“Before we continue, we need to talk about something that may make you feel a little sad….” It felt like week after week we’d have to transition out of our Bible lesson with these words. Clare and I would meet the eyes of our students, gathered in a circle around our “nsaka,” their bellies just filled with their morning porridge. At this point, some knowing students might nod their heads or utter a name sadly. Others would be caught off guard. Still others would not be present at all to hear, since the news had affected them all too directly in their own homes. As the teachers, we would never be sure if that Bible story from minutes before would become the perfect illustration of hope we needed to carry us through the despair we were about to share, or if the story would suddenly seem callous and confusing. Between the months of February, March and April, four TES parents died, leaving voids in this school’s and village’s community. As I watched, again and again, our students process devastating news, I couldn’t help but admire them and their strength; I couldn’t help but see how God was developing them and growing them. Below I’ve written four letters to four particular students filled with language they don’t yet understand, but that every day I try to communicate to them in nonverbal ways. I hope their stories speak to you as they’ve spoken to me.
To the girl who mourns,
If you had the vocabulary, I’d teach you the word restoration. His pain is gone and yours will be too some day. Clare and I would both tell you, you’ve changed our lives. We’ve watched you struggle. We’ve watched you distance yourself. We’ve sat before you asking God for words we just don’t have. You’ve revealed to both of us our shortcomings and our undeserved privileges. But you’ve taught us to run after the one who wants to be left alone. Because our God is chasing after you, my friend. On those days when you don’t want to play, don’t want to walk, and just want to sit, know He’s sitting with you, so I will, too. And, just like your friends call to you to come play, He’s calling to you to be with Him, too. And just like Miss Clare will lay aside all her decency to make you smile and laugh, He knows no boundaries to win your heart, either. For a while there was nothing to read on your face about whether or not all of this was getting through to you. For a while all we had to go off of was how God had met us in the same places in the same ways and what that had done to our hearts. But, when your mama came to conferences and said that you had told her everything we had said to you. Everything. And she said “thank you” for those words in this hard time, we rejoiced. Because, like we’ve learned in chapel, love overflows and if love was overflowing out of you onto your mama, then that meant love was overflowing into you. We know it’s still a long, hard journey, but we know that love never ends and never dwindles, praise Jesus.
To the boy who prays…and plays (two commonly mixed-up words in our class),
If you had the vocabulary, I’d teach you the word glory. Yes, the glory that took David to the streets dancing naked, but also the glory that brought the wall of Jericho down and made armies shudder. When we taught you to pray but saying a name over and over again, or saying Esther School, Esther School, Esther School or Nyangwena, Nyangwena, Nyangwena, we wanted you to know He hears and understands everything you cry out to Him, even if you don’t know exactly what to say. I think you find it kind of fun. Maybe even funny. Not mad about it. If there is anyone in the world God wired for fun, it’s you. And no doubt about it, He loves that joy and is communing with you in all the fun. But, I hope you also know that in those words you pray, there is a mighty power and glory in them that cannot exist in the same words said outside of prayer and may that add a little bit of reverence to those prayers. Words that have raised the dead, even a few weeks ago in our own community. Words that can heal, whether in this life or in heaven. Thanks for, in between giggles, praying for all those names and for this community. We’re seeing God answer those prayers, mighty warrior. Last week you were absent, but if you had been here, you would have heard us pray your name over and over again. What a privilege. May those prayers have fruit. May they increase your understanding of a God who made both the fun, jumpy, cricket, and the stars that leave you speechless and humbled. As you live your life and grow into a young man some day who prays fervently and sees mountains move because of his prayers, may that both make you jump and dance for joy and occasionally make you cry from a God who is so big, powerful and great and yet has poured out all His love for you.
To the girl who comforts,
If you had the vocabulary, I’d teach you the word captivating. I almost can’t stop watching you delivering all that joy and peace into our classroom out of such hard times. I watch you on those sad days and I see how your day gets so much busier because you are running around making sure everyone who looks like they need one gets a hug. As a receiver of many of those hugs, I can assure you that they are just about the finest quality of hug one can get. You bring extra laughter and cheer into our classroom every day, but especially on those hard days. You remember who we should be praying for out of those in our school who have lost someone dear. I am so proud of you. I am amazed by the strength and power God has used in you! How He could put sooooo much light in so tiny a vessel is a testament to Him. I really shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve watched you scream, and I mean SCREAM, “I’M NO LOOOOONGER A SLAAAAVVE TO FEEEEEAR// I AM A CHILD OF GOD,” and “THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MIIIINE// I’M GONNA LET IT SHINE.” God never sleeps, so He definitely hears your worship, but I’m sure a few heavenly hosts set their sleep schedules around our chapel time, counting on your voice to wake them up. You are definitely living up to those words, girly girl. Enjoy the fullness of His delight each day you bring comfort. Know He delights in you and loves you even on the days you act like a grumpus. You’re always His child and He’s always your father. But on those days you lock yourself instep with His will and be His hands and feet out of all that joy in your heart, those are the days of worship and time with Him that you are made for. May He continue to supply you with that joy and love that can overflow.
To the girl who weeps,
If you had the vocabulary, I’d teach you the word brave. I told your aunt in your conference that you are the bravest person I know, and I meant it. I don’t know if when you got on that bus and you moved here, came to your new family, if you thought you were leaving all those bad times behind. I would’ve. Yet, again and again, the events in this community brings those difficult memories back. And you let the memories come, and we know they’ve come because we see the tears. It’s come to be one of the most difficult parts of sharing the sad news on these difficult days because of the grief it gives you. A difficulty, but also a privilege to sit with you in those tears. Maybe you didn’t ever expect to live in a community that wouldn’t bring that kind of grief to you. Maybe no one in Zambia could ever expect or imagine that. I can imagine a life without as much grief, at least on the surface, because that’s where I’m from, and, to be unfortunately honest, sometimes when I hear about death here, I selfishly think Why do I live here where there’s so much death when I don’t have to? But that’s why when I grow up I want to be just like YOU. Because for all its lack of death, I never encountered half as much beauty there as the beauty in your eyes after you’ve had a good cry and you say “Okay, I’m ready to go back to preschool.” And I’ll never forget how the first month of school when a Bible discussion question was “Is there anything you can do to make God stop loving you?” and you said, loud and fast, “Yes,” in one of those awkward moments that leaves teachers not knowing exactly what to say, but then how later this year you prayed fervently in Nyanja about God’s love and passion and grace for you and for us. This why I love this school. Girl, God is using you to teach me and many others about being brave and taking courage. What a gift you are.
What a gift they all are!