Layered Answers

Another exhausting day of school had just ended. We were riding home in the back of the safari truck, bouncing and jouncing over the rocky terrain. I could hardly swallow my water or scarf down my soggy ham and cheese sandwich Scott had packed me for lunch. My hair was in tangles, my shirt reeked of sweat, and my fingernails were caked with the dirt of the day. My dry, scratchy eyes could barely squint through the whirlwind of dust that enveloped me. And it hit me again, like it often does – that moment where I just have to ask myself: How in the world did I get here?

The last I remember, I was driving a little red Honda Civic to high school for morning student council meetings. I was sitting in English class, reading classic literature like The Pearl and The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick. The last thing I knew, I was dressing up for silly hall dinners in college with new friends. I was swooning over a lanky, long-haired boy I met my sophomore year. Not too long ago, I was settled cozily into a one-bedroom apartment in Virginia with my new husband, master’s degree, and a bouncing baby boy.

So how did I end up sitting on a truck in the middle of a sugar cane field on an island out in the Caribbean?

And even more importantly, why am I doing this?

I mean, seriously. Are these kids in my kindergarten class learning anything? Do their parents – these families who live for today with little thought for the future – do they have any idea what an education can do for their children? Do these people get it? That it often feels like I’m leaving the job of mom and dad to my husband so I can laminate letters and put filthy, too-tight shoes on their children?

As I begin to peel back the layers to this onion of a question, I realize that there are so many reasons for why I’m here – all so tightly packed together that it’s difficult to see where one answer ends and another begins.

One reason actually revolves around me. You know, I’ve been a bit selfish by choosing to live here. These little boys and girls have become so precious to me, and this marathon of a discipleship process has just begun. I’m still getting to know our students and their families. But I can’t imagine having to give up the budding relationships and experiences I’ve collected so far. I want my hugs from lovable Anllelo and winsome Alfredo. I secretly love Javier’s goofy dances and crazy-eyed head nods as we transition around the room. To miss Nicol’s bright smiles and deep-seated dimples as she runs towards the truck each morning in Cabeza de Toro would be to miss a beautiful sunrise.

But if cute kids and sugary smiles were the only reasons for my living here, I don’t think I’d last very long. I’ve already alluded to the fact that life is not always butterflies and roses. Anllelo has a stubborn streak, and Javier can push the limits. Nicol can wipe her snotty nose down the front of my leg and invade my personal space at an all-too-early hour for my foggy brain. Kids can disappoint and disrespect. They can grate on nerves and cause emotional and physical fatigue.

So there has to be another reason for my living so far away from everything and everyone I’ve ever known. Allow me to pull back another layer to this complex question.

The need for education in the Dominican is incredible. We’ve seen firsthand that the boys and girls in “our” villages are dreadfully behind academically – teenagers and some adults can’t read or even recognize enough letters to write their names. Teachers in the public schools are absent about as often as they’re present. Between holidays, rain days, and strikes, the normal four-hour school day can hardly be described as consistent.

So what happens when the adventure and the “feel-good” sensations wear off? What happens when I remember that there’s need in every single corner of this broken world? My heart feels an even deeper sting than the watery eyes and burning nose that usually accompany the slicing open of your ordinary onion.

To be satisfied with doing life in this very different country, there has to be more.

Thankfully, when I cut down to the quick of it, there is more.

The real reason for my sitting on a dusty, bumpy safari truck – the primary purpose I have in holding those snotty kids close – my major motivation in enlightening them with the ever-so-profound truth that “the B says ‘buh'” – is that my Jesus asked me to do it.

There it is. The most basic layer to my “onion” question is that I’m doing it for my Savior.

What’s that little saying? “Christ died for me, so I’ll live for him.” Paul didn’t say anything about onions in Acts 20, but I love the way he puts it:

“However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”

Call it cliché. Call it traditional. Call it “aw-bless-her-little-heart” or dedicated or radical or just plain crazy. I find no greater satisfaction in this world than to know that God has called me here – “for such a time as this” – to live out this plan He has. For these people. And for me.

Life is not easy. It isn’t always fun. I sometimes lose perspective. I’ve wanted to throw in the towel.

But that’s when I can stop and thank God for the difficult days and uncomfortable truck rides. I can praise Him for those reminders (disguised as little trials) that prompt me to reflect on why I’m here and how incredible it is to be used by Him.

Faithful

The aguacatero still walks through our neighborhood every morning pushing his ramshackle cart of fresh produce and announcing, “Aguacates! Mandarinas! Manzanas de oro!” He has no idea that he’s calling out to one less person on our street.  He has no inkling that Federico passed from this world to another just 14 days ago.

It’s been two weeks. Two weeks filled with long and lonely hours for the family to process. To grieve. To figure out what “normal” looks like. To try to make sense of it all.  It’s been two weeks since a wife and a daughter and a sister had their entire world turned upside down in a moment.

