Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"In Hope....Against all Hope"

Hope.  You can ask my mom.  I’ve always had it.  Before the deal is done, I plan the vacation. Despite the gloomy prognosis, I expect a turnaround.  No matter how broken, I anticipate restoration.  Regardless of the loss, I predict a comeback.  Even though I royally screwed up, I know it can be fixed.

Hope is what keeps us all going.  I truly believe that.  It is absolutely the one thing that not a single soul can live without. 

This weekend I received some news that made me really reflect on how important hope is: A friend who serves at church took his own life.  While I don’t know what his last thoughts were or what exactly drove him to that point, I am sure he believed he had no more hope.  Hope fuels us.  What I didn’t realize, until I heard this news, was how I had begun to lose hope, too.  And how deeply that loss of hope was affecting my outlook on life; how it was affecting my joy.

You see, hope is the belief in or for something that is not guaranteed (Romans 8:24).  That is part of what makes it so exhilarating.  If we knew the relationship would be restored, the check would come through or the trust would be rebuilt, we wouldn’t have to hope for it any more.  The anticipation would be gone – and with it, part of the joy.

But here is the thing about really living with hope:  It inevitably results in experiencing a little more disappointment than most.  So some people only choose to hope for a little, not because they don’t wish for more joy, but because they live in fear of more disappointment.  And disappointment, true disappointment, it hurts.  Recovery from the letdown can feel insurmountable.

Lately is seems like every few days I’m taking a hit:  the deal falls through, the turnaround turns into a letdown, restoration seems unlikely, the comeback a long way off.  In almost every area of my life, hope has turned into heartbreak.  Most of it I haven’t even been able to verbalize because it just hurts too much.  One disappointment after another; disappointment in myself, in others, in life…even in God.

I feel like I’ve been living out Paul’s good old equation:
            Suffering  =>  Endurance  =>  Character

Great.  Just what I need.  More character.  

But I began to forget the last part.  The most important part.  The promise.  Character  => HOPE and “hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:5).

Notice how the equation starts though: with suffering.  It is not the endurance that is the starting point for hope.  It is not the character building.  It is the suffering.  Without the suffering we never get the hope.

We all reach that point at one time or another: the point where enough is enough and we feel like life is just too hard.  We deserve a break.  We can only take so much more.  And at exactly the point where you think you’ve had about all you can bare, life has a tendency to throw you one more disappointment.  Trust me, if you haven’t gotten to this point yet, you will.  Maybe more than once.

It is in THAT moment, the moment it couldn’t possibly get any worse, that I have decided I have a choice.  I can choose to give in; choose to isolate myself; choose to just let life happen to me. 

OR

I can choose hope.  I can choose to put myself back in the vulnerable position where it feels like the odds are 50/50 at best: disappointment or joy. 

But this is the important part:  When you choose hope, it’s not the wishful thinking kind of hope.  It is the confident hope, the assuredness of the future.

In hope he believed against hope…he did not weaken in faith…no unbelief made him waver.”
(Taken from Romans 4:18-20)

That’s where the joy comes from: hope as a confident expectation.  

Because real hope IS a confident expectation.

In one way or another, people have often told me I have some sort of energy or light in me.  I have always attributed that to Jesus, whether I said it aloud or not.  And while Christ in me has a lot to do with it, I believe it is the hope I have in Him that really produces that light, that energy.  It is my confident expectation that what He has for me, for my life, is good.  Truly good.

That expectation isn't always easy to muster up.  Most days lately it's downright difficult.  I wake up with that sinking feeling in my gut that life is still hard.  That prayers haven't been answered.  That the news wasn't good.  But that is what I love so very much about that verse: "In hope he believed, against hope."   Even though all signs pointed against hope, Abraham chose hope because the object of his hope, was, and is, trustworthy.  So even when I have a hard time seeing it, I say it (usually out loud, before I even get out of bed):

In Hope I believe...Against Hope.

The degree to which I choose hope – with confident expectation, despite how bad things look - is directly correlated to the degree to which I shine.  Because I know:

Hope restores all things.
Hope heals all things.
Hope rebuilds all things.
Hope overcomes all things.
Hope revives all things.




Nordic Symbol for Hope 


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Just a Couple of Days Left...

