Reeling in Reality

David Foster Wallace, American writer and essayist, began his commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005 with this well known story about fish: One fish says to the other, “So, how’s the water?” The other replied, “What’s water?” The insight and brilliance of this story lies parallel to my experience in Ghana over the past few months. Just as the eyes of a fish are opened to the realities of the world by their experiences—say being caught on a fishing line—my eyes have been opened, my awareness of important issues has been deepened, and my appreciation for other cultures, namely Ghanaian culture, has grown. This has been a time for me to prune away the unnecessary and to add the required aspects of life. I have been challenged to move beyond my simple assumptions of how the world works and have developed a fuller understanding of reality. It turns out the world is much more complicated and nuanced than I ever could have dreamed. Through all this learning I have been humbled. I am smaller and more insignificant than I previously believed. Through all this however, God has ordained and designed this time in my life specifically for me to train and prepare me for a life dedicated to service for the purpose of building His Kingdom.

A theme Bible verse of sorts for me this semester that seemed to pertain to many of my experiences is John 15:1-17. The first four verses have to do with God pruning my life for the purpose of fruitfulness and faithfulness. John 15:1-4 says:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunesso that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

In many ways this semester I have felt like a fish out of water. At times struggling, as a fish struggles for air, for understanding and explanation. The diversity in life is remarkable. From eating, to speaking, to hiking up a hill everything seems different at first. After a while of living in this new environment however, I began to adjust to these new ways of life. I began to compare life in Ghana to my past experiences in life. As I moved beyond my prior assumptions I began to grasp reality in a deeper way. I began to experience the epiphany of a fish thrown back into a lake. Looking around, dazed and confused, and thinking, “So, this is water.” 

Goals and Expectations

As I prepared and anticipated for this semester I reflected on an analogy I remembered hearing. Preparing for a new time in life is like walking through a door into a room never before explored. The room is filled with things unknown to us. It is through this thinking that I set goals for myself. I committed to goals that would guide my decisions and enhance my experience living life in Ghana. In general my goals pertained to personal spirituality, interpersonal relationships, and finding home in Ghana.

Growth

Finding spiritual growth started almost immediately upon arrival in Ghana. I arrived with the first group of five students, one day before the remainder of our group. After moving our bags into Limann Hall the five of us went our separate ways to sleep in each of our rooms. That first night was lonely. I remember realizing clearly the importance of devotion and daily readings of the scriptures. Again the words of John 15, this time verses 5-8, provided me with comfort and direction.

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

I finally understood what I had known for a long time but had never taken to heart, that spending time with God through prayer, meditation on the scriptures, and liturgical worship is absolutely essential to live a life of sacrificial service.

Sabbath

One of the largest challenges about life in Ghana actually had little to do with the local environment and more about my role in our group. Last spring I was incredibly busy with the increasing commitments within my many activities. It was during this time I began to appreciate an intentional Sabbath day in my week. I approached this semester as an extended Sabbath, a student’s sabbatical if you will. I needed about four months to realign and redefine the truths in my life. Transitioning into this style of life was surprisingly difficult for me. I realized I had become comfortable in leadership roles and I was inexperienced in the art of followership. The fascinating thing about this is I learned how to be a better leader through relearning how to follow. As this semester comes to a close I feel refreshed and refueled to complete the tasks set before me.

Home

I think a lot about the idea of home. I have found that defining the concept of home is nearly impossible. Home is more than a place to live. Home is a feeling of comfort and embrace, a location to love and to be loved, and the scene of familiarity. A goal of mine was to make Ghana my home for the semester. I did not have any idea how to make this happen. Upon reflection I am not sure how I realized the feeling but one day, about two months in, I felt at home. At this moment my experience in Ghana transitioned from being a trip to an unforgettable time in my life. I was no longer here on vacation or on a mission trip. I was not here to simply get away, to travel, or to ‘experience Africa’. I was here to live, to question, to learn, to love, and to grow.

Most Important Learnings

Throughout the past four quick months I have lived far away from my close friends and family in a new environment, with new people. People that look different, think different, and eat different than me. I have experienced and reflected on our dehumanizing history at the Elmina Slave Castle. I have observed and questioned the importance of land ownership at the dedication of an elementary school. I traveled all over Accra and listened to the success stories of many Ghanaian businesses. I sat and heard of the effects of climate change with farmers in rural Ghana. I have hiked mountains and watched the sun rise and fall countless times over the beautiful African horizon. I have learned to cherish these unique experiences.

Joy in Nature

Perhaps the most important learning came from simply living far away from my close friends and family. While I live here in Ghana, things continue to function back home. Things I am still invested in, care about, and will return to be involved with next semester. Becoming uninvolved in things I care about was difficult for me. While coping with this I gleaned assurance and peace again from John 15, verses 9-11 say:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

I have experienced this joy in the most unexpected moments in the last few months. Quite frequently during my walk to the institute in the morning when the birds are chirping the sun is shining but the temperature is still cool and there is still morning dew on the grass, I experience joy. Also on long, bumpy, and cramped tro-tro rides I am oddly overwhelmed with a sense of content and complete joy. And most serenely in the mornings and evenings while watching the sun quickly rise and fall I am reminded of God’s Love for His creation and for me, and joy fills me.

