Category Archives: Reflections

Personal reflections from my experience in Zambia.

IMG_7117
Adjusting can be tough. They say that the culture shock you experience when coming home from being away is worse than the culture shock you experience living abroad. I would agree.

If you know me, you know that I like to be outside in the woods. One of my biggest and most unexpected reverse culture shocks has been how loud and claustrophobic I have found the woods to be. Giant trees pushing 70 feet tall grow so close together here that their mighty branches embrace to block out the sky. The cascade of the wind flowing through leaves is a noisy living breath of the wood. Looming mountains accented by vibrant green against moist dark earth has been a strange sight to get used to again.

It’s hard when the most relaxing place you know is suddenly an assault to your senses. But, it does get better with time.

My plan for easing myself back into the good ol’ US of A was hiding out in the Adirondacks. With the help of some great friends I feel now, a week into this new season, a lot more at peace with being back in the USA. And I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.

It’s really hard to experience life and death in Africa at a mission hospital and come back and continue “normal” life in suburban America. You can’t.

“Normal” has gone out the window. Along with a few other things.

It’s been a struggle to sit here in my nice air-conditioned house and think about the hospital. How can I just sit here with all my stuff and not be doing something to impact the world. Honestly, it’s easier to try to not think about Zimba, to push out the memories of what I saw. To let the distractions take over and not think so much about the rest of the world.

But, “I saw what I saw and I can’t forget it. I heard what I heard and I can’t go back. I know what I know and I can’t deny it, something on the road cut me to the soul” (check out this song)

When you have an experience that changes you, that changes what you know about life and how you interpret the world you can’t go back to the person you were before.

There’s a tricky line between realism and pessimism when it comes to missions work. As Christians, we know that in the end all things will be made right, but until we get to that final victory, we all experience joy mixed with sorrow and suffering in big and small ways every day. We fight hard and work hard for change that may never come or results that we may never see.

There’s also a tricky line between realism and pessimism when it comes to medical work. You can help as many people as you can and see amazing recoveries from terrible illnesses, but in the end, the simple fact is that we all will die.

Put them together and medical missions can be a very weighty thing. Coming face to face with the extremes of joy and sorrow every day is a lot to ask of someone.

But, you know what I learned from the Doctors in Zimba? They carry this ministry, this weighty thing, and yeah, sometimes it is heartbreaking. Sometimes it does bring you to your knees. But, the difference between realism and pessimism is hope. Hope that despite what may discourage us, this fight is worth it.

And despite the cost, the Doctors still choose to carry it anyways. Because they don’t carry it alone. The heart of Jesus inside them gives them the strength to love people enough to not give up.

Their witness to Love in such a heartbreaking situation has changed me. Just as it changes everyone who sees their sacrifice and passion. Their example of Christ’s love has made me realize that I cannot walk away from what I have seen.

I shared some of my deepest spiritual wrestlings with a close friend a few nights ago. She really helped me put into words what I’ve been feeling.

My experience in Zimba shattered my heart. Yes, “normal” has gone out the window but it’s more than that. Just as God grew some new things inside of me, he also put some things to death.

My safety net of naivety to the harsh reality of life and suffering is gone. Many of my assumptions about missions took a hard fall. But most of all my ability to be comfortable with the world as it is was taken away.

And I pray it never comes back.

The question now is how to live where I am with integrity to these convictions and not lose sight of the passion and hope to seek real change.

I guess that’s something I’ll have to figure out along the way.

I’m starting with simple steps and praying about what this means for the long term. There’s a book that’s a great help when trying to take these steps, it’s called True Religion by Palmer Chinchen. It’s a book worth buying, reading, putting into action and passing it on to a friend. You should check it out.

The Stowaway Gecko

This little guy scared the crap out of me today when I was unpacking my suitcase. I don’t know how it is possible that he survived being smushed in my suitcase for the past few days, but he did. I caught him after a while and will consult my brother D, the veterinarian on what to do next.

Learning to say goodbye

I realized a few days ago that I had never actually learned how to say “goodbye” in Tonga. I’ve learned about fifteen ways to say hello, to greet the family, ask about the kids, the chickens, the crops and the cows. Greetings for different times of day, the awesome Zambian style secret handshake greeting, different ways to show respect with posture when you say hello… but never how to say goodbye.

