Day 3 in Africa: a gift of a day

All the girls joined together for a dance/singing game.

All the girls joined together for a dance/singing game.

I wish I could recognize every day as pure gift. I am grateful that today I was able to see God’s fingerprints all over its events. We began the day walking into Kibera, a slum 1 1/2 miles square inside Nairobi, like Central Park in NYC (they’re actually about the same size–Kibera and Central Park). It’s filled with somewhere between 400,000 to a million people (I know, big range, but I imagine it’s pretty difficult to take a census in a place like Kibera.

A snapshot of a small portion of Kibera

A snapshot of a small portion of Kibera

It’s hard to describe Kibera. I’ll post some pics of it, but I don’t particularly like just snapping off photos like I’m in a zoo. So I don’t have pictures of the sewage running in a ditch alongside and sometimes across the footpath or of the huge piles of trash that children search through, hoping to find something to sell to provide their families with food.

We had a few scraped knees and elbows, but amazingly no big injuries (either team) playing on KIbera's slanted dirt-and-rocks field.

We had a few scraped knees and elbows, but amazingly no big injuries (either team) playing on KIbera’s slanted dirt-and-rocks field.

Anyway, we walked to the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. We got a tour (I remembered much from when we were there three years before.) Then our girls went into a class with their students. Oh, the sounds coming from that classroom. Singing (Justin Bieber has evidently captured an international audience), dancing, chatter so loud we could hear it all the way across the courtyard. After the girls ate some lunch, they all (our girls, too) gathered in a circle in the courtyard and did dancing/singing games with each other (like “Little Sally Walker” and several other African equivalents). For some of the shyer girls, I could use some of the pictures I took for blackmail! They had so, so much fun. We walked around Kibera a bit more and then headed off to the soccer field. Fun game; the KGSA team finally won in overtime.

He knows the numbers of hairs on every one of their heads. I keep asking God to remind me of this.

He knows the numbers of hairs on every one of their heads. I keep asking God to remind me of this.

Then the boys U14 team asked to play, so the girls played some more. We had an entire fan group of little girls and boys, and the girls spent their off-the-field breaks playing with them.

Clapping games on the sidelines

Clapping games on the sidelines

On the way home we made a surprise stop. Wanee (I have GOT to learn how to spell his name) introduced us to his “uncle and aunt”- relatives of his mother who cared for him after his mother died. Turns out the “uncle” was on the IOC (International Olympic Committee. He had pictures of himself with Hilary Clinton and–oh, my word–Nelson Mandela! Such a privilege to meet this man and listen to his wife tell us about their life. She just exuded faith and was a great blessing to us.

The team with Wanee's auntie.

The team with Wanee’s auntie.

Then it was back to the guesthouse for a quick shower (boy, were we gritty!) and then to Assistant Coach Lauren’s aunt and uncle’s house (they are missionaries in the Niarobi).

the girls gathered outside of the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy

the girls gathered outside of the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy

They fed us with love, care, and lasagna, and we got to hang out with them and hear stories of their 40 years living and working in Kenya.

The team with Lauren's aunt and uncle.

The team with Lauren’s aunt and uncle.

What an absolute gift of a day!

Countdown to Africa

Dave, Emily, and I leave for Africa in four days! We are very grateful that the three of us are able to go together—what a privilege!

I’ll post updates on the trip right here on my (Jen’s) blog: www.jenunderwood.org. If I’m able, I’ll upload some pictures as well. Here’s a bit of what we’ll be doing:

WHO’S GOING?: Twelve of Dave’s soccer players will go on the trip, along with one of his assistant coaches (Lauren Lindner Anderson, who was a former player and student years ago), and two of the girls’ moms.

WHERE AND WHAT? We do have a schedule (though it’s pretty flexible, as it needs to be): In Kenya the girls will play several soccer matches, one of them with girls from the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy in the heart of the Kibera slum. Our girls will also attend classes with the KGSA students.

We have also connected—through Jody and Aaron Hoekstra—with a woman named Mary who started a babies and toddler home outside Nairobi. I had heard so many wonderful things about Mary from Aaron, and when the opportunity came up for us to visit her and her babies, we jumped at the chance.

In Uganda, of course, we will see Wilfred (the director of Mercy Childcare who helped so, so much with Patrick’s adoption), his beautiful wife, Vena, and their two young children.

In Jinja we will get to see a friend I worked with when we lived in Sterling, Kansas. Sarah now works as a designer and project director in Jinja, Uganda, and will show us the work she does with the African women who make crafts for her company.

