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).

An Ethiopian Endeavor: Part One

The tallest mountain in Ethiopia--right around 11,000 feet!

The tallest mountain in Ethiopia–right around 11,000 feet!

I recently returned from my first trip to Ethiopia, and I have been wrestling with the experience. Just about every aspect of the trip conflicted with previously held standards, opinions, and methods of ministry. It was uncomfortable, and for me to claim discomfort…well, then it’s real.

I don’t mean uncomfortable in the way you might think. Yes, I slept outside, dangling from the branches of an acacia tree in my little green hammock (which was really much better than it sounds, after the first sleepless night. more on that later). Yes, I learned how to poop on the backside of the building (while making eye contact with nationals, I might add). Yes, I ate more goat than any one human should ever eat in a lifetime (to answer your question, it’s like eating cheap, slightly overcooked beef). Yes, I dealt with the stigma of being a ferengi, a foreigner, an outsider, and the ensuing scrutiny by tribal leaders. So maybe those things weren’t the most comfortable aspects of the trip, but they were nothing in comparison to what made me the most uncomfortable:

I couldn’t identify with my Creator.

For most of the trip, I couldn’t speak the name of Christ; I could not read my bible openly; I could not sing any of the many children’s songs I know because of their spiritual content. I could not lead worship. I had to make sure my tattoos, all of which relate back to Christ, stayed covered. I couldn’t live out loud the way I am used to, or be myself “in the One who makes me who I am” (Philippians 4:13, MSG). I had been warned that we would have to censor some of our ministry…I guess I didn’t understand that we would have to censor our entire ministry not only for our safety, but for the safety of the children with whom we would be spending our time. I don’t think I have to mention the fact that, if it were only my safety in jeopardy, I wouldn’t have censored a dang thing. The Gospel would have been proclaimed far and wide at the top of my lungs…but, since the lives of innocent children were at stake, I gritted my teeth. clenched my fists. and loved with open arms. I taught English–the parts of the body, various animals (taught by playing charades! so fun), articles of clothing, the literal way in which light pierces the darkness of this world. We taught songs, we played soccer and dodgeball, we painted a giant picture on a canvas drop cloth.

The language barrier was far greater with the tribal kids than I’ve previously experienced with the kids at Njojane, so fortunately for me, I didn’t have to answer questions like, “Why are you here?”…however, it was still incredibly painful to see beautiful smiling faces and squeeze tiny hands and hug malnourished bodies without being able to whisper in waiting ears that Master of the universe, the Creator of the world loves you so very much. Unfortunately, upon my return, I cannot give specifics about the tribal area in which we worked; I cannot post pictures of the children’s faces due to the unique bone structure of the tribe…doing so would give away the location of our ministry and put the safety of the children in jeopardy.

Never in my life have I had to keep quiet about my faith. Sure, as a child and early pre-teen, I was not so boisterous and boastful about the grace and mercy I’ve received at the hands of my Father; in fact, if you told little Joey that I would one day be traveling all over the world to preach the Gospel, I would have laughed in your face. Since my initial collision with Christ, I have found the strength to boast in my weakness and I can’t stop. While I was in Ethiopia, I discovered that not only can I not stop, but I don’t want to stop…but more on that next time.

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.

20 Days // Confirming the Call

Twenty. The big 2-0. The number of miles between my driveway and my parking spot at work; the number of hours I will spend in transit between the Indianapolis airport and Johannesburg. The number of sticky fingers and toes each of my sweet babies possesses; the number of days until I will be holding those sticky fingers. It is a number I can understand and wrap my brain around.  It’s beautiful and frightening, because this is really happening. I am really going back and soon and it’s making me nervous…which, to me, is the best and greatest indicator that this is what God wants me to do. Which leads me to something people ask me a lot: how do I know this is where I am called and what I am called to do? There is the obvious answer–the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19 where Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” He’s pretty cut and dry–but why me, why Swaziland, why now, why kids, why Njojane? In all total, complete honesty, I have no idea why and I’m not going to pretend I know. All I know is that I am and this is how I know: The fact of the matter is that I am slightly crazy. The plan is to forfeit a life of comfort and luxury in the US to live in the bush country of Swaziland, where the most reliable variable in life is that nothing is reliable; to give up Dr. Pepper and weekly sushi runs with my best friend for Tang, pap and sour porridge; to trade everything and everyone I know for that which only God knows. Well before Africa was on my radar, someone told me “If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.” It has been proven over and over and over in the Bible–God continually calls people to leave behind what they know to follow him: Abraham and Sarah to venture into Canaan, Moses to liberate the Israelites, Peter to walk on the water, Paul to spread the Gospel all over the Roman Empire. But I don’t get scared about things. I don’t get test anxiety, I’m not afraid of needles or climbing tall ladders to change display case lightbulbs. I excel at killing bugs and speaking and singing in front of large groups of people. I’m not afraid of flying, nor do I get homesick, or really even miss the conveniences or luxuries the US has to offer; and yet, going to Africa a second time makes me nervous. I am anxious because I am well behind the mark on fundraising; I am nervous because I woke up two days ago with a horrendous sore throat, which means my immune system is bottoming out a mere three weeks before departure. I am fearful about the sermon I will be delivering to the older students and community members because what if it doesn’t reach them. I am terrified that I will fall even more in love, and that leaving Swaziland for the second time will be even more painful than the last. There is some beauty in this fear. I serve a great and mighty God who can (and does) make amazing things happen. I know financial provision will make itself evident, and my immune system will rebound–because I watched God make it happen last year right about this time. The little bit of nervousness that has burrowed itself deep in my heart is nothing short of confirmation that this is what I am called to do and nothing can stop me.