The Scent of Life

“Wherever we are, this is our school of love.” 

I wrote these words just hours before stepping onto a plane and flying thousands of miles to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. When it finally touched down on the dark, humid runway, my first immediate, frighteningly honest thought was, “I’m not ready.” 

I tried to talk myself out of it. I knew it really didn’t matter whether or not I was ready – I was here, and there was work to be done, people to care for – love to be learned, right? But the truth is, my brain and body knew the truth. I wasn’t ready. 

What would it mean to be ready? Even after three trips to Tanzania, I have no clue. Every trip confronts me in the exact same and yet entirely different way – with my dependence on comfort and pleasure, my physical weaknesses, and my social and spiritual ones. I am confronted by how little I have to offer, how much I must receive. I am confronted by my smallness. 

Every trip I try to seek out where God is alive and working in these communities. Like a spiritual easter egg hunt, I’m seeking the scent of life, the glimpse of hope and promise. On this trip, I waved the white flag for one entire week. “God is here, God is working,” I wrote. “But I feel like extra baggage.” 

It always takes me a while to remember that this feeling of smallness, of being inconsequential, is actually a good thing. In fact, it’s kind of the point. While my job with an international nonprofit is arguably an important one, the truth is that when I leave the community in two weeks, I did my job well if nobody notices the difference. The leaders I serve and support, they are the ones who are investing in these communities for the long road ahead of them. If, when I leave, they feel seen, heard, and empowered – if this equips them to do their job well in the year ahead – then I have succeeded at strategic smallness. Even better if I can work myself out of a job, help them support and encourage each other even more in the year ahead. 

I am here for two weeks, but they live this. That reality stares me in the face every time I visit. It’s not about building anything that lasts for myself. When I’m gone, they don’t have to miss me. When I accept this, then I am free to encourage and empower others without worrying about myself. Because the bigger point is: If Edward was gone, what would that mean for the community? If Sypora burned out, how would that affect teachers? 

Exactly one week after I arrived in Tanzania, I sat in a circle with eighteen young women pouring out their hearts about all their wrestlings with God. I looked into their eyes as they shared how they felt forgotten or overlooked by God, and struggled with doubts about unanswered prayers. I heard their pain as they told stories of how their trust was broken by others – so how could they truly trust that God is good? I held each story as a precious jewel in my hand. After a week of smallness, I could truly look in their eyes and tell them they were not alone, that sometimes glimpses of God’s goodness could be found most brightly in the eyes of one another. Together, we – the beloved family of God – carry each other and so fulfill the love of Christ. 

God is here. God is working. And maybe, after all, this was exactly the school of love I needed – a reminder that in the midst of my smallness and weakness, He will carry me. He will carry us all. 

The scent of life wafting through the open doors of all our eyes will never see.

 

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