Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Start of Something Good


      I doubted the time would come again when I would teach a full sized class of my own.  However, God works in mighty ways, and this past week I found myself facing rows of neon-clad teenagers as I tried to hide my shaking hands and put on my bravest face.  It is no surprise that after a couple of years being removed from American education, I have had to hit the ground running, in the usual sprinting pace that this country is known for.  My transition into teaching has been an emotional rollarcoaster, to say the least, as I've struggled to think through what really counts in a teacher.  Do I focus on the standards?  Should I use everyday as a preaching opportunity?  Is my relationship with my students most important?  Can I push my students to think outside their Christian school bubble?  Is it possible to even do any of these things successfully, while still trying to maintain healthy relationships outside of work?  I have had many defeatist moments the past couple of weeks, where I've really thought that I just can't do it.  God must have something else for me.  And I've felt more homesick for South Sudan than ever before.  It is easy to start comparing life in the two different places, remembering all the good about the place I've left behind.        

    I may not have a lot of wisdom, but I do know that God has me in this difficult place for a reason.  He is teaching me that He is all I need to get by in this world!  That is never more apparent than in those moments when my body feels frozen in fear and my mind races down a million different rabbit holes, all ending up in miry despair.  The wonderful thing about my God is that He doesn't just give me Himself (which should be good enough); He gives me so much more!  I have the encouragement of the most loving and doting husband alive, who stubbornly fixes breakfast and lunch for me each morning, as I struggle to get out of bed.  John has also been by my side when setting up my new classroom, when meeting students at back to school night, and when suffering through the pains of anxiety on the car ride to work everyday.  I am blessed beyond belief to have such good natured and mild-mannered students, many of whom remind me of myself when I was a teen.  I'm not going to say that they are perfect, but God has encouraged me with a good first week, and the added support of  staff who are more than willing to sit down and pray with me when I need it.  I am excited about the books my students and I will be reading this year.  I am even more excited about the conversations we will get to have about the themes and lessons in these books.  My mother-in-law suggested that I start up a "blessings journal," in which I record one good thing about the teaching day.  I could list well over a dozen things from my first week of classes.  As I sit and reflect on all the good things God gives me, I catch a drifting sentiment of excitement and joy in the unknown class moments I have ahead.  

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
-Philippians 4:13

an eighth grade dance photo, for perspective


Friday, August 15, 2014

He Walks Among Us

     One of my biggest hopes as I transition away from cross-cultural work and into American life and school teaching is that I find a solid devotional, a book of encouragement and truth, with which I can start each day.  Luckily for me, I haven't even had to go out and buy one, as I have found a beautiful compilation tucked away in John's old bedroom.  It is called He Walks Among Us: Encounters with Christ in a Broken World, written by World Vision leaders Richard and Renee Stearns.  This book is just what my heart has been yearning for, given the doubts I have recently had about the importance of missions work.   

This book serves as a reminder of the power of Jesus' name, the good that it can do in the body, mind, and soul, of even the most despairing people in this world.  Each page in this book tells the stories of individuals who have been given grace at their lowest moments, changing them from bitter to grateful, alone to loved, desperate to hopeful, dead to alive.  This book tells of child soldiers, mutilated widows, homeless families, and sick elders, all of whom become transformed, thanks to the power of the gospel in their lives.  Photographer Jon Warren, captures these stories with his beautifully crisp and colorful pictures. 

Here are some samples of his work (sources: World Vision Magazine and Response, Seattle Pacific University)

an orphan in Zambia prays over her meal

sponsored school children in Rwanda

Rwanda during war time

a Rwandan orphan

women working in Rwanda

rehabilitation of child soldiers in nothern Uganda

health outreach in Honduras

a rural hospital in DRC

teenage mothers in Romania

a Bolivian mother with her disabled child

nutrition classes in Guatemala

a kid-friendly space in South Asia

     I have to pace myself, as I am tempted to read through this whole book in just one sitting.  Each page shouts the wonderfully surprising truth that God is at work in the world, as much as the devil tries to persuade us otherwise.  These stories reveal the paradox of living as a child of God.  While many brothers and sisters are poor and struggling on this earth, they show that they are still the rich ones-- "rich in wisdom, community, perseverance, courage, faith, and even joy." (Rich Stearns)  I thank God for these examples.  

