Reflections From the Mountain

I climbed a mountain yesterday!  It was incredibly challenging and also quite amazing.  This was actually the third time I’ve climbed at least part of Mt. Nkhoma.  The two other times I had no intention of finishing.  This time was very different.  In fact, I am very different.  The changes I’ve made in my life greatly impacted the way I approached the mountain.  Really, the growth I’ve experienced through this faith adventure has changed how I am approaching all of life’s challenges.

Myself, my two roommates Pauline and Leonie, and my friend Joel started our trip around 8:30 in the morning.  Thankfully it was a cool day and there was even a little bit of drizzle.  That was a huge blessing as it’s been getting hotter and hotter every day.  I was the unofficial leader since I was the only one who’d done even part of the mountain before.  I was fairly confident I could get us to where we needed to be, but thankfully there was a young Malawian boy who started walking with us.  He was later joined by his two younger sisters who are actually students at Ebenezer where I am teaching this year.  It turned out to be very beneficial to have them along even though I think the six-year-old could have climbed the mountain twice in the time it took me to do it.  That was growth for me to be ok with that though.  In the past I may have been embarrassed by that and been upset with myself.  This time, I decided early on to be ok with whatever pace I needed to set.  Finishing was the goal, it wasn’t about keeping up with anyone else.

group mt

The reality is I couldn’t have kept up with everyone even if I’d been trying to.  I pushed myself, but I also kept things in a realistic perspective.  Joel is six years younger than me, my roommates are half my age and they are all in much better shape than I am.  The three Malawians are young kids who didn’t think twice about climbing the mountain, it’s in their blood.  I consciously stayed focused on what I knew I needed to do, I took breaks when I needed to and I didn’t let the abilities of the others frustrate me about my own.  In the past I would have felt inadequate and beat myself up over such situations.  Through this experience, I was able to be gentle and show myself grace.  My best was good enough.

It was also really helpful that we all wanted to do this together.  There were times when the group would go ahead of me, but they were great about waiting for me at reasonable intervals.  There were other times when someone would stay back with me and keep my pace.  All of that was very much appreciated.  Everyone was encouraging towards one another and we genuinely celebrated small victories all along the way.  No one got tunnel vision, it was as much about the experience of climbing the mountain as it was about making it to the peak.  It can be so easy to focus solely on the end results in life, but the lessons are learned on the path.  Whether it’s the path to failure or the path to success you really do learn the most on your way there.

help

Another big change for me that this hike reflected was my ability to communicate in a healthier way.  In the past I would internalize my frustrations, whether they were with myself or someone else.  I would eventually explode or it would come out in rude snippy comments.  This approach wasn’t effective or fair to the people in my life.  There were many times throughout the hike that this could have been my reaction.  Through the work I’m doing on myself with God’s help, I’ve learned to be more self-reflective and to recognize when and why I am getting upset.  Now, instead of holding things in I am able to talk about things in a calm and productive way.  The work I’ve done helped me both on the hike and in my daily life.

In my preparation for Malawi and in my time here, I really have learned a lot of lessons.  I think on some level I was aware of the progress I’d made, but the hike up the mountain yesterday served as a mirror to really reflect on the growth that has happened within me.  I’ve learned to accept myself for who I am and what I am able to do.  Not in a complacent way as though there is no room for growth, but rather in a realistic, gentle and grace filled way.  I think this kind of approach allows me to see myself the way God sees me and has helped me to love myself better.  It’s also really important for me to remember that there will be lessons along the way.  It’s not about seeing where everyone else is and trying to catch up and keep up with them.  If I try to do that, I am convinced I will miss out on the lessons God has for me along the path that is life.  Finally, my ability to communicate in a healthier way is something I believe will impact me and every relationship I have for the rest of my life.  It has been such a key skill to grow in and I see the impact of it all around me.  Whether it comes into play during difficult and challenging situations, when I’m trying to help a friend or even in the best of times, being able to communicate in a healthy way is absolutely paramount.  I’m so thankful to God for this time in Malawi that allows me to grow, learn and reflect.  I believe that wherever my path leads, or anyone’s path for that matter, God will continue to teach and show new things.  We just need to pay attention and be willing to learn.

