New Beginnings

Week 2 in our brand new school building is almost complete! What a rollercoaster! So many emotions over the last 14 days.

I’ve felt excitement. Finally – my very own classroom! A place to store school supplies! Running water! Real bathrooms! Two to three extra hours in my day since we don’t all have to run the bus route!

I’ve felt anticipation.  I get to start fresh with a brand new bunch of kiddos. Hoping to hone my lesson plans, activities, and discipline strategies throughout the year. I can’t wait to see what all we’re going to learn and experience together.

I’ve felt sadness. I don’t know if I should admit this, but I think I have a slight case of the “kindergarten blues”. I see my big guys and gals from last year walking down the sidewalk to their new first grade classroom, and I feel like I’ve lost a little part of my heart. They’re next door to me, yet it feels strange not to be involved in their lives on a daily level.

I’ve felt inadequacy. My personal standards for where I want to be as a teacher and where I actually am are not aligned. I know I sometimes put undue pressure on myself to be perfect, but there are so many areas in which I can improve. I desire to give these students who have been entrusted to me the best possible chance at success. I want them to be able to grow in their knowledge of the Lord and His love for them. I don’t want any of my shortcomings to get in the way of that.

I’ve felt anger. There have already been some intense experiences in the timeout corner. The other day, Carla gave me the best cussin’ session she could muster as I wrestled with her in the corner. Yudeison and Fernando and Daidon have each taken their turns screaming at the top of their lungs after I sent them to the corner. While there are moments I find it hard not to take it personally, I’ve felt myself getting getting angry because these little souls are rebelling against the holy God who created them.

I’ve felt pride. I love hearing Fabiola and Carla and Yeny belt out our very first sight word we’re learning. And today before leaving, I looked over at Daidon and saw his dark eyes locked on mine, waiting for me to call his name to get in line instead of running around the room.

I’ve felt guilt. I haven’t been spending much time with my babies or my husband or Yuleisy.

I’ve felt absolute exhaustion. The busy pace of life and the amount of energy it takes to keep up with 5-year-olds (and my own little men) is incredible. Doing this craziness on minimal sleep hasn’t helped exactly. My fuzzy brain feels like it’s running on empty, and patience has run thin.

I’ve felt encouragement. Our two short-term teams so far have done much to pour into my life already. Encouraging letters and emails, patience and cooperation in the classroom – how I love sharing life with others.

I’ve felt peace. In the middle of the daily struggles and the busy schedule and little annoyances, I’ve felt the Lord’s presence as another year begins. I want to learn to constantly take hold of the comfort that the Holy Spirit offers. It’s by His strength and grace that I’m able to take part in His awesome plan for these precious ones.

Here’s to another year!

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Practicing letter matching in centers
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Sonia and Miss Angela
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Time out
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Story time

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.

This Started Out as an Update about Summer School…

What a whirlwind. We’re finishing up Week 5 of our water-themed, English-focused summer school. On a scale of “tired” to “bone-weary”, I’ve surpassed all normal exhaustion levels and moved into the “fatigue” arena. Most mornings, I wake up all fuzzy-brained and achy. I don’t feel like my Spanish (or my English) make any sense whatsoever. On top of that, my own little tornadoes (Noah and Leyton) need so much attention at this stage of life – I am constantly chasing them, attempting to keep them from demolishing everything they touch. Either that, or I’m feeling guilty for putting them to sleep in their cyclone of a room because I literally don’t have the strength to pick up every toy they own for the fifth time that day.

Sometimes I feel discouraged. Ok, scratch that. Most of the time, I feel discouraged. I get so drained from sending the same kids to the time-out corner in kindergarten. There are days that I am positive not one single word I belt out actually “sticks” in their brains. I hate that I don’t get to spend the amount of time I want to learning about each of their likes and dislikes and family life and social circles.

