My wife and I are part of a mission agency that has seeks to address not just our sin and alienation from God, but also the effects of sin in the communities we serve. When we went to the southern Ethiopia town of Arba Minch in the late 1980s we expected not to just be involved with the hospital and ministry of health, but also with the church and community health. I had a Masters in Public Health from Johns Hopkins and had trained as an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control; I thought I must be pretty well prepared. But I was not adequately prepared for the challenges we faced; my preparation in fact was just beginning.
My hope for a bright and successful community health outreach to poor communities, spearheaded by Ethiopian churches, never materialized during our five year effort. We did many good things, taught Scripture, saw patients, advised when possible at the health department. But I was not prepared for the dual challenge of orienting the church outwards (to the community needs) and also for the entrenched cultural beliefs and misunderstandings about health. It was like my shiny new program was just stuck in the mud.
In retrospect, the churches was not ready for a full-blown embrace of their broken communities, since they were just surviving under communism themselves. And my brilliant ideas for change were great except I understood far too little of my Ethiopian brothers and sisters, and far too little of myself. In the final analysis, after we left the country, the believers did develop robust and full-orbed community programs which showed the love of God to neighbors. Perhaps we planted a few seeds of change.
Hope can be lost when expectations are dashed. Trust can be lost in the process as well, and that too was in poor supply towards the end of our Ethiopia experience — mostly because of my own frustrations.
So where did my expectations fall short? Where was my ‘hope deferred,’ making my heart sick? Here’s a list of some of my expectations, now with 35 years of hindsight:
- “My program should work.”
- “We will be fully supported by leadership (church and mission).”
- “The believers will know and embrace what we want to change.”
- “Since we’ve made the sacrifice to be here, God will work things out for us.”
- “This will be fulfilling.”
- “Opposition? How could any one want to oppose this good stuff?”
These expectations were not clearly formulated in my mind, so I didn’t realize that they were a kind of musical score I was singing off of. They provided a framework by which I saw the work. In the end the Lord set the work, the frame, and the score were all aside. My heart was sick, but over time the Lord enabled me to see some of my own folly, lay aside my perspective and seek His.
The Lord does not just send us around the world for the work we might do, but for the work He is doing in us. As we learn from Him and change from the inside, God Himself can use these very changes to work powerfully in the lives of those around us. And that is what happened. As we continued and even grew in His grace, He was working both in us and in our Ethiopian colleagues. In the end He taught us — through the same Ethiopian believers — wonderful lessons of patience, grace and prayer. And in His time he has begun to use them to transform the same communities.
So our own frustrations, conflicts and challenges can be a source of anger, burnout and brokenness for us. Or they can be a source of renewed hope and confidence, as we get back to the basics of God’s Word – and the work He wants to do in us, not only through us. He is accomplishing His work in history and uses us as medical and public health professionals. But it is His kingdom not ours. Not our program but His progress. Not even our timing but His.
So, how about you? Can’t find the joy in the calling He has placed you in? Watch where your hope is founded. Examine your expectations and suppositions. Ultimately He does His work of healing in His way, embracing communities but also working to change hearts. His work of grace, not ours.