Grateful for the Noise

The pigeons are cooing incessantly, people are shouting across the swamp. I hear one child wailing while the another is screeching. Motorcycles are shrieking and honking, the roosters are crowing and pigs and squealing, the generator is grumbling, the church is blasting something out of their crackly old speakers and the video club next door is cranking their bass music to compete. The grinder is churning, the flies are buzzing around my face, someone’s phone has been ringing in the hallway for 3 minutes, students are knocking on my door, and dogs are barking….all at 3pm on a Friday afternoon.

I want to put my hands over my ears and run upstairs and lock myself in my room and close all the windows…but then I would be hot….really really hot and even more miserable. Somehow the noises are even louder up there in our room? I don’t know why…

There is nowhere to go and hide and get some peace! I want to scream, maybe that will at least drown out all the rest of it. I’m about to and then I’m reminded of something I saw on Facebook earlier that week. It was a “30 Days of Gratitude Challenge” with prompts each day to help you think of something you are grateful for, besides the typical ones we usually think of like house, family, food, etc. One of the days asked participants to ponder “what sound are you grateful for today?”

Haha ironic…I laughed…are there actually any sounds I am grateful for in this crazy noisy country right now?!? I rolled my eyes, looked up at the ceiling, and thought to myself… “I would have something to be thankful for God if you could just give me a little peace and quiet every now and then! How about that?”

After I calmed down a little though, I got to thinking more about the idea of being “thankful for sounds.” It seemed a little weird to me, given that I am a very noise-sensitive person and it feels like 90% of sounds in this world just bother me to my wits end. But I tried to sit and think about it in a different light…God gave me the ability to hear sounds and God created all these things that make sounds…so there must be a little more good or meaning in all this noise than I have been realizing.

I grabbed my journal and started listing out the sounds of Liberia…all the sounds I could think of…good, bad, ugly, boring, stressful, peaceful, and everything in between. The sounds that made me smile, squirm,  laugh, and the sounds that made my skin crawl and heart break.

The high-pitched squeaks of the wheelbarrow as it passes by on the street, somebody shouting as they sell heaps of used clothing…bras, underwear, t-shirts, socks.. anything you could possible need, but none of which I actually need. I have been given so much more than I need, none of it was earned.

The constant tired grumbling of the generator on those days (or weeks) when we lose power and the ticking of the voltage regular box every 2 seconds as it tries to keep up with the ever-changing volts that are coming into the house, making my eyes twitch. But I have electricity AND a form of back-up electricity in a country where more than half the people here have none.

The gurgling and sucking of the water faucet as it struggles to pull water out of an empty tank, telling me that for the third time today we are out of water and it’s time to go start the pump. The distant shout of “col wata” somewhere in the busy market, beckoning me to chase after whoever it is that made that sound so I can quench my thirst with an ice-cold water sachet. I am able to afford to drink clean cold water whenever I want, what an insane luxury!

The deep agonizing almost daily sound of a woman screaming in the town across the swamp as someone beats her yet again, just as the sun peeks its way into the swamp. And then there is the higher pitched but just as agonizing sound of a child wailing as someone whips a palm switch over their bare bottom. My heart twists and rages inside my chest and I wonder how God can possibly be good. I remember it’s okay to cry out to God when I don’t have the answers and I lift my hands in acknowledgement of my helplessness in these situations and I am reminded to pray and speak up more for all the women and children in this country and world who have been sexually assaulted and physically abused.

The loud slap of my sandal as it comes down hard on a cockroach’s back and the subsequent squeal of joy that escapes my mouth as I congratulate myself on another job well done. I remember to thank God for even the littlest of victories, no matter how stupid they may seem.

The distinct joyful trill of my friend Konah’s daily laughter. The screeching of the trampoline as the neighborhood children jump on it all afternoon, never tiring or slowing down at all. Life is too short to worry like I do, remember to have fun!

The crashing of the waves as I lie on a totally isolated beach with my husband. The sound of the breeze gently rustling the leaves on the palm tree before the rains come in, strong and heavy on the tin roofs. I am in awe that such a “big big” God who made the wind and the waves could love such a “small small” thing like me.

