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.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Another School Year

School is in session!  Students flooded the halls and sidewalks of Sahel Academy on Wednesday, August 10th.  Old friends were reunited and new friends were welcomed.

I am so excited to be teaching 4th grade again this year.  After just one week, I noticed what an incredible advantage there is to teaching the same grade twice!  This year is also special because I have the same students that I taught my first year at Sahel.  Of course, they were second graders then and I was in my first year of teaching.  A lot has changed between then and now, for which I am very grateful.

I have 9 extremely diverse and lovable students from all over the world.  Over half of my students do not speak English at home, meaning that English is not their first language.  This creates wonderful learning opportunities in the classroom, for both me and my students.  I love being able to make connections between languages.  During reading, we discussed the word "genre" the other day, which in French means type or kind.  Perfect!  In our science unit about nutrition and digestion, I suggested that a biscuit be added to the example meal to make it more balanced.  A student raised her hand with a shocked look on her face, "Miss Knox!  How can you eat something so sweet for dinner?!"  I quickly realized that a biscuit here is a cookie, not a dinner roll.

Ready or not, school starts.  And unfortunately, not all of our teachers have been able to raise their support in time to be here by the first day of school.  Consequently, for the time being, elementary teachers are in charge of their own P.E. classes!  Miss Oostra and I have paired up the 4th and 5th grade classes.  This is especially sweet for me since I taught the 5th graders last year.  Having grown up going to sports camp every summer, along with three athletic brothers, I have truly enjoyed the opportunity to be with the students outside of the four walls of our own classroom.  Though P.E. was rained out on Tuesday, on Thursday we began a frisbee unit!  Between recess duty and teaching P.E., my Tuesday and Thursday mornings are quite long!

Living in the same house as I did last year has made the transition back to life in Niger much easier.  I am also blessed to be using the car of a friend on home assignment.  I currently live with one other single teacher at Sahel, Danielle.  In October, we are expecting two more housemates.  Just a few houses over and on the same compound are three other single ladies who teach at Sahel.  What a party!  It's exciting to meet other enthusiastic teachers.  I made tacos for dinner on Wednesday so that we all had a chance to fellowship.

Starting another school year at Sahel Academy has been incredibly joyful.  I can't explain it, except that God answers prayers.  What a beautiful place.  I am honored to be serving the Lord in such a way.  And my prayer is that God's Holy Spirit empowers me to daily live a righteous and holy life as a testimony to those around me of His love and glory.

"I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me." - Psalm 13:6

Miss Knox and Miss Oostra
on the first day of school!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Saying Goodbye and Saying Hello

"It's good to cry."  I'm not sure how much I really understood that statement.  Crying means that something hurts, and tears are a product of pain.  So why would it be good to cry?

Leaving Pennsylvania on July 26th was probably one of the emotionally hardest things I've ever done.  Don't get me wrong - the first time was hard, too.  But this time was different.

I cried all the way to Boston.

The poor lady on the plane next to me didn't know what to do.  She offered some napkins as tissues and even wrote me a note tucked into my journal for me to find later.  Yes, God provides.

As I sat by the window on my flight to Boston, I realized all that I was mourning.  I was (and maybe still am) mourning the loss of an incredible summer at home with family and friends who love me.  I had to say goodbye to church friends who make me laugh, to my adorable baby niece, and college friends who visited for a whole weekend.  I mourned the loss of blossoming friendships and potentially fruitful relationships.  I drank in the lush greenness on the way to the airport as we sang "It is Well."  And I thanked God for the sunset, balm for my soul.  Yes, God provides.

Goodbyes are easily the hardest thing about living on two different continents.

And I'm not sure how to put this into words, but crying really is good.  It means that this summer was meaningful and that time and people were enjoyed.  If there were no tears, then richness of relationship is lacking.  I'm thankful for those tears.  I'm grateful to God that I have family and friends to love, who are worth crying for.

So, it's been an eventful summer to say the least!  My time was filled with a celebratory wedding of distant friends whose friendship originated in Niger, days off in Michigan visiting an old college friend, and a trip to Texas to see my brother and former housemate in Niger.  I was able to speak at a couple churches and even babysit for my cousin and her 5 kids.  I watched my brothers play in the church softball league and held Ellie Jane for hours at a time.  My summer consisted of pool lounging, evening walks, coffee dates, porch swings, stunning sunsets, and rich conversations.  Yes, God provides.

And upon my return to Niger, I've felt a similar love and affection from the people here:  homemade muffins, ice and cold water already in the freezer, lunch from a friend, house cleaned, and bed made!  Yes, God provides!  I have kept myself busy unpacking and organizing my room and running errands to get the house back in order.  I've enjoyed the sweet conversations with friends reunited and new ones.

The last Friday of every month is SIM's Day of Prayer.  The missionaries on the "Harabonda" side of the river gather in the evening to worship and pray together.  This past Friday I was reminded that we serve a God who satisfies our needs.  I am excited to continue meditating on that truth:  the Lord satisfies our needs, the ones we can't quite articulate and the ones we don't even know yet.

Praise God for our Heavenly Father who knows us intimately, for Jesus Christ who loves us deeply, and for the Holy Spirit who guides, comforts, and speaks to us on a daily basis.  I am in awe of how God has answered your prayers for peace as I transition from one culture to another.  Thank you!

"The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.  You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail." -Isaiah 58:11

Monday, June 20, 2016

Home to Home

Two weeks ago today, I arrived back in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The past 14 days since my arrival have been quite full - full of friends, family, celebrations, road trips, and more.