I'm sitting at the Hotel Old Quarter in Amsterdam.  I just ordered a Dutch steak - not quite sure what that is.  Are the cows different here?  I just got a message from a dear friend of mine that said "You're travelling the world."  Wow.  I am.  I have.  It's easy to get so caught up in life and simply forget how amazing my life truly is.  Messages like this remind me to just stop and take in all in.

Today I found myself worried about how in the world I was going to get all of my loot from my travels into my suitcases.  Just so you know, you would worry, too, if you saw me on the train with my overstuffed backpack weighing at least 40 kilos, my broken laptop bag, gigantic purse, three shopping bags and box of 3 highly sought after bottles of Cantillon Gueze.  But, I am quickly reminded that - whoa - I woke up in Brussels this morning and am going to sleep in Amsterdam tonight.  Three years ago I would never have thought I would have a year like this.  I took a chance, went back to school and met a great friend named Leslie.  Even though she is a few years my junior, she gave me some of the best advice I have ever received.  Leslie told me to stop making excuses.  Don't let the conventional ties in every day life keep you from taking a risk and living your dreams.

I know what you're thinking:  Easier said than done.  I thought the same thing.  I still remember the day I called my mom and told her I wanted to put all my stuff in storage and move home.  I wasn't even sure what I would do next, but I knew I was giving myself the option to make a choice.  I didn't even know if my mom would agree.  Thankfully, she did!

It's been just over two years since I put my "things" in a 12x12 cement room - and I haven't looked at them since.  Don't get me wrong.  Sometimes I miss my stuff.  The Christmas trees, Waterford wine glasses and skads of home decorations are all some of my favorite parts of my settled life.  But, in the 24 months that have passed since I put these things away, I have traded them for 6 countries, countless cities, incredible new friends, adventures, moments of sheer terror, and even more moments of absolute delight.

As I wind up my latest trip and prepare to return home, I can't help but feel a little proud of myself.  Not necessarily for what I've done, but for learning that I can.  I can do whatever it is I want to do.  That's inspiring and a bit nerve-wracking all at once!

Oh, by the way, I've just finished my dinner (I'm writing this all on a napkin to type up later).  I love mustard as much as the next guy, but you have to love a country that serves mayo with french friends and mustard with cheese.  And yes, I think the cows here in Holland are better!

A few pics from the last couple of weeks...


















Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Scramble

I've been so busy updating the second blog I've got going for our school lunch project here in Tanzania, that somehow I've run out of time to update my readers on this blog.  Hopefully, most of you have seen what I've been up to at www.glpterratproject.blogspot.com.  For those of you who haven't, let me catch up you!  And for those of you who have followed the other blog, let me give you some more details!

The Green Living Planet is currently working with 5 different schools in the Arusha area, one of which has become very dear to my heart - Terrat Primary School.  There are about 1000 students at this school that most of us would say sits in the middle of NoWhereville.


We went to plant trees with the students earlier in April and my eyes were opened up to the needs of the school and the community.  Since that visit, with the help of friends, family and several primary, middle school and high school classes back in WI, we've started to raise funds to build 8 sustainable African-style keyhole gardens which will provide the basis for a school lunch program for the students at Terrat.  Last Sunday, May 6 (International Permaculture Day), we went out to the school to build the first of the 8 planned gardens.  You can check out the video recap from our day here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6QYPkWzEck&feature=g-all-u

If you watch the video, you will see how hard the students worked.  Every single child got involved.  We asked for 30 kids to come, but throughout the day over 85 students showed up.  We were actually unprepared to handle that many kids and hadn't brought enough food to feed all of them, so we spoke with the headmaster in the morning to ask him if some of the kids could go home and come back the next weekend to join us on the next build.  I guess that was one of those silly, "I-come-from-America-and-in-order-to-run-things-efficiently-we-can't-have-all-these-kids" ideas.  The headmaster, who may I just say LOVES his students to pieces, told us he couldn't send the kids away.  They were too excited to be there!

Benson and the headmaster

So, let me tell what happened on Sunday:
All 85 students worked.  We got the garden completed within just a few hours and then all 85 students waited around for another hour to get some lunch.  While we were waiting one of the little girls built a replica of the garden and she and some other students sat around reviewing the layers and steps to building the garden so that they could go home and teach their parents.  