What we normally say to people when parting ways is “Kwiinde Kabotu” which literally means “walk well.” I always thought that was pretty cool. Wherever it is that you’re walking, whatever it is that you are walking through, walk well. Man, there’s something deep there if you think about it.

Friday afternoon I was sitting talking with one of my closest friends here. As we were talking she said “Meg, it can be so easy to say hello, but so hard to say goodbye. I really don’t have the words to say goodbye to you.” So, in keeping with some older African traditions, she sang a song for me.

We had sung together often on random days at the hospital, sharing tunes and trading bars. But, I had never heard her sing in earnest before. There in that echoy empty room her voice carried rich in the blended melody of heart and soul. She had us both in tears in about thirty seconds.

Her words of encouragement to me and her challenge to stay faithful to my calling still echo mingled with her song in my memory. Her friendship is one I will cherish always, until that glad day when we see each other again.

Throughout these past few days I’ve wandered around the hospital finding friends and thanking them for their kindness and grace with me. I’m not sure if I have ever been so blessed as I have been with their words of thanks, encouragement and love. All I can do is thank God for the amazing experience and amazing friends I have made in Zimba.

Saying goodbye has never been something that I’ve been good at. But one of my dear friends here helped me with the Tonga style way to say what I wanted to say…
“Mushale kabotu. Tu yo bonana, Leza achinda. Ndilayinki pele moyo wangu ulashalla mu Zimba.” Stay well. I will see you again, if God allows. I must go, but my heart will stay in Zimba.

Even now, as I fly miles above Africa on this dark cloudless night, I feel that my heart has remained in Zimba.

When you’ve lived in another culture for an extended amount of time there are lots of important processing things that you need to do when you leave. Not just preparing and saying goodbyes, but also dealing with what they call “reentry stress” and “reverse culture shock.”

As I sit on the airplane I have already had to restrain myself from punching out several fellow Americans.

I know I’ll be fumbling through reentry for the next several weeks if not months.

One of the most important things you can do for yourself when transitioning back to your home culture is to be aware that you are going to react strongly to lots things that you used to call normal. Sometimes those things that you react to will sneak up on you. It’s okay to cry when you need to, but try not to actually deck anyone, as hard as that might be.

After I got back from spending two months in Ecuador in 2011, I spent almost two hours wandering around Wegmans in a daze. All I had gone in for was apples, some peanut butter and some crackers. There were probably at least 5,000 different types of crackers, and I just couldn’t handle it. I’m pretty sure I stood in that aisle staring blankly at the crackers for at least a half hour.

I know that coming back to New York will require lots of adjusting after having been gone for half a year. I’m expecting it, and dreading it, but ready for it.

For right now though, I’ll try to get some sleep on this flight and pretend that I’ll be waking up warm under my covers in Zimba, hearing Gertrude in the kitchen. I’ll put on my slippers, grab my Bible, coffee and guitar and go sing the sun up into the sky as a new day begins.

When I get home tomorrow I know that I will be excited and ready to see family and friends, but honestly, for right now leaving Zimba is pretty awful. Regardless of how well prepared you are, goodbyes are never easy.

Prophesy To The Breath

It’s strange walking around Zimba and starting to say goodbye to people and places. As I’ve been starting to process this transition it’s shifted my mood a bit. To be honest, I’ve grown very frustrated with the problems here at the hospital. In recent weeks the lens through which I have been viewing the world around me has been one of exasperation.

This past weekend though, I found myself reading and studying Ezekiel 37, a chapter that has held deep meaning for me ever since I can remember. It’s the one about the valley of dry bones.

And the words “prophesy to the breath” just keep coming back to me throughout each day.

Here’s the story basics as I understand them…

God brings Ezekiel to a dry valley, full of bones. He has Ezekiel walk among the bones and see exactly how they have been left. Then he asks Ezekiel a question: “Can these bones live?”

Ezekiel’s response is along the lines of how we all feel sometimes when we are in valleys, surrounded by dreary circumstances. ‘Oh, Lord, I just don’t know. Only you do.’

So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones. Prophesy is a strange word with lots of misunderstandings these days. It’s used several times in this chapter. God is asking Ezekiel to speak out in faith, believing that what God has promised will come to pass.

Ezekiel has already confessed that he’s not even sure it’s possible. Still, God tells him to speak out in faith; to trust in Him; to believe that the bones will be restored to life. And they are.