A few more games, work with the soccer ministry run by Light the World Church in Kampala, processing/prayer time with the girls each night, a church service at LWC, a visit to a cancer hospital… It’s full, but not so planned that we cannot stop to help someone or spend more time with people or take a detour.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? We covet your prayers for this trip. We know that God uses trips like this in significant ways in teenagers’ lives, and we expect that from this trip as well (He uses it in our lives, too!). Please pray that all of us will be sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading on this trip and then beyond it when we return to Chicagoland. Pray that we will spread the sweetness of Christ wherever we go on our trip (including airports and guesthouses), and that we will be a true encouragement to the believers we work with. Pray that we will be a great support to these brothers and sisters in their Gospel work.

Thank you!

Dave, Jen, and Emily Underwood

Tweet response

A couple days I tweeted about trust in God and I used the word “converse.”

Val, a good friend who teaches geometry, responded, “Hi friend, I just wanted to comment on your post about the converse statement. Did you mean to say inverse instead? Inverse statements are when you negate both the hypothesis and conclusion. Converses are when you just switch your hypotheses and conclusion but don’t negate. Sorry if I am being nerdy, but love teaching this in geometry.”

Did you understand that?

I messaged back that I need to take her class.

I’ve often marveled at how she LOVES geometry, at how her mind understands concepts that just boggle mine. Judy, one of my international daughters, is in Val’s advanced geometry class. When Judy did her first homework assignment, I took one look and said, “Well, you’re not going to get any help from me in that subject.”

One of the benefits of my job (writing stories for Wheaton Academy’s website and magazine) is that I get to sit in on all kinds of classes and listen to teachers share their passions with students. Just in the last few weeks I’ve watched science students make E. coli bacteria glow (they injected jellyfish genes into it!); history students experience the Depression by standing in a soup line; and theatre students fly—literally!—in this year’s musical, Peter Pan.

As I interview teachers, asking how they came up with their ideas, I’m fascinated by all the different ways they think. The drama teacher dreams in images and themes; the science teacher is fascinated by the interconnectedness of small with big; the history teachers see the cycles of humanity through the ages.

I listen and am amazed at the breadth of knowledge there is just on this planet. There is so much to know—and the more we know, the more we realize we DON’T know—and one human mind can only grasp a very small portion of a very small sliver of it.

And it all comes from our infinite God.

Isn’t that incredible!

Think about the huge amount of knowledge that mankind now knows. Then think about how much is discovered each day—how much will be discovered the next day and the next and the next, each discovery revealing that there is still more to know. Isaiah 55:9, Hebrews 4:13,

Imagine all the “unseen” things that we cannot view with microscopes or telescopes, no matter how high-powered. An entire spiritual realm hovers outside our senses. Ephesians 3:10

Reflect on the ages of recorded human history and the ages before that—when “time” was not measured by the ticking of a clock or the flip of a calendar page but was encompassed in God Himself (as it still is!). Jude 1:25

Have you ever fully known a person—inside and out. For that matter, do you fully know yourself? Think of all the billions of people in this world, each unique in personality. Now remember that there were billions upon billions of people before—each one individual even down to fingerprints. I Chron. 28:9, I Cor. 4:5, I Sam. 16:7

All of this, all of everything, is in God! It came from Him. It has its being in Him. It is sustained by Him.

And He fully understands ALL of it.

Wow!

Are you feeling a little small now?

I am.

Small in the presence of our BIG God.

That’s a good thing.

 

Wisdom

“Homecoming is special because we’re all home-going—and this allows us to check in along the way.”

We just finished homecoming week at Wheaton Academy, and that quote (said by Greg Cox) summed this one up for me. For the first time I experienced the Academy’s homecoming as a writer rather than as a teacher. I still chaperoned at the square dance/hoedown Saturday night (fun), but I also interviewed a 1947 grad who spoke on bioet

Photo by Judy Wen

hics in the advanced biology class; I talked for more than an hour with the two alumni of the year; and I met, face-to-face, all the former teachers I interviewed this summer while preparing for a different article. I also had the privilege of going to the alumni worship service Sunday morning. While some of the alum there were around my age, most graduated in the 40s and 50s. I could have listened to them talk all day long.

One former teacher (I actually taught with her) told me about her struggles following retirement. “I felt like I’d lost purpose. I asked myself, ‘What am I doing?’ Then I learned this truth: I still have the same job, to serve Jesus. That didn’t change. The only thing that changed was how I did it.”

I met a woman who cares for a very ill husband. Her days are spent dispensing medicines and aiding him in getting around. But she had a smile on her face. The hardest thing, she says, “is watching him suffer,” but she’s seeing how God is being glorified through it, and that helps.

Another former teacher (I taught with her as well) just had to place her husband in assisted living. But rather than talk about that, she wanted to spend our time together encouraging me.

They’re going home. They’re not there yet—this is not it. That recognition changes everything. It gives them purpose. These are forward-gazing people. They have looked back and seen the hand of God in their lives. Through heart attacks and strokes, through lost loved ones and errant children, through financial highs and very low lows, they have learned that God is a constant companion. He never fails, He never forsakes. He always keeps His promises.

