Thursday, December 28, 2017

Six Months Later

Intro

December marks 6 months...I have been 'home' for 6 months now!  I'm not sure why, but this seems sort of monumental.  For those of you who have experienced transition before, maybe you know what I'm talking about.  It's like that feeling you get after hiking a trail in the mountains.  You're sore as all get out, but you can look back and smile because you made it.  Of course, I am also anticipating the trail ahead.  But for this moment right now, I just want to thank God, to reflect on the last 6 months, and to share with you how faithful my God is.  My prayer is that you would see Jesus in a new light and that you would "praise God because of me." (Galatians 1:24)

Blessings

I got a job in August as a building substitute.  Not ideal, but a job nonetheless.  Thank you, God.  I wasn't looking for anything else, but in October an opportunity opened up for me to teach ESL (English as a Second Language).  And I love it.  Thank you, God.  Again, I wasn't looking, but an opportunity to move came up and I now live with another Christian.  On a farm.  Thank you, God.  He used my experience in Niger teaching kids of multiple ethnicities.  He remembered my childlike desire to always live on a farm.  He knows me.  He sees me.  He cares for me.

Reflections

On June 11th, after over 36 hours of traveling, I descended the escalator in the Pittsburgh airport, greeted by my family who wore matching African outfits.  It wasn't hard to find them, as they stood in a postcard picture perfect group holding a "Welcome Home Hannah!" sign.  You see a lot of crazy things in an airport, but this group whom I call "my people" stood out.  They looked different, out of place amongst the Americans wearing traditional summer garb.  Perhaps that's a good picture for how I've felt for the past 6 months - like I stand out somehow, just a bit awkward, or out of place.

It took awhile for life to feel ordinary when I moved to Niger, and in some ways, I don't know that it ever fully reached "normal."  Camels and bush taxis ready to tip were still exciting to see.  The dirt and haze and dust storms never stopped being strange.  And even by year 3, I still loved to stay up in the middle of the night to listen to a good African thunderstorm.

I feel the same way about life in America.  Some things felt "ordinary" right away.  But even after 6 months, there are still some things I haven't gotten used to.  I see something new and different every time I go grocery shopping, there are SO many options.  I can't bring myself to wear leggings as pants, though it seems to be the style here in America.  The number and different kinds of Christmas decorations is outrageous.

Adjusting 

I really struggled.  At first.  All my community was suddenly taken from me.  The people who knew me best were no longer living with me.  The people I laughed with and shared life with were gone.  The hardest part about coming to PA was that it didn't feel like home.  It was supposed to feel like home, I thought it would feel like home.  But it didn't.  And there were 3 years between me and the people I knew when I left.

Being with family again was just as refreshing as the lush green Pennsylvania scenery all around me. And yet at the same time, I felt unknown.  I noticed something funny about this when I went to the annual family reunion this year. I obviously haven't been able to attend for the past 3 years, but this year, I was excited and a bit nostalgic because I was finally on the right side of the pond for Labor Day.  So when I arrived, why did I still feel empty?  It wasn't that I was ungrateful for my family or even that I didn't want to be there.  But much of my "family" was still in Niger.  The people who had become family to me were across an ocean, too far away for inside jokes and games.

These were the quiet moments, unnoticed by most, when I mourned and grieved the loss of meaningful community.  There were quite a few of these moments at the start of my return, some easier to recognize than others.  They tell you to take time to grieve when you come back, but sometimes grief isn't something you can schedule.  It just happens.

Culture Shock

My first Sunday back at church proved to be a bit shocking.  The kind of shock that makes it hard to smile or even talk to a friend.  However, you have to know where I came from to properly understand.  I went to a small church in the backyard of the pastor.  An open-air pavilion, if you can even call it that - tin roof and straw mats with sand floors.  We had a choir and a piano and someone always played the djembe drums.  Even though it usually lasted about 3 hours, the service was simple.  It was like family - welcoming new visitors, listening to praises and prayer requests, and we always shared a simple meal of rice and beans when it was finished.  The breaking of bread with brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now imagine my shock when I stepped foot in this American church.  TV screens and monitors, cameras and equipment.  There was a baptism the next week, so naturally the full-sized pool was ready to go, along with boats and docks and life vests scattered across the stage for thematic flare.  I sang.  I listened.  But I didn't feel home.  I didn't know most of the people there.  After 7 years, much of the congregation had changed.  So naturally, even though I was dying to tell my story, there weren't too many people with questions.  Most of my summer felt like this.  I was shocked and out of place.