I left Niger on June 6th at 2:30am.  It was an uneventful trip across the ocean.  I was thankful for the other travelers from Niger who kept me company the first half of my journey.  And I was extremely grateful for my welcoming committee, including my niece, Ellie Jane!  Tears of relief and joy overwhelmed me as my family embraced me.

It's difficult to describe the emotions of leaving such a large part of your life.  And even though I know I'm returning for another school year, there were a lot of goodbyes that were final since there are many who won't be there when I return to Niger at the end of July.  But the night of my departure added some closure, as about 20 friends wished me well by taking me out to dinner at a favorite local restaurant.  And because my housemates and neighbor are awesome, they stayed up with me playing card games and eating chocolate fondue by candle light since the power was out, just to stay up long enough to take me to the airport.

My time back in the US has been equally as pleasant and meaningful as that night.  I spent a day catching up with my "little" brother by going to the Outlets for some shopping.  The long drive to Grove City was just what my weary eyes needed - white clouds against blue skies, and lots of green!  And of course, we stopped to play at the toy store shaped like a giant space ship, because you're never to old to play with toys.  I spent that evening watching Chad play softball and snuggling with Ellie Jane.

This past week, I was in Michigan catching up with good friends.  My roommate in college hosted me for a few restful days.  I enjoyed some wonderful conversations with her and her dad about his experience growing up in the Ivory Coast.  We laughed and reminisced about life in West Africa.  I am so grateful for that time to be understood.  I truly enjoyed getting to know the Gould family and wished it could have lasted longer.

My next Michigan stop was in Freeland, a beautiful suburb of Saginaw.  I was warmly greeted by Abby and her beautiful family.  I can't express enough gratitude for the things that fed my soul that weekend - steak on the grill, roasted marshmallows over the fire, late night chats, horses, fields, sunsets, and friends.  The entire wedding weekend was absolutely gorgeous.  What a privilege to stand beside such a wonderful friend as she married her man.  Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Morris!

And finally, I'm home again.  Ready to think about and debrief in my heart and mind the things that have happened these past two years.  I am excited to remember the things the Lord has done and to pray for the things that He will do.  God is good all the time.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Past, Present, and Future Blessings

"Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift.  That is why it is called the present."  -Master Oogway, Kung Fu Panda (Bill Keane)

Hello all,

It's been awhile since I've posted.  And, well, I miss you.  I'm glad we meet again here.  Welcome to my life in Niger, West Africa.

Fourth grade has a paper chain count down for "days until we become 5th graders."  There are only 6 more rings on the chain.  Can you believe it?!  Fourth grade just started yesterday, right?

As I reflect on this year, I realize just how good God has been to me.  On Sunday, we were reminded of the importance and power of remembering.  I don't want to forget that Jesus has graced me with blessing after blessing.  My heart is filled with gratitude:

  • I had the privilege of being joined by my parents, a testimony to the entire community here.  I never thought I would teach at the same school as my mom or have classroom help from my dad.  What a blessing.
  • God blessed me with a wonderful class and class parents.  I loved every field trip, read aloud book, and creative paper.  
  • I was blessed with wonderful housemates.  Housemates who loved me well.  Who did the dishes countless times for me, helped hostess lovely parties, and who would listen to my heartaches. 
  • And my neighbors.  I couldn't have asked for better neighbors.  They take care of us single gals - fixing water filters, installing lights, replacing locks and keys, and sharing meals.  

It's exciting to move on and to look forward to what's ahead.  But it's also sad to end another season.  I am filled with mixed emotions as I celebrate the many blessings of this past year.  And yet, I grieve the loss of friends, as June begins the yearly mass migration of students, teachers, and friends.

I'm grateful for the past, living the present, and anticipating the future.  I am so thankful for what I have to look forward to:

  • I am an aunt!  I get to meet my niece Ellie Jane, who was born April 4th. 
  • I have the honor of participating in the sweet marriage of my good friend Abby.  She and Stephen tie the knot June 18th in Michigan, which means...road trip!
  • My youngest brother graduated from Grove City this May!  I am so proud of him and look forward to catching up on lost time. 
  • I look forward to family, friends, and a summer at home.  God is good.  

Reflecting develops gratitude and anticipation produces motivation.  But I don't want to forget to be fully present.  Just as Jim Elliot said, "Wherever you are, be all there."  So I take time to list everyday blessings:

  • Rain.  This May has brought more rain than anyone expected (last year it didn't rain until almost July).  Thunderstorms bring a freshness and coolness that is so life-giving in a dry desert.
  • Friends.  I received an unexpected phone call from a friend who recently moved to the bush.  What a blessing to know that she is well and to catch up.
  • Teachers.  The staff at Sahel are a different kind of people.  A couple weeks ago, I was sick almost all week.  A fellow elementary teacher didn't hesitate to step in and take on my class in addition to her own!  While being sick was miserable, I felt so loved and cared for.  Teachers are super heroes.  
  • Newborns.  There have recently been many new babies being born in our community.  I had the privilege of visiting one of these newborns of a mother at my church.  What a gift to hold him, just 2 days old.  His naming ceremony is on Saturday.

Thank you for journeying with me.  Thank you for your prayers and support.  Thank you for kneeling before Jesus on my behalf.  I have needed every prayer.  And my need for Christ hasn't changed.  From the first day I boarded a plane to Niger until now.  If anything, my realization of my need for Jesus has only increased.  I am a sinner in need of Almighty God's grace and mercy.

Thank you,