One strange catch though. The bones are restored to whole bodies with muscles and flesh, but there is no breath in them. In other words, they looked okay from the outside, but there was no life on the inside.

So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath.

This breath that is missing is the Hebrew word ruach. Ruach can be translated in several ways, as spirit, wind, and breath. But it’s meaning holds deeper roots towards something like courage, force of life, or strength.

God reveals to Ezekiel that the breath that was missing was the very heart of the people of Israel. “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and all our hope is lost; we are cut off.’”

So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the people of Israel, to speak in faith trusting in God’s word. And God says to Israel: “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken…”

When God told Ezekiel to “prophesy to the breath” he was saying “tell them of my promise of restoration, tell them that I will be with them and that they are not cut off from me.”

But, also, it seems like God was giving Ezekiel a personal challenge. Ezekiel had seen the dry bones and was unsure that the situation could be helped. If it had been me walking around in that valley, I might have thought that those bones were too far gone.

God could have given Ezekiel this same vision and just talked with him, using the bones as a nice visual aid to demonstrate the plan. Instead he requires Ezekiel to interact with the bones, to speak out and prophesy. And with his words of faith in God’s ability, those slain are brought back to life.

But it doesn’t just happen, God requires Ezekiel to speak.

One commentary explains what God is saying here, that he would give his Holy Spirit to Israel: not only a spirit of courage, but the Spirit of God, a spirit of grace and supplication, of truth and holiness, of faith and adoption; and as a spirit of life, having produced a principle of life in them, so they could live spiritually.

Sometimes, walking around Zimba it seems like I see a lot of dry bones. Reflecting on going back to the states next week, it seems like there may be many dry bones there too. Or worse, bodies that look whole on the outside but have lost heart and are not truly alive inside.

But, as I walk around Zimba and see different difficult circumstances, I swear I can hear God whispering to me “prophesy to the breath… tell them that hope is not lost.”

The interesting thing about Ezekiel 37 is that it was the people of God, the Israelites, who had lost heart. They had lost their hope. They needed someone to speak out in faith and remind them of God’s promises and remind them that God was with them. That despite their most recent rebellion and wanderings, despite their lack of trust, God was still with them and watching over them.

They needed someone to speak life into them. I think we all need that sometimes.

In my last week in Zimba I’m trying to do just that, to speak life and hope to those around me. It’s amazing the conversations that can happen when you just speak out in faith about the promises of God.

Finish Well

158 days in Africa. 13 to go. It’s funny how many different emotions go with those two simple statements.

Transitioning is never all that easy. It’s hard to have one foot where you are and one where you’re going.

In college I took a class on cross-cultural transitioning, and we talked about leaving well. That means saying goodbye to people and places, mentally preparing yourself for the jarring separation from what has become “home” and the unsteady reentry into the another “home.” Sometimes preparing is hard because it pulls you out of right now and forces a split focus on now and what’s coming.

Several weeks ago some of my friends here decided to give me a Tonga name. Names here often have to do with when a person is born and their personality. Because I was born in August, I got a name related to that time of the year.

August in Zambia is the time of preparation for the harvest. The name I was given is Milimo, (Me-lee-moe) which means work. Put together, the name I was given means one who works in preparation for the harvest. I thought that was pretty amazing considering the Biblical parallel and what I feel called to do with my life.

Working here at the hospital it’s easy to get distracted and overwhelmed. It’s easy to get frustrated with the staff’s lack of work ethic or depressed by the reality of suffering and death. But it’s so much better when you can remember what you’re here for, something much bigger than yourself and the things that you can see.

I’ve learned a great deal about what a true life of service looks like from the missionaries here. Trying to follow their example in determination and grace I’ve grown a lot, and realized how far I have to go.

The simple message that I’ve had to tell myself over and over as I wrestle to stay focused in these last few weeks of this season of life in Africa is this: finish your work.

In times that have been difficult here I have clung to the knowledge that God brought me to Zimba for these past six months for a reason. I know that He was at work in every day fulfilling His purposes, even on days when I could not see it. And I know that God has used me to grow others, and has grown me in so many ways.

The best thing that I have learned about “missions” is that it is a process that we get to take part in. God’s mission doesn’t succeed or fail based on my ability to do a “good job” or be a “good missionary.” Whatever that is.

The simple fact is that God’s mission is His. He is the one who has been working through out history to draw people to his heart. He is the one in whom all things hold together.

