Thankful

The most appropriate way for me to wrap up the year of 2010 is with a grateful spirit.

In my Living World Religions class at Harding, we took a weekend field trip to Chicago. There we visited a Bahai Temple, a Soka Gakkai Buddhist center, a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue, a Muslim mosque and a Sikh gurdwara. The people we met, ate and talked with were normal people. They were nice, polite, welcoming and informative to all 100 of us. In our time with them, I learned a vital lesson. They are all people. They are all normal people searching for something more than themselves.

God set eternity in the hearts of men, and whether we choose to see it or not, people of all nationalities and religions are looking for a bigger purpose.  Some find that purpose in chanting an ancient saying. Some choose to offer sacrifices to local shrines. Some believe quiet contemplation is the true way. I know very little in the grand scheme of each religion. But I know they are searching and trying to find the way.

What I do know is that I’m thankful. I’m thankful that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. I’m thankful that He considered us worthy amongst our shame and disappointment. I’m thankful He forms the passageway directly from man to God. I’m thankful for Jesus, who sacrificed everything…so I could find God.

Honestly, it doesn’t matter whether you are around the Christmas table, in a car on the interstate or in the shade of a Baobab tree. We are all searching. And God made the way for us all to find and share Him. Let’s be thankful.

Down to the River to Pray

As I’ve learned from former missionaries in the classroom and now from personal experience, you never know what a day will hold on the mission field. On Saturday, August 14th, we were set and ready to go to the youth rally in Bulawayo. However, our plans quickly changed when we were told a man needed a ride 80 kilometers to the Hayhill village to baptize two men.

After we push-started the van, our group, Bruce Vimba and another local preacher piled in for the hour ride. With time, the roads disintegrated into nothing, until we were travelling with two ruts as our guide. We finally arrived and found three mud huts in the clearing.

We all gathered into the meeting place, the center of the three buildings. Again, women sat on the floor on one side and men on the other.

Bruce introduced us and translated for Shak as he gave an on-the-spot devotional to the villagers. Ten people stood and responded to the message. I may not have known the words to the songs they sang, but I could feel the excitement and conviction in their voices and actions.

So…we loaded up and headed to the river. When we travelled as far as we could by van, we started on foot. I smiled to myself as we walked through the dried-up riverbed, following a group of women with babies on their backs. “Now THIS is more like it,” I thought. “This is what I expect when I think about Africa.” I also could not help but sing this song in my head:

“As I went down to the river to pray, studying about that good ole way, and who shall wear the starry crown, Good Lord, show me the way…”

We walked through the riverbed and then on a path through tall reeds and bush grass. When everyone finally reached the water, we began singing. Ten people were immersed into Christ. Some were school-age children, some were young adults. It was plain to see that Brother Austin Vimba, Bruce Vimba and other local preachers had spent a lot of time teaching at the Hayhill village.

We never expected to drive that far or to fellowship with our brothers and sisters at Hayhill that day. We never expected to witness ten baptisms in the riverbed either. And I never expected how much I could be blessed and encouraged by that day.

BIG

Last year while our team was in Cape Town, South Africa, Dorian pulled me over to the side and asked me what I really wanted to do. He asked me if I wanted to work with youth or with children. I told him that I enjoyed working with youth and would love to be given the opportunity to do so.

While in Bulawayo this August, we participated in the nationwide youth rally. As I wrote earlier, approximately 1,000 students attended from all over Zimbabwe. I was graciously given the opportunity to speak to 500 teenage girls…all at one time. To say the least, I was a little bit nervous.  As I prepared my lesson the night before, Dorian sat down, smiled and said, “Well, this is it. This is what you wanted.”

God has such a way of stretching our comfort zones by giving us exactly what we ask for. I cannot complain or be nervous, right? After all, I have been praying for these very opportunities. I just did not realize just how…big the opportunities might be.

Even though it is exactly what I wanted, I was experiencing a Moses moment, a moment of, “Oh, that’s great, but can’t you send someone else? I’m not good enough for this.”

