Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It's paining me

I came to Ghana almost two years ago with something resembling answers. I think we all do. We enter into ministry or missions with big ideas. At least I was certain that answers existed to the educational deficits in Ghana. We often start out as idealists and end up as realists. Change is not simple. There are no easy answers to the persisting economic and social problems ailing our world. If you had asked me a year ago (and some of you did) what my life plan was, I would have given you a convincing outline of how I was going to design and implement a program modeled after Teach for America in Africa. I was convinced that was my calling, convinced for a few short months anyways. Time has given me greater insight into the complexities of educational reform in Ghana. I don’t have answers. In fact, I feel as if I am more unsure than ever about the means to bring sustainable change to educational institutions in West Africa. The problems seem so great it is often tempting to run home and forget they exist because I don’t know how to begin to address them. But I have found a different answer. Live in the questions. I don’t have to have solutions or answers. I just have to be willing to participate in the suffering, pain, and injustices that victimize the poor and marginalized. I have to be willing to live with and among those who are suffering in order to share with them in the problem and hopefully live our way into some answers together.
“…None of us can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with our whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process. Who can take away suffering without entering it? It is an illusion to think that a person can be lead out of the desert by a person who has never been there…” Henri J. Nouwen

I recently read these words in the book titled The Wounded Healer and they have been echoing in my mind for weeks. We can keep on pretending that we are serving, helping, and ministering to people, but until we are truly willing to share in the burdens of others we are only fooling ourselves. We want to help without it costing us anything. We are afraid of the personal costs of becoming involved in the suffering of others. We don’t want to suffer the expense of discomfort.

This morning as I sat on my flight I paused at these words which epitomized to me the reaction of the world’s wealthy to encounters with pain and poverty: “The world is full of miserable places. One way of living comfortably is not to think about them or, when you do, to send money.” The author, Tracy Kidder, writes about the incredible life of Paul Famer, an infectious disease specialist giving away his love and life to the world’s poorest. Writing checks is useful and certainly necessary.

I am entering the last 7 weeks of my time in Ghana without reserve. I want to listen well, love deeply, and give foolishly. As I look towards graduate school I will walk into without solutions rather only with questions. I will take with me the voices of the poor in Ghana and hear the wisdom of the educated and try to make sense of it all. I don’t have a life plan. What I do have is a commitment to participate in the suffering of the world. I want to be a part of the suffering, so that I can also be a part of the healing.

In Ghana when something hurts you, you say "it is paining me."  I am learning to enter into the pain of others and share it with them.  While the suffering and questions of life is often painful, I understand that is part of the human experience.  Our sin and selfishness has brought such pain and suffering into the world, and learning how to bear each other's burden is a central part of Christ's teaching.  If it is paining you, it should also be paining me. 

I invite you to risk the unknown, risk entering into the pain of another. Whomever or wherever that may take you. I am convinced that is what it means to love.

Love tastes like bananas

Very few of you know me well enough to know this, but my entire life I have hated bananas. I couldn’t stand even their flavoring in muffins or other baked goods.  Now, I can't get enough of them!  Ghana has changed my taste buds in many ways. The headmaster of HCA has been bestowing on me gifts of fruit (pineapple, watermelon, bananas, etc) for the past year. Fruit is definitely at the top of my list of favorite presents! Today I ate 5 bananas and loved every bite. I am beginning to think that these bananas are doing more than delighting my tastebuds, they are actually teaching me a lot about love. Something that I thought I knew and understood suddenly tastes so different to me, and the same is true about love. I know I have blogged about it several times, but I just can’t get over much I feel like it’s all that matters in this world.

As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another. John 13: 34-35

The experiences of the last seven weeks have carried the intensity of what feels like years. Through all of it I have come to develop a deep sense of peace that God is at work through even the most challenging of situations. I have been learning incredible lessons about the nature of God and community. It leads me to want to pursue a greater understanding of Christ and his ministry. So, I did something new the other day. I sat down and read through the whole gospel of Luke in one sitting. The story just enthralled me. Luke is such a great story teller. Throughout his writing several messages resonated with me. They are consistent with other thoughts and books that I have been reading recently. Luke clearly portrayed that Jesus wasn't interested in the half-hearted or the followers of a self-righteous rule book. It’s all or nothing. When we decide that we are living a life in pursuit of God it means we sell out. All in. It should transform our lives completely. Christ demonstrates to us what it means we live a life of love. We tend to be so selective with our love. I am continually learning to redefine what that looks like in my life. It is so easy to love those who love us. But we often opt out on love that doesn't give back, love that is awkward, or that doesn't fit in our schedule. At least I do. What would the world be like if we really learned to love? Ghana is teaching me new dimensions of community and love. It is an insightful journey in understanding myself and the love that I have to share. I am learning from women like Adjoa, children like Ebenezer, and mothers like Gina what this love looks like. Loving without reciprocal expectations is indeed difficult, but such a incredible way to live.

We have around 80 boarding boys that attend our school and they are supervised and cared for by the housemaster Joseph and his wife Kate (along with their 4 young children). Kate spends all day every day being a wife/mother: cooking, washing, cleaning, taking care of boarding boys needs, and trying to sell items to students for a small income. She is quite insecure and shy and on top of that isolated from the rest of the female staff by location and social boundaries. I have developed a close relationship with her and her family over the course of my time here. Kate has taught me incredible lessons about love. She gets so thrilled to see me each time I set foot in their little shack, it’s incredible. If a day passes when she doesn't see me, she will send a child to check on me to see if I am around. She uses small parts of their meager income to send me gifts of Sala mangoes (my absolute favorite!) and sometimes surprises me by fixing me a whole meal and sending it to me. Despite her limited literacy skills she also writes me letters at times. The other day she even offered to wash my clothes for me whenever I need it. I am humbled by her love. I don't feel worthy of such generosity of love and spirit. It is humbling to receive such love.

I could name countless other examples of such love that I receive here. Often appreciation takes a tangible form instead of a verbal form. So this week I received bread, mangoes, bananas, papayas, fufu, etc. from various people as demonstrations of their love. If love tastes like fruit I'm all for it! :) I am so thankful for this community of people and the love they share with me. What a blessing to receive their love and learn from them.

On the other hand, I have to learn to love the teachers and community members with which I have no common ground. There are many who would never acknowledge kindness, appreciate hard work, or make an effort at a relationship with me and yet I am called to demonstrate to them the same love I have for Kate, or for the children. I am learning. Learning to love without restraint kids like Joseph, who would suck you dry of all your love and affection without so much as a thanks. I’m learning to not to reserve my love for those of whom it is easy to share. I’m learning a new kind of love.