By Nicholas Laning
There are lots of Christian terms and phrases. More than enough to laugh about. We don’t hang out, we fellowship. We pour out. Our cups runneth over. We run the race. We fight the good fight. We press into the Word. We don’t want to help a certain people or place, we have a heart for them.
My desires have evolved over the years. When I was younger, God moved upon my heart with affection for others. Somewhere inside of His words and spending time with people, I found my heart desiring to help. But I never imagined how hard that would be. You’d think, in theory, that the moment you desire to help others, the doors would open. After all, not many people seem to care about anyone beyond themselves or their immediate families.
Surely, people would welcome me with open arms. Surely, there would be opportunity. Go to any church or ministry and they will tell you that the harvest is great and the workers are few! The plea is impassioned and bold. The challenge is real – the gauntlet thrown down.
You, dear Christian, are needed. Your move.
A PAINFUL REALIZATION
But a funny thing happens at that next step. You raise your hand. You stand to be counted. You think that, after that desperate plea, you are now on your way to helping others. But what I discovered next was shocking.
The ministries that sounded so desperate to take anybody willing and passionate enough to go really wanted a very specific idea of a person. Being passionate wasn’t enough. Loving the Lord fiercely wasn’t enough. Being willing to go wasn’t enough. I discovered that most of these ministries would reject half of the people that have books of the Bible named after them. The process was long and painful.
I went to Ireland as a missionary thinking it would be my new home, only to discover what broken leadership looked like. I returned and tried to serve in several campus ministries, only to discover that I hadn’t saved enough people, something I had always thought was up to the Holy Spirit. The hurt grew but my desire to help did not. I simply began to believe that I was too tainted, broken, and useless to be a part of ministry. Ministry was apparently for clean, shiny people.
THE TEMPTING LIE
I tried blogging about my depression only to see that no one really responded. All this was before I even went through divorce. The church I was a member of made mistakes, human ones, mistakes since apologized for and forgiven. Still, underneath it all, there was this beyond deep hurt. Their actions gave room for me to struggle with this lie that haunts me, that I was once a good man, a respectable man, a man that ministries would like to have be a part of, only to now be too tainted for them.
Then came the divorce. I was once the man most mothers would want for their daughters. Now I was the wolf, and sometimes I cared like one too. That’s the painful thing about these lies. It’s easy to believe them simply because others project their view on you. But while their mistreatment can tempt, it can’t make. Add in fifteen years of suffering through the hell of severe clinical depression, I was in the middle of a terrible storm.
The pain from this season was only compounded by the fact most people my age were ahead of me in terms of money and occupation, as it is difficult to build a career when you can barely rise out of bed each day. Many barely even believe depression is even a real struggle, one put on by people longing for attention, because we lavish so much attention upon those who struggle with it. All of it had built the trappings of belief that I am a loser, a failure, tainted beyond use.
Yet, all along, underneath it all, there was still me – the same teenage me some nineteen years ago. The same me that desperately wanted to help, to be a part of something good. The same me full of love, special. My heart desperately yearned to feel like I matter and help others know they do too – all in the name of our Lord Jesus.
Over time, God refined my desires to specifically help those who help. Over and again I have seen the struggle of missionaries, servants, broken people leaving it all to go try to do something great only to return to find themselves alone when the going gets tough. They’re understaffed, underpaid, and then some.
That’s when God showed me that my years of photography could be used to bless these very people, helping capture the heart of their work and connect others to it. There is something amazing about taking what happens in the darkness of a far-away country and bringing it to light through photography. Their work is finally shown in color and light. Prayer, thought, time, and money could all come from it… if only I were not so tainted.
If only I weren’t a second class Christian.
If only I were once again worthy of respect.
God has been using others around me to soften my heart. He has built me up through friends, family, and, in small ways, through ministry. Still, something was missing.
That’s when Yusuph Emmanuel came into my life. I met Yusuph through my wife, Hannah. After hearing her talk about our shared love for missions, Yusuph and his wife invited us out to discuss an upcoming trip he was leading to Tanzania. We talked about the work he is doing and we were amazed.
But what stood out was the way Yusuph spoke to me. He talked to me differently than anyone had in a longtime. He spoke to me with respect. As he communicated value to me, it was like the skeleton of soul – the bones – were being remade within me.
This man of God, this leader, was looking at me as if I am like him, as if I am worthy of respect too. He brought me to his home country to photograph his work and share what God is doing there. The trip to
Kome Island was the most difficult trip I’ve ever made… by a long shot! The actual traveling was enough to bend my mid-thirties body and mind. Almost forty hours of travel. Four flights. Dallas to Doha. Doha to Nairobi. Nairobi to Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro to Mwanza. Bus ride form the airport to the first ferry. Two hours to another ferry. And then there was the week of camping, getting violently ill, and coming all the way back.
My job was to be photographer, and it was incredible. A trip of a lifetime. Yet, perhaps the most meaningful moment was when Yusuph asked me to be one of those who preached on Sunday at churches all over the Island.
Who is this man? Doesn’t he know I am tainted? That I went though divorce? Doesn’t he know that means I no longer am of service anymore? Does he know that I struggled with depression? The made up disease that probably means I am not spiritual enough?
Apparently he didn’t, or he did and didn’t care, and it has changed my life. It has changed it because for the first time in a long, long, long, long time, I felt like a man worthy of being respected by others. So, I had the privilege of speaking to my brothers and sisters on Kome. They honored me by allowing me to be a part of their service and letting me tell them I love them and of what I hoped God would do in their lives.
Even since my return I ask myself if it is real sometimes. Is redemption real for humans? I know it is in Christ. God sees me as redeemed. That was never in question to me. The question has been, would His people ever see me that way? Some won’t, and that’s okay. Yet, through Yusuph Emmanuel, and my wife, Hannah, God has shown me that some will.
Nicholas Laning is a Dallas-based photographer who specializes in capturing God’s beauty and redeeming love in everyday life. He and Hannah are now married. You can view their work at laningphotography.com.