sponsored school children in Tanzania

"You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go 
and bear fruit-- fruit that will last.  Then the Father will give you 
whatever you ask in my name." -John 15:16

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Explaining an End: The Ugly


-My own insecurity:  I was reminded on this trip of the devastating intensity of my own self-doubt.  I knew my confidence would be a little shaky going back to Mundri, given that I was denied another term on the mission field.  However, I didn't think it would have had such a paralyzing effect on me.  Again, I let my mind bully myself into submission, as I sat back and tried to stay out of the way of the "real workers and change makers" on the team.  I doubted any idea I had and was fearful of going out into the community.  I'm reasonable enough to know that I only have my own idols to blame for this.  I obsess way too much over appearing competent and successful that it sets me up for failure, wherever I'm working.  This trip back to Mundri was a good reminder of the necessity of relying on my Father's strength and wisdom to carry me through life.

-Idle Youth:  Just like in America, when the youth in Africa have nothing to do, they resort to trouble.  Unfortunately, in South Sudan, almost all of the teens are bored.  Rejecting the agrarian lifestyle of their parents, many teens hope to become tech experts or business people, setting their eyes on Juba.  However, Juba is not a likely option when the money is simply not there.  So the adolescents remain in Mundri.  And they find less than stellar ways to amuse themselves.  Sadly, for our team, we have had to deal with good friends and neighbors lying and stealing from us.  Now that the trust is lost, it will be difficult to regain it any time soon.  I am continuing to pray that these dear ones and their peers will be drawn towards opportunities for fellowship and enjoyment, through the church and through local sports teams.  I am praying that some bold Sudanese women will receive the call to start up a club for girls, teaching them craftmaking and baking.  Above all, I pray that these teens will know they are loved unconditionally, and this love will melt their hearts for the greater good of the country.              

Motorcycle maintenance in town

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Explaining an End: The Bad


Of course, there were some bad parts to my goodbye trip in Mundri.  It would be unrealistic not to expect them, so I had prepared myself ahead for some of these hard things.  Of course, it doesn't make it any easier.

- Those Roads:  I can't believe I had forgotten about the roads of South Sudan.  Not only are they unpaved, but they are also completely uneven, flooded with water, and thick with layers mud that are just waiting to swallow your vehicle whole and render it useless for days on end.  I don't know how the goods suppliers do it, traveling over these conditions at 10 miles an hour, only slightly confident that they will even make it to their distribution centers.  In Mundri, lorries blocked the roads for days, while their drivers were forced to camp out underneath them, surviving only the meals from gracious families living near the road.  I, personally, despise having to ride in a vehicle in Mundri.  You get a headache from bouncing all over the place and become impatient from having to slow to a crawl at many points along the way.  I prefer just riding my bike, even if it means a back drenched with sweat and a chance of showing up late to things.

Mundri airstrip

- Politics: It angers me to hear about a majority of good people having to fear and suffer because a small minority is too prideful and power hungry to seek peace, or even a simple compromise.  I am thankful that the state of Western Equatoria has not been hit with violence that has destroyed other Sudanese towns and forced people from their homes.  The people of Mundri have been able to tend to their gardens, which has led to an amazingly diverse harvest this year.  I was shocked to walk through the market and see an abundance of cucumbers, zuchini, and even carrots during this last visit.  I am thankful for God's protection over this peace-loving tribe, amidst the greater chaos in the country as a whole.  However, even though there is peace in Mundri, there is always corruption and dissent, even on the local level.  I found myself, as usual, ignoring any visits by government offices, where I still harbor a distrust of those in power.  Of course, it isn't just politicians who look for self-gain.  Doctors and teachers refuse to work, police officers misuse their power, young people steal, churches manipulate.  South Sudan is a sinful nation, just like the United States.  However, I sometimes think it is easier to see the problems in a rural, underdeveloped nation, where the sin can't be hidden by busy schedules and financial stability.

