Ready or not, first term at RVA is winding down. It has gone so quickly, and I can hardly believe we’re at the end of November. Today was the last day of exams, kids head home tomorrow, and I think everyone is ready for a break. Or, at least I am.
Apparently, this week also marks the end of what churchy people call “ordinary time.” You know, that time that is not Christmas, or Lent, or Easter. It’s just…ordinary. And in the ordinary business and busyness of work and life, I’ve started to enjoy the normalcy of boarding school life. Knowing kids and staff members names, having people who make me laugh and know how much I love coffee and thoughtful conversation, finding friends to watch movies and go on hikes with: these are all helping me feel more like a person at home than an outsider.
My friend Melissa used to tease me about how much I love rhythms and routines, and I think she was right. The most difficult thing about transitions, for me, is how disruptive they can be to the little pieces of daily life.
But, I’m realizing that, just like the church calendar rhythm, perhaps it is a good thing to always be moving between seasons of ordinary life, and seasons of expectation and newness. And, right between ordinary time and Advent, we celebrate today the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
I marked the holiday by going into Nairobi to work on visa paperwork, part of the process of allowing me to live in Kenya more permanently. Then, in the beautiful afternoon, I pulled sun-dried clothes from the line, folded them, and packed them in trunks to be moved to my new and more long-term housing option. Finally, I spent the evening with a crowd of friends, feasting on turkey and pie, and celebrating Thanksgiving. A day of working to get more settled in Kenya, while packing and bracing for more transition, concluded with community, celebration, and gratefulness.
Perhaps this is the pattern: into our normal days, redemption is coming, and it’s disruption is always paradoxically lovely and upsetting. So, as I anticipate the end of the school term, I’m entering Advent through the door of thanksgiving, grateful even for the gifts of transition and change because they are the only way that things can be made new. In this new season, may you experience the coming of Christ into these most ordinary of days. Happy Thanksgiving from Kijabe!
“The church reveals the glory of Christ through suffering and shame as much as through what the world counts as success. The way this happens is often enough that the church is called to be where the world is in pain, at the place where the world is suffering and in a state of shame and sorrow. The church is there as the presence of Christ in the world.” NT Wright, Reflecting the Glory
“Even in darkness, light dawns for the upright…they will have no fear of bad news, their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord. Their hearts are secure, they will have no fear.” Psalm 112
How can I describe these recent days? Clearly, there hasn’t been much writing going on, at least not here. Instead my days have been filled with cheering for sports teams. Way to go RVA varsity football team for winning the football championship, and thanks Scott Myhre for taking such great photos, including this one that I stole from Facebook.
I’ve also been savoring old friendships, while building new ones. I’ve participated in multicultural day, and a school carnival, and hosted a cooking competition, and a movie night, and an amazing Dutch Blitz marathon. I’ve taught Sunday School, and made pans and pans of enchiladas, and had students and colleagues over for dinner. I’ve gone on hikes, and attended many meetings in Nairobi. I’ve begun the long, long road towards counseling licensure. I’ve witnessed an eclipse.
And through it all, I’ve started the slow process of making this place home. It is so different than Sudan. For example, I am almost always clean. Little sweat, little dust, no muddy bike rides. I’m only dirty intentionally, like when I go for a run or a hike. Also, I eat a variety of produce. Daily. I have office hours, and a job description. I can download things from iTunes.
These discrepancies between Sudan and Kenya can perhaps make it seem like life is easier here, or like what I’m doing isn’t as impactful as what I did in Sudan. And, my life in Kenya is certainly quieter than my life in Sudan was, because most of what happens in my job, I can’t really share with anyone else. But this I can say: those who, because of faith, choose to raise their families in cross-cultural situations, will undoubtably experience suffering in various forms. And that experience of suffering and pain needs to be spoken about and processed as a part of Christ’s glory being revealed. So, every day, little by little, I hear stories of suffering and glory. And, just like in Sudan, as I step into places of pain or shame, I do believe that Christ is carried into those places, and I get to witness His faithfulness in the middle of a broken world.