To the Point

Despite culture shock and grief, God shone through.  He sent people to encourage me, ask me questions, and mostly just listen.  These sweet divine appointments were small things that showed God's great care for me.  I hope you know God like that.

I was hurting at times, but that didn't stop God from being a good good Father.  The Lord's provision for me is reflective of his tender care and intimate knowledge of his children.  I am continually challenged to trust God more, and every time I do, I find Him the same.  Though I ebb and flow, He never changes.  He holds my future and I have nothing to worry about.


"But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.  Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble."  -Matthew 6:33-34


Thursday, December 21, 2017

Wednesday night sharing

I found this unpublished post today.  It was written in July, after I spoke at Crossway Church on a Wednesday night.  In case you missed that night or you just want a reminder, it's worth a read.

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This past Wednesday, I had the pleasure and privilege of sharing at one of my supporting churches.  The theme for the night was knowing God's love.

"See what great love the Father has lavished on us..."  -1 John 3:1

I told stories from my 3 years at Sahel Academy, reflections of God's love.  I can't retell all of the stories, but I can share a few highlights from my talk, lessons I learned:


1.  Gratitude produces joy.

I have Ann Voskamp's book "One Thousand Gifts" to thank for this one.  This book challenged me to name my blessings out loud.  And in doing so - by being grateful every day, taking time to really list specific things that made me smile - I began to recognize God's kisses from Heaven to me.  His love was all around me.  In the busyness and distractions of life, we can be really good at ignoring God's love.  We refuse to be filled with it, and we can't properly love others without it.  In this way, gratitude affected not only my relationship with God, but also, my relationship with others.


2.  How can something so hard be so good?

This was a recurring question that came to mind throughout my first year.  I was enjoying the culture and enamored by every new site; it was all strange and exciting.  I loved meeting new people and was eager to finally apply my 4 year college education.  Things were great; things were hard, too.  I faced feelings of inadequacy in regards to language, teaching, and just being able to do everyday things myself.  Too often, we run from struggle.  I didn't realize that the two - challenge and joy - could coexist so beautifully.


3.  Our lives are a testimony of God's love to those around us.

I was given the opportunity to share the Gospel with non-Christian students and their families.  I can only pray that the seeds planted during my time at Sahel will take root.  Our day to day testimony is powerful, if we allow God to be in control.


4.  God answers prayers.

There were many times when God answered my prayers during my time in Niger, not to mention all that He did to get me there.  I prayed for mentors, and God sent my parents (for a whole year!).  I prayed for redemption after teaching 2nd grade in my first year, having felt like I failed.  And God gave me the same class as 4th graders two years later.  I prayed for housemates, and God gave me friends who became family.  I prayed for my students, and I watched them grow in spiritual maturity and character.  I prayed for a friend to talk to when I came back to PA, and God sent me a missionary to China.


5.  God loved me through my students.

I found joy in teaching after my first year.  This was greatly due to the love I received from my students.  They taught me what classroom community should look like.  They prayed for me.  They wrote me the sweetest notes.  I felt as though we were all a part of a little club.  I already miss them.


Though my time at Sahel Academy and what I learned in Niger is much more complex than just 5 points, I thought this might give you an idea of how the Lord worked in my life for the past 3 years.  Praise God!

"I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." 
-Philippians 1:3-6

Friday, July 7, 2017

FAQs

It's been almost a month since I left Niger.  The conversations that I've had with people since returning have been, for the most part, encouraging.  However, when given the opportunity, I find myself struggling to find a balance between rambling and clamming shut.  I love talking about my time in Niger, but I also don't want to be the annoying girl from Africa who never shuts up.  Please, this is an invitation to ask questions!  As I meet and re-meet people in PA, these seem to be the most popular ones so far.

Top 10 Most Frequently Asked Questions:

How long are you home?
When I first went to Niger, people would ask me a similar question, “How long are you here?”  At first, I had committed to 2 years, so that was my answer.  Eventually, I came to the conclusion that the Lord might call me to Niger longer than I had originally planned.  In which case, my answer changed to something like this:  “I heard once that you should be doing the last thing God told you to do; God called me to Niger, so I will be in Niger until God calls me somewhere else.”  I suppose I could say the same is true of my time in Pennsylvania.  Until He calls me somewhere else, this is where I’ll be.