Then, guess what happened?  When lunch was ready, somehow (kinda like the 5 loaves and 2 fish), all 85 students, 7 volunteers, 2 parents, 2 school chairmen and the headmaster, ate lunch.  And with only three jugs of water, all 97 of us drank until their thirst was quenched.

I'll be honest though, in the midst of the joy (and relief) I felt that everyone was fed, there was a slight ache.  After the headmaster had made sure every child got an equal portion of food, he returned to join the "adults" for lunch.  I brought the left-over food we had to the students, adding it to the rice that remained in the kitchen.  When the students saw the extra food, chaos ensued.  Arms, plates, hands, all rushing to get any extra food available.  Yelling, pushing, shoving.  These normally respectful, well-behaved students were clambering for any extra bite of food they could get into their mouths.  I stood for a moment, unable to move, and just watched.  Then, when I brought out the water, the response was nearly the same.

Never in my life have I known what it is like to feel that I needed to scramble for a bite of food.  Not once.  So, while I will never be able to fully relate, I am thankful that, in that moment, I was given a glimpse of the importance of this project.  It isn't just a cool idea or a trendy cause.  For these students, who are willing to work so hard to get it done, it is a game changer - a reminder that people in this world care about them and a promise that maybe someday the scramble will end.

For more info, check out: www.glpterratproject.blogspot.com






Friday, April 20, 2012

It's as simple as "Yes."

Back in November I wrote a blog post entitled "Best Day Ever".  Why is it that, no matter how old we get, how many mistakes we make, or how many lessons we learn, we often miss the most obvious signs in our lives?  When I wrote that post I was in Arusha for the weekend working with my friend Benson, his organization The Green Living Planet, and Mama Jane and her orphanage.  It only took me 4 months to realize being in Arusha, working with the people I truly care about who have given their lives to improve the lives of the people around them, was the place for me.  Every day here is a gift.

On that great day back in November while we were visiting Mama Jane's land, we stopped to see the local government primary school adjacent to her property.  As you know from my last post, I went with some volunteers with The Green Living Planet, so plant trees at that school last week.  The children go to school all day without lunch and the women wait every Thursday for the government to drop off meager food rations to help quell the effects of the 3 year-long drought that has plagued the area.  The pleading looks in the eyes of these women stayed with me after our two day project last week and I couldn't shake the feeling that we could do more.

So last Friday, while I was vainly sitting out in the sun, scarf over my somewhat burned face and 100 SPF suntan lotion on the charred triangle on my chest, trying to even out my tan lines before a wedding, I prayed for an idea.  A way to bring lasting change.  Within 15 minutes I flew out of my chair, bad tan lines all but forgotten.  It was simple.  Kids helping kids.  Remember bakes sales, penny auctions, potluck dinners and coin wars?  If I could find 20 classes in the U.S. that would commit to trying to fundraising $100, we could come up with enough money to build 8 African keyhole gardens that would grow enough vegetables to start a school lunch program.  This week I put together a project proposal, fundraiser ideas and my first ever YouTube video and within 24 hours we have already had 7 classes signing up to help!  Incredible.

I think that, inherently, everyone wants to help somehow.  Sometimes, we just don't see how.  For me, my intention for coming here in the first place was to help.  And, embarrassingly enough, for several months, I enjoyed the relationships, experiences and places, but never really felt like I was helping anyone.  I wanted to help, but, even in a place with so much need, I didn't see how I could.  I've come to the place where I see that no one can do it all, but everyone can do something.  And sometimes, the opportunity is right in front of us.  We just have to realize that this is our chance.

For me, it's the unpaid electricity bill that forces the hardworking women at the orphanage to walk through the neighborhood to collect water so they can wash the floors and cook the day's meals.  It's the little 5 year old boy named Victor who stood in the road outside of a shop watching and waiting for me, even though we had never met before.  He walked with me to my house for a banana and now comes back every day after school to say hello, only wishing for me to take a few minutes away from work to play with him on the swing set.  His mother goes to the market every day to sell fruit in the hopes that she makes enough money to bring home dinner in the even.  Victor, at 5 years old, wanders the neighborhood alone, in old worn out shoes, waiting for her to return at dusk.  Then there is Jane, the house girl who cooks and cleans for less than $60 a month.  When I asked her if I could pay her $6 a week to wash my laundry, she hugged me and told me that God had brought her a blessing.