So, in between the soccer finals and the game nights and the choir performances, I’ve been able to walk alongside kids who have questions and difficulties. And I get to see, almost everyday, that even in darkness, light dawns. Though it’s much different than Sudan, I am grateful that, at least for now, this is the place I get to call home.
“True friendship is a sacred, important thing, and it happens when we drop down into that deeper level of who we are, when we cross over into the broken, fragile parts of ourselves. We have to give something up in order to get friendship like that. We have to give up our need to be perceived as perfect. We have to give up our own ability to control what people think of us. We have to overcome the fear that when they see the depths of who we are, they’ll leave. But what we give up is nothing in comparison to what this kind of friendship gives us. Friendship is a risk. Love is a risk. If we can control it and manage it and manufacture it, then it’s something else, but if it’s really love, really friendship, then it’s a little scary around the edges.” Shauna Niequist, Cold Tangerines
“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6
Recently, I have literally, and daily, considered the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. From the porch of my house in Kijabe, I can see lilies growing and blooming; birds sweep and soar over the vast Great Rift Valley. And each morning, I pause to notice their beauty, their freedom from worry.
After 4 years in Sudan, I have landed in Kenya, and I’ve realized again that moving is always hard. At first, I thought I’d only be here for a handful of weeks, but a few days ago, I made the decision to stay for the next 2 years. In the aftermath of a major life decision, I find myself strangely unsettled.
Don’t get me wrong. I love working at RVA, and I am beyond excited for the opportunity to grow as a counselor and to work with kids from all over the world. I love my new job. As I made the decision to stay, it was primarily all the work related stuff that I thought about and wrestled through. Now that the decision is made, it’s all the other stuff that crowds my mind, makes me wonder how this place will ever become home. I feel like I have a foot on the edge of both worlds, and so am not quite rooted in either.
Digging out a life in Sudan was hard work. Learning a new language and culture, learning how to be on a team, learning how to work as a counselor and educator in a new place. Looking back, I can’t believe how much has changed since I landed there in 2009.
And now, I am starting over again. In some ways, it looks like things should be easier. I get to use a lot more English here. Most of the people I interact with are closer to my own cultural background. But, there is no avoiding the experience of being new. You have to have the building block conversations about where you’re from, and how long you’ve been in Africa, and how old you are if you first came to Africa 10 years ago. You explain that yes, it is hot in Sudan, and yes, there are a lot of snakes and scorpions, and yes, you miss it like crazy but you love the mountains and beauty and strawberries of Kijabe. You talk about preferences and interests and history, and somehow, friendships begin to tentatively form.
Sometimes, I think that learning patience is the antidote to anxiety. Much of my worry is connected to wanting to know what will happen next, of wanting reassurance that I will find connection here, that I’ve made the best decision. I wonder if relationships here can develop the depth of what I had in Sudan. But this week, I’ve been grateful for so many people. For long-term WHM friends who welcome me for meals and bday parties and walks on Barnes trail. I’m thankful for supervision and support from other wise counselors in Nairobi who cheer me on and make me feel glad I’m staying. I’m thankful for the Taylor family, who has me over for dinner; and Katy who makes coffee and prays with me on Sunday nights; for Stacey who brings cookies for my office on Tuesdays, for the Rabenolds who come by on Wednesdays and who make this place feel like home. On Friday, Emily and I are heading to Lamu for our midterm weekend. And so, in spite of my tentativeness, friendships are growing here.
I still miss my friends in Sudan. I miss biking the dirt roads, and laughing with Susan, and picking greens with Queen, and singing at my church. I miss my team, and the tukul I shared with Melissa, and the comfort of a group of people who know me well. But, I hope this transition will produce in me good things: patience, a willingness to engage in new and good relationships, hopefulness that I can find home here, openhandedness about whatever will come, and compassion to support and empathize with the students I work with who are also going through transition.