Frustration levels are through the roof. My computer just died a terrible death. We think we’ll be able to salvage the 2+ years of photos I never backed up. (Smart, Ang. Real smart.) If that file rescue doesn’t happen, I don’t want to think about the countless hours of lost research and planning and documents that I had prepared – for kindergarten alone.  Today, the power company cut our lights because the last tenants didn’t pay a ginormous bill. Thankfully, we’re stealing internet from our missionary friends. We’ve dropped a power cord down from their third story apartment to keep our fridge running. Welcome to mornings with cold showers and nights without fans. In other news, our jeep is with the mechanic – again. C’mon now. Wasn’t it just in the shop last week? (We missionaries get all giddy inside when we go a month without a car repair.)

There is no good conclusion here. Scott and I – we’re just tired. And discouraged. And frustrated. And maybe we’re complaining a little bit. In our minds, we know that the physical and mental and emotional exhaustion is temporary. We understand that if we let Him, God can use these little hardships to grow us in our relationships with Him. We realize that we are so blessed to have our home churches and families and friends encouraging us through visits and financial support. But in the middle of the difficulties, it’s hard to see the trials for what they are – more opportunities to allow God be lifted up in our lives.

If you think of it, we could use a little extra prayer tonight. We don’t just want to “grin and bear it.” Somehow, we want our Savior to be glorified in the middle of the mess.

 But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.

Job 23:10

 (Update: more extension cords are now running through our house – we have airflow! Praise Jesus.)

Enough

A dead soul coming to life after an encounter with a risen Savior. A Dominican and American finding a connection despite the language barrier. A child choosing to control his frustration instead of physically lashing out at a classmate.  How I love seeing God’s hand at work in the Dominican. Living here has given me more joy than I can express…

Today, however, is different. Today, I don’t have a cutesy story about a pre-schooler sharing a crayon or a miraculous example of a young boy accepting Christ. In reality, the past couple of weeks have brought some very real struggles for our family. I can’t point to one big moment where everything “fell apart.” Instead, we’ve been experiencing a thousand tiny frustrations that have slowly crawled under our skin. And we’ve been left scratching at those annoyances until the blood has started to flow.

I’d venture to say that the last 10ish days have been some of the hardest that Scott and I have endured since moving to the DR. We’ve dealt with feelings of failure, moments of miscommunication, battles with bitterness, and heaviness of heart. Some may call it homesickness. Others say it’s culture shock. Whatever the name, Satan has been using every strategy in his playbook to skew our perspectives, to keep us discouraged, to tempt us to listen to his lies. Talk about wrestling “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph. 6:12, KJV)

A few nights ago, I felt like I had come to the end of myself. I didn’t know how to be there for my husband anymore. I didn’t know how to respond to some dashed plans we had made. I didn’t know how to take care of my babies who need me every waking hour.

But then I heard Him. Not so much audibly. Instead, God just whispered to my heart several times over a truth so simple – that He is enough.

Reminder #1 came resounding through Yuleisy’s computer speakers in the form of this song as we sat working in the office. Look at Me, He said. Quit focusing on these circumstances and worship Me for who I am. I am enough.

Reminder #2 came through an email from my dad: “This has been the strangest year of my life. But in all of the anxiety and doubts, I’ve learned things in ways I never had before. Over and over God keeps driving home this lesson: just place the little insufficient resources you have in His hands, and He will do His part. He has reasons. Always. Now is when faith is so important.” And so I heard Him again. I am enough.

Reminder #3 flooded over me as we traveled the bumpy, dusty roads in the early morning for another pre-school day. The landscape changes dramatically from our house to the bateyes – we roll through flat fields full of sugar cane, ride up and down a curvy mountain of sorts, drive over a calm yet dirty river, and cruise through a somewhat tropical, jungle area abounding with vines and forest trees. I heard the Voice again – the same Voice that spoke those words in Matthew 6 so many years ago: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… See the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these…” Remember, child. I. am. enough.

I have to ask myself: do I really believe it? Do I really believe that God is big enough and good enough and loving enough to meet me where I’m at right now? In my head, I know that He is. He says so and proves so. But living that out in faith – that’s what I want.

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.