The aggravating screeching of the parrots and the chatter of the monkeys as I try to teach. The deafening ribbits of the thousands of frogs in the swamp as I try to sleep. All creatures in heaven and earth shall bow down to worship Him our Lord.

The annoying echo of my own words as they bounce around the walls of the concrete classroom. But then again, there is also the beautiful sound of acoustic worship bouncing off those same walls as it makes its way up to the heavens…one of the purest and most beautiful sounds in the world, all in a language that I do not understand but that speaks to my heart anyways. We are all one Body.

The sound of somebody’s phone going off in class, church, or any other important meeting, I think it is impossible to have any type of meeting without this happening in Liberia lol. I used to get so mad, now I’ve just accepted it. There are many things out of my control.

The “ya ellooo ma” greetings from teeny little neighborhood children peeping out behind brick walls and the satisfying snap as two hands release from the classic Liberian handshake which is used to greet friends and strangers alike. It makes me smile, reminds me that I have family here.  

The honking of the motorcycle horns as they buzz all around you in the city streets, threatening to knock you down of your face if you don’t pay attention.  I never used to take it seriously when people said “pray for safe travels.” I do know, I’ve seen way too many people die from accidents here.

The bubbling of thick red palm butter soup on a coal pot or the sizzling of the scorching hot oil as the “ol ma” drops wet dough into the pot…my mouth waters in anticipation. I am grateful for my daily bread and reminded of the so many around me do not have enough to eat….reminded of why I am here in the first place.

The whirling sound of the cutlass and whipper as the farmers bend down to manually cut the grass or weeds before preparing their fields for planting, it is backbreaking work. I am reminded that though we plant the seeds, God causes the growth. How dependent we are on Him.

The constant buzzing of mosquitoes all around my ears as dusk begins to fall and I try to soak up the last few minutes outside with the cool breeze before retreating into my stuffy room for the night. I have a house with screens to protect me from the mosquito that carry malaria, a disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year on this continent.

The distinct pinging sound of a call or text coming in from sponsors/partners/friends back home that makes my heart leap with joy every single time. Though I often feel alone, I am not alone. I am part of a community through this ministry and we are all in this together.

The soft sound of my mom’s voice as she gently quiets my sobs after another hard day in Liberia. My mom is alive and healthy and technology is amazing because it allows me to hear sounds from thousands of miles away.

The familiar sound of country music as I dance with my husband in our room, reminiscing deeply about home. I am so thankful for this man, he is my home away from home.

The hollow wailing of the village women crying out to God in agony as they throw their bodies on the ground around the grave as they mourn the loss of a life taken way too soon from this earth. I am reminded that God hears our cries and of his call to mourn with those who mourn….most days I’d rather turn away because I don’t know how to hold it all together.

The sound of clothes being pounded and stretched on the washboards every Saturday morning. The thud of the hook as it hits dry dirt while we attempt to dig up our potatoes during dry season. The sound of water being dumped after dishes have been washed. God is present in the small everyday things of this world, whether I hear him or not.

The swooshing sound of women sweeping the bare soil around their houses, a sound heard millions of times a day in this country. Ashamedly, I used to think it was such a funny/strange/pointless thing to do. That was before I heard and saw it for what it really was… a daily act of love for their families, a daily act of restoring order and creating beauty in their homes, a daily act of reclaiming dignity in a hard and unforgiving world that has tried to snatch it away from them. And perhaps, if they are believers, it may also be a daily act of giving thanks to God their Provider, an act of stewardship over all that God has given them the honor to care for, whether big or small.

I can choose to throw my hands over my head and scream at God for not giving me any “peace” or I can choose to listen and allow the sounds, every single one of them, the chance to speak to my soul and draw me in…reminding me to pray, to call out, to beg, to thank, to worship, and to rely on God for all that I am and have. While the lightness and beauty of the wind and the waves, the laughing and the songs, remind us that our Creator exists; it is the heaviness and uncomfortableness of the wailing, the screeching, the honking, the buzzing, the tears, and sobs that force us deeper into His arms and remind us of our innate need for a Creator in the first place.

