Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Coming to the End of Myself

If there’s one thing God has taught me during my time in Africa it’s this: I can’t do anything without him.  The things God has called me to do are so much greater than I could ever accomplish on my own, yet that is exactly how it is supposed to be.  The moment I start relying on myself to do these things is the moment I start flailing about in the deep waters of self-defeat.  My need for Jesus has been made so much clearer to me being on the mission field, and I find myself clinging to him like a drowning man clings to a life preserver. 

I’m ashamed to say that way too often I still attempt to do things in my own strength; and I inevitably fail.  It’s at that point of coming to the end of myself where I go to God saying, “I give up.  I can’t do it without you.”  In those moments it’s almost as if God were saying, “It’s about time!  I never intended you to do it on your own anyway.  I’ve been waiting for you to figure that out!  Now we can really get to work!”   Then God provides more than enough of whatever it is I’m lacking, and he gives me the grace to do exactly what He’s asked me to do.

This has been extremely evident in my life lately.  I knew that teaching in an orphan school was going to be tough, but prior to actually getting here my mind kept running back to those quintessential mission trip pictures.  You know the ones-- with white girls surrounded by malnourished-looking African children.  Don’t get me wrong, I knew that my time here would be about more than just holding kids’ hands and smiling for pictures, but I guess I didn’t realize the extent to what God had for me here.  Being a teacher here is just plain hard.  Possibly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  And to put it simply, I can’t do it.  Not without God’s grace in my life.  I don’t have the patience to deal with difficult students.  I don’t know how to love unconditionally when people are driving me crazy.  I can’t forgive people when they do something to hurt me.  I can’t do any of it by myself.  But God has already done all of that for me, and by his grace he’s given me the ability to do it too.  It’s nothing short of miraculous.

I remember someone telling me that the mission field turns your life upside down.  Many an outreach person has come to Zambia planning to change the world, only to discover that God has some serious work to do in their own heart.  I must say, I’m discovering the same thing. God has placed me in this mission field and allowed me to face these challenges so I will learn how to trust in him and rely completely on his strength, not my own.  It’s a lesson he’s been teaching me my whole life, and I feel like this is my mid-term.  Here’s hoping I pass this time!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Seeing the Tapestry

Sometimes I get so caught up in the day-to-day things that I become blind to the bigger picture of what God is doing.  When you are detail-oriented like me it’s easy to focus on the small things and forget to glimpse God’s overall purposes.  I spend so much time thinking about my daily to-do list, especially in my lesson planning for school that I forget to stop and think about my real purpose in being here. 

My ultimate goal for teaching here isn’t to teach English and science but to teach the children about Jesus.  These kids come from homes where they are often unwanted since they are orphans and are seen as a burden.  They come from communities where witchcraft is prevalent and human sacrifice is not uncommon.  They are surrounded by darkness and desperately need the light of Christ.  It is simply incredible to see the transformation in their lives when they grasp the reality of the gospel, and the very idea that God loves them unconditionally.  That is my purpose in coming to Zambia.  Not necessarily to make these kids better readers, but to teach them their place in God’s Kingdom; to teach them that they matter to God and are never thought of as a burden to him; to model what it means to be a follower of Christ and seek him daily. 

A few weeks ago Patrick spoke about God’s sovereignty at church.  As he was preparing his sermon notes I remembered the illustration of the tapestry.  We see our lives only from the backside of the tapestry so we generally see just a tangle of colored thread.  Only God sees it from the front and sees the true pattern.  He never loses sight of the big picture or his purposes like I so often do.  He is the one who places the individual threads and has a purpose for each one.  God sees the beauty in the details and the whole picture all at once. 

It’s encouraging to me that someday I’ll see the whole picture too.  There are so many times when I think I’m not making a difference at all, but I believe that God really is using all these threads in my life to make something wonderful.  All the times I focus on the day-to-day things, he’s weaving a grand design that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.  I often look forward to the time when everything in my life will make perfect sense, and I will see how God was using me each step of the way.  

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Africa Update

I realize it’s been awhile since I’ve written a general update on what life has been like in Zambia for the last ten weeks.  It’s amazing that our time here is already coming to a close, and in about three weeks we’ll be headed home.  Where has the time gone?

