An Ethiopian Endeavor: Part 3 // Set Apart

joey and isaacSide note: This is Isaac. He is a ten year old habesha (meaning Ethiopian native, etc.) boy in the city, and I love him dearly. I’m really bad at names, so I call kids ‘baby’ all the time. At first he hated it, but we eventually came to an understanding that I can call him my baby if he can call me Mommy. And thus, I have been dubbed the ‘American habesha mommy’ to sweet Baby Isaac and his close friends.

Ethiopia was an interesting trip. I learned a lot. About our God, about missions, about different team dynamics, about myself. I came home with two very important lessons burning a hole in my heart:

I am, in fact, set apart for life as a vocational missionary.

Not everyone with whom I travel with is.

In a previous post, I talked about the comfort I found in this last trip to Swaziland. Being at Njojane was like coming home from college for the summer.  I’m just as comfortable sitting on a bench in the feeding center as I am on my parents’ couch. Half my team to Swaziland, our team leader and family, has a permanent, lifelong heart for the people of Njojane, just like me.  Ethiopia was an entirely different ballgame. For the first time, I was in the minority of people who were diving headfirst into a brand new experience. Of the eleven team members, eight of them had been to Ethiopia with this group before; a ninth had at least been to Ethiopia with another organization. The tenth team member was the teenage daughter of #9; I was number eleven. I was the odd man out, without any friends or family members on the team, and without experience on my side.

I was the odd man out in another way as well: I am dedicating my life to wherever the Lord might send me, and I am therefore prepared for the things the mission field can throw at me. I’m not wowed or shocked by the same things that other people can be. Climbing into and bouncing around in the backseat of and old Land Cruiser has lost the luster the once had. I no longer ooo’d and aww’d over the food; Swazi food (and now shirowat) has become my comfort food of choice. I am comfortable with children I have never met pulling at my clothes, crawling up into my lap, giving me sloppy wet kisses, calling me mommy. The discomfort associated with carrying around a child who is bare-bottomed, wearing no pants, underpants or diaper, is completely neutralized, though abjectly avoided by most. The illusion of living the glamorous life of missionary has been shattered–I’ve been doing this long enough to know there is nothing glamorous about sticky fingers leaving fabric paint on my favorite skirt and having my hair pulled painfully tight in braids, dishing out three hundred bowls of sticky rice and beans without a single thank you.

As a sweeping generalization, parents in the third world (particularly in African nations) don’t love on their children in the way parents in the first world (particularly in western nations) love on theirs. Children are to be seen and not heard, and preferably not seen. In many cases, the announcement of a pregnancy or birth is not one that evokes congratulations or excitement, but solemn understanding. One more mouth to feed, one more mind to put through school, one more dowry to pay or spouse to support. There is no one cheering that child on while he or she struggles with reading or memorizing times tables or dealing with self esteem. I love getting to be that cheerleader, for however short a time. I love it so much that I requested to lead the large group time during the part of the trip spent in Amharic territory. I love it so much that I begged the translators to teach me the Amharic for a list of the daily affirmations I have seen, heard, and lead on Swazi care pointes, so that I could teach our kids. I am special. I am important. I am pretty. I am smart. I am loved. I matter.

There was one specific instance while in Ethiopia that I felt distinctly, definitely, irreparably the odd man out on my team. It was one afternoon after vacation bible school in Amharic territory, and we were circled around the dinner table, talking about the day. People were complaining about the kids’ relentless behavior each time we try to depart. I sat in stunned silence as my team members said the following things:

“They [the kids] don’t have to crowd around the care at the gate. They know we’re leaving, why don’t they let us leave?”

“I can only hug one person at a time. You need to back off.”

“I’ve already hugged you like five times, I don’t need any more.”

One of my very favorite things in the entire world is a giant hug from a group of kiddos at the end of the day as we’re leaving. You know, the kind where I’m walking with hands full of smaller hands. One kid comes up and wraps arms around me, and slowly more and more and more kids are wrapping their little arms around me and weighing me down and pushing me over. It thrills my heart to pass out kisses on the cheek or forehead to an endless line of kids desperate for affection, and to get down on my knees to look kids in the eyes when I tell them they are important, that they matter, to hug them one on one so they know I mean it. Do you know why? Because these kids, like all kids, need someone willing to get down on their level and tell them they matter, to take the time to kiss them on the forehead, to hug them one on one.