- Goodbyes:  The obvious downside to this trip was the inevitable-- having to say goodbye.  Everyone asked me when John and I would return.  I responded with the safe answer of "Rabuuna arif bes." (Only God knows.)  John, as usual, was more brave and honest with his response, admitting that we might never return to Africa.  I couldn't bring myself to that point.  I really find it hard to admit that something is completely closed, never again to be revisited.  I cannot imagine never again landing on that red, rocky airstrip in Mundri town, as swarms of children run out from the tall grass to greet the kawajas, and Elinai, the airstrip director, smiles his broad, toothy grin, welcoming us home.  I cannot imagine never again eating the piping hot, stewed meat from the Ethiopian restaurant in town, while the sun sets and the loud buzz of a generator turns on neon bulbs.  I cannot imagine never again biking through the dreadful rainy season mud, as my bike becomes stuck and I almost fall over, but I persevere and show up to teach my English lesson with splatter marks all the way up my skirt and back.  And I cannot imagine (even though it is the reality of things) not being around as Fatna grows up, as she struggles through primary school and works through secondary school, fighting off persuasive boys and making the tough decisions that all adolescents must make.  There are so many people, places, things, feelings, and experiences that I had to say goodbye to.  Although I don't feel ready to leave them for good, God gave me the peace I needed to walk away and admit that only He knows the future.           

Goodbye songs at Okari Church

Explaining an End: The Good

I have too many thoughts about my final days in Mundri.  After failing to get reappointed to go back to South Sudan next year, John and I saw this trip as our final chance to tie up loose ends and say goodbye to our friends in Mundri.  We were given two weeks to say goodbye to the paradoxical aspects of ministry life in Africa-- the work, the daily routine, the culture, and even the physical surroundings (which are an important aspect of life for me).  I had originally thought of journaling each day during my trip, attempting to express the feelings of transition, loss, and future hope.  However, each day was such a rollarcoaster of emotions, it seems best to simply explains things in a basic summary of the good, the bad, and the ugly.


-Ministering with my husband:  During this trip, I got the unique taste of ministry life as a married woman.  This allowed me the chance to eat out in public with John, support him during town sporting events, and even have discussions with South Sudanese friends about married life.  It encourages me to know that I have a husband who also takes joy in cross-cultural work.  We make a good team, and I am excited for this new season of teamwork in the U.S.

-The thirst for knowledge:  The people of South Sudan crave exposure to the outside world.  There is a curiosity about life that leads people to ask incessant questions that I can't even answer.  As an educator, I am energized by this desire, so I run to people with open arms, full of books.  One morning I visited the secondary school, where teachers are in short supply.  With the pay being so small and the requirements for teaching falling outside most people's experiences, few people pursue teaching on the secondary level.  I taught a brief lesson to all of the young women at the school, reading from an American Girl book and then speaking on Philippians 4.  You could have heard a pin drop in the classroom (if it hadn't been for the rowdy boys in the classroom next door).  These girls listened more intently than any group I have EVER taught before.  You could see the desperation for knowledge seeping out of their young bodies, as they clung to every word I said.  It saddened me to ride away from that place, knowing that these ladies desire to learn while I have the resources and the knowledge to teach.  However, I must take heart that they have the will, and the Lord will bless each young woman in her educational pursuits.

-The Brothers and Sisters:  You can be away for nine months and the people of Mundri, South Sudan will still welcome you back into their community as family.  Of course, they may tease you for your long absence and joke about all of the cultural knowledge you've forgotten, but they will do it all in love.  It is a double-edged sword-- the people of South Sudan are so used to transience and movement from one area to the next, that they aren't all that disturbed by the exit of one person for a season.  They live with the change, adapt, and then welcome that person back if God wills them to return.  That is life for them, and it makes them much stronger than I will ever be.  However, I am trying to be strong like my Moru friends.  Even thought we are physically far away, we remain close in spirit, and I have the power of prayer, that "fellowship of the Holy Spirit," to intercede for my brothers and sisters.  Prayer is a daily reminder of how short the time will be until we all meet again.   

John with Pastor Lexon and his family

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Hello, Anger

I had a Miranda July moment yesterday, when I wanted to swear off everything—I mean, EVERYTHING. 

My frustrations had been building all day, and they culminated with me being barely able to control my fisted hand and heavy, sob-filled breathing while driving home from tutoring.