Will you go back?  
My answer to this question is simple:  I don’t know.  My plans are completely dependent on the Lord.  Am I open to going back to Africa?  Definitely.  Do I know when that is?  No idea.  I'd like to keep my options open and right now am planning just one year at a time.   

Are you excited to be home?
Here's the thing - now I have two homes.  Am I excited to be in my PA home?  Of course.  The cool weather, the green grass, being with family – it’s all really refreshing.  Do I miss my Niger home?  Of course.  The African rains, the beautiful people, the simplicity of life – I miss it all.  Please know that when you ask this question, there is always another side to the coin.  I am certainly glad to be home, but experiencing reversed culture shock, rebuilding community, and searching for a job is all a bit exhausting.  I had a clear sense of purpose in Niger.  I'm hoping to find that here, too.  It's just taking awhile.

How was it?
That’s really a loaded question.  “It” was difficult, rewarding, overwhelming, peaceful, hard, beautiful, interesting, thought-provoking, dirty, hot, hilarious, unexpected, trying, rich, challenging, growing….  Three years is difficult to summarize in response to such a vague question.  Specific questions about teaching, housemates, culture, weather, and people are much more helpful.

Do you miss it?
Yup.  It's easy for me right now to just think of all the good things that happened in Niger.  But in reality, my time in Niger wasn't perfect.  I have to remind myself that even in Niger, I had to take the good and the bad together.   

What are your plans?
Find a job.  Create community.  Be a missionary in PA.  Keep doing what God tells me to do.  I'm hoping to find an upper elementary classroom teaching job at a local public school.  This will be a miracle.  Your prayers are appreciated.  I am also planning to gain credits toward maintaining my teaching license by potentially taking classes in the area or online.

What foods do you miss?
Nothing much.  I did enjoy rice and beans after church every Sunday.  But mostly, I cooked for myself.

What foods did you eat first when you came back?
I drank a tall glass of milk.  

What do you miss most?
People.

What is the biggest culture shock?
What people choose to value.



BONUS:
Here is a short list of things that are still a bit weird to me about living in Pennsylvania:

1.  I feel like I'm in air conditioning all the time.
2.  My laundry on the line doesn't dry in 2 hours...it takes about 2 days.
3.  I have to drive to get anywhere.  
4.  We don't save and reuse plastic ziplock bags...or foil...or wrapping paper.
5.  I live with my parents.
6.  I can wear shorts outside my house or in public and it's normal.
7.  Squirrels and chipmunks.  I keep thinking they should be lizards.
8.  Fast internet.
9.  Sunburn. (You avoid the sun in Niger.)
10.  There are so many things to do.  I feel busy.  All the time.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Divine Appointments

Being home has been hard in a lot of ways.  I'm still searching for community - starting over in a place that's always been home...until 3 years ago.  As a person with two homes now, I feel a bit lost - no job, few friends, and getting used to a new norm.  But I remember that God provides for my every need.  Since returning on June 11th, the Lord has been faithful to put people in my path who have encouraged me and others with whom I've been able to relate.

This is a testimony about God's faithfulness.

June 14th:  My cousin and his family from Kentucky happened to be in town the first week I was back from Niger.  We met up for lunch at my aunt's house and I was so blessed to be able to relate to another family member.  My cousin spent a year in Bolivia when he was in school.  He recalled what it was like to transition and offered some great wisdom:  maintain some of your same routines with the Lord, give grace, know that spending time with family is a test of spiritual maturity.  I was encouraged by his determination to trust in the Lord and how God has been faithful to his family this past year.  Thank God for family.

June 16th-19th:  I had the beautiful opportunity to be with former Niger roommates for the occasion of our friend Naomi's wedding in Omaha, Nebraska.  To be reunited with friends who became family was sweet for my soul.

June 25th-26th:  An old friend from college was in the area and made time to visit.  Though we hadn't seen each other since graduation, we picked up right where we left off.  She was an MK (missionary kid) and has done a lot of traveling and ministry since then.  What a blessing - her questions, her advice, our conversations, her experiences.  She met me at a crucial time.  God reminded me of His care through her.  We related as missionaries in America now.  Praise God.

