After I returned from Ethiopia, I was acutely aware of why the trip had been timed as it had, why I had been called to go at that time in that year and why, it was once again, God setting me up to breathe, float, and even swim, above the waves. I became aware of the why in a quick and unplanned moment when someone asked me, “What did you learn in Ethiopia?” I had not even reflected yet, as the return from Ethiopia was followed quickly by running VBS at my church and then another trip to Chicago. But in that moment, God showed me exactly what I had learned and had me look fully in the rear view mirror at his hand in my life as I answered through tearful eyes, “I learned that I am stronger than I think I am.”
By the time I arrived in Roggie village, the travel had about done me in. I was physically exhausted and I remember looking at my sleeping bag with the thin little mat that separated me from the concrete pad we were to sleep on and praying that the sleeping pills I had packed would work. I was coming out of a cloud that had lasted almost six months and threatened to stay with me forever. The timing of the trip was horrible, I did not feel emotionally prepared to go and be Jesus to the children in Roggie Village and I was starting out exhausted. However, the separation of 30 hours of travel and multiple countries and waterways, the removal from my life and the change of scenery the trip afforded me, allowed me to be uncomfortable enough to grow, stretch and find my strength. Somehow when we are placed in a situation where we are uncomfortable, God can teach us important and life altering things in the state of pure, unadulterated vulnerability. I was physically exhausted, emotionally spent, and mentally taxed and yet, my strength for my journey was found in Ethiopia in a classroom full of first graders. And one of the most important of those first graders became Gemechu, who is on the far right in the included picture.
That first grade classroom was my job for the week. From the beginning, I did my best to try and learn their names. They would patiently repeat them when I asked them over and over, until they giggled with awe at my inability to pronounce their names correctly. There were many that captured my heart throughout the course of the week, but in the eyes of a couple, I found Jesus and the childlike love and joy that would be my strength. As we bonded and played together at recess times, they would hold my hands as we walked and often three or four of them would be holding one of my hands. I would feel them turn my hands over and trace the veins they could see in my palms. It was curiosity on their part, but for me it was a picture of interest, of wanting to know as many details about me as they could and it was a picture of the specificity of God and what he knows about each hair on our head. Matthew 10:30-31: “And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” In that curiosity, I found worth.
These little kids had next to nothing. They lived in huts with no running water, they wore the same clothes over and over, they bathed infrequently, they were not always sure whether there would be dinner at home, but they played, and laughed, and teased and listened as if they did not have a care in the world. All of these little moments helped me to emerge from my fog, see the world around me and begin to determine what life would be like when I returned to the states. Each of these little faces enabled me to look above my circumstances, and consider what God knew, what he did, and how he had equipped me. These little faces showed me the true meaning of Matthew 6:34, which says, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” In their lack of worry, I found joy.
One moment in particular, will be with me forever. We were told not to drink the water, even the well water, so I refrained. Each day after recess and running around in the heat, playing soccer and ring around the roses, they would all stop at the well and get a drink, cover their hands and faces in the cool water and be refreshed before returning to the classrooms. On the fourth day, I stood at the back of their pack, as I had before and waited for them to finish so they would again grab my hands and we would return to the classroom. As I waited and watched them crowd around and physically maneuver for a spot to get to the water spigot, I observed my own parting of the river Jordan. Slowly but surely I saw them begin to move away from each other and that clump of precious first graders parted their sea and created a perfect path for me to walk to the spigot and get a drink of water. I was overwhelmed. At the end of the path near the water spigot was sweet Gemechu beckoning me to walk the path and get a drink. So I walked through those little loves, holding back tears, and bent over to drink. Who was I to say no? As I did, my scarf slipped off my shoulder and touched the ground and little Gemechu picked it up and held it off the ground for the duration of my drink. He was the love and care of Jesus wrapped in a little first grade Ethiopian child, and in that moment my worth and joy became strength for my journey.
I had stepped into the Jordan and God had parted the flow of water for me, in the faces and love of those little first graders. At that moment he ushered me into the next phase of my life. He showed me that by stepping in and sitting in my environment, by embracing this foreign land and people, by being vulnerable and putting one foot in front of the other without knowing what would come next, I could reach a strength that I had, to date, been unaware of. I needed to sit in my discomfort, physical and emotional, and be still, and listen. I needed that time of discomfort to find my strength through the knowledge of my own worth in his eyes and the joy of being his child, which was absolutely necessary to what came next in my life.
God’s strength carries me through with a perspective that is above any storm that might threaten to take me down. I now laugh at the fact that I had to go to Ethiopia and drink water with first graders to learn the depth of that strength and the true meaning of Matthew 6:34. But isn’t that the wonder of God?