It is because of this that I will choose to be grateful for the noise, ALL the noise.

Are there any sounds that are you grateful for??? Any sounds that maybe you can learn to be grateful for?

The Hardest Thing

People often ask me what the hardest thing about living in Liberia is…

Is it being away from family and friends? Is it the “strange” food? specifically the lack of cheese and bacon? Is it the bad roads? The unstable electricity? The lack of clean drinking water in your faucet? The lack of healthcare? The different languages? The heat? The mosquitoes? The tropical illnesses? The snakes?

The truth is, it is none of those things. Don’t get me wrong, those are very real challenges (even the one about the cheese….) but if you want to know the one thing that makes living in Liberia hard…the one thing that keeps me up at night and makes me question whether I belong here or not and makes me feel so so tired and weary and like I just want to give up and go home…it is the gray.

Learning to navigate all the gray.

Growing up I used to be so confident in my view of the world, my opinions, my beliefs, the way things were and that was because I so clearly saw a lot of my world around me as black and white, there was right and wrong and there was good and bad and there was nothing, absolutely nothing in between for a rigid and “holier-than-thou” youth-group-going rule-follower teenager like me.  Everything had an explanation and everyone and everything about the world could be categorized and organized. Borrowing from the words of Pastor Chase Falson in his book “Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale “I’d considered myself one of the privileged few the heavens had endowed with a perfectly true compass… Every question had a logical answer. Every mystery had a rational explanation…I thought I had God [and the world] pretty well figured out.”

[Hehehehehe I know, I know….I’m sorry….I’ll wait as you retrieve your eyeballs from the place in the far back of your head to which they must have just rolled]

You see, viewing the world as black and white is comfortable, it makes it so easy to understand things and so much simpler to process our experiences, to quickly and efficiently judge our actions and the actions of others (though this is not really our business), to categorize people into little boxes, and organize our ideas and responses to certain situations … “if this is the problem, then this is the only option” or “if a person does this, then they are that” and so on and so forth. It allows us to escape thinking about how our outlook on the world may possibly be… wait for it….incomplete…or dare I say, wrong!

[Sorry again…take a deep breath, pick your jaw up off the floor… I know this is a pretty wild thing to realize, for myself especially!!.]

As I grew up in the US, one of the most diverse countries in the world, there were obviously plenty of things to challenge my mindset and my understanding of the world every day, thrusting me into the land of the gray. I luckily had many more of those experiences when I went to college, started my first real job, and while on church service projects and mission trips. But at the end of the day, I could always look around and find plenty of people who looked, believed, behaved, or thought just like me and if I tried hard enough, I could always use this bubble to escape the gray.

Being in Liberia, that’s just not the case. Every day I experience so many things that are so new to me and so foreign and 99.9% of the people I see or meet every day are very different from myself in terms of looks, culture, beliefs, etc. I meet so many people here whose way of life and thinking are so different from my own. Their childhoods wildly different from my own, their pain/suffering much deeper than I can comprehend, and their values systems about family, money, community, gender, education, truth, and spirituality/faith that are more complex than I can still explain. Every day I feel like I’m walking deep within the gray, not a crisp clear line in sight to distinguish between the black and white.

Soooo many times a day I have to reconcile my old view and understanding of the world with these new experiences and these new people…I have to figure out how my views fit (or don’t fit) with theirs, how each of our views holds up against the truth in the Bible….somehow finding a way to add all these things to the mixture of chaos in my mind and then re-calculate, re-evaluate, re-plan, regroup. Everyday my mind is swirling and I am overwhelmed with questions like:

  • Am I missing something here because I am looking at this only through my cultural lens? How does their culture, religion, race, poverty, beliefs, pain/trauma, personality, background shape their values and thus affect their actions? How does my wealth and privilege and nationality affect my own?
  • Are my thoughts being influenced by underlying prejudices? Am I making assumptions about or devaluing someone because of their race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or education level? If I am, why? And how do I stop?
  • How do I know when the tension we are facing is simply related to cultural and individual differences and not a matter of right or wrong? When should I step in and say something and when should I keep my mouth shut?
  • Is what I’m doing truly out of compassion or my desire to control situations and produce tangible results? What does real genuine love look like in this situation? Am I striving for dignity or development?
  • Should I give money to this person/situation? If I am giving money, why am I doing it? Because I trust God or because I don’t? Have I thought about how this money might change the relationship between me and this person? The power that money carries?
  • How many times do I watch someone fail rather than stepping in myself to help? Am I creating dependency by doing or giving too much? Am I becoming lazy and saying I don’t care by doing or giving too little?
  • How do I know when to adjust my behaviors/action to fit into and show respect for the culture vs when it’s ok to just be myself? At what point do I lose myself and my own identity for the sake of respecting culture, a culture that often undervalues my own voice as a woman?
  • Where’s the line between grace and justice? Where is the line between letting someone’s past experiences or poverty become a crutch and holding them to unrealistic expectations and setting them up for failure? How can I even know if I’ve never walked in their shoes?
  • When should I say “no” and when should I say “yes”? When should I hold fast to my American ideal of “boundaries” and when do I need to just let those things go?

Maybe you can relate? Maybe you’ve asked yourself some of these questions before in your own everyday cross-cultural experiences? Maybe you’ve even had to ask these questions as you navigate conversations with someone who on the outside may look just like you, but who comes from an entirely different background? Maybe you’ve had to ask these questions of yourself as you talk with your own sibling who grew up in the same house as you and yet wound up seeing the world so differently than yourself.

It can be so exhausting to go through these conversations over and over again in my head, especially because more often than not it is during these inner dialogues and times of reflection and prayer in asking God for guidance that I am confronted with my own sin and misunderstandings of who God is and who I am.  Basically, it’s exhausting to be wrong all the time!!

The world is not what I thought it was, people are not always who society told me they would be, I’m a much bigger sinner than I had feared, and God’s love is so much deeper than I could have ever dreamed. What someone does doesn’t always define who someone is. Just because someone’s opinions, ideas, or feelings are different than my own, does not mean that they are not equally valid or valued by Our Father in Heaven. 

It’s not required that we all travel to Africa to discover these truths. These are things that each of us can learn and discover where we are right now. These are truths that I  had probably already started discovering before coming to Liberia, but were no doubt accelerated by my move to another continent and culture. The more we get out of our comfort zones and intentionally engage, listen to, and get to know people who come from different backgrounds than ourselves, the more opportunities you will have to screw up…yes, that much is true. BUT ALSO the more we will learn about ourselves, each other, and God…and that’s a good thing…a really good thing.

The world is so much grayer than I originally understood and I’m learning how to be OK with that now…..more than OK actually.

You see, I’m beginning to understand and even believe that the gray is ultimately where the sweetest parts of life happen.  The gray is where we are stretched, molded, pulled, squished, smoothed, shaped, and changed. The gray is where innovation and new ideas are born.  The gray is hard and painful but it is where healing happens, where relationships form, and where barriers are broken down and prejudices torn apart. The gray is raw, fresh, vulnerable, and human.   The gray is where the threads of our common humanity and our oneness is made clear and tangible, if even for the briefest of moments. The gray is where questioning/doubts/fears have the room to breathe. The gray is messy, but the gray is exactly what Jesus entered into when He stepped down from Heaven to live among us in this fallen world. The gray is where truth is revealed and where understanding begins. The gray is where we develop faith, it is the area in which God invites us and promises to walk with us, revealing to us both the brokenness and beauty of His creation. The gray is where we can find God.

Even though I said that this “navigating of all the gray” is definitely the hardest thing about Liberia, it is also undoubtedly the thing that has deepened my walk with God the most over these past few years. The more I realize how many things in this world I simply don’t and can’t know on my own, the more I realize I how much more I desperately need God.

I titled this post “The Hardest Thing” in regards to living in Liberia…but it could have also been titled “The Hardest Thing About Living in a World with People Who are Different Than You”….which hey, coincidentally is a world we all live in 😉

May God grant us grace and wisdom as we enter into and traverse the gray of life together!

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”  Corinthians 12:9