July 2nd:  I haven't been to my parents' church since last summer.  And after 3 years out of the country, there were a lot of new people to meet.  My first Sunday back was pretty overwhelming.  But this past Sunday, I connected with a family who lived in Japan for about 20 years.  We conversed about culture and transition and religion and diversity.  It was another surprise divine appointment and I am excited to continue to get to know them.

July 3rd:  Mom and I took Grandma out for a late birthday gift - pedicures!  As we're sitting letting our feet soak, Mom starts chatting with the lady sitting next to us.  We soon find out that she has my prayer card at home.  I have never met this lady in my life, but she has been praying for me for the past 3 years at 9:00 every morning.  (what?!)  Her daughter just graduated from Grove City College (my alma mater) and is looking to teach abroad.  We chatted about my experience and both Mom and I were able to encourage and offer advice to another mother and her daughter.  Of course, the whole nail salon is listening to this all - about being in God's will and prayer and trusting Him.  Jesus, plant seeds.

I've had the privilege of experiencing the body of Christ in incredible ways through family, friends, and strangers.  What a beautiful story Jesus is continuing to write.  I want my story to always be a reflection of His goodness and glory.

"In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge...I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more.  My mouth will tell of your righteousness, of your salvation all day long, though I know not its measure. ...you have done great things.  Who, O God, is like you?"  Psalm 71:1, 14-15, 19




Saturday, June 24, 2017

Here am I

I've been home for almost 2 weeks now.

I left a home, a place I grew to love, and people, with whom I shared life.  I left African heat and rain and crazy traffic, 3 hour church services in French and Hausa.  I left students, kids I loved and grew alongside.  I left family dinners every Wednesday night, girls high school Bible Study every Monday night, and prayer group every Saturday afternoon.  I left incredible coworkers and parents and neighbors who felt like parents.  I left worship-leading with Abby, the smell of dust after it rains, and French conversations with the workers at Sahel.  I left laughter and community.  My heart feels the ache of leaving.  No, no one has died.  But I still grieve the loss of these beautiful things in my life.  I still grieve.

And life moves on here in Pennsylvania.  I'm glad it does.  I'm thankful that I'm busy and I have things to do and people to see, appointments to make.  The things, the to-do list acts as a distraction in a lot of ways, hopefully in a healthy way.  I'm applying for jobs, visiting schools, seeing friends, traveling for weddings, and finally getting to those annual check-ups.

This transition has been different than the other couple times that I've come home.  Before, I knew I would be returning to my Niger-home, to all the things familiar, the smells, the people, the school, and a clear sense of purpose.  And this time, when August 9th comes around and everyone is starting school at Sahel Academy, I will be in Pennsylvania.  And I think of my fourth graders this past year who cried when I left on the last day of school.  I think of the class I taught last year and how I spoke at their fifth grade recognition and how they will be middle schoolers and I'm missing it.  I think of how short-staffed Sahel is and how they are combing elementary classes and how they still don't have a kindergarten teacher.  I think of all the memories I made with close friends who will still be teaching at Sahel next school year and how I won't be with them this time.

Transition books tell you to lean into the grief.  They say to maintain routine and to know yourself.  And here I am, discovering that transition isn't really about me at all.  Life in general, for that matter, isn't about me at all!  What brought meaning and purpose in my life has always been the Lord.  And that truth hasn't changed.  Ministry is daily life, Christianity lived out, continual opportunities to love much.   

"Life becomes harder for us when we live for others, but it also becomes richer and happier." - Albert Schweitzer

I am so grateful for the experiences from the past 3 years.  And I am overwhelmed by the incredible people I met along the way who mean so much to me now (part of the reason why it's so hard to say goodbye).  And that's exactly where I want to stay - in a place of thankfulness.  It's tempting to compare one place to another or one culture to another.  But that brings criticism and judgement.  I want to remain in a posture of gratitude.

"Thanksgiving is the evidence of our acceptance of whatever He gives. ...thanksgiving is necessary to live the well, whole, fullest life."  -Ann Voskamp  

My hands are open and my arms spread wide, ready to embrace whatever God would like to set before me.  Ready to worship and thank Him, because He is trustworthy.  I speak from experience.