My heart was so deeply wounded to hear team members complain about children acting out to find the affection for which they are so desperately starved. Could they behave better? Yeah. Could they listen better when we say, that’s enough, we have to go? Sure. In my mind, I was instantly quoting Jesus–“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 19:14). So maybe it’s time to go, but what’s the rush? We’re on no strict schedule. The whole evening is composed of free time. We can spend a few extra minutes loving on kids in need. That is a need I feel, I understand, I can fill. It took everything in me as all members of the team chimed in with some sort of agreement to not scream at the top of my lungs. Don’t get me wrong, I love these people and the work they do. We are brothers and sisters in Christ…but nonetheless, I was livid. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been so angry. Are you kidding me? I thought to myself. Do you understand that this is the purpose behind our mission? It was because I love these people that I had to take a deep breath. Okay, a lot of deep breaths. I had to complete about fifteen minutes of deep breathing exercises in order to make sure I was really in control of my mouth before I felt calm enough to talk. Love is patient, love is kind, I thought to myself. It keeps no record of wrongs. Before I could say anything, I remembered a conversation I had with Jesus a few days prior:

“But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.” Galatians 1:15-16

God has set me apart and called me by his grace. If I’m going to preach his name, my words need to show him, not my humanness. My mind jumped to other places scripture talks about being set apart:

“The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.'” Jeremiah 1:4-5

“Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him. Tremble and [in your anger] do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent.” Psalms 4:2-4

I love when the word of the Lord resonates within me and my circumstances, not just in one place, but repeatedly. I have no authority to point a finger; I am not blameless. He knew I would encounter this conversation with my teammates, and he knew the anger that would burn inside of me, but that his divine love would overcome. I waited awhile to write this to let that anger dissipate, rather than have this piece be a lashing-out against my team. Now that I’ve given it time, I have found that I am no longer angry, but rather, I hurt for my teammates. They don’t get to experience the same kind of messy, dirty, smelly, sweaty, sticky, unadulterated joy in which I have been called to thrive, and that makes my heart so sad for them. This is a joy that forces my cup to overflow, overflow, overflow. It’s something I know deep down in my soul, that Christians are set apart from the world–it’s that whole ‘IN the world, not OF the world’ philosophy–but it occurred to me that I have forgotten that I am set apart from other Christians because I have been called differently than other Christians. The passage from Galatians specifies that God has set me apart, called me by his grace, and demands that I live a life worthy of the Lord and that calling (Colossians 1:10, Ephesians 4:1). I have never been so happy to be the odd man out, because I was reminded that I was the odd man out for Christ. It’s a constant reminder that this fabulously unglamorous life I have been given is a rarity, and that I am blessed enough to live it.

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An Ethiopian Endeavor: Part Two // Rest for the Weary

The first night we camped out in the village, I was dangling from an acacia tree in my little green hammock. Under my bug net, under my rain fly, in case the looming clouds decided to end their drought and pour out on us. After being awake for nearly 80 hours, I was exhausted and ready to pass out as soon as the sun went down. So there I was, dangling, my first time ever camping, totally unsure of what was to come in the following weeks. I managed to drift off to sleep in the middle of my nightly conversation with my Creator, despite the ambient sounds. You see, we were in a Muslim country during Ramadan–sleep all day while fasting, party all night with food and drink. I remember hearing the villagers laughing and cheering and chit chatting in an unfamiliar tongue before I fell asleep. A few hours later, I awoke to a silent village, and the sounds of footsteps on the compound. Not one set of footsteps, like a fellow camper getting up to use the facilities. Multiple footsteps, light and careful, but still crunching on the gravelly soil around our hammocks. I panicked. This is it, I thought seriously, not sarcastically. This is how I die. The words of Paul in his letter to the people of Phlippi ran through my mind:

I eagerly hope and expect that I will in no way be ashamed, but have sufficient courage so that now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death [NIV]. Alive, I am Christ’s messenger. Dead, I am His bounty. Life versus more life! I can’t lose [MSG]. (Philippians 1:20-21, emphasis mine)

Over and over and over, I prayed these words. I pleaded with God. To my own surprise, I was not pleading for my own life, but for the souls of those around me. I begged for the opportunity to explain why I would die for the cause of Christ. For the small chance that one of our captors might pick up the bible laying beside me in my hammock and read it, that just one of them might be changed by the willingness of my team members to lose their lives to advance the Kingdom. I found tears streaming down my face as I silently petitioned for the will of God to be done in that moment, regardless of the cost. I prayed and prayed and prayed for what seemed like a long time–probably no more than a half hour at most. I prayed until I noticed the absence of sound altogether. Cautiously, I unzipped my bug net. I pulled back my rain fly just enough to peak out at the compound. No more footsteps. No more strangers walking around on the compound. Nothing but two Land Cruisers and ten other hammocks swinging in the gentle breeze as dawn began to break on the horizon. I slid back down in my hammock and zipped my bug net and prayed tearful prayers of thanksgiving. I prayed until I fell back asleep, hard as a rock.