girls top

Advertisements

It’s Not His Plan

This has been a shitty week.  Sorry if that offends you, but it’s the truth.  I’ve been having health issues for over a week, my mother was admitted to the hospital, and I found out that my Great Aunt passed away last night.  On top of all of that, I’ve been struggling with finding my place and purpose here in Malawi.  Any one of those things would have been tough enough to deal with on their own, but you put them all together in the span of a few days and I was emotionally and physically done.  I was angry at God and I didn’t understand why any of this, let alone all of it was happening.

I didn’t want to pray, journal or read the Bible.  That all felt too personal, and I was still too mad.  But I also didn’t want to stay feeling the way I did.  So, instead of the personal stuff, I turned on worship music while simultaneously trying to numb myself with a game on my phone.  Of course, the music cracked my heart of stone almost immediately.  Songs that reminded me of God’s peace, healing, love and how he is a good father.  Songs like “Even If” by Mercy Me that talk about how even if God doesn’t do exactly what we want or expect that He still needs to be our hope alone.  It was convicting and humbling and got me thinking.

It’s so easy to take our anger out on those that are close to us when life gets hard.  I think this is in large part because they are accessible and we know they won’t leave.  This is even more so the case with God.  When life gets hard, he doesn’t run and hide; he draws closer and he never leaves us.  It’s even easier to blame God because we think he could have changed any of these circumstances if he wanted to.  People say things like “this is all a part of God’s plan” or “he just really needed (insert name) as an angel sooner.”  I’m sorry, but I’m calling B.S. on all of that on God’s behalf.

Death, pain, sickness any and all suffering was not God’s plan.  He created a perfect world for us where we could live in communion with him and have relationship.  Sin entered the world and that was not God’s plan.  Cancer was not God’s plan.  War was not God’s plan.  Rape was not God’s plan.  Mental illness was not God’s plan.  Insert any other problem our world has and it was not God’s plan.

What is God’s plan is that he sent Jesus to die for our sins.  It didn’t make the world a perfect place yet, but it gives us the opportunity to again have that communion with God.  He has adopted us as his children and we are his heirs.  Sin is still a reality and therefore bad things happen to us and around us all of the time.  What is in God’s plan and what we need to remember is as it says in Romans 8:28 “…God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  So, there are going to be terrible things that happen, things that are impossible to understand or explain, things that hurt more than we feel like we can handle at the time, but it will work out in the end.  It may not work out the way we imagined, but God has a plan and it will work out for our good.

I know this doesn’t erase the pain or confusion of all the bad things that happen in our world, but I hope it at least brings a little bit of comfort and hope.  I know it did for me.

aunt alyce

I will miss you Aunt Alyce.

Yes, No Maybe So

Communication is an interesting thing.  The dictionary definition is an imparting or exchanging of information, by speaking, writing or using some other medium.  If I were to define it, I would add with the goal of being understood; because to me without understanding, what is the point?  It is useless to exchange information that can not be understood by the other party isn’t it?  It may seem obvious that communication would be a challenge of living in a foreign country, but the challenge goes far beyond just the words that are being exchanged.  There are so many levels to consider besides just the language itself.  There are cultural norms, tone, eye contact, body language and so much more.  It’s not always or even usually about the words you are saying, but more so how you are saying it.  Communication for me, has been one of the biggest challenges of living in Malawi.

Here’s an example of when we can use the exact same words, but mean something different.  In the U.S., when we say “You’re welcome” it is typically in response to someone saying thank you.  In Malawi, “You are welcome”, is a very typical greeting.  When I first arrived, this always threw me off a bit.  In my head I would think “I didn’t say thank you?”, but eventually I adjusted and there was no more confusion.

