Thursday, February 14, 2008

The man in the arena

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
-Theodore Roosevelt

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Not in vain

Well, after several depressing blogs in a row (sorry!), I feel that things have changed somewhat for me. Or maybe to describe it more accurately, it is my perspective that has changed. I think I have been struggling to remember why we are here and why we are putting ourselves through all of this. But, God has reminded me that He called us here for a purpose. We may not even know yet what that true purpose is, but He has one, and I am privileged to be called to it.

Several things happened these past two weeks to remind me of that. First, I was able to conduct some of my first HIV/AIDS prevention and education seminars. We started by offering this education to staff here at the office, and then we will continue by offering to staff in our other centers before we move on to the children. In some ways, I almost felt like it was just a formality to offer it to the staff, assuming that they have had alot of contact with Americans and that surely they have heard all of this before. For some, that was the case. But for many others, they have never had anyone explain these things in definite terms and answer questions that they have had for many years. Their culture tells them that they are not to discuss anything regarding sex, yet they were so open and hungry for the knowledge. I felt so privileged that they had enough trust in me to talk about such sensitive topics, even though it goes against all they have been taught.

As I presented the material, I tried to balance having a group discussion that focused on cultural values and common misperceptions of the disease with my providing medical knowledge and answering medical questions. After that, I then began a discussion on what the Bible says about HIV and AIDS. Most would say that the Bible doesn't say anything about HIV, since the disease did not exist then. But, I disagree.

I went through scriptures that describe the hurt and suffering and how people such as that feel rejected and alone. Then, I highlighted scripture that explains God's heart for those that are sick and suffering. I then asked them what they thought our responsibility as Christians is in this fight against the disease. As we discussed it, I brought up some scriptures in Proverbs that value education and wisdom to encourage us all to educate ourselves. I then talked about verses that say that we are not to judge one another for our sins- God is the only judge. Finally, I was able to talk about several verses where Jesus clearly tells us that as Christians we are to love our brothers and care for one another. So, as we see people each and every day that are suffering with this awful disease, it is our responsibility to love them and not to judge them.

I am no Theology major, so I was kind of hesitant as to how this would be received. At the end of my last session, one of the men raised his hand and thanked me for the presentation. He said he was glad for the information, but was most touched by God's words. At that moment, I knew that it was God speaking to these people, His people, and he was speaking to them because he loves them. I could take no credit for those things, because He had given me the words and He had opened their hearts to receive it.

Another one, who is the chief in a nearby village sat through my seminar twice. He sat and heard the same words over again, and I couldn't help but wonder why. At the end of the second session, he raised his hand and asked, "What do I do if I tell my people these things you have taught me, but they do not listen?" I couldn't believe that he was willing to take this information and teach others so openly. He of all people in the village has the most authority to teach, and he is willing to do it. I told him that we will pray for open hearts and minds to receive the message.

All of those things were encouraging to me last week, but have become even more meaningful this week. We have a very dear friend that we work with that confided in us yesterday that two of his family members died of AIDs. There are others whom I know that have not openly stated it, but who are also closely affected by the disease. It really hit me then what a significant privilege God has given me to be a part of people's lives in this way. There is so much hurt and shame and suffering and guilt. If I can be a small part of preventing even one person from suffering this fate, then my life has not been in vain.

My heart is filled with gratitude for God's grace in allowing people to hear this message of hope. I am continuing to pray for His guidance as we continue to navigate these difficult situations, and I am humbled everyday by my constant need for His help. I have remembered that God has a purpose for me here in Malawi, and for that I am glad.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

I feel that it is my responsibility to write and to keep our family, friends and supporters up to date on what we are doing here. We are so conscious of the fact that we are only here because of the generosity and calling of others to give and support us, and we don’t want to neglect communication and connection with those that have given so much. But, I find myself in a difficult place because I don’t know what to write. Sometimes honesty isn’t what people want to hear, but it’s all I’ve got.

Often I have daydreams of different people from home coming to visit us, and I try to picture explaining to them what life is like here….what our life here is like. Each time, I give up on the daydream realizing that it seems an impossible thing to communicate. Even those who visit temporarily cannot understand, as things appear different when looking through a long-term lense. It’s like the difference between looking at something with the naked eye and then looking at it through a microscope- you are seeing the same physical object, but your proximity to it alters your view drastically. I am stuck in the microscope, and I can’t remember what things look like without it.

I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing that I have a different view of things than others may. I think what scares me is that I don’t understand my own view and myself in light of this new world we live in. When I lived in America, I knew myself. I knew who I was, where I was going; I knew what was important in life and what wasn’t. I knew my spiritual self. Now, I feel like someone put my life in a blender, turned it on high-speed and walked away, forgetting that you are supposed to turn it off at some point.

I am not sure I remember on most days why we are here. We came because we felt Jesus calling us to love other people, that He was calling us to love in a way that most people never understand- wholly, sacrificially and selflessly. When we made that decision, I felt a sense of calling and clarity that made it the undeniably right choice. I wanted to offer whatever love and hope I had been given to those who needed it the most. But, here I am and I’m not sure I have anything of value to give anyone, and it seems that the person I am most concerned with helping is myself. Why is it that I have traveled the whole world in an act of supposed selfless obedience, and the only person I can think about is myself? Why is it that when you set out to do God’s work you realize that you are anything but Godly?

