An Ethiopian Foot-Washing Ceremony

Sports Friends serves thousands of kids in Ethiopia, but only about 1,000 of them get to come to Camp Langano each summer.

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Dedicated coaches (or Sports Ministers, as SF officially calls them) from around Ethiopia are invited to camp by Sports Friends regional staff, and then those coaches face the task of selecting 5-10 kids to bring with them for the week. I can only imagine the prayer and consideration involved in this process, because the time spent at camp will certainly be life-changing and, clearly, not everyone will have the opportunity to experience it.

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All of the kids and coaches were sorted onto teams shortly after they arrived at Camp. They were not necessarily with their teammates or coaches from home.

While I obviously enjoyed hanging out with the kids, one of my favorite parts about camp this summer was getting to know the coaches. These people are legit about serving the youth in their communities. Their selflessness was so evident, and I sincerely believe that a passionate, bold generation of Ethiopians is being raised up by the people I met.

Some of the stories the coaches (and the staff, for that matter) told about their pasts are truly unbelievable. It’s always convicting for me to hear stories from believers around the world who stand firm for God in places where they could face punishment, disownment, or even death for it. In church on Sundays I’m mostly worried about whether or not the coffee will still be hot by the time I get there or if there will be enough seats in a row for my friends and me to all sit together. Real important stuff, ya know?

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On the left is Dinku, the coach I spent the week with on team Germany. On the right, TJ and Yibe play a game. Yibe is on summer staff at Camp and was on team England with TJ.

On the last night of each week of camp, the Sports Friends staff and the firenjis (white people, for those of you who don’t speak Amharic ;)) have a foot-washing ceremony prepared to honor the coaches. The basis and symbolism of this comes from John 13 when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

John 13: 14-17: Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

The idea of Jesus, the King and Savior, washing the feet of his disciples, ordinary people like you and me, defies everything our world says about leadership and power. In our culture the lowly serve the elevated, not the other way around. But in the culture of God’s kingdom, everything is upside down. I sincerely love the picture and example of Jesus as a servant-leader.

On the night of the foot-washing ceremony, the coaches sat in front of all the kids and staff. The men in our group and one of the ladies were waiting with basins and towels. The rest of us stood off to the side to sing Amazing Grace while Marisa, our group’s musician, strummed her guitar.

I can’t remember ever being in a room filled with kids that quiet before. I watched them curiously, imagining what they must be thinking.

What are these crazy firenjis doing? Why is my coach sitting up there? What is going on?

The moment our group started the ceremony and we began singing, I was a wreck. I believe I successfully choked out the first few lines of the song, but by about “was blind, but now I see” it was over. I had my face in my hands and was sobbing right along with most of the coaches sitting in the front of the room.

Rarely in my life have I ever felt God’s presence so acutely. Rarely have the words to this timeless hymn ever seemed so real.

Because of His grace thousands of Ethiopian children have Godly, caring adults to look up to and depend on. Because of His grace these kids get to be just kids for a week at camp – safely playing and having fun in a way that many of us who grew up in America likely took for granted. Because of His grace they are exposed to a different way of living, a way filled with the hope and joy of God that this world so desperately needs. And because of His grace TJ and I got to play a tiny, tiny part in all of this.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.

His grace truly is amazing.

Because of the sensitive and emotional nature of the foot-washing ceremony, I didn’t take pictures to share. However, if you’d like a glimpse into it, there is video footage of one in the Camp Langano video I posted in July under “Off to Ethiopia!” It starts at 3:25.

From Fear to Freedom

I’ve been learning a hard but wildly important lesson about trust lately.

In the weeks since we’ve been back from Ethiopia, I’ve been struggling with a mounting sense of fear. This fear has manifested itself in a number of different ways depending on the day – fear over fundraising, fear that I’m a terrible writer, fear of what people think of me because of this or that, fear that I’m not “good enough” to serve in this new position with Sports Friends, and fear that I’m alone because nobody understands the things I’m feeling.

The logical part of my brain acknowledges that this fear is not from God. There are hundreds of scriptures which command us not to be afraid. And yet, my heart is having a hard time catching up with my head and fully believing that I have nothing to be afraid of.

What I’m starting to realize is that this thing I’m struggling with is not really a fear issue at its core. When I dig a little deeper, I find that the real issue is trust. Oh sure, I might say I fully trust God. That sounds nice and churchy, doesn’t it? But real trust in God would produce freedom and peace and joy, not fear. Something is not right here and I know it.

I have been praying some pretty desperate prayers lately. The ones I’ve written down are choppy and disorganized and include a lot of repetition, particularly of the words “please” and “help.” The ones coming straight from my heart sound equally as distressed, and it’s obvious that I’m losing control.

PSALM 69:1-3

Save me, O God!
    The water is up to my neck;
I am sinking in deep mud,
    and there is no solid ground;
I am out in deep water,
    and the waves are about to drown me.
I am worn out from calling for help,
    and my throat is aching.
I have strained my eyes,
    looking for your help.

Like the Psalmist, I know I am in some deep water.

My plans aren’t unfolding exactly how I wanted them to. I can’t control this season of my life and it’s unraveling me. My unmet expectations are slapping me hard, wave after wave.  As surely as this writer felt, I feel like I could drown in the defeat of it all. Because I realize I have no control, I’m operating in panic mode, letting fear driving my actions as I fight to stay above the surface.

It’s in this place, with the water up to my neck, that I have finally realized the only option I have left – to let go and trust. No amount of my own effort to control this season is going to get me to solid ground. I’ve kicked and I’ve flailed and I’m entirely exhausted. It’s time to give it up.

PSALM 69:13-15

But as for me, I will pray to you, Lord;
    answer me, God, at a time you choose.
Answer me because of your great love,
    because you keep your promise to save.
Save me from sinking in the mud;
    keep me safe from my enemies,
    safe from the deep water.
Don’t let the flood come over me;
    don’t let me drown in the depths
    or sink into the grave. 

This is such a hard prayer for me to pray – answer me, God, at a time you choose. It’s so unnatural for me to close my eyes, open my arms, and give up control like this, but I truly have no other choice. He’s brought me to a place where utter dependence is my only option because the way I’ve been doing things just isn’t working.

And yet, paradoxically, relinquishing control in this way feels sacred instead of scary.

The moment I throw my arms open in surrender, some of that fear that I’ve been unintentionally holding onto so tightly escapes. With my arms open wide, I’ve created space for God’s great love to emerge. I’ve created space for Him to show me how He keeps His promises.

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Volcano Pacaya, Guatemala

It won’t be a one-time choice, this surrender. Again and again I will need to choose trust over the need to control, especially when the waters seem choppy and I feel unsure.

I know God will never force me to trust Him. It’s just not who He is and that’s certainly not the kind of relationship He’s after. Sometimes it takes breaking us to get our attention and beckon us back.

PSALM 69:30

I will praise God with a song;
    I will proclaim his greatness by giving him thanks.

Thank you, God, again and again for caring enough not to give up on me.

Is there anything you need to trust God with these days?