Monday, May 22, 2017

The Ministry of a Missionary Mama

Recently I was asked, yet again, what it is that I do here.  Besides the kids, that is.  I've been asked this question many times, in various forms.  This time it was phrased, "The kids are enough, I know [insert awkward laugh], but have you been to the Peds ward or the orphanages?  I mean, what's your thing?"  I was honest: I don't do anything.  And I wasn't embarrassed or guilt-ridden with that reply.

Long before we reached the mission field, and even before we had kids, I used to vex over this issue.  What would I do?  What would be my ministry, my "thing"?  And how would I ever accomplish said ministry if we had kids in tow?  What would it look like to be the non-ministry spouse as we headed overseas?

Well, after five years of motherhood and one year of missionaryhood, I've come a long way in my understanding of this issue.  I currently don't vex about it.  The pressure to give an answer to the question "What do you do?" let alone give an answer the inquirer wants to hear, simply isn't there.  Not only have I given myself the grace to "do nothing" but take care of our three very busy and active little boys, but I've really begun to understand the fact that the value of "doing" and "accomplishing" is a cultural value - a high value in our American culture but not necessarily in this Kenyan culture.  And that's not always a bad thing.  In fact, it's often a very good thing.

It's no secret that our Western culture is work-driven and success-oriented.  It's a wonderful thing in that it's allowed our culture to come so far in areas like medicine and education and technology and infrastructure and countless other things.  And being a Type A, super organized, task-oriented, efficient person, I love this part of our culture.  Actually, I appreciate it so much that, since living here in Kenya, I've often had to fight my own cultural superiority when I see inefficient systems in place that perpetuate poverty and disease and lack of education.  Sometimes I want to shout, "If you would just do something then it wouldn't be this way!"  And that's partly true.  There is certainly room for this culture to grow in just getting things done.  However, I've been able to pull back a bit this year and see glimpses of the bigger picture, which has shown me that our own work-driven culture doesn't get it all right, and this less-efficient culture doesn't get it all wrong.

Here's what Kenyan culture does really well: focus on people.  Case in point: stopping to greet people is very important here.  It's unfathomable to the average Kenyan why you would have anything so important to do that it would cause you to breeze past them without stopping to say hello and shake hands at the very least, if not ask about the family as well.  Another case in point: when you meet someone for the first time, the question "So what do you do?" never comes up.  Why would that be pertinent?  Most people are subsistence farmers anyway and wouldn't be able to regale you with tales of their career path to date.  On the contrary, people are not generally concerned with what anyone does, but they are concerned with how your family is doing and whether your children are well and how they're enjoying the break from school.  The people here care about people.

And that is something I've grown to love about this culture.

It's also something that's inherently hard to adjust to because, truth be told, it's tiring to greet so many people along the way.  It makes going anywhere twice as long as it should be, which is especially hard when you have a tired toddler on your back who really needs to get home and take a nap, or when you're just simply not in the mood to say hello to anyone.  And Eli often has a hard time coming and going from the hospital because there are so many "speedbumps" along the way (which is a Kenyan expression used to describe being late because of greeting people).  But the point remains: this culture cares way more about people than our own culture tends to, and that is a good and godly thing.

So what do I do at Tenwek?  Well, technically I've been teaching a PreK/K class for MKs for the past five months as well as coordinating all the holiday gatherings for the missionary community, which is something I suppose.  But more than anything, what I do is take care of our kids.  I feed them and clothe them and change their diapers and wipe their bottoms and teach, discipline, and encourage them.  In other words, I have three little disciples in my charge every day, and mothering them is what I do each day as a missionary.

Doing the mom gig definitely looks different over here than in America, and our kids need some extra guidance and management due to living cross-culturally, and that is enough for me, especially during this first term on the field filled with major transition.  We're planning to be here for the long haul and we're not trying to change the world in a day, which I know may not be the answer that people hope to hear.  I know the idea of a missionary who's handling the home life on top of ministry and speaking the language and doing any number of other missionary-ish roles sounds so romantic and so right, and there are certainly plenty of people even now who are doing that, but it doesn't have to be that way (and sometimes shouldn't be that way).  As someone who knows and feels the expectations of others, especially as we are literally supported by others to be here doing this life and ministry, I am somehow able to presently say that I don't do much of anything as a missionary except take care of our boys, and there is freedom in being able to say that confidently, without guilt.  I am thankful to live in the freedom of doing less and being more with our kids.  I am learning from this culture how to care more about how our family is doing than to care about what our family has done.  And I truly believe not only that our boys will be the better for it, but that God is pleased that a Type A, efficient American is learning how to let the discipling of her boys be the greatest accomplishment He could ask her to achieve.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Not in Vain

Recently I heard a friend say, "Missions is not heroic."  I couldn't agree with her more.