Confusion is a big deal to me, I really don’t like it.  Sometimes I feel like there is a perpetual two-year-old in my head constantly asking WHY?, and I am continually trying to clear up the confusion.  Clearing up the confusion can be extremely exhausting when 99% of the people around you don’t have the same native language as you.  It’s important to note I said native language.  The fact is, the majority of the people I interact with on a regular basis actually do speak English, it’s just that it’s their second language.  This often creates a gap in understanding.  I find myself frequently having to think of a different way to say the same thing or having to listen very carefully to what people are trying to say.  We are typically able to come to an understanding, but it’s not always efficient.

Another issue of efficiency and one of the biggest confusions has been when people don’t actually mean what they are saying.  It is very normal in Malawian culture to be agreeable and say yes to everything.  This happens even when the person has no intention of doing what they are saying yes to or if they don’t want you to do what you are asking about.  It’s not that they are intentionally deceiving you or trying to make life difficult, in fact it’s the opposite.  They say what they think you want to hear to try and make you more comfortable.  My most common experience with this is when I ask a question like “should I do this?”  A typical response would be yes, followed by three reasons why I should not do it.  At first, I always walked away wondering what just happened and more confused about what to do than when I started.  It’s so common though that I’m getting much better at navigating and understanding what people mean more so than just what they are saying.

Not every part of communicating in Malawi is a challenge however.  You always hear about how so much of communication is non verbal.  You don’t realize how true this is until you are in a room full of people speaking a language you have very little understanding of.  Some of my favorite instances of communication have happened in the staff room at the school where I am volunteering.  It is very common for the local staff to speak Chichewa there in the morning, I often observe and pick up what I can.  The women like to tease each other and it becomes obvious through tone, body language and facial expressions who is teasing and who is being teased.  I am usually able to get the gist of what is happening and laugh along even though I don’t understand the actual words.

Though so much of communication here is a challenge, it is also such an opportunity for growth.  I’ve already learned some Chichewa and some German and I look forward to learning more in the next ten months.  Beyond actually learning new languages though, this is a chance to learn to understand people better.  This environment requires me to pay so much more attention.  It requires me to look more closely at what people mean more so than just the words they are saying.  Just like God looks at our hearts, being here in Malawi gives me the opportunity to do the same.  The love of God can be communicated regardless of the languages that are spoken.  Being here this year is a gift from God and I will continue to work through the challenges in order to experience and share the love of Christ on an even deeper level than I have before.

Above and Beyond

Isn’t it amazing how God knows us better than we even know ourselves?  And how we can ask for one thing we really think we want, but then God goes above and beyond what we even thought to ask for.  This has been my experience all through out this journey.  God knows me, he loves me and he wants to give me better things than I even know that I need.

I’ve lived by myself the majority of the last seven years, and that’s exactly how I liked it.  The space was my own, the schedule was my own, there were no expectations on me.  If I wanted to cook I cooked, if I wanted to eat out I ate out.  If there was a t.v. show I wanted to watch I watched it. I saw people when I wanted to see people and I was alone when I wanted to be alone.  I was accountable to no one but myself.

I’ve known all along that I would have two German roommates in Malawi, in fact for the majority of the time I thought there would be three of us in one room.  Thankfully, that didn’t end up being the case, but I was ready for that challenge.  I looked at this as the potential to be like the college experience I never had.  I started at a junior college, transferred to Cal State Fullerton and was a commuter.  At that time it was about finishing, not about enjoying the experience. I knew living with strangers wouldn’t be easy for this introvert, but I wanted to take this as another opportunity to stretch and grow.

I found out about a week or so before they came that they were two 18 years old girls.  I knew they would be younger, but I had no idea they would be that young, literally just graduated from high school.  I am old enough to be their mother.  This did not seem to be an ideal situation to me, but there was little I could do about it, so I was left only to trust that this too was part of God’s plan.  My prayer all along had been that I would at least be able to tolerate whoever I had to live with.

God answered my prayers above and beyond what I asked for.  Not only can I tolerate Pauline and Leonie, I love them.  They have strengths where I lack, they are extremely mature for their age, they are good natured, funny and we just all balance each other out so well.  We can joke and tease with the best of them, there has definitely already been some mom jokes, and I can’t help but laugh at the way they say some things with their German accents, but we are also so encouraging and caring towards one another.  We’ve learned and grown so much together and it hasn’t even been a week yet.  It’s obvious that God chose us for each other.  Of course there will be challenges over the next eleven months, but I am confident that we will get through them together.