And when they “check in” with each other on their home-going way, these are the things they remind each other of. These are the things they reminded ME of. “Hang on. He’s faithful. Call out to Him. He’s there. We’ve seen it. We’ve lived it.”

“Even to your old age I am He, and even to hair white with age will I carry you. I have made, and I will bear; yes, I will carry and will save you.” Isaiah 46:4 (Amplified)

Soli deo Gloria!

The crack in my heart

Recently Kole and Em (they've known each other since they were babies) decided that when they graduate high school, they should have some pictures together from when they were younger, so they asked me to do a goofy photo shoot. PJ got in on the action of this picture.

I just finished reading The Hunger Games. I’ve enjoyed other books by Suzanne Collins and was hopeful about this one—and it didn’t disappoint. Collins was not content with creating a nail-biter. She pushed political, social—and, for me—spiritual buttons, and it took me back to when God began a particular work on my heart.

Dave and I had been teaching at Wheaton Academy for a few years and had watched the school-wide Zambia fundraising project from its beginning. In its first year student leaders had put a huge goal in front of their peers, and they responded, raising more than enough funds to build a schoolhouse, an entire schoolhouse, for a small village in Zambia. The next goal was a medical center. Somehow, despite this big, beautiful vision, I wasn’t excited by the project. Oh, I thought it was a good idea. Getting middle- and upper-class high school students to consider others far less privileged is worthwhile. We SHOULD give. And I liked World Vision, the organization partnering with Wheaton Academy.

But I left “Zambia” chapels with an annoyance I shoved deep down. I felt guilted by the faces and tattered clothes of the children I saw projected on the screen. I wanted to give and be done. I didn’t want this to be an ongoing part of my life. I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable or broken.

God had other plans.

Obviously.

More and more students became passionate, and one of the most affected was a boy in my speech class. He was willing to sacrifice to help the poor everywhere: in Africa, in downtown Chicago, wherever—and one day he took his classmates on in a debate about our responsibility to the poor. As I listened, I found myself growing passionate, too. Why should I hold so tightly to all that I’ve been given? Is it really “mine”? Why did this 18-year-old kid have a better understanding of eternal values than I did?

Right about then I read the young adult book City of Ember and then its sequel, The People of Sparks. The first book tells the story of an underground city built to withstand a nuclear blast on the Earth’s surface. After several generations in it, the people of Ember must abandon their rundown city to make their way to the Earth’s surface. In the second book these people of Ember find a small town filled with other survivors. With no technology and no knowledge of agriculture, the people of Sparks are barely eking out a living, and only a few welcome the refugees from Ember. Soon, their resources stretched thin by these newcomers, most are ready to send them out into the wasteland to “take care of themselves.”

After having spent an entire book with the people of Ember, my sympathies were completely with them. “They can’t do that,” I thought. “That would be wrong. It doesn’t matter that those in Sparks have worked hard for what they have; they HAVE to share it. They only have the “stuff” because of their circumstances, because they were born above ground rather than under it. They’re acting like the people of Ember are worth less than they are.”

And that’s when God broke through the shell around my heart.

YOU have to stop trying to ignore the faces you see on the screen in chapel. You have to stop thinking that those children aren’t as important as the ones you tuck into warm beds in your own home every night. I’ve given you SO much; do You think I meant it all to be used on yourself and those you consider your own? Don’t you realize I care just as much about those tattered children as I care about the ones I’ve given to you?

That made a really big crack in the shell, but the demolition continues; it’s a long term project. For of course, I’m continually taping the breaks, trying to “protect” my heart, and God is constantly breaking through again, reminding me of HIS attitude toward HIS resources and HIS people.

And so full circle to The Hunger Games, in which the incredibly wealthy Capitol officials use their excess to oppress the Districts and keep them in near starvation. And the “regular” Capitol citizens are so consumed with entertainment and fancy food and their outer looks that they give no thought at all to the people of the Districts—except when they actually become the entertainment.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it.

Yesterday Emily and I were discussing the book. “Remember the scene when Katniss is meeting her styling crew?” I asked her. “Katniss is almost repulsed by their gold tattoos, their hair colors, the ways they spend money on such unnecessary things when others are starving.”

Em nodded.

“Do you ever wonder if that’s how people in third-world countries view us?”

So, kudos to The Hunger Games, to The City of Ember, to the Wheaton Academy students who inspire me with their willingness to be shaken out of complacency—and, most of all, to the Holy Spirit, who is not content with my hard heart and breaks through, again and again, in such incredible and creative ways.

The Long View

All of the kids except Nina. They love photo shoots.

I watched Wheaton Academy’s performance of Les Miserables tonight.