"All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am determined to make life all about Jesus.  My life is not mine at all.  "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your body." -1 Corinthians 6:19-20

God called me to Niger.  Now He's called me to Pennsylvania.  "Here am I." -Isaiah 6:8


Monday, November 28, 2016

The Compliment

"You look beautiful, Miss Knox!"

Elementary students have a way of brightening your day.  I walked down the sidewalk to find my students lined up, queued by the whistle.  School has begun, another Monday morning.  I'm smiling for the students and because I know I'll have a better day if I do.  I'm choosing joy.

I look forward to Monday mornings if I let myself.  Sometimes I forget how sweet it is to teach these 8 and 9 year olds.  And then I get a comment like that, "You look beautiful, Miss Knox!" Words received with a hug and smile.

"Thank you," I reply.  I'm still smiling, but this time my eyes sparkle with the knowledge that I am loved.

That student might never know the meaning of her compliment, how deep kind words can go and how soothing they are for our hearts.  My students teach me on a daily basis, if I will receive it.  This morning I was reminded of the power of an enthusiastic compliment.  I was reminded that the power of life and death are in the tongue.

These are the little ways that I am blessed.  These are the kisses I receive from my Heavenly Father over and over again.  So today I remember to speak words of life and encouragement (one of our spelling words this week!).  Choose joy.  


"The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eats its fruit."  
Proverbs 18:21

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Walking Close to My Example

The little boy's face haunts my thoughts.

It was a clear, crisp morning from a rainy weekend.  The dry sand drinks deep.  Sweet breezes, blue skies, sunshine.  I didn't want to get out of bed that morning, but I'm glad I did.  I had already decided in my mind the night before that I would go for a run in the morning.  I must stick to my commitment.  Exercise has become an important part of my daily activities.  And I didn't want to "slack off" just because we had the day off of school.

I hiked my skirt over my shorts and pulled at the laces of my tennis shoes - my classy missionary look.  My mind wandered to the day's events.  All over the country, thousands of rams and sheep covered the streets - first alive, then quite dead.  Blood washes into the streets as throats are sliced, rams and sheep sacrificed.  And for what?

For the past two years I have taken time to view the celebrations.  Traffic is quiet on these days because there is too much celebrating to do for locals to be on the road.  A quick drive through any neighborhood in town is enough to give you an idea of what it might have been like in Moses' day.  I do not envy the priests who made sacrifices on behalf of the people.

But this day was different.  Unlike the past two years, I had no desire to once again view carcasses stretched out on wooden poles, leaning against a small fire.

As I passed my neighbors on my walk to school, I secretly hoped that the 9 or 10 sheep inhabiting the roadside and yard for the past week or two would still be alive.

They were.

I finished my running, thankful for the space and time I had to clear my head and be before the Lord. Two men wearing all white came through the gate.  "Bonne fete!" I halfheartedly called to them as they smiled and waved.

I quickly made my way home by way of the street I walk a thousand times.  And though the family continues to gather and the celebrations bring them much joy, I can't help but feel a lump in my throat as I watch a little boy trot closely behind an older man, trying desperately to keep up.  No more than 5 years old and dressed in his best, he used one hand to steady a prayer mat on his head, mimicking the man he was trying to follow.

My heart aches for this little boy - who has no control over his circumstances.  No control over where or into what family he is born.  He is lost.

Aren't we all born lost?

Just as that little boy reflected the actions and example of his elder, I pray that I look like the one whom I follow, Jesus Christ.

Later that day, I walked outside after dinner at a friend's house.  Smoke filled my nostrils and all I could think about was the thousands of rams being slowly roasted over open fires that night.  The air was thick and the smell potent.

I want to be the "aroma of Christ" to those around me.  Though my language skills are not nearly enough to have deep theological conversations with my local friends and neighbors, I am able to live a life that shines the love of Jesus.  And that's my prayer.

For eyes to be opened and hearts to be softened to the love of God.  My prayer is for the darkness to be lifted and for the miracle of redemption to be embraced.  I long to see these people free from bondage, to be free from oppression and shame and a works-based mentality, as if salvation can be earned.  Please pray, too.

God, give me grace as I find you in every situation.  Give me peace as I wrestle before your throne in prayer for the people of this African country you love.  And help me to be a light in a dark world.