And until those things show up, I’ll keep considering the lilies and moving towards new friendships, even when they seem risky and a little scary around the edges.
Have you seen this? My friend Andrew, who knows about all things literary, sent me the link, and if you have a few minutes, you should take the time to watch it. I have read most of (perhaps all of) Adichie’s books, I love TED talks, and I am intrigued by how story shapes individual lives, and shapes our world. Combine all 3 of those things, and you have a win. As a counselor, I believe a big part of my job is to realize that no one is ever a single story. The person sitting in front of me is not defined as depressed, or fearful, or abused. They aren’t only missionaries, students, winners, or failures. That may be part of the story, but no person is a single story, and the joy of counseling is discovering, in every conversation, more about the beautiful, heartbreaking, redemptive stories shaping the people I get to spend my days with.
This morning seemed like the first slow Saturday since I landed at RVA. I slept in, made rich Java House espresso, read and read, and went on a breathtaking run with Star and Chardonnay, my 2 favorite Kijabe dogs. I’m staying at my sweet friend Susan’s house this term, which is all windows and light, and from the front porch, I have a bird’s eye view of the trampoline that the Stocksdales set up for their kids. This morning, while I was still all sleepy-eyed, I carried my coffee to the porch, and watched as kids played on the trampoline.
3 boys, early elementary school aged, flipping and falling and flying free. Their conversation drifted up to me as they discussed who they would marry (they seemed pretty definitive about this topic), and challenged each other to various feats, and shrieked when they got their stomachs wet and belly-flopped on the hot trampoline surface in an attempt to leave belly prints. They climbed the loquat tree, grabbing yellow fruit. And when they got bored, one of them said, “Let’s go to my house and burn things with fire!” But before that could happen, one of the boys’ dads showed up, and helped him out of the tree, and took them all home for lunch. Later, one came back dressed as a super-hero, complete with a cape and a Spider-man mask.
First, this should let you know that if you live close to me, you should not tell secrets on the trampoline, because I will hear. every. word. you. say. Second, I may be convinced that boys have more fun. Third, I will take this as evidence that boys talk about marriage and dating as much as girls do. And finally, I’m grateful that, for the moment, this is where I get to live life because it’s a pretty entertaining place.
Aren’t these boys a reflection of all of our stories? We jump, and sometimes feel like we are flying, but perhaps more often like we’re falling. We talk with friends about dreams for the future, we try to leave our mark on the world, we climb and reach for what looks the best, even when it’s out of reach and a little risky. Sometimes we belly-flop, and it hurts. Sometimes we need someone who cares about us to intervene when we are about to make really bad decisions, and to take us home to lunch instead. And in spite of everything, sometimes, at least for a few minutes, we get to be heroes.
As Kenya recovers from last week’s tragedy at Westgate, stories of everyday heroism are emerging. And these stories don’t allow us to hold onto a single story, to become judges or evaluators or predictors. Because heroes come in forms we wouldn’t anticipate. Instead, we jump back into the rhythm of life, falling and flipping and flying in the hope that love and friendship and bellyflops and redemption and good lunches and heroes are all a part of one bigger, truer story that brings meaning to all the smaller stories swirling around us.
Monday morning dawned cool and grey, with fog blanketing Kijabe. Everything seemed more subdued, as if creation itself was responding to this weekend’s tragedy at Westgate mall by cloaking itself in darkness.
Nate and I headed into Nairobi for our already scheduled counseling supervision and errand running. We’ve been encouraged to keep our normal routines, to not let terrorism have the day by changing our plans. But still, I felt a little tentative heading into the city while Westgate was still under attack.
Driving through the fog, at times we could see nothing but the basic outline of the road. I prayed that no donkeys or bicyclists swerve towards traffic, and hoped that the mutatus would turn on their lights.
