I am learning more than anything else at the moment that most of my emotional and spiritual existence is governed by my perspective, by how I see the world around me, and by what I believe about what I take in. Especially since this particular corner of the world is vastly different than the one I am used to existing in.
Last week a friend here took my to visit a house of her “sister” (not sure if they are really blood related as everyone seems to say sister and brother very freely which as you can guess makes it very difficult to know who is related). Annikah and I were welcomed in to a tiny one room brick and mud home. The small space seemed almost oppressively hot and cramped to me and I immediately began to think “how could someone actually live here?” Three rope beds were placed strategically in the room so they just fit and there was one small table that held food, cooking utensils, some baby powder, and a few small bowls. The family cooked everything outside as most people do and she showed us around her kitchen area where she must spend countless hours sitting on a small stool cooking in the heat covered only by a thin straw roof. We then went on a tour of her small shamba (or garden) where she grows some veggies (mostly local things I have never heard of). We then went back and sat on a mat on the floor and talked; mostly they talked and asked me questions which I tried my best to respond with the Kiswahili I know. She offered me some fruit off a tree and some water from a dirty plastic jug in the corner. As I drank and said a prayer that the water would not make me sick I suddenly was struck with the arrogance in which I see the world. My first thought was that she was so poor, in need of pity, but compared to who? How often does Jesus talk of the poor in spirit versus the poor in terms of worldly goods? How often does he speak of the danger in loving things or worshipping money or possessions over Him and over loving others? And just how often do I get this totally wrong? I thought about how if I was home in Chicago and someone stopped by unexpectedly with friends would I have been as welcoming? Would I have had “more important things” to do? Would I have shared and freely offered out of my wealth as this woman was offering out of her comparative poverty? In some ways my life at home was so scheduled that I must have missed out on countless opportunities like this one. I never noticed or even missed them because the world was always spinning around me at the same speed. Here I have had to learn to just sit, to just listen, to be the one who knows nothing, and to be the learner more than the teacher. It is humbling, it is difficult, it is what I needed and He knew it.
After about an hour of visiting, picking veggies, and the kids running around together shoeless through the field we began to leave. Leaving is a process: you say goodbye to everyone individually, you wish peace on them and their families, and you thank them for their hospitality. The women also gathered some gifts to give me as I left, some tea leaves and veggies she grows. This gift was nothing I desired, nor even knew what to do with but it was so precious to me. My perspective shifted and it has on many things.
I no longer take for granted the immense and amazing opportunities for education I have had in my life. And although I cannot type a blog post without the aid of spell check to save my life I have been taught how to read and express my feelings through writing. And at my core I believe that however; at times irrational and governed by emotions my thoughts are, they deserve to be heard and that I, as a woman, have a voice. These are gifts that should be savoured, treasured. Some days I practice reading Kiswahili outside our house and when some of my neighbors overhear they listen intently and watch over my shoulder almost in awe of my ability to make sense of the words written on the page. Another experience changed my perspective on just how many things I have to be grateful for. A few weeks back we were going to be out all day ona day we expected the milk to be delieverd. We decided to leave our door open and ask Mama to place the milk in the fridge when it arrived (since if left out in the heat it usually goes bad). When we arrived home she announced that it had indeed arrived and that she placed it in the fridge. We unpacked and I decided I should boil the milk before we got ready for bed so I opened the fridge, but no milk, notta. I thought this was obviously bizarre and searched around a bit. I knew we had understood each other since the word for fridge is frige there was no room for a miscommunication. Finally, I noticed the worn water bottle full of milk peering at me from inside the oven. She thought the oven was the fridge. In that moment I realized she had never seen a fridge or a stove before and I was shocked, this could not be but in reality it was. But before I tell these stories that one could chalk up to the paternalistic and tragic “poor, simple African, & rich all knowing Westerner” mentality let me be clear that is not at all the story I tell.
Not at all.
