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Elisa Talmage

Leaving with lessons: my last blog post

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Today marks my final hours as a Writer for Mission Network News. It’s going to be really odd not coming in every morning, figuring out what happened over night and gathering stories from all over the world. It’s going to be odd not getting to talk to unbelievable missionaries and inspiring speakers every day. It’s going to be odd no longer writing about God’s work around the world in a news setting. But I will take with me everywhere all I’ve learned here. Before I take it though, I wanted to share a few bits of it with you. The following is a shorter list than would ever suffice as a thorough explanation of how MNN has shaped me. But here are some of the major things I have discovered:

God is doing far more around the world than I could ever imagine. 

It’s impossible to work at MNN and not have a change of perspective. Every single story we write talks about how the Gospel is spreading worldwide, yet there are millions of stories that go untold. As I write every day about God moving in Mozambique, Iran, China, Brazil I see how small my view of God’s work is. He is not just working in my life, or my church, or my family. He’s appearing in dreams to Muslims who’ve never met a Christian. He’s booming his church in nations actively persecuting his followers. He’s working in the hearts of young children, drawing them to himself, and then using them to bring their families into his kingdom as well. He’s rescuing victims of trafficking, abuse and neglect. There are amazing stories in America to be sure, but the longer I’ve been here, the more I see there are amazing stories everywhere. God’s hand is moving in every nation, and I’ve gotten to be a part of it through writing and prayer.

Prayer is not just an item to check off the list; it IS the list. 

In every single interview I’ve done, pastors, missionaries and ministry CEO’s have asked for prayer. Prayer for lights to go on in young, dark hearts. Prayer for church movement in closed nations. Prayer for dictators to rearrange their hearts. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard that “prayer is the most important thing.” I can’t say that hearing this over and over — and then hearing how God answers — has transformed my prayer life into something like Christ’s. I can say though I am at least much more likely now to get on my knees while writing a story, or more likely to remember Syrian refugees while I’m praying in the morning. I never would have thought to pray for Muslims during Ramadan if it weren’t for hearing continuously how vital that is. As Doug Hutchcraft recently told me, God says he knows our prayers before we speak them, but he doesn’t say he’ll answer them before we speak them. I guess we had better pray.

Missionaries are not unapproachable weirdos. 

To those of us not on the missions field overseas, missionaries can seem a little out there. People that voluntarily live in huts and eat local bugs? Weird. But the more I’ve talked to missionaries the more I’ve seen that they are ordinary people who have simply responded to God’s Great Commission call. What I find is that most missionaries are really easy to talk to, but often have a much deeper faith than mine. Possibly because their faith has been stretched in ways mine has yet to be. I’ve also discovered that missionaries come in every form: electricians, agriculturists, translators, teachers, grandparents, young families. The list is never ending, and there’s a need for people in every working field somewhere. You’d think God specifically planned our likes and dislikes for ministry or something…

I am often envious of the persecuted church. 

This probably sounds really strange. I don’t mean I wish I were being beaten, tortured, attacked, bombed or raided. But I have discovered many things about the persecuted church in the last four years that have made me admire those suffering for Christ more than any other believers. For one thing, an interesting phenomenon takes place worldwide: the more persecution the church faces, the more it grows. This seems to be the case about 90% of the time. As God’s people are targeted, more people seem to want to know about Christ. Take Iran, for example. It’s 5 on the World Watch List but has probably the fastest growing church in the world.

Secondly, those who have been persecuted for their faith are often strongest in their walks–even without access to Bibles or podcasts or church buildings. We have had people in the MNN office who, when asked  how we could pray for the persecution to stop, have laughed in our faces. They ask not for an end to it, but for wisdom in responding in a way that reflects the Lord, and for opportunities to share his name. It’s not that these believers enjoy persecution or want it. They just take John 15:18-25 seriously. Personally, I think if someone beat me for telling a friend what I thought about Jesus, I would be a little scared off. Believers who are not able to practice their faith in the open, who would rather face physical hardship than spiritual loss, have become the greatest examples of faith to me. I am envious of their zeal and faithfulness to the Creator.

I have a responsibility. 

To give, to pray, to do. I am not off the hook for the Great Commission just because I live in America and am not a “missionary.” If I have more than I need, I’m responsible to help fund God’s work through missionaries. I’m responsible to help those in need around me. I’m responsible to pray for those suffering as if I myself were suffering. I am not any less called to spread Christ’s name just because missions work is not my full-time occupation. As a follower of Christ, I have a responsibility to be a light–wherever I go.

