From an early age I was drawn to and fascinated by images of Africa. Pouring over National Geographic articles, and watching specials on Jane Goodall the 'dark continent' seemed so far away and exotic. In 1996, after what felt like a lifetime of longing, I found myself landing in Kenya, East Africa. It was a trip that would forever change the direction of my life.
But let me back up a bit to what took me to Africa in the first place.
When I was 18 my mother died after a short battle with cancer. Losing my mom was devastating and caused me to grow up fast. I suddenly I realized that life was fleeting, for me and for those that I loved.
This revelation resulted in two things. I stopped letting people in, I shoved my emotions deep down and refused to let anyone close enough to hurt me if anything happened to them and I lived in constant fear.
I also became motivated to live life on purpose. My mother had regrets in her final days, she had wanted to go to England, write a journal. I remember the conversation, her sitting on the couch staring into space in a moment of clarity that became rare when the cancer and the morphine took her away before death did. I made a decision that day-not me, I was not going to find myself thinking “if only” at the end of my days.
This attitude and hunger to live my dreams led me to Africa. I lived the dream, met my husband and came home, almost four years later.
C is for Canada
Nine years ago when Phil and I arrived in Canada after four years in Nigeria. I felt like I was stuck between worlds, between homes, in a no mans land and it was a dark and sad place. I was 28, had lived my life dream of working with primates and doing something for conservation in Africa, a dream I thought wouldn’t be realized. I landed back ‘home’ with a resounding THUD.
Living a ‘normal’ life in Canada was difficult. My friends’ lives had moved on, they had bought houses and cars, had careers. I felt behind the game and disconnected from everything I had once called home. I missed Africa, I missed the chaos, the suffocating heat. I craved some kind of calamity to shake things up. I felt a heavy burden of not doing anything to ‘save the world’ and I was really searching for some kind of meaning or purpose in my life.
My sister had taken a course called Alpha and had written me while I was in Africa that ‘the love of Jesus’ had changed her life. Quite frankly, it freaked me out! Here’s what I wrote in my journal that day:
November 3, 1998
“My sister and brother in law have become born again Christians. Both of their last emails have been about how finding Jesus has made them feel so good. I told them they’re both scaring me. Not sure what kind of response I’ll get from that. Laurie wants me to take the same course that has changed them. That is precisely what bugs me about fanatically religious people-they try to force it on you and that’s all they ever talk about anymore. I told them I feel isolated enough as it is from family and now the people I’m closest to seem to have lost their marbles. I told them I’m not ready for that kind of spiritual enlightenment and also mentioned something about my perception of born again Christians is that they’re constantly shoving it in other peoples faces’
That was the end of those conversations while I was in Africa.
When I came back, I saw that the people I loved hadn’t lost their minds, there was something different about them that I couldn’t put my finger on, but it wasn’t bad, it was good.
I started a job in a veterinary clinic but woke every day feeling like I was under a heavy weight, there was a restlessness inside me and I wanted more out of life. We searched and searched for a job for Phil back in Africa, hoping that life beyond Canada would bring more meaning. But, door after door was slammed shut, we were stuck in Canada and I felt like a caged animal.
Each day, when I arrived at the veterinary clinic I felt a sick to my stomach, the work situation was very difficult and before I got out of my car the only thing that seemed to bring me peace was saying this prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
I had no idea why it brought me peace, even temporary, but it did. So when my sister told me there was an Alpha course starting and did I want to go, I didn’t say no, I didn’t quite say yes yet either. I wondered what the point of life was if you just live and then die. I decided since living my life my way didn’t seem to be bringing me any clarity that I could at least try seeing what God had to offer.
I decided to give Alpha a try. During my time there, I could feel this thing growing in me, something I hadn’t felt in a long time, HOPE. During one of the discussion times, one of the women who had been a Christian for many years said that being a Christian to her meant not having to worry, that she gave her worries to Jesus and he took them away. At that moment I realized how much worry and fear dominated my life. I worried about money, I worried about my family, I worried about my future, I worried about world issues….I couldn’t imagine living without that. But I liked the sound of it.
As the course went on, I learned about a God who loved me, unconditionally. That no matter what skeletons were in my closet or deeds I had done that made me feel shame and guilt, He forgave me. I learned that I didn’t have to work for His love or change for Him I just had to say yes to letting Him love me and He would look after the rest. This wasn’t the understanding of God I had grown up with, it was so personal.
Each week I felt this rising up inside me, I fought tears as I listened to the worship music but I kept pushing them down, pushing those feelings of loss of control deep down. The idea of giving over control was scary! There was a tug of war going on inside me, the old me holding on and the new me wanting to go forward to give God a chance. At the end of each evening, there was a prayer you could pray, which essentially says, ‘ok God, I am done living life my way, I am sorry for all that I have done and I want to live your way now’. Each week I would get through a bit more of the prayer, and then finally about half way through the course I said the whole prayer with my whole heart.
Then, a week or so later, while a song called ‘Open the Eyes of my Heart’ softly played, the rising up began again only this time I couldn’t, or didn’t, shove it down and at the moment that I surrendered control I experienced fully, God’s love…in my minds eye I was lifted to His feet and I wept and wept. I cried for having denied him all my life, I cried tears of joy and appreciation for being given a second chance. I knew without a doubt that there was a God, and that He loved me. I was filled with an inner peace I had searched for my whole life and a joy that was almost uncontainable.
The years since that day have been amazing. I understand what it means not to worry (most of the time anyway), the grip of fear I lived in is gone. I have grown so much and learned so much and God has continually showed me that He is present in my life. I have learned to love others in a new way. I have learned that there is a plan for all of our lives, and that no matter what it looks like to us, His plan is always for our good.
B is for Brazil
That brings us to now, and this new door that God is opening. In November of 2011 we will take our family to Brazil to live as missionaries, showing people who struggle in dark places, that there is a light, and a love and a hope. That, as long as they are willing to let God take the lead, their lives can change too. Looking back at my journal entry and how I felt about Christians ‘always wanting to talk about it, shove it in peoples faces’, I now realize why Christians want to talk, share and help other people see. When you discover something that changes every aspect of your life so positively, brings you so much joy, helps you live and love and laugh every day-you want other people to have it too!
Of course, not everyone feels called to move their whole family to another continent but we feel that God has been training us and molding us, long before we even knew Him. When he put Phil and I in Africa together it was no coincidence, it was boot camp.