If anything I have learned that many perceived needs I have in my life at times complicate my existence and compromise my joy rather than add to it. I “need” a fridge so when there is no power for days it eats away at me. So many days I get worn down by stuff that really means nothing, minor annoyances that are not why I was made, not why I am here, not what life is about. I also have learned so much about family, about appreciating the earth, about honesty, about selfless sharing and giving, about welcoming people from my neighbors and friends here. But if my perspective does not shift or open to encompass the new things I am learning I am the one who is truly poor.
I know that in part my perspective on life has always been to worry about what is next. It is almost as if worrying comforts me in some ways. Planning for the future is great, letting worry overtake your days eats away at your joy, there is a fine line. I could be worried about how we will ever save enough money for Annikah to have the same educational opportunities we did, I could worry about the health issues in living here, I could worry about friends and family going through tough times so far away, I could worry about how we can afford to live here, I could worry about what our future family will look like, I can worry that every thing I do is misunderstood culturally, I can worry that the plans for the school are traveling at a snail’s pace or I can refuse to be bound by worry. Too often I chose to fret but I am learning that the solution to worrying is not to try not to worry but to seek first, it is matter of devotion. To what or who am I devoted? Do I really trust and know in my gut that He is always in control? And do I have the courage to live like I believe that everyday? It is a matter of actually seeing and I am seeing my life in new way, at least in small steps.
I am so grateful God brought me here to teach me how life is more than carving out a comfortable place for me and my family. There are so many people with whom I share this planet and although we live differently outwardly, we all have the same felt needs; acceptance, love, security. Yet we are all fallen and in process. All of creation is not perfected and He designed our world this way, it was not some cosmic mistake. I ran across this quote recently that I recorded in my journal and although I cannot remember where I read it today it spoke to me..
“When God made the earth, he could have finished it. But He didn’t. He left it as raw material- to tease us, to tantalize us, to set us thinking and experimenting, and risking, and adventuring. And therein we find our supreme interest in living. He gave us the challenge of raw materials, not the satisfaction of perfect, finished things. He left music unsung and dramas unplayed. He left poetry undreamed, in order that men and women might become not bored but engaged in stimulating, exciting, creative activities that keep them thinking, working, experimenting and experiencing all the joys and durable satisfactions of achievement”
Do I accept the challenges in my life as raw material to carve out my purpose? Do I engage in artistic expression? Do I risk, adventure, and dare to grow? Do I allow Him to shape me for His purposes? Even the birth of Christ is a matter of perspective. For many trading the heavenly realms to come to the fallen earth as a helpless baby is obvious proof that Jesus was not divine.
But that depends of your perspective. Whether you believe only what you see as reality or if you acknowledge the impossible is possible with God. The earth did not recognize Him, even when he came. It was foretold this way, we humans missed it. I am so often reminded how often I expect God to work my way and how I should know better because He never does. And thank God He has a better way. Thank God the smallness of what I see is not all there is.
No matter how you define it the human dilemma exists. And God’s definitive answer was a crisis pregnancy. A tiny baby born in a remote part of the world that would mean salvation for all. It was intensely and intimately personal. This is what Christmas is about for me this year.
I think it is amazing that when God looked down on His creation He decided that although the problems were immense the solution was not, that the core of the human paradox is that what really matters in this life is personal. The problems I face and the collective issues we face as a nation, a people, a human race; poverty, fear, hate, racism, greed, selfishness, cruelty, to name a few. How do I handle these issues? How do I look at the vastness of the unfinished business around me? These are problems that require a personal answer. No company can program selfishness or hate or evil out of man’s hearts. A political leader cannot veto it. A country cannot require specifications and qualifications for love. It is only when God fills me and you with His love that we find the power to change, only when He gets involved in my mess that I can grow and my perspective is reborn.
Yes, it is about perspective. I see annoyances and He sees lessons is patience and opportunities to show kindness. I see wasted opportunity and He sees amazing potential. I see insurmountable problems and suffering and He sees that ability for redemption, I see hopelessness and He sees individuals He created and loves.
Loving God and loving people is at the core of life, everything else is negotiable.
It is all a matter of perspective. Merry Christmas!