The next night, and each night for the following week, our team went to bed just as the sun was disappearing over the horizon. Just as I was on the cusp of falling asleep, an alarming announcement was made over a loudspeaker. An unfamiliar tongue was shouting things rhythmically–Arabic, to be exact. It was the first of five calls to prayer for the surrounding Muslim community. After a few seconds of initial shock, I gritted my teeth. That call to prayer felt like the Enemy staking his claim on the people of this village and it made me angryWho are you to claim these people? I found myself thinking. You are not their Creator. You are not their Sustainer. You are not their Protector. You can’t claim them. There is too much going on. We’ve built a school. We are building a special needs center. Our God has promised that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord, and there is nothing you can do about it. And so I closed my eyes and began to pray. and pray. and pray. If the Enemy thinks he can conquer these people with five calls to prayer, fine. I’ll fight fire with holy fire. I’ll have five calls to prayer of my own. Each night, there are five calls to prayer that wake me from a dead sleep, and so I will cover these people in prayer. In addition to the calls to prayer, some sort of sermon [for lack of knowing what to call it] was given over the loudspeaker as well. It lasted maybe 12-15 minutes, in a language I cannot understand, and I did everything I could to counteract whatever instruction was being given. I prayed, I recited scripture, hummed worship songs. Every night for the duration of our stay, I was awakened six times and I decided to fight the Enemy on his terms. We went on a prayer walk at the site of our new special needs facility. Rather than walking around the site, I settled under the shade of an acacia tree and assumed the prayer position used during the Muslim call to prayer. Knees on the ground, face in the dirt, arms extended. Body bowed before the one true God in absolute submission. and I prayed. I got eaten alive by who knows what kind of bugs. We had thirty minutes to pray, and for thirty minutes, I sat in the dirt and thorns begging Christ to be undeniably present in this place. I don’t regret it a bit.

I didn’t sleep well in Ethiopia. Even after we left the village and returned to the city to stay in a hotel, I had trouble sleeping. Though I could not hear a call to prayer over a loudspeaker, I still awoke five times a night and prayed for the people of the village and of the city, until I could fall back asleep. Here’s what is so interesting: each morning, I awoke, and I felt rested. I was ready to tackle another day. Yes, I will admit, that shortly after waking, I did partake of the best coffee I have ever had, but I am sure that my alertness and readiness for the day had less to do with caffeine intake and more to do with the restoration found in Christ. Over and over, Scripture promises such:

“‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.'” Matthew 11:28

“But those who call upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up on wings like eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9

“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when we has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12

Prayer becomes extremely unnerving when you take it out of your familiar context and pray in such a way that makes you uncomfortable. I recently found the following quote:

God invites us to pray in such a way that it scares what is scared within us. If you are not praying the type of prayers that scare you, they are certainly not frightening our enemy. –Lisa Bevere

This quote struck a chord within me, because this is exactly what I was doing in Ethiopia. I can honestly say I have never been so frightened by the prayers I was praying. They didn’t make sense. I was not praying for selfish provision or needs; I was praying that my death might be used to glorify God by changing the lives of my potential captors. I was praying prayers of conquering over an enemy, who is counting his chicks before they’ve hatched. I was praying in the manner of those who worship a false God for the purpose of overcoming. Prayer should be taken out of a familiar context more frequently. So frequently, in fact, that a ‘familiar context’ does not exist. The way in which we pray should constantly push us to the limitations we think we have, and turn them over to a God who has none (AW Tozer).

The Interim

I have been struggling through the aftermath of this year’s Swazi experience. It was much different for me than previous trips; living arrangements were different, the people were different, my expectations were different. With very limited access to the internet and longer work days, I was unable to write much of anything worth writing. I have pieced together a collection of anecdotes detailing some of the individual experiences, to be posted in a few days. I’m still mulling everything over, trying to glean as much information as I can from this trip before I am too far removed.

One note of concern I had early on in the trip was my lack of emotional response (aside from a handful of small experiences to be shared later). The shock factor of the various care points has worn off; I didn’t feel the same stretch and pull or the nudging of the Holy Spirit that instills growth and reveals the lessons that God has prepared for me. I’ve been patient. I patiently waited out the 355 days in between trips. I patiently waited in line for airport security. I sat patiently through the 16 hour flight and the 6 hour drive to Mbabane. I waited patiently through the first morning at Njojane, playing with the preschoolers, helping dish the meals, singing songs…all while waiting patiently for my babies to get back from school. Finally, I saw Tengetile coming over the hill, dragging a piece of firewood behind her–kids eat for free as long as they bring a stick to keep the cooking fire burning, that’s the deal–as she approached the stick pile, we made eye contact. She dropped her stick and ran full speed at me. I picked her up and hugged her…but there was no spark. Even when Khetokuhle got to the care pointe and sought me out, it didn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary.

I wrestled with this for the first few days. It took some thinking and praying and talking to my team leader, a 4-trip veteran, to realize why I wasn’t experiencing an emotional response:

I am home.

