12th November 2021

He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies

The heaviness was tangible. Tension from recent events hung in the air.

A car bomb had exploded at the local market only the day before, killing the Chief Mufti and narrowly missing our team by minutes. Two doctors, due to help us with the camp we were doing, were kidnapped in a neighbouring town. Rumours of another invasion by Chechen fighters were buzzing endlessly.

I strummed my trusty guitar as I struggled to lead our traumatised refugees deeper into the presence of God. Out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly saw the door opening and sensed something was wrong.

My heart missed a beat.

A burly Chechen fighter stumbled into the room, with five others on his heels. Fumbling as they pushed their way through the stuffy basement crammed to capacity, they made a beeline for me.

“Lord, help,” was the best prayer I could muster.

“You – stop playing that guitar,” the ringleader yelled at me, slurring his words. “Stop, right now!

An eerie hush descended on the room. The only sound I heard was my pounding heart threatening to leap out of my chest.

I can’t cope with much more of this.

Although only in my mid-twenties, I suddenly felt bone-weary from all the atrocities and deprivations I’d witnessed as a missionary in and around war-torn Chechnya in the late 1990s.

After a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, indignation rose up inside me against Satan, my real enemy.

How dare you forbid me to worship my Jesus!

Bursting out into exuberant praise in my prayer language, I struck the strings of my guitar once again with a passion. Our congregation of about eighty instantly followed my lead and bellowed out at the top of their lungs. I felt joy, energy, and a profound peace welling up from somewhere deep within. The heavens opened and the Lord graced us with His sweet presence.

I saw the colour slowly draining from the fighter’s face until he apologised, turned on his heels, and careered out of the room, closely pursued by the others.

The term ‘high praise’ took on a whole new meaning as refugees and missionaries, both young and old, leapt unashamedly before the Lord, as King David did.

Whooping and whirling … Swinging and swirling … Twisting and twirling.

As we danced and praised in the face of terror and persecution, the years of hardship and the horrors of war all melted away into the fullness of joy in His presence. Oh, what a beautiful Saviour we serve!

God had been amazingly gracious to us during that time and we’d seen miracle after miracle of salvation, deliverance, provision and healing. I loved my life, serving closely alongside Him and seeing people’s lives transformed.

But at other times, when He didn’t intervene in a supernatural way, I’d witnessed horrendous and needless suffering and struggled with fear, grief, shame and false guilt. This combined with the daily realities of life in a war zone – hypervigilance (never feeling safe), inadequate sleep, a meagre diet, no running water etc. – were slowly wearing me down. I didn’t have a good support system in place. And to make it worse, unresolved issues from my childhood were being triggered.

About a year earlier, I’d nearly been driven over the edge when the violence came too close to home. A close friend was raped, and our worship leader suddenly disappeared without a trace. To top it all, I received a distressing email from my home church in the UK. It all seemed too much.

I stepped out onto the roof to get some fresh air. The majestic snow-capped Caucasus mountains were glistening in the sun, but I hardly noticed as, lost in thought, I gazed mesmerised at the ground ten storeys below. Something was calling me, daring me to jump.

Life’s too painful; I just want to be with You, Lord.

These thoughts of suicide scared me and made me realise I probably needed help, but I wasn’t sure where to get it or who to ask. So, as was my usual pattern in life, I just brushed these thoughts aside, pushed the pain down and carried on serving.

To most people I was a successful missionary who had it all together. I hardly ever shared how I really felt or what was going on inside. Growing up without a father, surrounded by people with drinking problems and being sexually abused, I’d learned to be strong from a young age and just cope myself as best I could.

Thankfully, my strong desire to bring healing to my traumatised friends led me to seek more training. Ellel Ministries was just starting a six-month training school of healing, deliverance, discipleship and leadership called NETS (Nine Eleven Training School) and as soon as I heard about it, I knew I needed to study on it. I thought I was going to learn how to help others, which I did in a very practical way, but my loving Heavenly Father led me there in the first place to heal and refresh me!

NETS was held at Ellel Pierrepont, a beautiful oasis of peace, safety and healing in the South of England, and the presence of the Lord was very real. I so enjoyed the chance to just ‘be’, to not have others to care for and to spend time with Him.

Through the anointed teaching, we learned valuable tools equipping us to bring in-depth healing in body, soul and spirit to the broken and traumatised. Everything we learned we put into practice immediately as we ministered alongside experienced prayer ministers, praying for one another and for guests.

My Heavenly Father gently and lovingly brought up long-buried memories of abuse and trauma from childhood. As I shared and wept in the arms of prayer ministers and fellow students, pain was released, shame and fear were broken off and lies I was believing were replaced by His marvellous truth. He poured in His love, healing me deep inside.

It was a life-transforming six months as I savoured the precious time away from my busy life, the life-changing teaching and ministry, the amazing home-cooked meals, the fresh English country air, the love of the team and deep friendships with fellow students.

I left NETS equipped to bring healing to the broken-hearted and more healed than I could ever have imagined. Soon after NETS the Lord led me to set up a Trauma Counselling Centre in Russia. And during my 21 years on the mission field since then, I’ve used what I learned over and again to minister healing to thousands. You can read more of my story in my book Miracles in the Midst of War.

Paula O'Keefe By Paula O'Keefe

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