All of a sudden, my “Here am I; send me,” turned into, “I’m out to lunch; send someone else.”

This response is so typically human. We want the big things; we want to be a part of something greater than ourselves. However, when the big opportunities arise, we get scared. We flake out.

But is that not the reason God uses people who are no good? People who are broken, people who just don’t seem to get it? Because when we are weak, He is strong. When we are scared, He is brave. When we think we can’t do it, He puts us in that very position. He is important, not me. He is powerful, not me. He is able, not me. So when I do something big, I know it’s not me who does it, but the Spirit living inside me.

Now, THAT is BIG. And that is Who and what we belong to. He is BIG. And He loves giving us the big opportunities. Be ready.

Welcome to Africa

Lots of people have preconceptions about Africa. Some people think the weather is hot and dry all year around. Some people think tigers hang out with the lions and elephants.  Some even think every soul in Africa is a bushman surviving in the heart of the desert. However, not all preconceptions are totally illegitimate.

We experienced our first power outage in South Africa in the summer of 2009. Blake was in the middle of a lesson at our first Y.E.S. rally in Port Elizabeth when the power went out. After a few minutes, the infamous and loved Colin “Dick” Van Dyke strolled by and whispered in Blake’s ear, “Welcome to Africa.”

However, our first experience with power outages does not even begin to compare with our second…and third, fourth, fifth, etc.

In Zimbabwe we experienced load shedding, or rolling blackouts, every single day. If we had electricity in the morning, we did not have it at night. If we had power at night, we most likely woke up without it. This fact by itself made me appreciate and realize just how much I take common conveniences for granted.

In the states, we do not even think about it. We wake up with the understanding of a hot shower with clean water. We flip a switch and expect instant light.  Because I was conditioned to receive such treatment, we experienced several “rude awakenings.”

However, I soon found that what I called inconveniences was actually normal everyday life. Christians just a few miles away at the nation-wide youth lectureship were dealing with power outage in a much bigger way.  This year, Christian young people from all over Zimbabwe gathered in Bulawayo for the four-day youth rally.

This youth rally was no small task. Over a thousand young people attended, needing accommodations, food and an assembly hall. Months of planning were poured into this great event. And then the lights went out…continually.

I was humbled and amazed at the resourcefulness of the youth in Bulawayo. A car battery kept the sound system alive. They cheered when the electricity came on and brought out the blankets when it did not.  They worked endlessly, cooking thousands of meals in a pot over a fire.  If that is not service, then I do not know what is.

It is easy for me to make excuses when things do not go my way. It is easy for me to bury my head in my hands and give up. But these Christians did not make any excuses. They did not even complain. They just kept working, kept serving. Welcome to Africa.

Beyond Tourism

Victoria Falls is, of course, known for hosting the seventh wonder of the world. No one can deny the falls are beautiful, touristic and picturesque. This place holds special memories for millions of tourists. However, veer off the beaten track, and you’ll find that the real blessing in Victoria Falls is the people you meet and the character they show.

After a morning of e-mailing home and walking with the baboons and the warthogs down the main strip (really), we ventured out to meet Brother Shuma, the preacher who works in Victoria Falls.

I’ve found it to be true that in Zimbabwe and in parts of South Africa, the church is willing, but the funds are weak. Brother Shuma and his wife took our group out to a “stand,” or a piece of property, where the Victoria Falls Church wants to build a building.

Several men met us there, travelling on foot or by bike. The church already bought the property and built a well and a sewage system.  As of now, they are meeting in a makeshift shack on Sunday morning and in homes on Wednesday night.

Brother Shuma himself makes the bricks for the building and stores them in his small courtyard. However, money is not available to purchase the materials needed to build. When I saw this problem replicated throughout Zimbabwe, I wrestled with the reverse scenario in my own life at home in the states.  Are the funds strong, but the church unwilling to work?