I know most missionaries write home and tell people all of these encouraging stories of the wonderful work they are doing. I think that, God-willing, we will have those stories as time goes on. But, you know, I’m just not there yet. The truth is that this is just hard. It is not hard in that we are hungry or poor or sick. But it is difficult in that we are being forced to look at life and at ourselves in a different way, and it is hard to realize that when push comes to shove, you aren’t as good as you thought you were. It took me a while to find God in the world I was born into, and I think it is going to take me a little while to find Him and understand Him in this one too.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

My child

As I look at you
I see the eyes of a child-
Eyes of innocence
Eyes of hope
Eyes filled with inexpressible joy.

But those eyes have not always been innocent-
They have looked death in the face,
They have cried tears of despair,
They know sorrow beyond comprehension.

I wish I could promise you
That the struggle is over,
That peace has laid its hand on you.
But, my child, I cannot promise you peace;
Your struggle has only just begun

Monday, November 19, 2007

Here I am awake at 3:30 am…wondering why on earth I am up at this time of the night. My dreams have awoken me, if only because of their stupidity and senselessness. But, it is more than that which keeps me awake.

I have been dreaming a lot lately of high school- not necessarily being in high school, but dreaming of different scenarios that include people I went to high school with. Unlike some, I was thrilled to move on from the people and the place a long time ago, so I am confused as to why my mind is revisiting it.

As I spent some time pondering this issue, the answer slowly became clear to me. Physically, I am here in Lilongwe, Malawi- Southeast Africa. However, mentally, emotionally, spiritually- I am in culture shock.

I almost hesitate to say this, because I am already anticipating the frantic emails and worried questions that will come from those who love us. I know- it sounds like a medical diagnosis that I may or may not recover from. But, let me reassure all of those who may feel that way (and myself) that this is normal. If nothing else, you can always trust that I will be honest, and to be completely honest I have to say that is where I am.

When we first arrived here, the transition was relatively easy. We adapted well and have been very happy settling in. The past week, though, I have found myself struggling without really understanding why. There have been many scenarios here that have caused me to question myself, my life, my understanding of God, and when I try to make sense of it, I can’t.

I have come to better understand the circumstances which people we work with everyday live in. These people that we have gotten to know and build relationships with are our friends. We regard them as our equals and our partners in this ministry. However, the reality of the situation is that their lives are very different than our lives. Even as missionaries living on support with a fixed budget, we make 10-20 times the money they do each month. When we go to the grocery store to buy food for the week, we spend more than they live on the entire month- and most of them have several children to feed. Every week, there is at least one or two people in our office who are attending a funeral of someone in their family.

There is one man in our office who is Michael’s age who briefly told me of his story. There are six children in his family- five boys and one girl. His father died when he was six or so, and then his mother died when he was nineteen. As the second eldest, he worked to care for the four younger children. His sister was sent to live with relatives in Zambia, and he hasn’t seen her since that time. He says that he struggles with the decision that he made to send her there, wondering if it was the right thing to do. He still cares for the youngest boy who is now fifteen, and he also cares for his own son who is two.

There are also a few people on staff here that have approached us for loans because of various family issues. One of them had a sister who just passed away and left two children. So he will be caring for his own family and two additional children on a salary of about $55 per month. The other is married and his wife is about to have a baby, but they have no way to pay for medical care or even transportation to the hospital to ensure the baby is born safely.

So, when you live in an environment with this type of need, it is easy to see where the struggle comes in. I feel guilty for the things we have been blessed with. But, at the same time, I am still transitioning from the place where I came. One moment I am frustrated because I haven’t had a pedicure in five months and I have layers of disgusting orange dirt caked under my toenails which I just can’t fix. The next moment I feel guilty for even considering spending what is another person’s monthly wages to have someone clean my feet. Or I am frustrated because I am sick of spending hours of my day cooking and cleaning because I have to cook everything from scratch and wash all of the dishes when I would just rather be at the Chik-fil-A drive thru. And then I remember all of the people I know that may or may not be eating today. I get frustrated that I am missing holidays and birthdays with those that I love, and yet as I write this many that I know are losing their loved ones and will not reunite with them this side of heaven.

I think I have been dreaming of people from high school because in some way I am trying to reconcile my former self that I knew and understood and who was relatively uncomplicated in the culture that I came from with this new person in this new place. It’s not comfortable; it’s not easy. It hurts, and it is painful. I am tired of crying tears of utter frustration as I sort these things out. I look forward to the day when I can look back and realize that I am past this.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Yesterday we visited Chirombo village for the first time. It is one of the two new villages where COTN is beginning to be involved. It is about an hours drive from here with about half of the drive on a very bumpy dirt road (I remember that very well as my rear end is more than a little sore today). Chirombo is a nice change from the villages directly outside of Lilongwe that we have gotten used to. It is greener and has more shade trees, which you learn to appreciate greatly when there is no rain and no air conditioning in the African summer.