Heaven is going to be filled with unbelievable people. 

Ok, I knew this before I started working here. But I’ve met some of my favorite ever Christians here. The people working at the ministries we partner with are incredible examples of dedication to Christ. I am going to miss interviewing these exceptional believers. But whenever I think about that, I stop and realize I’m going to get to spend all of eternity with Tom Doyle, Todd Nettleton, York Moore, Carl Moeller, Ron Hutchcraft, Mark Lewis, JP Sundararajan, Teresa Flores, Ruth Kramer, Greg Yoder, Sharon Felton, Lyndsey Gammage and the list goes on for pages. Praise God that I will have eternity to get to know all of these people better, to keep sharing thoughts and experiences, and to rejoice together in the work of the Lord. I would guess I’m far (relatively) from dying, but when I do leave the earth, it’s going to be a grand reunion!

 

Thank you to all who have read my stories, believed in my abilities, and responded to the call of the Lord as a result of MNN. My final plea: keep “doing” for the Lord. Let MNN be your guide in how to do that; they’re pretty good at it.

me, Me, ME

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I just finished reading the book Crazy Love by Francis Chan. Altogether it was convicting at times and a nice base for discussion. But the last chapter is what got me going more than anything else–and the line that struck me wasn’t even from Chan. He quoted a woman, Amy Dillard I think, saying, “How you live your days is how you live your life.” That stopped me in my tracks. “What do I do during the day?” I thought. Well, I work, I run errands, I clean, I work out, I cook, I watch TV, I spend time with my husband, I spend time with friends. Nothing really out of the ordinary from the average American, really. The problem is, the average American can be defined by one word: selfish.

Anyone at Mission Network News will tell you our jobs are pretty high-stress. We have daily deadlines, we are trying to look for news from a perspective virtually no one else has or will report on, and occasionally the stories we write can be so high-security that if a mistake is made, a life could literally be on the line. At work, it’s easy to focus on what I have to get done, and even easier to grumble (out loud or in my mind) at the work load because it may be something outside of what I want to do. (It’s a little embarrassing even discussing this when I think about the martyrs, and persecuted believers, and suffering refugees that I write about on a daily basis, but the truth is, throughout all of that, I still manage to focus on my wants and desires.) When I come home from a day of work in this kind of environment, my default is still me.  I want to veg out in front of the TV, do something mindless, and eat dinner. It’s hard to call up a friend to check in, to write a note to my sister, or to even just consider that my husband could have had a rough day too. I’m a generally caring person, but I still find myself asking more often than not, “What does Elisa feel like doing right now?”

Some people would probably justify that. My friends will sometimes tell me that since I work a high-stress job, I deserve a break. It’s nice of them I suppose, but the trouble is, I start to believe it. But where in the Bible does it say, “Work hard until you don’t feel like it, and then focus solely on yourself”? If my days reflect my life, and my days are focused on me, my life can only be about…me. And I’m not sure that’s what Christ intended when he told us to pick up our cross and follow Him.

As I read that line from Amy Dillard, at first I thought about all the significant changes I must make to have a better day-to-day, to have a better overall life. Volunteer more! Go on a mission trip! Sell my stuff! But as I read on in that last chapter, I realized that not everyone is called to the same thing. In fact, I may be called to continue an “average” American life simply with a different focus. There is nothing wrong with a life that looks average when it’s lived for the Lord. My husband’s grandfather was a man I admired more than almost any believer, but really, the story of his life was not exceptional. He was a builder who moved from Norway to the States as a teen, never finished high school and never went to college. He didn’t sit on the board of a ministry, and I don’t know if he ever went on a mission trip. But there was something so defining about this man that just radiated Christ. He had Lymphoma toward the end of his life, and it seemed like every nurse wanted to work in his room. The joy and love that he showed to everyone on a daily basis characterized his entire life. His love for the Lord defined him. Out of all the words I would use to describe him, “selfish” would not be on even the bottom-most words on the list.

So for now, I am taking baby steps. I have started to just ask God daily to open my eyes to the wants and needs of those around me, and to respond to those before I respond to myself. I realize that asking God to help me see others’ needs is a far cry from actually being a selfless person, but maybe taking this small step on a daily basis will help to make my life a reflection of a loving person and a loving God.

 

Why next week should have us on our knees

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North Korea is the eeriest kind of horror-film setting I can think of. Terrible things are happening elsewhere–thousands are dying from senseless fighting in Syria, children are forced to use machine guns in Congo, girls are pruned for prostitution in Thailand–but North Korea seems to be the only nation that has found a way to control its citizens’ minds.