But here's the thing: I know we can't do it all.  I can't either.  While I know I've made a difference in the lives of some people, there are so many more I just can't possibly help.  Two single mothers asked me to sponsor their children's education today.  For just over $300 a year, both kids could attend a great English medium school here in Arusha.  I just can't afford it.  A man came to the clinic yesterday, with holes literally worn through the bottoms of his swollen feet.  He needed serious medical attention, but refused to go to the hospital because he said he couldn't afford it.  The Maasai warrior who guards my house at night, came to me with mosquito bites all over his feet two nights ago.  His only shoes are a pair of plastic sandals.  All I had to offer were a pair of knee-high, mismatched socks.

The lesson I've learned is this:  All we have to do is open our eyes to the opportunities around us.  We can't do it all, but we can all do something.  So remember, the next time you have that fleeting moment where you think you could do more...You can!  The opportunities are all around you.  All you have to do is recognize them and say "yes".

Thank you from the bottom of my heart to those of you who have said "YES" to helping Terrat Primary School.  Thank you on behalf of the children, but most importantly, thank you from me, for giving me the gift of today.  My latest "Best Day Ever."


Sunday, April 15, 2012

What Can One Tree Do?

I've never been much of an environmental advocate.  My favorite hair spray happens to come in an aerosol can. I miss driving my SUV.  I only remember to use my reusable grocery bags when I'm shopping at Whole Foods - and only then because it just looks cooler.  And I'll be the first one on a plane to anywhere.  I love to travel.  Yet, here I am in Tanzania, and I find myself spending my days - and most of my nights - working to help a new environmental nonprofit organization get up and running.  What gives?

Benson Mariki, managing director of The Green Living Planet, has become a good friend of mine and when we met last October he told me about his dream to start a nonprofit organization that would help teach the people in his community how to care for their surroundings and, in turn, improve their standard of living.  Last week I had the chance to go with Ben to Terrat Primary School, a rural school just outside of Arusha.  The school has 1000 students and on any given day less than 10 teachers.  The two run-down buildings with 9 classrooms scarcely hold enough desks and chairs for 500 students.  The floors are covered in mud and dirt and the cement walls only extend upward to the place where the roof begins, leaving a triangular shaped hole above the walls from one classroom to the next.  Noise travels easily and teaching over the voices from the next classroom over can be a tiresome task.  The children themselves are extremely poor, walking miles to attend school each day.  They carry their only cherished possessions - a single exercise book and a pencil - to  and from school each day in an old, backpack or shoulder bag.  The students arrive at 7am for the morning meeting and remain in school until 2pm each day before beginning their journey home.




I visited Terrat Primary School for the first time last November.  The children were on break, but I could easily envision this old public school, long-ago forgotten by the government, filled with students eager to learn whatever anyone was willing to teach them.  My predictions were right.  Benson, Maricel, Abdullah and I arrived at Terrat last Wednesday to continue the work The Green Living Planet had started a few weeks earlier.  The goal is to plant 500 trees on the grounds of the school to help improve soil quality, provide shade for the students and slow erosion.  The area Terrat is in is a farming community that, over the past few years, has experienced severe drought and poor crop returns.  The headmaster at Terrat welcomed us with open arms, excited about the work we are trying to do to revive the environment in his area.

Maricel, Abdullah and I were each assigned a team of 11 students and our mission for the day on Wednesday was to dig 113 holes, one foot wide, one foot deep and fifteen feet apart from each other, to plant the remaining seedlings in the following day.  I tend to be a bit competitive, so I got my team to work right away, devising a system that allowed us to work quickly and efficiently.  The kids were AMAZING!  We worked for four hours and dug 69 of the 113 holes dug that day.  And just to be clear, when I say "dug"  I do not mean with a shovel.  We had old hoes that were attached to 3 foot long narrow tree limbs that we used to chip away at the clay and limestone we found just under the top soil.