These last few days have paralleled this morning’s drive, foggy and dark and confusing. Like all we could do was keep our eyes on the road, try to stay on the path, and hope for nothing else unexpected to appear out of the fog.
62 dead, news reports say; and 175 wounded; and still, the mall is not secure. Families connected to the school where I work have been impacted, some of them witnesses to grenades and gunfire who had to sneak out to safety. Students at RVA are anxious, glued to news reports, checking phones, realizing in a new way that nowhere is fully safe.
I’ve barely been back in Kenya 4 weeks, and coming from Sudan, I felt as if I was coming to a safer or perhaps easier place. And yet this attack was at a place that I, and many of my friends, frequent. I could easily have been there as could have many people I know. I’ve been grateful for the friends far and near who have e-mailed or called, checking to make sure I’m OK in light of the media exposure that Kenya’s been getting.
How do I respond as a counselor to a school trying to handle the difficulties that have happened this weekend? How do I talk to friends and family about what it’s like being in Kenya at the moment? How do I, as a Christian, interpret and understand al-Shabab? How do I live acknowledging risk without becoming enslaved to fear?
Answers to questions like these don’t come quickly or easily. And now is probably not the time settle for cliche answers, or tidy things up with trite phrases.
But these things I know: Students and families here at RVA are coming together to support and encourage one another. Kenyans of different ethnicities, religions, and socio-economic situations are uniting in the face of tragedy, seeking to serve and generously care for one another. People from all over the world are praying for Kenya, praying for Somalia, praying for unity, praying for peace.
This morning, I sat on my porch drinking coffee as the fog rolled in, and I read this prayer in Seeking God’s Face: Praying the Bible Through the Year: Mighty Fortress, although this world is filled with threats to faith and opposition to good purposes, I pray “your kingdom come.” Destroy the work of the devil everywhere, topple every force that revolts against you, and frustrate every conspiracy against your Word”
I realized again that this life is not a battle against political or religious or ethnic groups. It’s a battle against brokenness and systems and evil. So we pray boldly for peace and healing and good purposes and things made new. And we look for light to brilliantly break through the fog and confusion, just like it did this afternoon over the previously gloomy Rift Valley, reminding me that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not, and will not, overcome it.
“The freedom of the gospel-God’s Spirit working wonders in our weakness…We rarely expect or notice such wonders because we trust our own power to accomplish things, our own inventiveness to create things, our own wisdom to solve things, our own technology to master things. How often do we notice God at work in human skills, ingenuity, insight, in God’s creation of human bodies, imagination, memories; in God’s grace as it is manifested in the startling twists of history?” Marva Dawn, Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God
Last month, I celebrated my birthday in Fort Portal, Uganda. I got to wear a pretty fabulous hat, and go hiking and swimming at a crater lake, and eat amazing food, and see some dear friends. Larissa and I were also almost attacked by a herd of cows while hiking around the crater lake, so that alone makes for an exciting day.
On my birthday, a group of us went to Fort Portal’s used clothes market. I was looking for professional attire that I could wear at RVA. And by professional, I mean anything not stained with bleach or faded beyond recognition or stretched out from hand washing with OMO. We dug through the piles, and tried on ridiculous t-shirts, and I bought purple Converse sneakers along with a couple of work-friendly shirts.
On the way out, I stopped to buy mangoes. The boy selling the fruit asked why I was in Fort, and I told him it was my birthday. He promptly said, “Oh! Thank you for growing up!” Now, in Western Uganda, it is appropriate to thank people for everything. In Bundibugyo, people thanked me for running when they saw me jogging in the morning, and then I would thank them for appreciating my running, I’d thank them for digging in their gardens… it could have gone on all day. But still, it made me laugh when the boy thanked me for growing up.
