Thursday, 24 October 2013

One Year Down … And Two More On The Way!


Yes, I realize that’s a lot of information to process in one nine-word title but what better way to capture your attention?

One Year Down

As most of you are reading this, you’re probably thinking, “Has it really been more than a full year? It feels like an eternity without them home because we miss them so much!” In all likelihood, you’re probably thinking the exact opposite – that the year has blown by and it feels like yesterday when we were saying our teary goodbyes. We’re thinking the same and find it hard to believe that more than 365 days has passed since we first landed in Africa.

September 14, 2012 – Diane and Byron first step foot on African soil as they arrive into South Africa, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, wondering what the heck the next year is going to hold for them. Not even 4 months into wedded bliss, the newlyweds are beginning the rest of their lives together by making their passions and dreams come true – committing to a year in Africa with Hands at Work to serve and care for the most vulnerable children in the poorest of the poor communities.

True story.

Most of you expected us home by now. So did we. Before we left, we told everyone that, regardless of whether we extend our commitment with Hands or not, we would come home around the one-year mark. It was very much our intention to be home for the 8(!) weddings we were invited to between August and September but with apologies to Chris & Annette, Claire & Jennings, James & Mae-Lee, Tyler & Jacquie, Jen & Dov, Jack & Sharon, Carol & Trung, and Chelsea & Brenden, plans changed. We didn’t feel at peace about leaving despite our one-year commitment having been fulfilled. There is always a big push at the end of the year to finish up current projects and to plan for the upcoming year and we wanted to stick around to help see that through. As a result, we made the decision to extend our time until the beginning of November before coming back home to Canada.

With our one-year anniversary in Africa officially having come and gone, I initially thought about providing a bit of a recap, complete with highlights and challenges, but realized that I had already done that at the 6-month mark. So, in an effort to keep this post reasonably sized, let’s just move ahead to the question you’ve all been asking from Day 1.

Two More on the Way!

I guess the title of this post doesn’t leave you in much suspense hey? Well, just so that it’s official in your mind, we have committed to come back to Africa with Hands at Work next year ... And this time, it’s a two-year commitment!

In all honesty, we never once envisioned committing to anything beyond one more year, giving us the flexibility to take it one year at a time but, somehow, Hands at Work tricked us into committing to two more years, much like I tricked Diane into thinking she was marrying a rich, successful lawyer. Looks like the tables have turned. Nicely done, Hands at Work. Nicely done.

As most of you know, this decision hung over us for many months. No matter how hard we tried, we just couldn’t escape it. It seemed like every little thing that happened, every emotion we felt, would somehow factor into our own little decision-making machine. Every time I thought of a good reason to stay, I would manage to come up with an equally convincing counterargument for why we should go home. If I felt a certain way, I’d inevitably end up second-guessing why I felt the way I did or strain to uncover the root of what that specific thought process was. In the end, I was torn. I loved being with Hands at Work. I loved Africa. I loved living life the way we were living. So what was the problem?

Holding on to life as we used to know it

The first problem was what I felt I was holding onto. From the beginning, Diane and I made it very clear that our time in Africa with Hands at Work was going to be more than just an ‘experience’. It was not our goal to do one year in Africa so that we could check it off the list and say, “Been there, done that!” Rather, we always said that it was the next step in our lives and the soil that we were choosing to plant our marriage in. It’s why we left our commitment completely open past the one year. We didn’t want to have any plans. Instead, we wanted to live by faith and allow God to lead us. Well … easier said than done.

As we debated for months on end about whether we should stay or go, I finally found myself asking the question: “What is it that is preventing us from committing to Africa?” I couldn’t really figure it out. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I miss family and friends dearly. Seeing my nephews and my niece grow up over Skype and pictures is not really how I had imagined it. And yes, there are certain aspects of home and North American living that we often get quite nostalgic about. But I discovered that the real things that were holding me back were things that are all too familiar to me – fear, anxiety, worry, doubt.

There was still so much I was holding on to back home. As much as we said our commitment was open-ended, we still very much had in our minds the default of one year. It’s like Diane and I, without ever saying it out loud to each other, had a secret pact that we weren’t really going to stay in Africa any longer than one year. Anything beyond that is too long to be away from family, too long to have our careers on hiatus, too long to go without earning an income. Basically, too long to be away from reality. It’s like I unknowingly, despite everything I said this year was going to be about, treated our time in Africa as something other than reality. The real world beckons, Byron. Don’t get left behind.

It was hard to come to grips with this revelation. In spite of how faithful God has been, in spite of how much we’ve grown during this time, and in spite of everything that our hearts were feeling about being here, my mind, plagued by constant fear, anxiety, worry and doubt, would not allow me to feel at peace. It exposed a lot about where our hearts were at and how we were mostly paying lip service to our faith rather than really living by it.

This is what we have been really challenged by since being here. What does it mean to live by faith? How different would our lives look, and our actions and choices be, if we lived with the absolute, undoubted assurance that God is true to His promises? What would it look like if we made choices based on where God was leading our hearts rather than based on what it might cost us?