Every time I picked up a hoe, my kids crowded around me, giggling at the "mzungu" who was trying to dig a hole.  They would ask me if I needed their help and usually took over about half-way through my attempt at digging.  We spent the day, working hard, joking and laughing.  The students also got a kick out of teaching me new Swahili words like manure (bolea) and plow (jembe).  Several times during the day I asked my team - nicknamed the "Red Army" by Abdullah because they worked so hard - if they needed a break.  It was, after all, the middle of the day and we were outside working during the hottest hours under the sun.  Nevertheless, each time I asked, the kids said they wanted to keep going.  They wanted to "win!"  At one point the school bell rang and the other 900+ students ran out of the classrooms for break.  When I asked if it was time for lunch, my kids looked at me for a moment and then explained that they didn't get lunch.  There is not enough food in the area to provide lunch for the kids at school so only those who can afford to bring 50 Tsh (about 3 cents) can buy a mandazi (small fried donut-type snack) from one of the local women selling treats on the edges of the school grounds.  I left that afternoon, face sun-burned, but smiling, with a tinge of sadness in my heart for these children who exuded so much joy, but had so little.



Thursday morning we returned to plant the seedlings in the holes we had dug the day before.  We arrived to find a much bigger crowd gathered around the schools grounds;  parents and grandparents sitting on stones waiting with old rice sacks or buckets.  Ben told me these people had come to collect food rations from the government.  While we planted that morning, many of the women called me over to chat and laugh with them. The site of mzungu who speaks any big of Swahili in their area is likely pretty rare and they seemed to get a kick out of me running my little "Red Army."  One woman in particular, stands out in my mind.  She asked me if I could bring them rain.  She didn't want money or food - only rain for better soil so that she could tend her own fields and grow her own crops.

I've been following the 58: Global Impact Tour since last summer.  For those of you who don't know about it, it's a movement based on the teachings of Isaiah 58 working to end extreme poverty in our lifetime.  What I love about the project is that it includes an alliance of several nonprofit organizations all over the world that are working together, in different ways, to achieve the same goal.  Each month 58: features a different country and issue.  I was excited to see that this month the featured issue is the connection between poverty and deforestation.  The information on their "tour page" this month has given me a lot of insight into the positive impact simply planting trees can have on the improvement of an entire community.  I'm hopeful that the work Ben is doing with The Green Living Planet will help the mamas at Terrat improve their soil quality so that they can provide for their children.  In the meantime, we are looking at projects we can start to help provide school lunches for the kids by growing food in gardens and in the school field.

I have learned that environmental work isn't about politics.  It's not about global warming, Al Gore, saving the ozone or left-winged liberalism.  In the third world, it's simply about providing the means for the rural poor to feed their families.  Over the next 6 weeks we are celebrating three big environmental days:  Earth Day (April 22), International Permaculture Day (May 6) and Environmental Day (June 5).  The Green Living Planet and 58: are both heading up big projects to restore fruitfulness to the land in Tanzania and the Dominican Republic respectively.  You can learn more about how to support these projects over the next six weeks here:

The Green Living Planet - www.greenlivingplanet.org and Support the project for as little as $10
58: Global Impact Tour - http://ar.gy/blogs

Ben teaching the kids how to plant the seedlings.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Controversy


I’ve been thinking a lot about controversy lately.  Controversial actions usually attract a lot of attention.  Media outlets go head to head, experts debate in Congress, professors engage students in lively discussions, and everyone, everywhere, takes a side.  Often, in humanitarian and development circles, controversy is unavoidable. 

I’ve been in Dar es Salaam for the past week and have had plenty of access to media and the latest news.  The film Kony 2012 was released by Invisible Children last week.  The outpouring of support literally shut down several Invisible Children websites.  Outrage over the alleged misuse of funds by Invisible Children also flooded message boards, blogs and Facebook pages.  I went to see the movie, Machine Gun Preacher a couple of days ago here in Dar.  It is based on the true story of Sam Childers, an ex-criminal, who makes it his own personal mission to help children whose families had been brutally destroyed by the LRA in South Sudan.  He saves thousands of children from the horrors of war in South Sudan.  In the process, he literally takes up arms and fights back against the LRA.  The movie ends with the real Sam Childers saying during the credits, “If a madman abducted your child and I said I could bring them home, does it matter how I do it?”  Controversial question?  I’d say so.

