I had heard it said that if you did, you would die in real life. I am grateful that turned out to be false. It was the summer of 2008, and I found myself in a most unlikely place. I was on a mission trip in the bush of Zambia, Africa. That’s actually not that surprising, since I had taken the same trip the previous year. What was different this year was the work I was doing.
I had never really contemplated what it might be like to be on a chain gang in the 1920’s, but that year in Africa I found out. We were tasked with digging something called barache (bah-rah-sh). Imagine an iron rich soil that has fossilized and turned into a large vein of super hard concrete like stone. That’s barache. It’s hard and unforgiving, and our host missionaries needed us to dig up this stone and crush it into smaller pieces to create a gravel-like packable substrate for the floor of the orphanage we were helping to build. The problem was that this barache was very comfortable where it was and did not want to be disturbed. We used picks, shovels, and six-foot steel pry bars to try and coax it loose. The work was so tough that I actually wore down about two inches of the pick I was using that week. I burned myself on its tip once from the heat that had built up from the repetitive friction producing contact with the barache. It was hard work.
There were times when we would fall into this almost sleepy rhythm of lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang. For a guy like me who wasn’t used to manual labor, I had to dig deep into myself to find the will to continue each hour. I had to ignore the blisters that formed, popped, and bled each day. I had to set aside my own comfort for the greater cause of the work that was being accomplished. That work was for God and His children. Wasn’t that the reason we had come to this place, to serve the Lord?
Maybe it was because I was so tired. Maybe it was because I was raw from sleeping in a tent in the bush of Africa. Likely, it was because I was focusing on Him in the midst of my suffering. Whatever the reason, the Lord chose this moment to remind of a gift He had given me four years earlier. A gift I had never acknowledged, or had chosen to push back into the recesses of my memory for some purpose not known to me on a conscious level.
My work partner Tom and I had been at it all morning, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang. It was close to lunchtime, and we had been having a conversation about our testimonies. I was sharing with him my agnostic struggles prior to accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior, relaying to him I could now see how God had been at work in many of the circumstances of that journey. He had placed people in my path that had been essential in my slow, methodical approach to faith. Over and over again He had given me the opportunities to see Him for who He truly was, love.
I will admit to being tired, we all were. But, it was more than a physical release that was about to occur. It was the realization that something pivotal had happened in my life, and I had ignored it. It was like someone pulling you to safety after a bad motor vehicle accident. Watching as the car explodes, feeling the heat, and then turning around and discovering that the person has disappeared into the crowd before you could thank them for saving your life. It was a feeling of unresolved gratitude that constantly nags at you, never letting you fully relax.
I don’t recall what triggered the memory, but I do remember that Tom was expressing how grateful he felt to have eternal salvation. I could feel the authenticity of his words, like a mist settling on my warm skin, soothing and cooling in the hot African sun. It was then that I shared with him this vision or dream I had four years prior. It was unlike any dream I had ever had. It was more thought than visual or auditory. There was no recognition of images, or discernment of sound, but there was awareness unlike anything I had ever experienced. I could feel what was happening. But, it was actually more than a feeling; it was a confident recognition of truth.
I was dead. There was no tunnel of light, no swirling colors, nothing from my memory of how death has been described by those who have claimed to return from that experience. I was just dead. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t even confused. While I had no explanation for my demise, I was at peace. It was as if I had been holding my breath forever and was finally able to exhale, but then take in a deep breath of air so sweet, so fragrant and warm, it pulled me close and soothed me from within. There was recognition in that breath that I never had to worry again, and all the anxieties I’d had in my life had been pointless. This was how it was supposed to be. This was the real life.
Tom was intrigued. He asked me what might have been going on in my life at that time. At that moment, I made the connection. I shared that the dream had come when I had finally surrendered to God and let Him into my heart. I had decided to stop fighting, stop looking for proof, stop feeling like I had to explain everything before I could be a true believer. I was tired. I didn’t want to fight it anymore. I submitted myself to His will. I stopped being hard like stone, and I softened.
This may sound theatrical, but I fell to my knees right there at the edge of that small barache pit under a grove of mwaponi trees in the Mukamba region of Zambia, and I cried. Tom became a blur through my tear soaked eyes, but I could see him smiling. He knew something powerful had just happened. It was the recognition that my heart had been transformed from something as hard as the barache we were digging, into a heart of flesh, a heart that was softened for the purposes of the Lord. I felt Tom’s hand on my shoulder, but he said nothing. There was nothing to say. I stood up, wiped my eyes, and grabbed my pick, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang, lift-swing-bang.
Joanna Eccles has led Bible studies for over ten years and completed the year-long C. S. Lewis Fellows Program. She is passionate about discipleship and helping people know God better. Joanna enjoys coffee, traveling, and reading, and currently lives in Virginia.