I’m thankful for the challenges I spoke about in my last blog, because through that loneliness I’m now so grateful for this new connection.  If I hadn’t gone through that dark place, I don’t know that I would be able to appreciate the light I now have.  The Bible talks about how the storms of life will come, and that if we build our foundation on the rock of Jesus Christ we will be able to weather those storms.  I’ve come through the storm of loneliness stronger and full of trust in God unlike I’ve ever had before.  I’m so happy and grateful to God for all that he’s done, is doing and will continue to do.  He is a good God who knows us better than we know ourselves, loves us deeply and wants to take care of us.

roomies

 

On my own, but not

I want to be transparent with my experience, because otherwise what is the use in sharing?  On some level I knew that there would be challenges as far as this year in Malawi went.  I was under no illusion that the whole year would be a breeze.  However, I did not realize how early the challenges would come and how significantly they would affect me.

The initial challenge started with saying goodbye to the team.  I felt fine the whole morning, but the closer we got to the airport the stronger my emotions became.  The tears came, despite me trying to hold them back.  The tears didn’t just represent sadness for saying goodbye to my friends, but for the first time they also represented fear of staying here on my own.  There was an inner conflict happening that I couldn’t control.  I’d been so excited about this experience for so long, but the reality of it was also incredibly scary all of a sudden.  Honestly, there was a brief time where I contemplated getting on the plane with them, I didn’t obviously, but that’s how significant the feelings were.

The fear of staying settled down pretty quickly, but the loneliness hung around.  I’d never realized how significant connecting with people was to me, probably because I had never been quite so disconnected before.  In retrospect this shouldn’t have surprised me, as two of my top five strengths are connectedness and relator.  Regardless, I was totally caught off guard by how alone and hopeless I felt.  When I could fill my time, that helped to distract me, but as soon as there was down time, I would again feel down.

The opportunity to serve with a children’s outreach came up and I thought this would really help.  This would put me with a group of people and it would give me purpose.  My thoughts were that those would both significantly help with the loneliness.  Those were good thoughts, but it back fired at least at first.  The problem was that I was with a group of strangers most of who didn’t speak English.  It turns out, it is worse  to be in a large group and still feel lonely than it is to just be alone.

I wasn’t willing to stay in this place though.  I kept reminding myself that I knew God had called me here and that I was here for a purpose.  I prayed a lot and I asked people to pray for me.  I looked for the lesson in the situation.  What I came up with or rather what God showed me was that I needed to be dependent on him.  I wasn’t alone at all, he was with me the whole time.  At home, I lived on my own. I did what I wanted when I wanted and didn’t do what I didn’t want to.  I didn’t need to be dependent on anyone but myself.  That is not my reality in Malawi, I need help here and that help needs to come primarily through God.

There is more to the story, but this realization of my need to depend on God was a good start.

My First Two Weeks Part Two

Following Nkhotakota, we were headed to Nkhoma.  This is the region Y-Malawi has been working in for a long time, where I spent most of my time when I was here two years ago, and where I will be living and volunteering for the majority of this year.  I was excited to go back there and especially to get to visit Ebenezer, the school where I will be volunteering.

The first thing on our agenda in Nkhoma was church on Sunday with the Chief’s Ministry.  This was exciting for me, because it would be the first church service I ever attended in Malawi and on top of that I was going to be preaching with Candie.  We spoke on Ephesians 2:19-21, which was about how we are all one in Christ.  We were able to really connect with the people, and based on their responses they connected very well to the message.  It was an honor to be a part of it.  We had the opportunity to share the message again the next afternoon at a Chief’s Bible study.  It was also well received there.