On a personal level, I felt stuck in my unemployment, without a renewed teaching license, destined to sit at home each day and dwell on my failures as a teacher.
Also, my mind had been stewing on the current situation in South Sudan, thinking about the futility of peace agreements, the futility of any sort of aid work, when the country only continues to break down into chaos, being both unwilling and unequipped to help itself.

The major blow came in the afternoon when I heard the news about Sirius, the team dog.  Last year, our team was excited at the thought of having a black lab as a devoted member of the team.  John purchased one in Uganda, with the hopes of using it to guard our compound, play with us during down time, accompany us in our work, and encourage us with love after a hard day.  Sadly, Sirius had a consistently stubborn, bad streak in him—along with a dislike for the local people.  Our whole team had struggled to keep the bad-mannered dog under control since day one.  Once our team left for the states, he was entrusted into the care of our Sudanese friend Rooney.  Unfortunately, Sirius had only been acting worse in recent days, breaking through his small cage and chasing people, even hurting them, on a regular basis.  At this point, there was nowhere else for him to go and no one who could (or would want to) take care of him.  The decision was made for him to be killed. 
I know that this was the best decision for the people in the town (and maybe even for the dog, to be honest).  However, what I couldn’t get past was that we had no choice.  There were no other options.  My mind kept repeating, “There are no options…”  It was the lack of choice that angered me.  And I started to think about how this lack of choice is not just in the lives of expats’ dogs.  This fixed and limited fate is dominant across the whole of South Sudan, effecting people of all ages and abilities.  A bright young woman may dream of becoming a scientist or lawyer.  She may have even saved up some money to attend a university.  However, she will end up staying in town because a family member will have just had a baby and there are too many mouths for one person to feed.  Eventually, she will also get pregnant and will never see life beyond her small village.  An older, educated man may have the passion and the vision to create reforms for his state.  He too will never see this dream realized because the corrupt government officials will have stolen whatever small amount of money this country had allocated for development.    

And it isn’t just South Sudan that angers me.  It is this whole, broken world, with its poverty and its hunger, its greed and its corruption.  Nothing is ever working the way it should.

I don’t tend to recognize my own anger very well, often mistaking it for sadness or a “pessimistic attitude.”  Amidst all of my pondering, it took me a while to call my anger what it really was.  When I finally I named it, it covered me like a wave, washing away any grains of hope or grace that tend to cling to.    

Once I got home I chose to do push-ups to vent out my anger.  With burning arms, I opened up my laptop only to read about more bombings in Nigeria. 


I was hit again with the injustice.

More push-ups.  (If this anger keeps up, I will reach my “Linda Hamilton arms” goal sooner than expected.)

Now that I’ve had some time to read, reflect, and sleep through my anger, I just feel tired.  I don’t know what my responsibility is as a citizen of this earth, but I feel the need to do something.  God certainly doesn’t want me to turn a blind eye to injustice.  Proverbs is filled with words of wisdom about seeking justice.  Chapter 29 reads, “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.  Mockers stir up a city, but wise men turn away anger.” I read on for my daily dose of humility.  “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.  Many seek an audience with a ruler, but it is from the Lord that man gets justice.” 

Maybe I have been putting too much hope in the plans of man, the morality and ethics of a sinful people.  I have also given myself too much credit, when I am just as bad as the rest.  There is nothing I can do here on my own.  I am not in control— and when I realize this, I throw a temper-tantrum like a two year old.  It is amazing that God lovingly chooses to use this spiritual infant for His purposes, as unclear and unpleasant as they may seem to me.   

He who trusts in himself is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom is kept safe. 
-Proverbs 28:26

UPDATE!  At the last minute, a home out in the bush was found for Mister Sirius.  He is now a content and very large dog, working on herding cattle and keeping out nearby hyenas.  Praise God for giving a good home to this pup!

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Other Side

This Vice Magazine report gives a pretty accurate look at the current situation in South Sudan.  It goes into the lives of the rebel fighters, looking at things from their perspective.  So much of this film reminds me of the harshness of this country, the indirection, the need for the gospel, and the need for softened hearts.  This video is very graphic, so use discretion.  

Freccia for Vice


Freccia for Vice

James Akena/Reuters

Freccia for Vice