Last week we went in the Land Rover to visit a group of Cambodian Christians near the Thailand and Cambodia border. We parked the vehicle on the main road and walked about a mile, often through mud and water up to our knees, to the meeting place. Boiling hot sun!
The men walked ahead of me. Not only is that Thai custom but I couldn't keep up with them. My rubber sandals kept sliding in the mud. I wished I had remembered to bring an umbrella or hat to keep off the tropical sun. Carefully I lifted one foot in front of the other, always on the lookout for a snake or a hole camouflaged in the dirty brown water. The meeting place, a farmer's home, was surrounded by flooded rice fields partitioned by narrow dirt dikes. I did not relish trying to maneuver those slippery dikes. I wanted to turn back. Determined to persevere, however, I tucked up my long Thai skirt between my legs and climbed up on one of the dikes. Suddenly a thought struck me: "What a strange place for a middle aged American woman to be! I could be in a lovely Florida home enjoying the luxuries of American life. I could be with our four children there. What in the world am I doing here?"
Even as those thoughts swirled in my mind, I knew without a doubt what I was doing there. I had chosen to be there. I wanted to be a missionary. I wanted to go wherever the Lord led me. I was happy. I was doing God's will. Apparently, I had always wanted to be a missionary. My mother told me that when I was just four years old, I put on my aunt's Salvation Army bonnet and said, "I'm going to be a preacher like Aunt Cora."
Even at that early age, I made a choice. That choice was the first of many that set my life on a path that would eventually take me to a land halfway around the world.
At six years of age I made another choice, the most important choice of all, to invite Jesus into my heart.
Aunt Cora had taken me to a children's meeting in New York City. I will never forget the old man with the white beard who spoke at the service. Years later, I found a book written about this man - Commissioner Samuel Brengle of the Salvation Army. He had a special way of reaching children, the book said, and many children were converted in his meetings. I attended one of those meetings and I was one of those children.
Another choice was made some years later, this time not by me, but by my mother.
A stranger stopped by our home. "My name is Mrs. Clingen," she said, "and I belong to The Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. I saw all the children playing outside and I want to invite you and them to our Sunday school and church."
"I don't have time to go to church," my mother explained. "My eight children take all my time." But Mrs. Clingen persisted, promising that someone from the church would pick up the older children every Sunday if my mother would give permission for them to attend. For years someone did come to pick us up every Sunday. I believe now that except for the dedication and faithfulness of those people I might never have become a missionary.
The annual missionary conference in that church made a great impression on me. Two of the local young people were already in Bible school preparing for missionary service. I wanted to be like them. My desire to be a missionary like them spawned another choice. At age 13, I knelt at the altar in the church and gave my life to God to serve Him in any foreign land. Strangely, no one came to pray with me, but God was there. He placed His hand on me that day and I knew it.
There was a quiet assurance in my heart that God wanted me to be a missionary. In my late teens, the attractions of the world began to crowd out God's voice. One day my mother said something to me about going to Bible school. As far as she knew that would have been a logical response toward my goal of being a missionary. My answer was not what she expected. "I am never going to Bible school!" I retorted. "I'll never be a missionary!"
The next summer, however, I was at summer camp and God spoke to me once more through a challenging missionary message. Later that night, during evening devotions, the girls in the dormitory knelt in prayer and then sang, "Where He Leads Me, I Will Follow." I was not of the same mind. Not only was I thinking "No !," but I actually said it out loud. I was very embarrassed by the outburst and rushed outside to the shelter of the shadowy porch. The camp director's wife followed me. She and her husband, Jack Wyrtzen, pled with me to surrender my life for service to God. I was not willing to do that. Mr. Wyrtzen then asked me a strange question, "Are you willing to be made willing?" I thought for a moment and then decided that to that question I could answer "Yes." In the quiet summer night, Jack Wyrtzen prayed that God would make me willing to follow Him.
Back home, nothing changed. I was 20 years old. I was making big money in an airplane factory. World War n was raging in the Pacific. Planes were in great demand. Never had I made so much money. Finally, I thought, I will be able to buy pretty clothes and enjoy life.
But God was not finished with me. One memorable night I came home from work and went into the bedroom to change clothes. I flipped on the radio beside my bed, and as I did so a voice boomed out, "What are you doing with your life? "
The question startled me. It was like the voice of God to my heart. I turned the radio off and knelt beside my bed. It was time to make another choice. I decided that evening to quit my job and go to Bible school.
The very next day I went to the foreman's office to give my notice. "I was just going to give you a promotion," he said when he heard the news. "Don't leave now. You can earn more money and go later." "But I must go to Bible college this year", I replied. "This is the choice I am making."
In 1943, the Missionary Training Institute (now called Nyack College) offered a special one-year course for students who had not finished high school. I applied to take the course and the college studies that would follow. Soon a letter came from President Thomas Mosely saying that I was accepted for the fall semester.
There was very little time to prepare for school and very little money in the bank. My mother offered to help me the first year and from then on I worked my way through-doing housework in local homes, helping in the college dining room and working part-time in a paper factory. I was happy. I knew that I had made the right choice!
It was at the Missionary Training Institute that Elmer and I met. In the spring of 1946, a group of 13 recently discharged GIs came to study at the Institute. These men were just back from the battlefields of World War 2 and felt God's call to the fulltime ministry. Elmer was part of that group.
At the college, students were given assigned seats in the dining room. On Friday nights, however, we were allowed to sit wherever we wished. The first Friday night of the new semester, one of the soldiers came to the table where my two roommates and I were sitting along with several others. As the group introduced themselves, I noticed that the name Sahlberg sounded like a Swedish name. Since I am of Norwegian background, I struck up a conversation with Elmer and we chatted about our Scandinavian heritage.
During that next year, Elmer and I became good friends. We often talked together, played Ping-Pong and ice skated at a downtown pond. But there were no dates. There was good reason for that on both sides. He told me that he planned to go to New Guinea (now Irian Jaya) as a single missionary. He considered the country too dangerous for a woman. I told him that I too planned to go to the mission field alone.
However, two months before I was to graduate from college, Elmer asked me to go to a basketball game in downtown Nyack. That became the first of many dates. It wasn't long until we knew that we were God's choice for each other.
Just before I graduated, Elmer and I were engaged. While he completed his last year, I took a one-year practical nursing course at Booth Memorial Hospital in New York City.
We were married in Long Island, New York, in the fall of 1948.
Our two years of required home service were spent in Prattville, Alabama. While we were there, Elmer received news of our appointment. I remember the occasion as if it were yesterday. I was at my mother's home in Florida recuperating from an illness and I was outside hanging baby clothes on the line when my mother called, "There's a telegram here for you. " The telegram was from Elmer. It stated, "Headquarters asks: Will you accept appointment to Siam? Must know immediately. Told them we are willing."
Siam! What a surprise!
That area of the world had hardly even been mentioned at the Institute. All I could think of was Siamese cats, Siamese twins and Anna and the King of Siam! Elmer's heart had been set on going to New Guinea. He later told me that he was disappointed that we had been asked to go to Siam. But God spoke to him from a devotional reading: "It matters not what happens to your will, but it does matter greatly what happens to God's will."
Siam, we believed, was God's will and God's choice. It was our choice, too.
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