On Monday morning we visited Ebenezer and Nkhoma Hospital.  When we arrived at Ebenezer, we started in the staff room where Chrissy Mbewe, the principal, greeted us and started to tell us about the school.  As I sat there, I was overwhelmed by emotion and I started to cry.  It was an interesting experience in that I couldn’t connect to the tears to a specific emotion like happiness or fear, but just this overwhelming experience of finally being physically present in the place I have felt God calling me to for so long.  The school is an amazing place and it was evident that a lot of good work for the future of Malawi takes place there.

me.jpg

Following the visit to Ebenezer, we made our way to Nkhoma Hospital.  It was amazing to tour this facility, meet some of the people who help run it and to see the good work they are doing.  I’m thankful that I will be living next door to the hospital, as it was obvious that they are doing an excellent job with the resources that they have.

On Tuesday, we spent the day with World Vision.  We were able to visit a local school they are helping to develop.  What stood out as special about this place, was the obvious pride the community took in the development.  It was not just the fact that they were getting a school building, but that they were contributing to the project as well by making bricks.  A really cool thing happened at the end too when I was giving everyone present an encouragement for the good work they were doing.  I was in the middle of saying that the work they were doing now would make a huge difference in the future generations, when a little boy about two years old came out of the crowd and let me pick him up.  It was a really special moment and it felt like it was orchestrated by God.

DSC_0979 (1).JPG

Following the school visit, many of our team had the opportunity to meet sponsored children.  Some were kids they were sponsoring themselves, and some they were acting as representatives for people from our church.  It’s always a great experience to get to connect with someone one on one especially if you have known them from a distance for a long time.  Conversations ensued, gifts were exchanged and then the goodbyes.  I know it meant a lot to every member of the team to get to take part in this.

DSC_0051 (1)DSC_0063 (1).JPG

Our time in Nkhoma was very encouraging and it was a great end to our time serving together as a team.  From Nkhoma we headed to Mvuu, a safari lodge in Liwonde National park.  It was a great time of relaxation and provided us with the opportunity to debrief as a team.

IMG_7941.jpg

Saying goodbye to the team was very challenging, but more on that in the next blog.

My First Two Weeks Part One

IMG_6053

The first two weeks in country, I was leading a group of ten including myself, on a short term Y-Malawi trip.  It was a jam packed two weeks with an amazing team!  I’m going to try to give you the Reader’s Digest version of all that we did.

We started out by working with World Relief.  This is the newest partner for Y-Malawi. Their main goal is to empower the local church’s, who then come together to help the most vulnerable in their community.  It was great to see multiple congregations from different denominations working together to serve and do what God designed the Church to do.  It was also a privilege to get to work along side them and help with their project.

The project we were able to be a part of was for an elderly woman whose house had fallen down.  The church group had already helped her rebuild the walls, and on this day the men would be thatching the roof and the women would be smearing the floors (think spreading mud with your hands to even out the floor).  We definitely gave the local people a good laugh in our attempts to help, but I know both groups were honored to be working along side each other, and it was clear to see the elderly woman appreciated what was being done for her.

FTS.jpg

The next group we had the privilege of serving with was Fishers Trainers and Senders, or FTS.  This part of Y-Malawi focuses on evangelism, discipleship and other charity work.  At the time we were with them, they were hosting a two week discipleship program in a new area called Nkhotakota, which is located near Lake Malawi.  People came from all over Malawi to camp for two weeks and be discipled.  They would take classes in the morning and then go out and practice what they had learned in the local villages.  The dedication of the people was amazing to see.  We were also able to participate in local kids clubs and adult literacy programs that FTS runs and supports.

youth.jpg

The next group we partnered with was the Nkhoma Youth Department.  Youth is defined very differently in Malawi, and pretty much consists of anyone from birth to 30 years old.  This department is helping to inspire some amazing things.  Some of the things we got to see were  a Dare to Discover class which is helping to give the youth a sense of who they are in Christ, literacy programs, a savings and loan club, a fish pond that was created by young men whose proceeds are helping to support their local kids going to school, a program where students were trained to use sewing machines and then turned around and trained other youth, and gardens planted and tended by youth to use as a source of income and nutrition.  The Youth department is definitely making a huge impact in the community.

I couldn’t keep this as brief as I wanted, because there is so much to share.  For this reason, I will end here for now.