Sometimes people express to us how proud they are of what we're doing, or they acknowledge the sacrifices we're making to be here, or they outright thank us for making a difference for the kingdom of God.  And quite frankly, we love to hear such things because it encourages us and motivates us and reminds us that we really are doing something a bit different with our life and maybe, just maybe, we really are making a difference.

But the reality is, what we're doing is not heroic.

I don't feel like a hero when I refuse to give someone money for their school fees.  I don't feel like a hero when I bite into a Twix bar because I found one in Nairobi to splurge on.  I don't feel like a hero when someone speaks to me in Swahili and I can't understand a word they said.  I don't feel like a hero when other moms mention when they gave out Bibles in a village or visited the Peds ward or coached a Bible Quizzing team and all I can mention is that it's been three days since I left the compound and my kid woke up too early from his nap again.  Trust me, more often than not, missions is not heroic.

Being obedient and taking up your cross and dying to self rarely is, no matter if we're talking about a job or parenthood or missions.  There are moments of heroic glory, like the time a young man showed up at church while still a patient at the hospital because he had an "aha" moment after a terrible accident and realized he needed to get right with God, and we think, "Wow, we're a part of something that's truly changing lives."  But more often than not are the vastly unheroic moments, like the time I inadvertently rewarded a boy for stealing (it's a long story), and we think, "Gah, we're ruining everything around here."

This life, this calling, is complicated.  Few things are easy or straight-forward.  And it's really hard to see the fruit of our labors.  Has Eli led anyone to Christ since being here?  Probably not.  Has he healed every patient that's come into his care?  Certainly not.  And yet despite the relatively few reportable statistics we can offer from this past year of being on the mission field, we know and trust that God is fulfilling His purposes.  Because that's what God does: He fulfills His purposes, for us and for the people of Kenya.  And the truly heroic thing is not about giving up the conveniences we had in America or even working among a foreign people but rather trusting that God is still at work in what He's called us to do even when we can't see the results.

As I reread the Easter story this past weekend I was drawn to Doubting Thomas and, in particular, Christ's response to him: "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed" (John 20:29).  This is our task: as we obediently follow Him, to believe that God is bearing fruit in us and through us even if the evidence is unseen.

Sometime last year I heard a friend say this prayer: "Lord, thank You for everything You're doing that we can't see.  And thank You for everything You're doing that we get to see."  I've said that prayer many times since then, and prayed that prayer with our boys many times too, because I need to remind myself, as well as teach our children, the importance of believing that He is accomplishing His purposes even though we cannot see it most of the time.

Over this past Easter weekend I also read 1 Corinthians 15, and the very end of the chapter jumped out at me:

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  
But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory 
through our Lord Jesus Christ.  
Therefore, dear brothers, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  
Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, 
because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

(1 Corinthians 15:55-58)

These verses felt very thematic of this past year of missions for us - our first year of figuring out some of the basics of this life and ministry, as well as maneuvering our way through its complexity.  For every patient that Eli sends home strong and healthy, we rejoice that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.  For every cultural faux pas we commit, we rejoice that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.  We do this because of Jesus.  We do this because of the Resurrection.  We do this because death has been swallowed up in victory and He continues the work of refining hearts and drawing people unto Himself even when His own disciple didn't believe without seeing and when we forget His ways and follow suit.

Our labor in the Lord is not in vain, whether we're talking about a job or parenthood or missions or [fill in the blank].  Thanks be to God!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

When Parents Come to Visit

When my parents came to visit us recently, our souls were filled.  We spent two whole weeks catching up, playing games, driving around Kenya, making food from scratch, and having an all-around good time.  Our boys reconnected with their grandparents, which meant extra attention and lots of book-reading, and Caleb has since asked us several times, "Which day are we going back to Michigan?" because having a great time with Grandma and Grandpa forces such questions to emerge.  It was sooooo good to have them here!