It is in his mission that he has given us a small part to play. Like the true and often quoted words of Mother Teresa, “we can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

We choose if we fulfill our part. We choose to be faithful or to walk away from the life we have been called to. We choose every time we interact with another person whether or not we will reflect the light of Christ.

Each of us who claim the name “Christian” have a simple role in life to show the love of Jesus to other people. Each of us, in our own way and our own context, take part in God’s mission.

My choice these past few days has been whether or not I will keep focus and finish the work that God has called me to here in these next 13 days.

But, isn’t it our choice every day whether or not we will do the work we are called to?

.

1 Corin 15.58 “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

transparency.

[I’ve started to do some serious reflecting on my time in Zimba as my flight back to the states creeps closer and closer. 28 days. Here’s some thoughts so far…]
.

I have this theory about transparency.

I’m met a lot of people here who are searching for God. In the face of reality and suffering they are looking for reasons and answers. And in all my struggling with various questions these past few months I don’t have many answers to give besides pointing to who God is and my experience of him.

I think that’s exactly the point. We don’t have answers to all those questions, but we have shared in the struggle for them. We’ve felt disappointment; we’ve been frustrated with God. We haven’t understood why different events in our lives had to happen. We’ve been overwhelmed, experienced doubt… and we’ve made it through.

We don’t have all the answers, but we do have hope. Hope that, despite everything, God is still who he says is.

We are called to always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks the reason for the hope that we have. I think that hope grows most through times where it is forced to become stronger, and in those times when we encounter the refreshing presence of God.

Somewhere along the way we learn that not all the Psalms were written in the major key. Times of darkness, storms or silence don’t just go away when we want them to. There is a reason for these things. I think they are essential to our growth and our ability to impact the world.

Questions, struggles, hardships, pain… they are a catalyst for examination and strengthening of faith. The challenge of a weighty question refines us. Working through it brings a new depth to our faith; just like a tree slowly growing it’s roots into a rocky terrain. It’s not an easy thing.

The process of experiencing doubt serves to teach us how to navigate that wilderness of confusion, and in doing so learn to go further into the mystery of God. What’s more, it allows us to come alongside fellow wanderers and share what we have learned along the way.

I think the transparent Christian is one who has learned the value of wrestling with these things and the impact that can be made by sharing their story.

Life is a continuous cycle of living, experiencing challenges and doubts, working through them and moving towards a deeper faith. So, why don’t we talk about it?

God doesn’t get nervous about His existence or character when we misunderstand or question it. Instead he invites us to keep seeking. To keep asking. To press in deeper. He promises that those who seek him with all their heart will indeed find him, and so find that unshakable hope.

I think if more Christians were willing to be honest about their struggles and doubts then they could help others who wrestle with those same things. If we would be vulnerable and allow light to pour over our doubts and fears then maybe the shadows wouldn’t grow fangs.

I’m not saying that you should let the process of the struggle surpass the ultimate importance of who God is. Or that you should let the questions become more important than the life of love you are called to live. However, we shouldn’t neglect the challenge of wrestling with questions.

I can say without a doubt that the people who have impacted my spiritual life the most deeply are those who are transparent Christ-followers.

People who have walked through the muddy wilderness leave boot prints for us to follow.

But, I see a want for people who are willing to be honest and vulnerable enough to share their struggles. When we fail to share our experiences with others we rob the world of the story of God’s love he is writing with our lives.

Many people today seem to wear a mask of perfection without any blemish of doubt. Maybe if we were more willing to share our questions and doubts the true reality of faith would come through for others to see. Like light streaming through the darkness.

Not like people trying to pretend the darkness isn’t there. Perhaps then Christianity could be more understandable for those who struggle with questions and doubt.

Perhaps then, speaking the truth in love, we can grow and mature in our faith.

Perhaps then people would be attracted to an authentic church dynamic in its growth and love. A church full of fellow wanderers, not a masquerade.

One thing that I know for sure, through living in Zimba and struggling with so many questions about life and God, my faith has grown. Faith has become more precious to me. I see the grace of God towards me as a true blessing and I want to continue to go deeper into the mystery.

Though the questions and struggles I have experienced here are daunting for me, they are of extreme value. Reality and faith meet at times with a clash, but the experience never leaves me the same. I think that for me it is better to wrestle with these things, though it is painful. I see the testing of my faith producing character and character that is growing in me the hope that will not disappoint.