As is standard for us "azungus" we received a welcome fit for kings. I am always entertained when the little kids look up from casually playing in the dirt outside their home to see the azungus driving by. It is how kids in America would react if they saw Santa Clause on an average day- they jump up and scream with joy at the top of their lungs calling their friends to come see the white people and wave. Of course, we look at each one and try to wave to each individually, and they giggle with uncontainable excitement. This time as we drove into the center of the village, the children started running behind the truck- first three or four and then gradually it increased to twenty or so children running after our truck screaming and laughing.

Once we arrived in the village, some of the people from COTN went about the business they had come for, and Michael and I just hung around with the kids while waiting. It was then that my experience began to change. My first impressions of the village were wonderful- green and shady, happy and joyful just as I described. But upon closer observation of the individual children, I became sad and sickened by grief. Usually when you first go into a village, you (or at least I as an outsider) can’t get a good impression of how the people really are living. Are they sick, do they have enough food, are the babies healthy, do they get medical care…..these are all questions that come to my mind, but it takes time to answer them. It is not something you can figure out from one visit. But, on this particular visit, it became painfully obvious to me that these kids are sick. There is clearly a great deal of suffering, and the needs are great.

Let me also explain that over time, since the arrival of the new Country Director who received a copy of my CV and educational and professional experience, people have begun calling me Dr. Courtney. The Country Director began calling me by my title, and it has trickled down to everyone else. So, as we entered this village the COTN staff members introduced me to all of these people as their doctor. Not only are these children sick and suffering, but they are now looking to me to ease their pain. I noticed the sicker ones trying to ease their way into the front hoping to get closer to me, as if just being closer to me would somehow help them. Some may find that flattering, but at this point in time I have nothing to give them. It is heart-wrenching to think about these children who are malnourished, sick, infected, hungry, thirsty, and they are hoping beyond all hope that they may receive something from this new person who as come, but she offers nothing. They must be wondering why she won’t help them. Why doesn’t she care about me?

So, as we plan over the next few months for the programs that will be instituted in these villages, please pray for these children specifically. Please pray for wisdom for me medically as well as wisdom for our leadership to be able to offer the services that are desperately needed here. Please pray that the leadership understands the desperate need for medical care. Please pray that on the American side that there will be enough money raised that these children will receive the basic necessities that they need to survive childhood. Please pray for American doctors to come and offer their services in these places.

On behalf of all of these children, thank you for your prayers.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

My apologies.....

Well, I must admit that I am very embarrassed that it has been nearly a month since I posted anything. It is certainly not due to a lack of things to write about. Actually, I think there have been so many things swirling around in my head that it has been difficult to organize them and logically present them. Also, I think part of my struggle has been that at some point I realized that people were actually reading them, and I became a little self-conscious. I like my thoughts to be private and personal, but after all, I find myself baring my soul on the internet. So, at least in my mind, I am just going to pretend that this is my journal and no one is looking at it. 

I will give a somewhat brief summary of what I have been doing over the last few weeks. I have been spending time with Tapiwa and assisting her with exercises and strength training. Also, I researched her condition(s) and prepared a report of my  findings and recommendations for the Country Director as well as the National Board. My hope is that this will prompt serious consideration of much needed therapy for her. 

Also, I have been regularly visiting the girls' home in Mtsiliza. There are nine teenage girls who live there who are home from boarding school for their summer vacation.  I have really enjoyed just spending time with them and getting to know each of their unique personalities. I brought my photo album from home to show them, and they just loved looking at it. They squealed at the sight of wedding photos. One of the girls, Doress, just loved the pictures of my hair and would get so excited and pet the pictures of my hair because she thought it was so nice. I guess that is an obvious sign that my personal grooming standards have decreased somewhat since I have been here.  

I have also spent time at the widow's program in Mtsiliza as well. I guess I am naive, but when I was going to visit them, without really thinking I was expecting a group of elderly women. When  I walked into their meeting, I saw a group of women in their twenties and thirties, almost all of them with very small children. Several had small babies that were still breastfeeding. I began to try to do the math in my head to figure out how they could have babies that young and be widowed already.  Many of their husbands died while they were pregnant or soon after the baby was born. I just cannot conceive of the agony that it must be to lose your spouse when you have small children, and you are left with a family full of mouths to feed yet no way to provide for them. Through the widow's program, they learn to sew, knit, and bake to sell items for their income. I am interested to get to know these women because I suspect they are women of great strength and character.

 The rest of my time really has been spent reading, studying, and planning. Michael and I laugh because we brought all of these books from school that we thought may be useful for our work here. What we didn't realize is that we never really read these books in school. Now, I am reading these books and realizing there is some wonderful, insightful information that will help us tremendously in our respective jobs. I have thought to if I had known how useful this was going to be, I would have studied a little harder in school. Today I was reading a book that I thought was totally useless in school. I looked through it and couldn't believe all of the great information it had. I guess God provides for you even when you don't even know it.  I also feel that we are both getting a better education than we could have dreamed of getting in any school. I am really excited to see what God will do with that after these two years.