It also made me wonder: Have I actually grown up? At this point, I’ve had a lot of birthdays, and as a kid I definitely thought people in their 30s were grown up. But honestly, I don’t feel that grown up most of the time. And especially this birthday, as I was in the middle of saying goodbye to a significant season in Sudan, and preparing to re-enter life in Kenya, and feeling very uncertain about what the next couple of years will look like; I felt as though everything was in flux.
I’ve been reading Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God by Marva Dawn, and enjoying, as always, her wise words on weakness. There’s nothing like birthdays, goodbyes, and transition to reveal weakness. But Dawn’s book has been reminding me that God’s wonders are shown primarily through weakness. So often, I miss wonders when I try to look like I have it all together, or try to take credit for things that really have nothing to do with me.
I find myself tonight back in Kijabe, sitting by a warm fire with a hot cup of coffee as rain pours outside. Another year started, both in my own life and here at Rift Valley Academy. I’m hoping for it to be a year filled with wonders shown in the midst of weakness, both in me and in the lives of the students I have the privilege of working with. And perhaps I can be filled with gratefulness as God continues growing me up into a person who sees grace manifested in the startling twists of history and in my own twisting and turning story.
“I admit from the start that I love control about as much as adventure…Imperceptibly and tenaciously, the desire for power attaches itself to us again and again…to risk relinquishment means to trust to the point of letting go of this kind of certainty, to give up being in charge…If we really enter into the meaning of the incarnation, we will understand that Jesus, throughout His life, gave His power away.” -Luci Shaw
My last day in South Sudan was perfectly normal: a morning spent making pumpkin muffins and cleaning the team house, a day spent biking to visit friends and practicing language, an unexpected rain shower, a visit to Bishop Bismark’s new land, and a delightful Mexican dinner complete with homemade tortilla chips and freshly muddled mint- lime beverages mixed by Heidi. Nothing dramatic or noteworthy, a completely ordinary day.
The thing about moving to a new place is that, along with many other things, you lose (at least for a time) all sense of the ordinary. In a new place, nothing is routine or normal anymore. You feel uncertain about little things like how you make a cup of coffee, or where you go on a run, or when you can wear jeans and when you’re supposed to wear a skirt, or who you call when you just want to talk to someone who knows you.
Kijabe, Kenya is not exactly new to me, since I spent 12 weeks last year serving as a counselor at Rift Valley Academy. But, it takes longer than 12 weeks to learn a place, and coming back this time RVA still seems really, really new. I find myself once again learning new rhythms, carving normal out of the chaos of transition.
Thankfully I have WHM colleagues to help me settle in, and a lovely house with a sweeping view of the Rift Valley, and a great community to work with at RVA. I have trails through the woods to hike in, and strawberries readily available, and cool weather that allows for sweatshirts and fires. And, several sweet friends have sent awesome care packages from America, full of chocolate, books, and encouraging notes.
Having been here a few weeks, there is now a possibility of staying not just for the next few months, but for the next couple of years. Some things about that possibility are exciting, as I love the work I get to do with students and I could continue to collect hours towards my counseling licensure. But, thinking of being here more permanently makes these new days seem even a little tougher, as I wonder if this place will ever feel as settled here as I do in South Sudan.
I’ve been reading The Crime of Living Cautiously by Luci Shaw. I love her quote above about the tension between loving adventure and longing for control. I’m realizing that part of walking by faith is letting go of certainty. It’s amazing how being in a new place can reveal how much I value the rhythms of home, even when home is a place as unpredictable as Mundri. So perhaps one fruit of changing countries, climates, and job descriptions is the opportunity to “risk relinquishment” and give up some of the illusion of control that is found in routine.
But still, I miss Sudan. I am thankful that my last days before Kenya were filled with friends, and bike rides, and rich conversations, and Bible Study, and gardens, and sunsets, and laughter, and driving down muddy roads, and all the little things that make up normal life. Hopefully, with each passing day, things in Kenya will start to feel a little more normal, too.