Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Staggering Humility

By Maggie Bartlett

I have a vivid memory of my time living in Kenya that I could never shake.

I was working for an international nonprofit whose mission is to empower communities living in extreme poverty by providing education, employment and discipleship. We primarily worked with Internally Displaced People (IDP’s), who are essentially refugees in their own country, forced to flee their home due to political violence or unrest. 

Our staff was very close to the men, women and children in this IDP camp—I still lovingly refer to them as my Kenyan family. Toward the end of my time there, my Kenyan mamas asked me and another co-worker to stay in their home for one night. It was unprecedented for two mzungus (white people) to stay in a mud hut in this village, but we happily obliged. For the next 36 hours, we lived as they did.


We woke up around 6:30 a.m. with four unblinking Kenyan children peering into our crib-like bed (two benches pushed together with "cushions"), curiously examining their guests. As we began to stir, Mama Grace asked: "Oh! You are done with the sleep? You are not finished?" to which I dubiously responded, "No, I think we are finished with the sleep.” 

After a slow morning of chai and toast, we met our other Kenyan mama, Mary, and walked—just the women—to church. Church was simply another home in the village composed of mud and sticks with hay concealing the dirt floor; I half expected Joseph and Mary to be cooing over baby Jesus in the corner. Mama Mary and Grace immediately informed us to bow and pray, which is when I heard it:


Wailing emerging from deep within women's souls...groans reinforced by such urgency…anguish-filled utterances surfacing at a mysterious pitch….gulping for air in between sobs...begging for mercy or freedom or maybe forgiveness…

"Lord hear me as I pray: pay attention to my groaning. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God." -Psalm 5:1-2

The rawness of their prayers was startling. My dear friends, who emanate joy and preach great faith, were humbly bowing before the Lord, their bones, their marrow, petitioning, pleading to be heard. 

They are proud, but not arrogant. They recognize their need and dependency, yet live in hope and assuredness that God will not fail. Their humility is staggering.


What I took away from that morning was their humility. I wasn’t wrong to recognize that, but I also wasn’t seeing it clearly. During my many visits to Kenya, I understood and knew these women to be joyful and hopeful, even when faced with the most unimaginable and difficult circumstances. They constantly proclaimed God’s goodness and faithfulness when they quite literally had nothing. 

We've all heard this about people living in extreme poverty: “They don’t have anything, yet are so full of joy.” Good grief, we are completely missing the point; I completely missed the point. 

It’s true. They don't have much and maintain a startling faith amid such poverty. But their ability to recognize their need for Jesus is not because their lives are free from the luxuries and privileges that we are entitled to—it’s not because they live more simply. That may be part of the story, but it's not the whole story. 

They experience God’s goodness because they approach the throne like that (see above). 

There on a floor covered in hay wet from tears is where these women found Jesus—all of him. 

They bring him every pain, every injustice, every need. They show him the truth, both sweet and ugly. They trust that he knows their agony and understands their longing. They would never be so foolish as to pretend their suffering didn’t hurt as much as it does. They would never turn to their neighbor and say: “It’s so hard, but it’s good.” 

Instead they beg for his mercy, forgiveness, and comfort; knowing he is faithful even in suffering. They fear him, worship him and find refuge in him. As we all should. This is what sustains them through unanswered prayers, hunger and thirst. Jesus. Not their simple way of living, not Westerners coming to help them, not a water filter—Jesus.

Why do we pretend everything is ok when it’s not? It is not ok because this world is not how it’s supposed to be. We sugarcoat our sadness or throw ourselves pity parties or gloss over the icky parts. Then we come to pray, but we pray with anger, coldness or fear. We’re too afraid to face our trauma, loss and hurt. Adam and Eve did this when the Lord came looking for them; they hid in shame, keenly aware of their sin and nakedness.

But we cannot continue to hide. 

Do you know where we will find peace, abundant joy and the well of mercy? At his feet. But only when we come obediently and humbly. Not in anger or out of frustration, but in raw, honest vulnerability. 

It’s Jesus that I experienced and remain startled by in my Kenyan friends. It was God’s essence in them, not the essence of joy or simplicity, but the true character and person of Christ. I encountered his beauty and radical love up close, and was forever changed by it. Because when these women allowed themselves to be stripped of everything, they were only left with him. 


Get on your knees, lay flat on the ground and weep. Plead. Tell him of your sorrows. Your longing. Your grief. Your dreams. Your unanswered prayers. Tell him of your anger, your bitterness, your hurt—your truth. There you will likely not find wealth or fame, health or remedies, you may not even find answers, but you will find him, in all his glory. You’ll find your Jesus, your King, your Savior and that is enough.  

“My goal is God Himself, not joy, nor peace. Nor even blessing, but Himself, my God.”

Maggie Bartlett is a Colorado native, living in Denver with her husband. She works at a marketing agency and loves to write, climb mountains and travel in her free time.


  1. Thank you for sharing this with us. I was lucky enough to get involved with the adopting a hero, a service man who was in Afghanistan. He asked me to not go away when he came back to the states, I didn't an now he calls me mom. He and his family are from Africa but now is a US citizen. When I need to ask someone to help pray for something, I call Alice his wife. She told me at home everyone goes to church first before they start their work, she is a pray warrior and I am lucky enough to say she is now part of my family now. Romeo lost both of his parents (illness) and his daughter who was 12 was killed. I have never been to Africa but have traveled enough to know poor doesn't equal unhappiness, it seems the more someone has they not happy.

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    1. Thanks Debra for sharing your experience and story. It's amazing what we're exposed to when we leap out of our comfort zone. There is so much to learn from others and other cultures!