I’ve been working hard preparing lessons and working with the students in the school, and it’s been quite an experience.  I must say, teaching here has been one of the hardest things I’ve done (as far as teaching is concerned anyway).  The children are wonderful, and I’ve fallen completely in love with every single one of my students.  The challenges lie in the vast array of cultural differences, the language barriers, and the fact that the teachers here often have differing opinions about how to teach.  One of my goals being here was to help the teachers find new (and possibly more effective) ways to teach in this context.  It’s been something of an uphill battle, but God has taught me a great deal about patience, humility, and gentleness.  I really think this experience is making me a better teacher in the long run. 

One of the best parts about being in Zambia has been spending loads of time with my new friend Susanna.  It’s almost comical how much we have in common, so we’ve even started referring to ourselves as twins.  She’s also teaching in the school, and it’s been wonderful to have someone to share ideas (and frustrations) with.  We have been exercising together everyday to balance out all the starchy food we eat, and despite the crazy heat, I think we might go back to America and Finland not as out of shape as we thought.  I’m grateful to have someone I can laugh with about all of the craziness of life in Africa.
My "Finnish Twin"
 Lately we’ve visited the homes of a few missionary families to have dinner with them.  It’s been incredibly encouraging to hear about their hearts for missions and the work that God is doing through them.  Most of the team here is made up of Zambian missionaries, with only a handful of westerners who help with administrative things.  It’s the Zambians who are truly on the front lines of missions here; they are the ones going out in the villages around the lake living out a gospel-centered life; they are the ones who are truly being the hands and feet of Christ, and it’s wonderful to have a chance to get to know them better. 

Typical Zambian dinner
God is doing incredible things here in Mpulungu and around Lake Tanganyika, and Patrick and I have been so blessed to get to witness it and be a small part of it.  Somehow I have a feeling that life in the States is going to seem slightly dull in comparison!

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Heart Like My Father's

Sometimes I really stress myself out wanting my life to honor God.  It is a constant pleading of my heart that He would use me to make his Name great.  At this point in my life in Africa my desire is to glorify him by working with the students here.  With this mindset it’s easy to start focusing on doing things for God and forget that the thing that brings God the most glory is who we are, and the way we find our very identity in our heavenly Father. 

Last week I had one exceptionally frustrating day of teaching.  I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere with the students and they weren’t learning anything I was trying to explain.  To be honest, I was starting to feel like an utter failure as a teacher.  As ridiculous as it seems, I was starting to worry that if I couldn’t teach the children anything, my time here would be wasted, that I wouldn’t be able to honor God.  How ridiculous!  My bringing glory to God isn’t about how much better the students are at English when I leave.  For my life to be glorifying means that my heart is set on the things above, that my love for the Father exceeds my love for anything else, that I truly desire and seek his will above all else and am willing to be obedient to it. 

What God is showing me is that, while I might have come here with a certain purpose in mind (teaching), his purposes for me are much wider.  By being on the mission field I’m seeing more of God’s heart for his people, and I’m learning that living a God honoring life isn’t about doing things and accomplishing my own goals; it’s about having a heart like his.  

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Abdication of Self

Recently I read Luke 14:33 which says, “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”  As I’m sure many other people have, I’ve struggled with this verse over the years.  It’s really hard to come to terms with the idea of giving everything away in order to follow Christ.  It’s always difficult to part with the stuff in my life.  What can I say; I’m human, and by my very nature I’m pretty materialistic.  I have an innate craving for comfort that’s hard to part with.

Today, though, I read this verse in a whole new light.  While I still believe that in some ways Jesus was talking about material things, I think he meant that following him means much more than that.  Jesus doesn’t want your stuff; he wants your heart.  He wants you.  When we come to Jesus it means we’ve come to the end of ourselves, and we’re ready to surrender all the things in our lives that have kept us from really knowing him fully.  Christ calls us to let go of our very selves so we can be filled with God’s very presence. 