Evil Nature

My awareness of important issues facing our world today has been defined, refined, and deepened. Visiting the Elmina Slave Castle was a sobering experience. Seeing first hand the conditions, hearing the stories, and reflecting on the reality of such a dehumanizing moment in history made me feel like I have never felt before. I was sad and angry but also confused and curious. How could humans do something this terrible to other humans? Then I realized this is not simply a history lesson. Even today, all over the world humans still treat fellow humans with this type of sophisticated wickedness.

Sin has infected the entirety of creation however, we must not forget that God created the world, and it was “very good”. Experiencing the evils of this world has convicted me to redeem the goodness of God’s creation in my own life.

Complex Nature

While observing the dedication of an elementary school in a seaside fishing village I saw both the importance of land ownership and the complexities of pursuing progress. The initiative to construct this school was inspiring. The school will no doubt assist its students in pursuing lives of dignity and worth. With the complexities of the ownership of the land however, the benefits of this project become murky. Challenges are often deeply imbedded within initiatives of progress.

Part of what feeds into the complexities of our world is the diversity of our world. Everybody is unique with gifts and challenges. Every community has different assets and needs. Every country has different histories and circumstances. The diversity of the world however is something to be celebrated. I think back over my favorite moments of the past few months and I realize how many of those moments were enjoyable due to diversity. The world is a better, more interesting, and healthier place because of our differences.

Nature of Success

A healthy chunk of my time over the past few months was spent interviewing business owners about their businesses. This was an incredible experience for several reasons. First, the practice of administering the interviews was a fantastic learning opportunity. Second, traveling and seeing many different areas of Accra while meeting and becoming acquainted with a variety of Ghanaians provided experiences and relationships I will not soon forget. Third, the process of sitting and listening to business owners tell the success story of their business was encouraging and enlightening.

There are two ways to perceive life in Ghana. One becomes overly fixated on the challenges imbedded in Ghanaian society. Poverty, lack of water, and dusty roads cloud the view of this perspective. The other sees all the challenges but looks beyond them and recognizes the beauty, the rational, and the history of life in Ghana. It was through these interviews that I was given the gift to see Ghana through this second perspective.

Changing Nature

While sitting under a large shady tree in a village in Northern Ghana I learned of the environmental challenges facing farmers today. Many outsiders would look at the natural environment in Northern Ghana and see farming as nearly impossible. The fact is however; Ghanaians have been farming in this environment with sweltering heat and sporadic rain for many years. They know how to do it. It is quite amazing. In the past few years however, their environment has been changing. The rainy months have been extended into November drowning and killing their precious crops.

For the majority of my life, climate change was an issue I cared about simply due to the Biblical mandate to care for creation. After hearing the stories of these Ghanaian farmers however, it is clear that climate change is also an issue of life and death. Without the yield from the crops they farm, these farmers have no income to provide for their families. Climate change kills more than plants and animals, it kills humans too.

Conclusion

As our group hiked up Mt. Krobo one weekend I quickly became frustrated with some of the local Ghanaian hikers. They were taking their time, laughing, and moving in one big group consisting of over thirty people. I, on the other hand, wanted to summit the top of the mountain as quickly as possible. I wanted to get there by myself, without the assistance of anyone.

My frustration quickly turned into reflection. I saw this distinction as a clear example of how each of our cultures lives their lives. Westerners live lives much more individually. We strive to make our lives as good as they can be, and tend to fail to care for our neighbors. We simply want to get to the top of the mountain as fast as possible and by any means possible. Many people in the global South—and Ghana is no exception—live life much differently. Life is not solely about getting to the top of the mountain. It is more about how the summit is reached than about reaching it. It is more about how you treat others while progress is made than about achieving progress.

A few weeks later I found myself watching the sunset over the hills of Greater Accra from the rural village of Adenkrebi. I watched as the big orange sun fell over the horizon marveling at the beauty of God’s creation. It was just then when Daniel our host in Adenkrebi, interrupted and asked, “What time is it in Grand Rapids?” Someone answered question, “It is probably about 1:50pm”. He said, “So that sun is just about exactly in the middle of the sky in Grand Rapids”. I was suddenly aware of the smallness, in the midst of incredible diversity of the world. The command given by Christ in verses 12-17 of John 15 now spoke to me in a new light:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”

My view on what it means to love each other has been refined. Experiencing and reflecting on one of the most horrific and dehumanizing actions in our history has given me a deeper understanding of the evil nature of our world and why it needs to be restored. Observing the diverse nature of the world’s challenges and the complex ingredients of success have humbled me and filled me with unquenchable wonder. Finally, hearing first hand of the real effects of important current affairs issues has been mentally simulating and supremely informative.

Much like a fish being pulled out of water, flopping around on the deck of a boat gasping for air, I have been pulled out of my natural environment. I have struggled to perform the simplest tasks in life. I became increasingly aware of life’s realities. I have realized that perhaps I need to be more intentional about how I interacted with others as I pursue a life of worth and fulfillment. I have experienced part of the enormous diversity of our world while also seeing the innate interconnectedness and closeness in which we all live. Ultimately I realized that through our incredible differences we are all humans living on the same earth, searching for the same goals in life.

One thought on “Reeling in Reality

  1. Pingback: Commencement | Jeff Bloem

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