Making the decision to commit for another two years doesn’t signal a seismic shift in our faith. Again, we love Hands at Work, we love Africa (most of the time), and we love the way we are living. We’re not making ourselves out to be martyrs, by any means. But it does represent a step for us, and a rather large one, at that. Our heads were holding on to the things of home, the real world and the traditional way of life. Our hearts were leading us to live a different way. After it was all said and done, our hearts won out. And it likely wouldn’t have been the case had we not grown in our faith and our understanding of God’s promises to us.

Committing and Digging Deep

The second problem was that I was wary of choosing to stay in Africa simply because it was the easy thing for us to do. Being in Africa, with a missionary organization committed to caring for the most vulnerable children, immersed in a community with an amazing group of people that share the same heart and vision, makes it easy for us to live our lives in line with our values. The greater challenge is for us to carry that over into our lives back home or wherever we choose to carry on next. It’s easy to think that there’s nothing else that God is possibly calling us to do when we’re already caring for orphaned and vulnerable children in the poorest of the poor communities and that this is the closest to God’s heart that we could ever be. But it’s not like African children are the only demographic in need of people reaching out to them in God’s love and grace.

With that in mind, I knew I wanted to continue to serve this cause. I just wasn’t sure what was the best way for me to do it. I wanted to look beyond how I felt and, instead, look at how I could be the most effective servant or where I could have the greatest impact. Whether that meant staying in Africa or going back home, I had no idea. All I knew was that I wanted to serve and I wanted to do it in the best, most effective way possible. I wanted to combine everything involved – my time, my skills, my passions – and maximize it for the greatest output. So typical Byron.

The problem of our generation is that we have too many options. We’re so preoccupied with finding fulfillment, achieving success (however we define it) and unlocking our full potential that we’re never really satisfied. That pretty much sums up the source behind my constantly conflicted mind. Fortunately, I was deeply challenged on this by some of the leadership at Hands. I was asked to think about some of the greatest people in history. Those people accomplished what they did, not out of an abundance of options but, rather, because they really didn’t have any. Instead, they accomplished great things because they were firmly committed to the path that was either presented before them or that they had chosen.

Ashamedly, I am plagued by the ‘grass is greener’ predicament. I am so hesitant to commit to anything because I worry that I may be passing up something better. I’m constantly one foot in, one foot out, always preparing myself to jump ship should a better opportunity or alternative come along. Ironically, it’s that type of mindset that will prevent me from ever finding fulfillment. I realize that, if I truly want to find fulfillment, I have to be willing to commit to something, to see it through, to dig deep. I can’t expect otherwise despite what our instant gratification culture has trained me to believe.

I also had to come to grips with the fact that I will never be, nor should I ever be, irreplaceable. In short, I had to get over myself. I was so busy filling my head with expectations of greatness (in the conventional sense of the term), with thoughts that I was special and unique and had so much to offer the world, that I was losing sight of the great things God was already doing through me or could potentially be doing through me here. It took me a while to come around to it because, in a smackdown to reality (and humility), I wasn’t the hero. And that’s the whole point. God doesn’t want me to be the hero. The pride I would take in that would ultimately be my undoing. Rather, He wants me to get back to an understanding that, without His mercy, His grace and His love, I am nothing.

After coming to those humbling realizations, the decision actually became much more of a no-brainer than we had ever imagined. We desire to build into the mission and vision of Hands at Work. We want to dig in and dig deep and to continue to commit our lives to serving the most vulnerable children in the poorest of the poor communities. We aspire to continue to invest into the relationships we have established here and to be part of a life-giving community. We are excited about how God will continue to challenge, shape and mold us and how He will continue to reveal His heart to us.

Because of all this, we decided two years felt right. Had we committed to only one year instead, we likely would have had the whole “should we stay or should we go?” conundrum hang over us throughout much of the next year. As we have already experienced, one year goes by in a flash. We needed something that was far enough away that we could not grasp it, allowing our minds and our hearts to be fully committed and fully present to being here in Africa. Committing for two additional years gives us an opportunity to really build into and build off of what we have already started here. And we couldn’t be more excited.

The Caveat

At the risk of sounding too lawyerly (which has never really been a problem for me), we did build in one caveat to our two-year commitment. Can you guess what it is? Well, if you’re part of the Chan/Hoang/Nguyen clan, I’m sure you’ll find much relief in the caveat taking the form of a potential Byron Jr.! While Baby Chan hasn’t entered the immediate plans, it’s definitely in the picture for the short-term future. I mean, we’re not getting any younger (Diane turned 29 this past week!), and we’re both coming down with a slight (or serious, if we’re talking about Diane) case of baby fever. Our family planning hasn’t changed since being in Africa and we’re getting to the stage in our lives where we do want to start our own family soon. And, at this point, we envision starting our family in the love and support of our family and friends back home (and because Diane’s mom would probably beat us otherwise).

Having said that, our plan is to concentrate on our time with Hands and keep the Chan clan to just 2 members, at least for now. Fortunately, this is something we feel completely confident and at peace with in terms of leaving it up to God (not like we have much choice in the matter, anyway!). If we are blessed with a little By-Ju in the oven, we will take it as a sign that it may be time for a new season and reassess what our commitment here looks like. If not, we’ll take it as a sign that we’re exactly where we’re meant to be and continue on. Either way, we stand firm in faith that God will lead the way. After all, He’s brought us this far and continues to show us His faithfulness time and time again. 

- Byron