When my parents came to visit, they helped us a lot.  They pitched in with washing dishes, changing diapers, entertaining kiddos, and even helped with the Preschool class I'm teaching.  My dad pulled out his piñata-making skills and helped create two heart-shaped piñatas for a Valentine's party for the kids, which they loved!  I could never have pulled this off by myself with ten kids.

When my parents came to visit, they learned a lot about our life here.  It was wonderful to give them a glimpse into our daily life, like homeschooling and living in community and finding chameleons and knowing where to get water when our filter isn't filtering fast enough.  Eli also gave them a lengthy tour of the hospital, which helped them better understand the work of a missionary doctor.  They ate ugali and sukumawiki, they visited a local church with us and saw chickens auctioned off, they slept under a mosquito net, and they laughed at how often a cow would block our path on the road.  It was a true slice of life in Kenya, and it meant a lot to us for them to see and understand this life of ours.

When my parents came to visit, we went on safari!  No trip to Kenya is sufficient without going on safari.  Some of God's greatest creations live here in East Africa.  It's marvelous to behold, truly.  And we live less than two hours away from Maasai Mara, which makes it relatively easy and convenient to enjoy a safari and see these beautiful creatures and landscapes up close.

When my parents came to visit, it felt a little like home.  Because, as we continue to say, "Whenever we're together, we're home."  We're so thankful for the blessed time we had with them, and it was hard to say goodbye and realize anew that we won't see them again for over a year from now, but we're thankful for what we can get - and we got two weeks together!  Furthermore, before my parents left Kenya, Eli's parents bought plane tickets to visit us in a few months also, which helped to ease this goodbye since there'll be another hello coming soon.  We thank God for parents who are able and willing to come all this way, and we thank God for the memories made!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Circumcision Camp

It's exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of boys gathered together for a month, sequestered from the outside community while undergoing the rite of circumcision and beginning the transition into manhood.  It's customary around here for a boy to be circumcised sometime between 10-15 years of age.  It's also customary for a group of boys to go through the process together and they become "age-mates" (a common term here which refers to a very close friendship).  Going through this rite of passage together creates a bond between boys, and as they grow into men they usually maintain close relationships with each other because of this shared experience.

We had the privilege of attending the "Coming Out" celebration (yes, that's what it's called) after a circumcision camp last month.  The full-day affair was tantamount to a wedding celebration with hundreds of people, hours of singing and dancing, a feast for the whole crowd, a tree planting ceremony, and a couple sermons mixed in between.  One of Eli's Family Medicine residents, Elijah, is the father of one of the initiates, and he also coordinated and hosted the entire circumcision camp. Elijah performed the circumcisions on the boys, which in and of itself was a blessing since it ensured that the procedure would be done safely and correctly.  (Boys come to the hospital far too often because of complications from ill-performed procedures.)  He built a small compound behind his house for all the boys to live in for the month, and his wife cooked all the food for the 23 boys participating in the camp.  Needless to say, they were quite busy!

What was so amazing about the camp was that Elijah used this tradition as an opportunity to teach these boys about what it means to truly be a man: a man of God.  So, throughout the month, various men came to speak with the boys about God and faith and manhood, and they read Scripture together and prayed together and ate a lot of food together while they fellowshipped inside the compound.  Elijah used a God-centered approach with the purpose of raising up a new generation of godly young men.

This was one of the most beautiful things we've seen since coming to Kenya.  The American church has nothing like it, nothing to commemorate when a boy becomes a man, nothing to deliberately pull them away from the rest of the world for the sole purpose of discipling them further in their faith and shepherding them in paths of righteousness.  In an era of immaturity and outright godlessness, nothing is more encouraging than seeing boys being taught the ways of the Lord as they journey from boyhood to manhood.

We returned home thinking about our own three sons and how much we wished there was a rite of passage like this for them.  We continue reflecting on this and hope that we'll find a way in the future to pull them aside not only to focus on, but to commemorate, what is of utmost importance: choosing to live as a man of God.