Sunday, November 8, 2009

Strangers on Other Paths

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.

                                                     Blessing For The Traveler 

Preparing to travel to Liberia was a bit like preparing to become a mother for the first time.

Let me explain.  When you prepare to travel to a place that is like nowhere you have been, you research, speak to others who have been there, and try to find out as much as you can about this exotic land and its people.  While you cannot go there with the experience of it, you can go into it as well prepared as one can be.  In hindsight, I do believe I left the United States for Africa as well prepared as I could possibly be.

My prayerful reflection of this trip takes me back 22 years ago.  I was preparing for the birth of our first child.  I read every book about "What to expect" that I could get my hands on.  We took classes for expectant parents together, listened to the experiences of our friends who had small children, and "practiced" by taking care of other people's infants.

It is in my nature to be as well prepared as I can be.

It is easy to prepare my intellect.  I find it much more difficult to prepare my heart for the unknown.

So, to continue this Africa/Parent analogy, in both circumstances, I found myself preparing for the joy of it.  Excitedly anticipating all of this joy.  Not being able to wait for it.  It was going to be absolutely wonderful!

And it is.

And it isn't.  

The "is" is wonderful.  The "isn't" is a little more of a shock to the system.

I remember the first time I held my son in my arms.  The image of us gazing into each others' eyes for the first time will never, ever, leave me.  "So, it's you."  Like O'Donohue's blessing, I startled a little at his entry.  It wasn't until I held this child of ours that I realized my capacity for love.  The expansiveness of it, the fierceness of it, the joy of it, and the shock of it.

Mixed in with this joy, is a sharp dose of reality.  The  pain of recovering from a difficult delivery, the sleep deprivation of new motherhood, the realization of the irrevocable responsibility of it.  Joy.  Fear.  All rolled into one. 

When I set foot in Africa, I experienced excitement and joy of being in a new and faraway place.  Joy.  Africa!  It wasn't long though, that joy turned  to something else.  Several young entrepreneurs wished to help us with our bags.  In fact, they insisted.  Then demanded tips.  Extreme fatigue and lack of experience on my part did not help in this situation.  Much like new parenthood.  It worked out and all was well, but it certainly tempered my joy into something a bit more viceral -- a desire to remain safe.

There were joyful moments throughout the trip.  But, if I am honest and real, there were troubling moments as well.  Not just because I was in Africa, but because we were ten jet-lagged Americans together in Africa for several days.  Living together was both pleasant and difficult.  We were aware of this and worked hard to communicate our needs to one another.  We parted on a positive note, but were all looking forward to resuming our lives with our loved ones in our own homes.

The reality of life in a third world country comes as somewhat of an assault to the senses as well.  Abject poverty is all around you.  Many of the homes are not much more than huts, the roads are filled with potholes like nothing I have ever seen, and there is electricity only when the generators are running - if you have a generator.  There is no running water in most places. The water will make you sick.

Our compound was luxurious by the standards of the country.  We had running water and electricity from early evening until morning.  The food was authentic Liberian and very delicioius.  The cold Liberian beer was most refreshing.  Our hosts were gracious, fun, and made us feel most comfortable and welcome.  Yet, we knew we weren't experiencing Liberia as those who live there do. 

The high fence and razor wire surrounding us reminded me that the focus on our security and safety was  intentional and necessarily so.  Never did I feel that I was in danger, but I was aware that the potential was there. 

There were wonderful moments with our Liberian friends.  Our differences were eclipsed by the profound similarities we share.  Slowly over the week, trust developed, conversations about our shared passion for education occurred, and beautiful worship was experienced.  Not necessarily mountain top experiences, but pleasant and welcome.

I didn't go to Africa expecting a mountain top experience and I didn't experience it as such.  I went expecting an experience and a challenge, and that's what I received.  I would be lying if I wasn't hoping just a wee bit for a mountain top moment.  But, go back to the Parent/Africa analogy.  Parenting doesn't occur up on the mountain.  Sure, there are moments of joy sprinkled throughout.  But, it's hard.  Really hard. 

Visiting a third world country isn't all mountain top.  It's difficult, taxing, trying, and wonderful.

The challenge Liberia faces to restore its country to its pre-civil war state isn't going to be spent mostly on the mountain top.  It's going to be hard.  Really hard.  We met so many incredible Liberians who are doing everything they can to bring a future to the children of Liberia in extremely daunting and difficult circumstances.  I will always pray for their success.

So, here's the good news.  The God of the Mountain Top loves us so much that He comes down into our valleys to love us and transform us as we make our way as travelers together on this journey called life.  He is at work in Africa as He is here. I am grateful that God chooses to work in our valleys.

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