I get a cold, disturbed feeling any time I write a story about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. On the best of days, the nation’s outrageous propaganda can seem humorous; on other days, the emaciated faces of starving people playing through my mind represent the worst of tragedies. I am no North Korean expert. Apart from a handful of documentaries I’ve seen and news articles I’ve written, I know little about the intricate inner-workings of North Korea. But in all of my news writing, interviews and research, I have come to the conclusion (as undoubtedly many others have) that North Korea is in its own homemade category of crazy. I don’t mean that in a funny way, I mean it in a psychotic, manic and disturbing way. North Korea is number one on the Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 worst persecutors of Christians–it has been for ten years–but it seems to me to be leaps and bounds ahead of Afghanistan (number 2 on the list) or Saudi Arabia (number 3) in its terrifying restrictions. Christians caught with a Bible in North Korea–which claims to have freedom of religion–can not only be sentenced to prison, but their children and their children’s children can carry that same sentence. Just for owning a Bible. There are an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 believers in North Korean prisons. Those who are not in jail for their “crimes” live incredibly meager lives. Believers have said that although it’s the norm in North Korea to be starving, Christians potentially suffer the worst. They are often the last to get any sort of food aid when it’s distributed.

“Oppressive” does not begin to describe a place where children are encouraged to rat out their parents for owning a copy of the Scriptures, where every person is forced to worship the “god” Kim Jung-un, where Christians are viewed as Western spies, and where even private worship can be punishable by death without trial. It seems almost too horrifying to be true; simply unreal. And yet, we serve–and our North Korean brothers and sisters serve–the same God who kept three men alive when thrown into a furnace for refusing to bow to a false god. The same God who set an entire people free from slavery by defying natural law and parting a sea. The same God who has broken the bonds of death itself. Surely our God can rescue His people from the grasp of human leaders in North Korea.

But will He do it if we do not ask?

Open Doors is calling on all believers next week, April 23-29 to get on their knees and pray for the most oppressive nation on earth. To pray for safety of believers, for the Gospel to spread (as it IS doing!), to pray for leaders to turn to Christ and for true freedom to reign. We advocate so many giving opportunities and prayer guides at Mission Network News that it’s impossible for all of us working here to do them all. But this is one I cannot, in good conscience, miss. In an article airing on MNN on April 17, Jerry Dykstra tells us that North Korean believers have said the only thing keeping them going is knowing they have the support of other believers’ prayers. Thus our prayers will have a dual effect: both beseeching the Lord of the universe to find favor with our North Korean family members, and encouraging our brothers and sisters that they are not alone.

To join in this week-long prayer effort–purposely coincident with North Korea Freedom Week–visit http://www.opendoorsusa.org/. You can also view a 19 minute Open Doors video to learn more about Christians living underground in North Korea here.

India

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Elisa Talmage

Elisa Talmage is heading to India.

Six days from now, I leave for my first ever trip to India. The South Asian nation has been on my heart for some time. When a massive earthquake struck India in 2001, the school I attended responded with a fundraiser called “India Fest”. It included Indian food, dancing, purses, bangles, henna and beautiful music. This was my first encounter, really, with Indian culture, and it had me captivated. The event was such a success that the school held annual “Culture Fest” celebrations thereafter, celebrating Indian culture, but also Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Senegalese and so on. Still, I was always drawn to the India table, vibrant with color, mirrors, silver, and intricate designs.

A number of years later, I began working for Mission Network News, where I learned really for the first time how impoverished and oppressed many were in the country that had caught my eye so long ago. I was not ignorant of India’s poverty before then, but I had never allowed myself to think on how much persecution her church faced. Upon this realization, I also came to terms with how many street children there were in India, unable to get an education or, many times, even a meal. My heart broke for India’s children, and I decided to sponsor a 10 year old girl through Gospel For Asia. As I dove even further into the findings of Indian society, I learned that the nation was also plagued by a terrifying trafficking issue. I unveiled the ugly truth that mothers had no option but to prostitute themselves, and their children followed; that some children were forced into begging on the street for money they couldn’t keep; that female infants were sometimes “dedicated” to gods in the form of temple prostitutes. It was devastated information, and yet if anything, it made me fall in love with the people of India more. The way I had seen the church respond to these issues–of trafficking, of poverty, of persecution–blew me away. Such courage and conviction of belief did not seem to be quite matched elsewhere.