On a smaller scale, I’ve had the opportunity to both talk and work with dozens of development workers, researchers and NGOs while I have been abroad.  Some of these people have literally given up their own lives in order to improve the lives of others.  Unfortunately, a lot of the talk in development circles is focused on what everyone else is doing wrong.  Invisible Children is too late.  Sam Childers was too violent.  World Vision spends too much in overhead.  Angelina Jolie is just trying to boost her image.  Yes.  Sometimes we have to look at what is done wrong in order to figure out how to do something right.  Sadly, most of what I am seeing here on the ground, in academia and in the media, is just a lot of finger pointing. 

When the media places blame, it’s more understandable.  They’re creating hype, developing a headline story.  But, when one NGO points the finger at another, well – I’ll just say it like it is:  I think it’s appalling.  From an outsider’s perspective, it just looks like one NGO trashing another in order to attract a new donor’s dollar.  I’m not the expert, but I do know that just about every NGO out there is trying to right a wrong, win a fight, better a life, support someone in need.  And not a single NGO out there gets it all right.  Not one.  Sometimes we spend too much in overhead and other times we skimp in the name of saving a penny, but serve one less because of it.  In some cases we act on emotion, ignoring some of the consequences, but in other cases we sit in a board room, weighing decisions while motherless children sit in mud homes crying for help.

I’m not saying every action, by every NGO out there, is justifiable.  And I’m not validating seemingly corrupt actions one way or the way.  All I’m saying is that sometimes children are fed, wells are dug, schools are built and lives are saved despite our humanness.  Do the ends justify the means?  I don’t know. 

What I do know is that fighting each other isn’t helping anything.  So why don’t we stop calling each other out publicly?  Pick up the phone and offer up your expertise.  The blame game isn’t making Invisible Children look bad.  It’s not making World Vision or Sam Childers look bad.  It’s making the nonprofit sector look bad.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

I need a what?!?!


If there is one thing I am more afraid of than spiders, it is the dentist.  And, as luck would have it, early last week I found myself wide awake at 3 am, in excruciating pain, in a guesthouse in Iringa, Tanzania.  Looking back on it, it is sort of funny.  I had pretty much convinced myself that I had the worst migraine imaginable that was radiating pain through the right side of my face, my eye and my jaw.  Truthfully, it was sort of like the time I fell face first on the ice, held my hand over my bloody smashed in teeth and told my mom I didn’t have to go to the hospital because it was only a broken nose.  Apparently, I will subconsciously recreate any ailment in order to avoid a trip to the dentist.

My denial lasted a few days and then last Friday night I woke up with pain that was undeniably only in my tooth.  So this past Tuesday, I started my two day journey to Dar es Salaam to find a dentist.  I was able to meet up with four of my friends from Zanzibar and for a couple of days we hung out, played cards, caught up, cooked fajitas, enjoyed a few drinks and ate at great restaurants.  It was a much appreciated mini-vacation.  Then, Friday morning, I found myself rolling through the traffic jams in downtown Dar in a bijaji, chattin’ it up in Swahili with my driver, heading in to the dentist to get a filling.  In Africa.  To be honest, I was pretty proud of myself for just stepping up and figuring out where to go and how to get there all by myself.  Unfortunately, by the time I got to the dentist’s office the excitement of my adventure had worn off and in its place was a nauseating feeling of fear. 

My fear quickly turned into downright panic when the dentist informed me that a filling wouldn't do it.  I would need a root canal.  And, of course, not just any root canal, but a triple root canal.  Apparently my tooth had three canals that had to be drilled out and the process would take two days.  Fun.

It’s been exactly 24 hours since day one of my root canal and I’m doing surprisingly well.  Somehow, in a third world country, I found a really smart, extremely kind dentist who reassured me he would do everything he could to make sure I was comfortable.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have the headphones I asked for to block out the drilling sound!  Aside from that, he held true to his word.  He was great.  I clenched my trembling hands together, did my best to think about anything other than what was going on in my mouth, and in thirty minutes it was over.  The pain hasn’t been too bad and by next Tuesday I’ll be ready to head back to Dr. Shabbir, my new favorite dentist at SD Dental Clinic for round two.

In the meantime, I plan to enjoy my time in the city and take advantage of the little luxuries like movie theaters, Subway, pedicures, ice cream, high pressure showers and digital TV. 

One hour after my root canal - on the way to the U.S. Embassy