For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Philippians 4:11-13
If you have been a frequent reader of this blog, I would understand if that were your reaction to this post. It has been 14 months since we got to Ethiopia, and 14 months since I have written a post on this blog. In fact, the last time I posted was the weekend before I started work at Soddo Christian Hospital. Within two weeks, my partner there, Paul Gray, was being Medivac’d out of the country with a still unknown illness and I was off to the races. What followed was the hardest year of my life…by a long shot. Not just for the usual reasons. We did have the usual stuff – culture stress, interpersonal conflicts, extended periods without power or water, too much work, too little energy, etc. We were prepared for these things (maybe overprepared) and while our preparation helped us to understand some of the things we were experiencing, it didn’t lessen the experience of them. But we had mentally built in the space for most of these things and understood them for them for what they are – the natural response to an unnatural thing, living and working in foreign country. These normal things, however, were not what made this last year so hard.
The real trial, the real hardship of this last year was the profound disappointment that I have experienced. It is hard to put into words how much Grace suffered during our time in Soddo. Being a natural introvert, I have a hard time understanding my older daughter sometimes. She is the very epitome of an extrovert. Being alone exhausts her. Being isolated is torture for her. Learning is a social experience and only can be done among friends. For her, life in rural Ethiopia was not just hard, it was miserable. Seeing your child suffer is one of the worst things a parent can experience. Knowing that your actions, your decisions are causing your child’s suffering is exponentially more distressing. I wrote in that blog post 14 months ago that “This is all Bekah and I have planned for the 10 years that we have been married and the 5 or 6 years we knew each other before that. In fact, both Bekah and I were planning to serve God as missionaries long before we knew each other.”
In light of this, Grace’s suffering compounded our suffering. We are not here out of our own ambition; we sincerely believed (and still do BTW) that we are here in Ethiopia because we are called by God to serve Him here. I really loved the work in Soddo, though admittedly I liked it a lot more when I wasn’t there alone. The cases were great and I am well on my way to being a true African general surgeon. Fifty percent (or more) of my practice was cases that I had never seen before and was not trained to do. I love, love, love working with and teaching (and learning from) the PAACS residents. The PAACS residents are the best group of men I have ever been around. Yet, despite how well my practice and role as a teacher lined up with my dreams and expectations, the rest of life did not. I was profoundly disappointed that my expectations of a triumphant missionary career were not going to happen the way I wanted. It was clear that we were going to have to leave Soddo Christian Hospital and I was broken.
Despite this, God has been gracious is ways that I didn’t expect. We have had incredible visitors come and encourage us and support us during the difficult times. Our parents, the Kochs, the Rutledges and a big group from Atlanta, John Galloway (my mentor and #1 guru at Emory), Dr. Bill Wood (my chairman of surgery at Emory and now academic dean of PAACS), the Thompson’s, the Schmid’s, the Messerley’s, Greg Myer, and many more prayed with us, encouraged us, loved our girls, brought treats and helped at the hospital.
We would not have made it without Jackie Anderson, Allison Karnes, Kari Aarsland, Stephanie Hail, Becca Gray and Ruth Mulu, our friends, neighbors and teammates in Soddo. They were incredibly gracious to Grace and tolerated unexpected visits from her at all hours and even the occasional visit in the bathroom.
One of the true joys to come from this last really difficult year has been a friendship with Paul Gray. Paul is the program director for the PAACS program in Ethiopia and we worked closely together in training surgical residents in Soddo. Paul has been incredibly kind and patient with me as I struggled through the last year and graciously encouraged me to move on to Addis Ababa and the Korean Hospital despite it being against his personal interest. He is now alone again in Soddo shouldering the burden of training there by himself.
The change in Grace with her new school and her new friends has been dramatic. She is completely transformed and is the joyful, happy, and sweet girl that we remember from Atlanta. This has, of course, made life so much better for Bekah too. Gone (for the most part) are the battles over every detail of life. Grace is reading just about anything she can get her hands on, writing stories, doing art projects, and singing. She has joined the Bible club at her school and has been memorizing scripture and ‘teaching’ us what she is learning.
What has made this change in Grace possible is the expansion of the PAACS training program to Myungsung Christian Medical Center and an opening for Bekah to teach at Bingham Academy. MCM is a unique hospital within PAACS and really a unique mission hospital in general. Most mission hospitals are in remote areas. MCM is in the city and serves a different patient population than Soddo Christian Hospital. It will provide our residents with exposure to more specialty services, better technology, true ICU care, and a different set of pathology. It will greatly enhance our training of surgeons in Ethiopia. Being able to help to start PAACS training at MCM is a blessing, not just for the work itself, but because it allowed us to continue in the work God has called us to and given Bekah and Grace an opportunity to thrive at Bingham Academy.
Things have been good, very good since moving to Addis, but not perfect (obviously). Bingham and MCM are on opposite sides of the city (think Stone Mountain and Six Flags for those of you in Atlanta), which makes transportation difficult and means lots of time on the roads. Hannah has not faired as well. She has been very lonely as she left a very special friend Lydia in Soddo. This will get better soon, though, when she starts preschool in a couple of weeks. There have been some other bitter disappointments.
Through all this, I am learning what it means to be content. I am learning that our contentment doesn’t come from our circumstances and the goal is not necessarily our happiness. What I am learning is that daily, hourly, and even minute-by-minute I need more of Christ. It is in Him that I will be content and in Him that I will be sustained through trials and hardships. It is through Him that I can do all things, because He gives me strength.