It all happened so fast. Scott and I were working in the house, and Noah was playing in his room. Our neighbor called; she asked Scott to come quickly because Federico wasn’t doing well. Scott jogged across the street and into a small room to find a few people crowded around an unresponsive Federico. When Scott came back, he calmly and quickly pulled the car out into the street. They wanted to take Federico to the hospital – he’d possibly suffered a heart attack. I called for Pamela (our resident CPR/medical queen) and briefly explained what little we knew.  While she sprinted down the four flights of stairs and two blocks over to our house, I sat with Federico’s sister as she cried out for her brother. The men in the house carried him out to the street. Pam arrived and instructed them to get him flat so she could begin CPR. The men laid Federico in the back of our jeep, and Scott tried to wait for Pam to stabilize him. As Scott stepped out of the car to see if there was anything more he could do, a friend of the family jumped in the driver’s seat and zoomed down the street with the back door wide open, risking both Federico and Pam falling out! Kurt drove Scott to the hospital to find our vehicle.

Time slowed to a crawl. We brought Federico’s great-niece and nephew to our house to play with Noah while his sister rocked in the chair on her porch, crying and hoping for some good news. I watched as she received the phone call that he had passed. I could almost see the weight that she felt as she nearly fell to the ground in heartbreak. I went to her and held her hands as she repeated, “Angela, mi único hermanito! My only brother! My little brother!”

In that moment, I felt nothing but inadequacy. I wanted to do something to help. Say something to make it better. Carry some of the pain for her. Instead, all of the Spanish that I’ve learned over the last five months left me. As she cried in my arms, all I could say was “I know, I know.” At one point, I think I told her that we should pray, but no audible words ever left my lips.

Eventually, Federico’s wife and 16-year-old daughter returned from the hospital. My feelings of helplessness did nothing but grow. But I sat there with the daughter and hugged her and stroked her hair as she wept. As more family and friends arrived, I slipped out the gate and walked back to our house, praying silently that I hadn’t overstepped boundaries by being there – praying that God would bring them the peace and the strength and the comfort that no one on this earth can give.

Here we are, two weeks later. I don’t hear the crying as often. Friends and neighbors are gradually moving back to their normal routines.

The street vendor still petitions for people to buy the avocados and oranges he has to sell each morning. Life continues on.

I’ve been thinking recently about that bittersweet yet beautiful section in Ecclesiastes 3 that is often read at funerals.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die…

What a reminder that we are often subject to changes in life over which we have no control. I began flipping through the rest of Ecclesiastes, and I was struck once again by the simplicity and truth of Solomon’s closing words:

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

Revere God and remain faithful. That’s Solomon’s conclusion. The entirety of humanity – the whole duty of man – is centered on an unchanging and faithful God.

Federico’s wife and daughter came to see us last night. They tried to talk about normal, everyday things. And they tried to talk about Federico and their family. They tried to thank us – for what, I’m not sure. It didn’t matter what they said. I could see the sorrow that filled their faces as tears slowly spilled. They turned to leave, and we told them that Noah was praying for them every night before bed. We asked them to have dinner with us when they were ready.

What a testament these two ladies are to their Savior. In spite of the pain and the numbness and the questions, they are choosing to remain faithful to the Faithful One who is the constant in the midst of chaos.

Perspective: “Looking unto Jesus…”

Wow.  Today marks one whole month of living in the Dominican Republic.  That went quickly.

Most people who know us would agree that Scott and I are fairly laid-back individuals.  But even with our happy-go-lucky personalities, the last few weeks of moving in and setting up and getting accustomed to the culture have not been all fun and games.  There have been enjoyable and exciting moments (like getting to know our neighbors and turning our house into a home).  But unfortunately, it has been easy for me to focus on little things to the point of frustration (like not being able to ask for something at the store or having to change my clothes multiple times a day because of my propensity to sweat buckets in the heat/humidity).  If I’m not careful, I find myself selfishly dwelling on the comforts and ease of living that I’ve left behind.  Then feelings of guilt creep in… and then depression… and a not-very-good cycle begins.

When I find that I’m getting frustrated with these little things, I ask myself some questions.  Why are we here?  Why are we living in a foreign culture, giving up the things and people and places that are familiar?  You know, it’s funny – when I honestly answer these questions, my perspective changes almost immediately and the frustrations of the moment seem to melt away.  There are many reasons we’ve decided to do life here, but the big (and simple) answer is this – we just want to make our Jesus famous.  I know I don’t have much to give Him, but what I do have is available for Him to use whenever and however He wants.  If that means a few adjustments to my lifestyle, then by His strength I’ll make those adaptations wholeheartedly.

“Looking UP.”  That’s how my college class advisor always signed off on his e-mails.  I remember the day I internalized that phrase. I was sitting in my dorm room at Cedarville, staring at those two words on my computer screen.  What would my life be if I were “looking up” at every moment?  My answer not only caused me to change some of my attitudes and actions in college, but it also played a role in why I am here in the DR.  This past month, I have been learning more fully what it means to change my perspective from me to Him.

Whew.  All of that to say this: running my race is so much easier when I’m looking up (Hebrews 12:1-2).