This leads me to today, six days away from finally encountering a culture I’ve been secretly in love with for the last 11 years. I’ll be able to see the church up close. I’ll be able to watch beautiful children learn and grow. I’ll be able to stand in the middle of bustling cities. I’ll be able to feel the Indian heat.

And frankly, I can’t wait.

Christmas dreaming

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I have a (perhaps unhealthy) obsession with Christmas. As I write this, I am listening to Louis Armstrong sing “Cool Yule.” I have not one but THREE Christmas stations on my Pandora radio station list, and I have been listening to Christmas music since about July–regularly since September. I taped a big snowflake to my computer screen yesterday, and contemplated taking out my red and green paper chain for decoration. I decided against it, as my desk is pretty central to the office. Don’t want to raise too many eyebrows.

My passion for the holiday season is so severe that I’ve taken a considerable amount of time to think about why I am this way over the past few years. I’ve discovered there’s just something about Christmastime. There is something pure, warm and delightful that surrounds the Christmas season that I constantly long for and can never quite describe.

The following is an email I wrote about a year ago this time to a friend who shares my deep love for the season:

I feel as though I write about this every single time I write you a letter or send you an email, but that is only because I know that you are the one person who truly understands my bizarre and pressing obsession with the wonder that is Christmas. I know I might eat my words about the weather, but right now I want nothing more than to watch the snow fall outside my window as I work and gaze into the cold night sky. I want to sit by a fire and forget that there is so much to do and so much begging for my attention. You know, I think my constant longing for Christmas has something to do with the peace and calm that it represents. There is no running around at Christmas. Ok, I know that’s not true; there are shopping and relative visiting and holiday parties to attend among other things. But on the best of Christmas nights, the house is warm, joy blankets every room, and sweet peace provides me with the invitation to just sit and soak it in. Every time I begin to get overwhelmed with life I run back to that beautiful place that is Christmas, remembering that there will again be a time that I can breathe and forget the numerous things that seem to tear life from my arms. I think what I’m really chasing after is (to borrow the old adage) the Christ that is found in Christmas.

The more I reflect on it, the more I realize the reason I burn to be near a fire with snow falling outside and family all around is indeed rooted in an innate desire for Christ, the Prince of Peace. Christmas feels like home. Christ feels like home. Christmas–to me–represents rest. Christ gives us rest. Christmas is about love. God is love. It’s all the “magic,” if you will, encompassing the birth of God into humanity. And I cannot get enough–no matter what month it is.

So indulge me. Take a minute to listen to your favorite carol, and reflect on Christ’s incarnation on the earth, when he left all that is good and pure and holy to dwell among all that is evil and tainted and sinful. Take a minute to rest in the immense promise God gave us by humbling himself on earth, not only coming here, but living to someday die for all of us. Reflect. Rest. Rejoice! You too might find we could all use a little more Christmas in our lives.

Strength unknown

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Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking with one of my all-time favorite interviewees, Tom Doyle, with E3Partners. Tom is a Middle East liaison of sorts for E3 and is more knowledgeable about the region than almost anyone else I know. It’s always refreshing to hear his perspective not just of the goings-on, but of the way Christians are responding, and will undoubtedly rise up.

This time, we talked about Libya. Libya has been going through a highly disputed (internationally) civil war for the past several months. Now that the country’s dictator Moammar Gaddafi seems to have run off for good, the country is preparing to revamp the government system completely. In many ways they are ready for change. But in other ways, things will remain the same, especially as it relates to Christians.

The nation is 97% Sunni Muslim. New country leaders have said the nation will continue on under the governance of Sharia law. For Christians, and especially Christian converts from Islam, this doesn’t exactly bode well. After months of terrifying war, Christians, according to Tom, don’t appear to be expecting things to get better for them. They will continue to be careful about how they share their faith and how they worship.

Next door, Libya neighbor Egypt is facing similar decisions. The government in Egypt is being similarly revamped, and now, as I see it, looks like it will likely be voting the Muslim Brotherhood as their rulers before long. Egyptian approval for the group has shot up over the last few months, and with organization and a promise of leadership, the group I think appears to Egyptians to be able to do the job. Christian in Egypt will face similar trials as Libyans. Lack of freedom, lack of peace. A recent poll showed that most Egyptians still believe that Muslims who convert to Christianity should be killed.

