Inescapable images on the news and the ramifications of them have given us all reason to think. The last few days I have had a thought heavy on my mind. What do you do when you can’t make sense of a season in your life? Your sacrifices are met with empty harvests and brass heavens? What do you do with a promise and only a 40-year hike to show for it? I think the question of “what it was worth” stems from who we are as a people. We are by nature a transactional people. It is in our DNA. There is a cost, therefore there must be a benefit. If there is no discernible, tangible, and directly correlated benefit then there is a problem.
I taught at a school in the township of Mauersnek, placed on the outskirts of Ladybrand, Free State, South Africa. An idyllic little farm town cloaked in sandstone walls and cradled in the embrace of a semicircular plateau that opens up to slightly undulating farm fields as you make your way northeast towards Johannesburg. It was beautiful. It was also maddening, disheartening, frustrating, exhilarating, and fulfilling. During the years of 2008-2014 with some breaks in between to finish a degree, I taught at the Hope Christian Academy. Our students ranged from solid middle-class Basotho children out of Maseru, to upper-middle-class Afrikaans children from the Ladybrand area, to the extreme poverty and broken homes of Mauersnek and her sister township, Manyatseng.
I went through misunderstandings and criticisms by parents and students alike. I experienced the love and support of parents and students alike. I endured situations of family grief and experienced tragedy in my close friendships without any of my familial support structure. On average I would receive around $800 dollars a month on which to live and minister. I often shared my lunch with my students because they didn’t have any. We had parents steeped in witchcraft and animism, HIV positive, and dying. This was life. You don’t go near a child bleeding from the playground without gloving up and that kid with the persistent cough…that’s tuberculosis and he quit taking his antibiotics. Our students faced a world with negative population growth, rapid inflation, and a dwindling job market. Nothing but government ineptitude and a crumbling infrastructure lay on the horizon for them. Due to life circumstances, I left at the end of 2014. Shortly after that, the school had to close for a myriad of reasons. When I left 6 years after starting, I had changed exactly none of that future for them. Years of effort and love and passion poured into a project that one day vanished like the mist. No discernible impact from my perspective. What was it all for? Was there a purpose in what I did? I cannot speak to the greater impact, only eternity can reveal that.
C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter to a friend:
I can only offer this. Nobody should ever give me a plaque or a reward based on any results from that time spent, but I know what it did for me and for my character. It shaped me in ways that I am still discovering. It was the crucible, the flame that burned the dross. I would not be who I am without experiencing it. I would not know my wife, and I would not have three beautiful boys. My life would be emptier without that pain and that joy I experienced. If you are looking at what appears to be a cost without a benefit, bear in mind that not all benefits seem directly correlated to the cost or circumstance.
Will I walk into Ladybrand one day and see a former student walking towards me with a beautiful family, having broken the cycles of dysfunction? Maybe. But if that never happens, I still see beauty in what God did during that situation. I know I was faithful to what He called me to at that time and in His way, he rewarded me richly for it. If there is a reward in the form of the lives of my students, I will likely never see it, but that’s not the point. The point is that I was faithful and I leave the harvest up to God.
6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. I Cor. 3:6-7