If you’re wrestling with something I want to challenge you to talk with a mentor or someone you trust about your struggles. God is faithful, he will bring to completion the work he has begun in your life. And he has put other people in your life for a reason.

Keep seeking. Be brave enough to wrestle the questions, God is bigger than they are.

Share the story of what God is doing in your life, and don’t leave out the parts that were filled with doubt and questions. That process of wrestling and coming through to the other side, those are the parts of your story that can speak life into someone else’s.

.

.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” 2 Corinthians 1

Fighting for Feeling (Five Month Update)

These past two weeks at the hospital are very difficult to put into words. I’ve seen new things, some I wish I hadn’t. My friends here who keep blogs have both already put some of those experiences into words, so I don’t feel the need to. Laura shares a bit about Esther, a patient of ours who passed away this week and the beauty of her final day on earth. Tanner shares honestly about the frustrations and stresses of working at the hospital. I really recommend you check them out, especially if you’re interested in seeing what cross-cultural missions or medical work is really like.

For my part, I’m grateful that these past two weeks are over.

Before you read too far, I want you to know that I’ve had trouble writing this post beacuse I know it’s not very encouraging. But I think it’s important that I share with you some of the honest struggles that I’ve come across living as a missionary cross-culturally. Also, as I share my struggles, I want to re-affirm to you that we all struggle. Following Jesus in the day to day is hard.

Anyways, I’ve been trying to take care with each day, living on purpose and learning to be fully in the moment that I’m in. You’ve probably heard the Jim Elliot quote “where ever you are, be all there.” It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Especially when you’re starting to daydream about hiking in the Adirondacks.

One experience that was very strange for me happened last week. Fair warning, it’s morbid. We had a full male ward with most of the patients battling terminal illnesses. We were in there making rounds when the nurses brought in a new patient. Dr. Joan looked over his file and his vitals, she told the family right then that he really wasn’t doing well. He died just a few hours later.

With the cramped spacing of the temporary male ward while the regular wards are being renovated, everything in the ward was forced to come to a stop. The man was officially declared dead and the family began to wail. Between the curtains, the gurney and the nurses there was literally no room to move or leave the ward.

With all the patients that have passed away in my time here, I have never seen the process for preparing a body for the morgue. But in that hour Laura and I were stuck with front row seats. With the family wailing outside it was a very somber and eerie experience. We never knew the man’s name.

Since that day three other patients from the male ward have passed away. A dear elderly lady named Esther who we’ve known for a few weeks passed away three days ago. Today another man from the male ward went to be with Jesus.

There’s a lyric to a song I was listening to that seemed to articulate the general sentiment of my reflection on the week. “It’s hard to be affected when it happens so often, to see a life unraveling… I’m sickened by compassion I’m stifled by my limitations, anesthetic apathy come take the pain away…”

Apathy.

It’s insidious. It sneaks in slow and creeps over the edges. A welcome numbness making it possible to get through the day.

Because it’s easier not to care. To not let your heart be impaled by what’s happening around you.

There was a visiting team here this week, about 20 first timers here to paint the male and female wards. Their interaction with patients was minimal, but they heard us talking a lot about the patients we were seeing that week and those we had lost.

It amazed me how impacted they were just by the stories. How moved they were by seeing the suffering of some of the kiddos in Peds. They spoke with tears about how it broke their hearts.

I was shocked even more at how far I’ve gotten from feeling the depth of those things… I was shocked by how numb I’ve become.

Apathy? Resignation to reality? Emotional overload? Probably.

It’s fitting in an ironic way that just as I’m trying to live Days on Purpose life gets intense to the point where it’s difficult to process everything that’s been happening.

It’s hard to get the most out of today when your thoughts are stuck in the past. How do you get un-stuck? I wish I knew.

I think it might have a lot to do with which direction we’re looking.

But for today, I’ll fight to focus on something bigger than myself, bigger than this past week and bigger than all the problems in Zimba.

For today, I’ll take a few steps back and breathe.

I’ll be thankful that I don’t have to know the answers and that it’s not my job to hold the world together.

Today I’ll look to Dr. Joan and the rest who keep fighting and let their example inspire me to do the same. They refuse to give into apathy, and so will I.

“No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead.” Philippians 3:13