Amazing story, amazing performance, music, direction, and adult leadership.
It was seriously excellent, and I was moved,
But I needed some time to get past the amazing performance to the truth God wanted me to see in it.
You see, I left the show missing working with high school theatre, the incredible thrill of working with students, of helping them transmit a character and story they didn’t know they had within themselves, of getting to know students in the very personal ways theatre creates. I left missing the world I was involved in for many years.
With that longing still in my chest, I came home to my 11-year-old daughter baking shortbread–while listening to the music of Les Mis. Jane was in the kitchen, too, singing along. Then Nina came down. They all saw the show last week and have been waiting to hear my reaction to it. Nina wanted to talk through several of the scenes. We sang songs together–not very well.
No wow factor—just my life.
And it struck me that my longing for something I no longer have—though not wrong—is a desire for a different story than the one God has put me in right now. I, like most people I know, am drawn to redemptive stories, stories that have purpose and sacrifice and change and love. The problem is that, though I’m pretty good at recognizing redemption in others’ life stories, I can be really bad at spotting it in my own.
So I want someone else’s. Tonight I wanted what I used to have. Yesterday I read the blog of a friend who is working in Africa marketing jewelry handmade by Ugandan women (check out her blog on my blogroll), and I wanted to be on the front lines of a social justice mission. Two days ago I learned of an Iranian pastor who is on death row for his Christian faith. Though I did NOT want HIS life right now (or that of his wife’s!), I for certain thought of his story as being more redemptive and more important than my own.
But generally, when we look at a life from outside it, and think, oh, that’s so redemptive, so purposeful, the people in it don’t see it that way; often, they are asking for escape from it (a truth clearly showed by the characters in Les Mis).
It’s good that we recognize redemption in others’ stories—we should use that recognition to encourage them and pray for them—but we also have to START seeing redemption in our OWN stories.
We have to start seeing it in the crushing, painful times.
In the grind-it-out, nitty-gritty times.
In the waiting, I’m-not-going-anywhere times.
In the doubting, wandering, holding-on-by-a-thread times.
If ANY of our stories could be condensed down to the 2½-hour-movie-version, we would be able to see redemption in it—at least our OWN redemption. But life doesn’t come with a soundtrack that lets us know when big moments are coming—or that this IS a big moment, a moment full of grand and glorious purpose. So we don’t see the BIG story.
We need the long view, the big view. God tells us His view of time is entirely different from our own. Our days are but moments to him. Our lives like breaths. This does not at all mean that our lives don’t matter to Him (for we know His thoughts toward us are precious and numerous, like grains of sand on the seashore; see Psalm 139:17-18); no, it tells us that He HAS the long view, the big redemptive view of how all our lives web together into the biggest story of all.
All these things in my life that I am tempted to think DON’T have real meaning—they DO. They are part of that biggest story. They may be behind-the-scenes stuff, but they matter. My nitty-gritty is affecting the stories of Dave, Em, Jake, Maddie, Patrick, Nina, Jane—and all the others they bring home for dinner, for the night, for the weekend. My nitty-gritty is being used to change ME.
MY story is a story of redemption.
So is yours.
We need to ask for the long view
And for the grace to persevere when we don’t see it.
Scripture passages:

Psalm 90:4 (The entire psalm is one of lament, but even in his sorrow he looks to the Lord for the “long view” {verses 16 and 17})

2 Peter 3:8-9 (and from there to the end of the chapter—lots of long-view “stuff”)

Down-up-down-up-aah!

Janie (our younger international student) is reading Francis Chan’s

Maddie with her cousin Anna. Two beautiful girls!

for one of her winterim classes (a short January term we have at Wheaton Academy). This means, of course, that I’ve been reading some of it, too. Last night we discussed Chan’s chapter about heroes of the faith, how they were people just like us–but passionate about loving God. I told Jane, “That’s encouraging. They were regular, ordinary people.” But, my words aside, I still have doubts about whether that’s really true. The heroes were just like me? Really? I don’t think so. For instance, did they struggle with the “down–up–down–up–aah!” cycle I follow many days–sometimes accomplishing an entire rotation in a single hour? Were they mixed up, too?
YES! Or at least David was. This morning I talked with my winterim class (Bread of Life; it’s a combination of breadbaking and a Bible study on Christ as the Bread of Life) about avoiding the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. “Find some Scriptures that can help you pray honestly with God, verses that reveal your neediness.”
My search turned up Psalm 40.
Down-up-down-up-Aah! David’s cycle mirrored mine–or I could say that mine mirrors his!
Tight spot–God rescues–David thanks Him.
Praise! David commits to service.
Oh no! Troubles surround him. He focuses on those and loses heart.
Oh no! He understands more and more of his sinfulness!
“I can’t see!” he cries.
HELP!
Bad people–trying to bring him down.
“May you be brought to disgrace,” he cries.
And finally, “Oh, Lord, think of me. You are my help.
Do not delay.”
That’s awesome!
That’s ME!
And that’s encouraging!