After meeting with the brethren there, we drove out into the bush to meet with the Sidobe tribe. The Sidobes live off the land in communal family huts. We began travelling on a paved road, then to a gravel road, then to a sand road, and then to no road at all. We finally arrived at the opening where we could see the huts and people gathering.

We met in the community kitchen mud hut. Men sat on one side, women on the other side. I sat beside Faith Vimba, who graciously translated all that her husband, Bruce, said in Ndebele, their native language. Bruce told them we travelled from America to bring the good news to them. Hayley, Faith and I took the children outside for a Bible lesson as Shak presented a message to the adults.

I would like to say that, since I am a professional communicator, that the children and I understood one another perfectly. However, I found myself very nearly lost as I tried to convey to them songs like “Father Abraham” and “Who is King of the Jungle.” Again, Faith truly saved the day with translation.

I was astonished at their Bible knowledge as we quizzed the kids at the end of the lesson. How is it that they have next to nothing and yet know countless facts about the most important book of all time? It was clear to me that these Christians know the value in the gospel. Again, I was encouraged, challenged and blessed beyond belief by our time with the Sidobe tribe.

I will never forget my first experience in Victoria Falls. Not only did I experience one of the most beautiful places in the world, but I was also challenged to be the hands and feet of Jesus with all that I am and have, just like the church in this wonderful city.

Y.E.S. was a success!

No matter how much I teach, I always learn more.

The first big event our campaign team took part in was the Y.E.S. rally in Venda, South Africa. Y.E.S. stands for Youth Exalting the Son, and it is a youth rally created for teenagers who are serious about their faith. Partners4Africa’s goal is to spark a flame of enthusiasm and excitement in the leaders of youth, so those leaders can take the excitement back home and spread it among their friends. Y.E.S. challenges the youth to begin service projects in their community, such as visiting widows or feeding orphans. The youth are to continue those service projects throughout the year and report the good works they have been doing to other Y.E.S. chapters in southern Africa.

We hosted fifty students from at least seven different communities at the Copa-Copa Lodge in Venda. Now, please keep in mind, our campaign team travelled from Nashville, to Newark, to London (11-hour layover), to Johannesburg and then on to Venda with just one night’s sleep under our belt. We were…tired. But every single one of the team was a trooper and came through with a smile and a great attitude.

Dorian Flynn and Shak Arrington taught the main sessions, while Blake and I taught the break-out sessions. Hayley Farmer was my ever-ready assistant, and Cheri Flynn was the never-failing organizational guru.

I had three sessions to teach under the theme “Champions for Christ.” I taught about purpose, passion and purity using Esther, Mary of Bethany and Mary, mother of Jesus, as examples. Suffice it to say, I was a little nervous about talking to 25 African teenagers when I knew nothing of their individual backgrounds or where they were spiritually. I distinctly remember telling Blake that I was nervous I would say the wrong things. He just looked at me and said, “Janet, just tell them what the Bible says.”

Those girls were different from me, in so many ways. Yet I needed to relate, to stress to these impressionable minds the importance of Jesus Christ and living life for him. I found that, therein, lies our commonality. Christ. We all came from God, and if we are faithful, we are all going back to God. In reality, we have everything in the world…in common.

I cannot say enough about the wonderful young women I was able to get to know. They were respectful, ambitious, encouraging and loving. They taught me more than I taught them.

And this was only day number one.

Better Later than Never

While we were in Africa, I anticipated that we would have more access to the Internet. The trip was so “chocked full” of events, that we rarely had even a half-hour to spare for an Internet cafe.

However, I still want to share with you the events that took place, since so many of you play such a vital part in the work being done. I will be regularly uploading pictures and stories from the things we saw, smelled, enjoyed and took part in. Every year we go hoping to help others. Every year we receive blessings beyond belief. Every year we grow more in love with our brothers and sisters from afar. I hope you join me in my pursuit to tell the story, and may we all be inspired to tell the ultimate story of Jesus Christ.