Home is a place where you are welcomed and comfortable. It’s warm and there is lots of hugs and laughter. Home is where you’re feet feel happy upon the familiar ground, there are games to be played and stories told. Its a place where no one is afraid to be himself or herself, where bellies can be filled and spirits lifted. Home is where the language of love is spoken, through smiles and hands held. It’s a resting place, where you are comfortable in your own skin. I don’t get emotional when I come home at the end of a semester, because it’s home. Its a special place, but comfy. Familiar. It’s not exciting, but it is a place I belong.

I keep coming back to the word comfortable, which is funny to me. If you ask anyone that has ever been to Africa on a mission trip, they will tell you there is nothing comfortable about Africa. We are forced to grow in faith and in spirit, in strength and in courage because of the people we meet and the things that we see. There are too many heart wrenching sights to grow comfortable in a place like Swaziland, but nonetheless, I feel comfortable. There is nothing comfortable about carrying around two toddlers while others pull at your arms and legs. There is nothing comfortable about bouncing around in the backseat of a khombi on dirt roads, hitting potholes the size of a small sedan. There is nothing comfortable about sending children home loaded down with a backpack full of the bare necessities, hoping an older child or adult won’t rob her of your gift on the walk home. There is nothing comfortable about watching your sponsor children sob at the sight of the khombi pulling out of the care pointe for the last time. These things are excruciatingly painful, both physically and emotionally, but these are the things I am dedicating my life to so that some day, no one else will need to.

text message

This is the very greatest compliment I could receive. I got this text message yesterday from one of my very first babies–the young ladies in the small group I had the blessing to lead while I was in high school. She is now finishing up her freshman year of high school, and is making me so proud in everything she does. She is currently leading a group of third and fourth graders at summer camp, and this is what she shared with me. I can’t think of a single third or fourth grader I know, but somehow, he knows me and my heart well enough to identify the Guatemalan equivalent of me. My cup and my heart are so overflowing.

5 days, 14 hours until Ethiopia.

24 Days // What Will I Make?

I leave in 24 days. 2 hours. 14 minutes.

I had a job interview today, at a local clothing store. The interviewer asked me about what I’m studying at school, and what I want to do with my life. In case you haven’t noticed…it’s kinda my favorite thing to talk about. After I finished explaining, he looks quizzically at me and asked, “There’s a need and all, but why would you pick that? You seem smart. Why not choose to be a doctor or a lawyer? What are you going to make, anyways?”

This is a question I get a lot. I’m not sure why it struck me as it did today; it could be the condescending tone, or the lack of professionalism, I don’t really know. Needless to say, I was livid. I don’t think I have ever been so angry. I wanted to choke him and yell, “YOU ARE A MANAGER OF A TEEN CLOTHING STORE. DON’T JUDGE MY CAREER CHOICE.” right there in the break room, but because this was a job interview and not some televised fight, I couldn’t. Instead, I took a pause. And I thought about 1 Corinthians 12:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ…If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? (verses 12, 17-19)

Here is what I am NOT saying: my calling is better than yours.

Here is what I AM saying: my calling is just that–mine. It is personal, just as yours is personal. And whether you are called to missions, or being a manager of a clothing store, your calling is equally important to God’s plan as anyone else’s. Please friends, do not belittle the ambitions of others…especially with trivial questions like what will you make.

I took a deep breath. And I smiled. And I said, “I will make enough. Aren’t there more important things in life than money?”

He nodded in agreement and quickly moved on to the next question.

I thought about it through the whole interview and my whole drive home: What will I make? I thought about Winston Churchill’s famous words, “You make a living from what you get, but you make a life from what you give,” and I have decided that I have a whole mouthful for him, whether the Lord calls me to Africa permanently or keeps me stateside:

What will I make?

I will make kids feel loved. I can give hugs and kisses and smiles and kind words.

I will make my kids understand that there is a God who made them, who loves them, who died for them.

I will make my kids believe in themselves. I will give my kids a reason to believe they are worthy of being loved.

I will make parents and guardians believe in their kids. I will make my kids give others a reason to believe in them.

I can give the support and encouragement to make minor triumphs feel like winning an Olympic medal. I can make major obstacles feel like pebbles on the side of the road.

I will give my kids cause to think and question and wonder.

I can make kids believe they are part of something bigger than themselves. I hope and pray every day that I make myself an example of what it looks like to live a life that demands explanation. I can give them proof that if they love God with everything they are and everything they have, nothing is impossible.

I get to give my kids a chance.

If I am to be really honest, you (and just about everyone else in the developed world) will make more money than me. That’s okay, because I get to make something better:

I get to give everything I have for my whole life. I get to make a difference.

If that isn’t the best dang job in the whole world, I’m not sure what is.

 

I leave in 24 days. 1 hour. 46 minutes.