God never told us to sell everything and move to Africa, but that’s what we did. So how did we ever go from a perfectly content and full life of ministry at home to leaving it all behind for foreign missions? It was a series of small steps of obedience over many months that led us on a most incredible journey.
Preparing Our Hearts
In April 2011, a couple from our church in Columbus, Georgia—two of our dearest family friends—started to explore the possibility of joining Mercy Ships with their three children. We had only heard passing stories of the ship-based medical ministry from two others in our church who had served on board in the past. So, we decided to give the organization a closer look, just to see what our dear friends were considering doing. My wife Dianna and I have been quite missions-minded ever since we were teenagers, so it’s never difficult to get us excited about God’s Kingdom work around the world!
We looked up Mercy Ships online, read all about it, and were amazed by what we saw. But just as we have done numerous times over the years, we closed the web page, feeling joyful that such work is happening around the world and happy for our friends who were seriously considering it. We gave it no further thought for ourselves, other than how we might financially support the work as God may lead us to do so.
Three months went by without another thought to Mercy Ships, and I found myself on a two-week mission trip to Costa Rica with a group from our church. One of the ladies on the trip had served with Mercy Ships before. As so often happens on trips like these, there are many of opportunities for unhurried conversation with your teammates—while waiting in airport terminals, riding on planes and buses, during meals together at the mission site, etc. It seemed my conversations with this teammate always drifted back to Mercy Ships! I was fascinated by their work, by what life is like on board for the international Crew of volunteers. All the while, I thoughtI was learning all this information to inform me of what life would be like for my dear friends in the near future.
Answering Questions I Never Asked
Three more months passed, and I was on a three-day campus visit at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was applying to enroll as a student in their online Master of Divinity program. As I sat in class lectures, I was in prayer with God: “Lord, do You want me to pursue seminary at this time in my life? If so, is this the right program for me?” The response I received back was clear: “Ask me about Mercy Ships. Talk to me about Mercy Ships.” A bit confused, I reminded God that I haven’t been asking Him about missions, but about seminary. Yet still in my heart, I knew He was challenging me to consider full-time foreign missions for my family.
This would be an appropriate place to interject a significant aspect to our story. Dianna, our three small kids, and I were living in a beautiful house next to an amazing park in my hometown at this time. We enjoyed a wonderful community of fellow believers across our city, and we loved our church. We felt known, appreciated, and wanted in both our church and social lives, as well as in our professional and ministerial work. I was working in my dream job as the director of a city-wide, school-based, Christ-centered ministry to teenagers. Dianna was establishing a solid rhythm of home-schooling for our children. We had close and regular contact with family. Nothing was driving us away or causing us to look outside of our current situation for other options. We were living our dream-lives in what truly was the center of God’s will for us at the time!
And God said, “Talk to Me about Mercy Ships.”
When I got home from the seminary visit, Dianna asked me how it all went. “It was great,” I responded, “I met all the professors and heard them all lecture. The program looks great and I feel the time is right to begin. But I had the strangest answer to my prayers while I was there. I think we are supposed to start considering Mercy Ships.” It was the second week of October 2011, and we began asking God together if He wanted to us to look into Mercy Ships for ourselves.
Small Steps of Obedience
We visited their web site again, but this time, with our family in mind. We weren’t medical professionals; what could we do on board a hospital ship? As it turns out, there were lots of non-medical positions needed on board to support the work of the hospital. We looked into housing. Was there a place for us? They had family cabins on board the ship. What about school? There was a fully-accredited Academy on board, offering world-class education for children from nursery all the way up to grade 12.
The next week, we felt the Lord ask us to download the application packet—not to do anything with it, just download it. The next week, we felt Him lead us to print it off and complete the paperwork—He didn’t tell us to send it in, but just fill it out.
I was so certain this all wasn’t really going anywhere that I bought a used car at this same time. I never would’ve done that if I had known we would be selling everything and leaving the country in just a few months’ time! But it all felt like a test. Everything was so perfect at home. Were we willing to give it up? Were we willing to hold it out before the Lord with a loose grip? It all felt like an Abraham-Isaac situation to us. Maybe God was just testing to make sure we didn’t love His blessings more than Him.
Two weeks later, we sensed that He was leading us to submit our completed application. “Nothing will come of this,” we told ourselves. But still, we felt certain He was asking us to do these small steps of obedience. We didn’t know why, or where they would eventually lead us, but we did know that if we did not do them, we would be disobeying. So we visited the web site. We prayed and talked together about it. We downloaded the application packet. We filled it out, and we sent it in.
At each step, we just kept waiting for God to say, “Okay – good job. Well done – you passed all My tests. I see now that you are willing to go – now stay put and keep up the good work where you are.”
But that’s not what happened.
The small steps of obedience kept coming to us from the Lord, at the pace of about one every 7-10 days: “Get your references completed.” “Request more information about specific jobs on board.” “Learn more about the Academy on board.” “Request housing to see if you qualify.” And every step of the way, the doors remained open, and the momentum continued to build. By Christmas, it was all beginning to feel very, very real.
This Is Not A Drill
We decided to lay out one last fleece before the Lord to see if all this was really leading our family into a life of full-time missions overseas. Dianna and I decided to go spend a week out at Mercy Ships’ international support center in Texas. We participated in devotions, attended meetings, engaged in training sessions, interviewed with department heads, and listened to leaders—always looking for how God was going to finally close the door on all this Mercy Ships business and let us stay at home. It never happened. In fact, quite the opposite!
We came home from that week in Texas convinced that this was, in fact, the direction God was leading our family. Even still, we never felt He said, “Sell everything and move to Africa.” But as we looked back over the last eight months at all the small steps of obedience He had called us to, all the layers of confirmation He provided along the way, all the specific needs that would have to be just so for this to work, we realized, “We can’t not go!” It was too clear that this was what He was leading us to all along—step by step, small obedience by small obedience, along the amazing journey of being Spirit-led followers of God.
Nicholas Cash is a first time contributor to Soul Care Collective. Thanks, Nicholas!