Now this is probably more background info than you needed; you’re probably not reading this for a news update. But the interesting–amazing–thing about all of this is the Christian response. Believers are not shouting in protest, or really voicing their opinions on their rights at all. More than that, they don’t seem to be that worried about the decisions being made in their nations. Don’t get me wrong, I am certain that some of them are frightened of the things that are possibly to come, but the boldness many have exhibited is astounding. Not only are Christians prepared to continue sharing their faith whatever the consequences (which have been arrest in several instances recently in Egypt), but they’re taking it upon themselves to reach out to other nations. Egyptian Christians are now headed to Libya as missionaries to spread the Gospel. They’re literally risking their lives to get the Gospel to as many broken and lost people as possible.

Now if I’m honest with myself, if I were in this situation, I don’t think that’s how I’d react. I have never in my life been in a situation in which my life was on the line for the Gospel. Now, I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with that–God placed me in America, and that’s where I live and can report these things and learn about them and be missional with my neighbors here. But when I hear stories about believers in war-torn nations, believers who are constantly harassed and even physically abused for their faith, my mind goes numb. That intensity of faith is so foreign to me that I can’t even fathom it.

You know, as an American, it’s so easy to look down on other nations. My whole life, I’ve been in classes talking about how great America is, I’ve said the pledge of allegiance probably about 2,500 times, I’ve been encouraged in America-centric thinking. “America leads the world,” “If there’s no hope for America, there’s no hope for anyone,” etc. With such a barrage of narcissistic beliefs, it’s almost second nature for any U.S. citizen to look at a third-world country and think–even if not in words but just in reactions–that we’re better than them. With that in mind, when I see countries at war with themselves, when I see governments crumble, I have an immediate, base reaction–however wrong it may be–to look down on it, thinking, “Oh, those uncivilized nations.”

And yet. When I see the way that Christians handle themselves, the way that they stand up for their Savior and boldly do anything and everything they have to for the sake of a life saved, all of my country-induced pride is immediately diminished. Here I am, this “great American” who finds it difficult to be bold with my own friends and neighbors in the safest of countries where nothing really is on the line at all. I may have the privilege of education, wealth and power here, but what do I know of true strength? What do I know of watching a sister die at the hands of extremists and not being able to do anything about it? What do I know of sharing my faith, not knowing if the person I’m talking to will rejoice over the news or turn me over to authorities? What do I know of this absolute trust in Christ and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit?

This has turned out to be a much longer thought than I had planned, but it’s good for me (even if you’re bored!) to think through these things and remember that the world is hardly about me, or even America. I have a feeling that on that Day in heaven, many of those who were uneducated, impoverished, oppressed on earth, will be lifted higher than any of the rest. And so today, how will you lift them up? How will I?

Senseless Desensitivity

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I think this is probably a fitting first post for me, as it’s an issue that crops up often in the bustling news world, and provides an even more difficult challenge for Christian journalists, I think. Desensitizing.

In one sense, I’m glad that I’ve developed the ability to “shut off” my emotions when it comes to news. I’m naturally a decently emotional person, but it’s really not reasonable to be a journalist who cries every time she does an interview. And so I’ve learned to turn that side of me off as I listen to stories about famine killing hundreds of thousands, entire nations in uproar, Christians being hunted for their faith, so that I can focus on asking good questions to get the news across effectively. But there’s a point when shutting off that emotional valve can be devastating–not so much to me as to God. As a Christian, I’m called to love everyone, to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions…praying for all the saints.” But when you hear bad news every day, it’s easy to be numb. It’s easy to shout across the office, “Ruth, another bombing in Iraq. 15 Christians dead. Who should we talk to about it?” rather than to simply stop and pray. It’s not just easy, it’s easier. Easier than taking a minute to think about the life lost for the sake of the Gospel, the importance of the Gospel message, the purpose I write this news at all.

I’ve been working at Mission Network News for nearly three years, first as an intern, now as a full time staff member, and have yet to master the fine art of “stopping” in the news room. Lately, I’ve taken to writing down the names of countries, leaders, and even friends on small note cards that I might be reminded to pray for them throughout the day. Funny how we have to make so much effort to remember to pray when these things are before our eyes daily.

And in an effort to place the blame elsewhere and feel slightly better about the fact that I’m so far from perfect, I recognize that we all do this. We all hear news even in our own towns that we say is terrible, but how often do we stop to intercede? I’m reminded of cameraman Jack’s thoughts about the 1990’s genocide in Rwanda in the film Hotel Rwanda, “I think that when people turn on their TVs and see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my [gosh], that’s horrible,’ and then they’ll go back to eating their dinners.” That line haunts me. What can I be doing to get involved? I can’t give to every organization, but surely I can pray for many of them. How can I become more sensitive even to what’s just “news” to me–someone else’s “reality”–today? How can you?