Think about the things that make it hard for you to have a relationship with God.  Things like pride, selfishness, anger, worry, fear, and sin make it difficult, if not impossible, to know him.  In essence, it is our self that gets in the way.  The self is always concerned with being comfortable or seeking its own pleasure.  We often put the desires of the self on a pedestal, and in a certain sense we will do anything to get what we want.  When we follow the callings of our self we naturally slip into sin.  These are the things Christ is asking us to leave behind at the foot of the cross.  It’s like the scene in “Pilgrim’s Progress” when the character Christian leaves his burden of sin at Jesus’ feet and is finally free to walk with God.  In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  We always tend to think in terms of giving up all the things we have that we want, but Jesus wants all the bad stuff in our lives that we hold on to.  He wants us to give him our sinfulness and our brokenness so he can make us whole.   

Meditating on this idea today has been absolutely freeing.  God has allowed me to have a way of peeling away all the awful things in my life and handing them over to him.  He’s allowed me to experience the freedom of forgiveness, and the joy of being given a fresh start.  And it’s not about giving him my nice house or my money.  It’s about giving him my whole heart.  Once you do that, nothing else even seems to matter!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Teaching in Zambia

This week was my second full week working in the school, and it was awesome!  There are four grades from kindergarten through 3rd grade, and there are about 20 kids in each class.  They show up in the morning around 7:00 for breakfast, then the school day goes from 8:00-12:00, then they eat lunch.  It’s a short day, so we try to make the most of the time we have in the classroom.  There are so many things that are completely different from schools in the United States, so I have to adjust a lot about the way I think about teaching.  Of course, one of the biggest challenges is working with students who are learning English as a second language.  Thankfully, the 3rd graders know enough English that I can teach any subject and they can, more or less, understand me. 
My 3rd grade class!
Since it had been so long since I had taught in a classroom I had felt like I’d lost a bit of my passion for teaching, so all this week I was praying that God would renew my love for teaching young kids.  The Lord certainly answered that prayer!  Despite the many frustrations of teaching in a school with only a fraction of the resources available to teachers in the US, I have fallen in love with teaching all over again.  It is so exciting to see the children understand the material I’m teaching, and see them hungering for more information.  Of course, not all students are as eager to learn as others, but my goal for the next two months is to teach these kids how to love learning.  So even if I leave here and they still can’t read or write or tell time, if they understand the joy of learning I will consider my time in Africa to have been successful.      
 As I said, there are many differences between this school and ones in the US.  Here we have no administration, besides one of the teachers being the Head Teacher.  That means that there’s very little support for the four teachers in the school, and they’re more or less left on their own to figure out lessons and schedules.  The curriculum is very basic and not well organized, so the teachers really need to be able to supplement their lessons with other sources.  The problem is, there are no other sources available to them.  For all my teacher friends out there, imagine trying to teach with no pictures, or print outs, or Smart Boards.  The teachers can’t make copies of things, so if they want to make a worksheet, they do it by hand.  There are very few good books for beginning readers, not to mention there’s very little time to spend even teaching reading with only 3 ½ hours of actual classroom time.  It’s all too easy for kids to slip through the cracks, and I have several 3rd graders who can’t read at all.  The students are all orphans coming from extremely difficult home lives.  Most of them live in villages with no electricity or running water, and where literacy is not even something people can fathom.  These kids don’t get educational support from home, so the task of teaching them lies solely on the teachers. 
 It’s no easy task to teach in a place like this, and I know that when I get to teach in America again, I’ll never ever complain about a lack of resources or support from admin.  The scary thing is, it’s way worse in the government schools out in town.  At least for us, we have people in the US who have sent some school supplies to help.  And at those schools there can be 80 kids in one classroom with only one teacher!  So despite the difficulties I’m facing right now, I know we’ve got it good compared to others. 
Students eating breakfast before school starts
 You might think it’d be nearly impossible to teach here, but it’s actually been very rewarding even after just two weeks.  We might not have all the nice materials in western schools, but teaching is still fun!  The kids are incredibly sweet, and many of them really do want to learn.  What they need most is teachers who are committed to helping them reach their potential.  Maybe that sounds cliché, but here in Zambia, it’s the truth.  Without an education, these children will be stuck in the cycle of poverty where daily life is a mere struggle for survival.  We want to give these kids a fighting chance for something better, and that’s what this school is all about!