First Hurdle Cleared

I have been in grad school since January. So far it has been fairly straight forward. A few papers, small presentations and of course a bit of angst related to lesson planning.  That’s the best thing about graduate school. You’re way past the need to take tests (except of course when it comes to proving to your state that you’re competent. For them a Masters degree is unimpressive. They need you to take a standardized test. How utterly opposite everything I’m learning about…).

Today however was a bit trickier. The past few weeks I have been drafting and finalizing my first fancy, official, graduate school of education, higher level thinking skills lesson plan. Today was my assigned day to present a 30 minute chunk of my lesson for one of my classes.

Let me be clear. I taught all last year in the Czech Republic. I planned lessons, wrote tests and gave homework. I started subbing here in America in December. I’m pretty comfortable in the classroom. Despite this, the build up to today was awkwardly stressful.

On one hand I knew I had a solid lesson plan about a topic I enjoyed (South Africa). On the other hand I just never feel sure with lesson planning if it is truly measuring up to all the theories and standards I learn about. Are my goals and objectives clear? Am I making them use higher level thinking skills? Will this tie in well and connect with my other lessons? Will they actually be interested? You can never be truly done with this stuff, it can always be improved.

This is one reason why academia annoys me. It makes you over-think and paranoid about things that don’t matter, namely grades.  However if today is any indication, I have pretty much nothing to worry about.

Today went great. Pretty much everyone told me I did a good job. My professor, who saw my lesson plan before class noted it looked comprehensive and solid. I got some really helpful constructive criticism about it as well. I was pleasantly surprised with how well a couple things went over but also what I need to do to drive a few points home better and really engage my students in disscussion. Perhaps most helpfully I got insight into what students will assume about my topic and therefore where to focus my attentions most pointedly.

In the end (and at the risk of sounding painfully arrogant) am I surprised? Of course not. I decided on this path last year. I enjoy being in the classroom and discussing topics. I strive hard to make everything interesting and relevant. I love seeing the big picture and connecting strands of thought together into something coherent. The logistics of planning will always be tricky and at times difficult. But today I cleared my first hurdle successfully and it’s a pretty good feeling. I’m going to be a teacher and I plan to be a darn good one.

 

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In Spite of Everything…

I spent 2008 interning for a Christian ministry in South Africa. Going to Africa had been my dream my entire life. To finally get out there and live it and see it was incredible. My ministry, Thrive Africa, was young and small compared to most, but it was vibrant and strong in the vision and work it was doing. In many ways the positive strength that exuded from Thrive became personified for me in one man, the co-founder. He had founded the ministry with his eventual wife 10 years previously. He was a big, smart, white South African. If God hadn’t got to him he probably could have played rugby or at least been a strong farmer like so many Afrikaans people are. He was without a doubt, a born leader.

To be honest it took me a few months to warm up to him. I was a small, shy American; he was the leader of an entire ministry. I worried I might say something wrong or stupid to him. I was afraid to engage him in casual conversation. A trip to Botswana a few months into our year however brought us together in fairly close quarters. I finally got to the point where I didn’t feel nervous around him. I could ask him questions, make jokes. I felt like on some level I connected with him better than almost anyone else on our missions base. Because of all this I began to soak in every word I could from him.

There were a lot of words. He taught us a class on leadership every week. He almost always preached at the church we had each week. He led a Bible study for the men on base during the winter months. I listened, I pondered, and I retained everything I could. At the time, he was in many ways the ideal Christian leader in my mind. Strong, but humble. Logical, but in touch with the spirit. Blunt, but caring. I still today quote things regularly that he told me. I even picked up one of his phrases he always said and now say it myself.

I returned home at the end of my year full of joy with all that had happened. However a few days later I got an email. The leader I had nearly idolized during the year had been cheating on his wife with one of the missionary staff. His wife had finally gotten him to admit to it. A few months later it was revealed that in spite of his wife’s wiliness to reconcile, to seek therapy, to make it work, he was pursuing a divorce. Everything was now up in the air.

Thrive, in the last couple years, has done an unbelievable job trying to move on and continue with their ministry. However their efforts were not enough to keep Thrive on sound enough financial footing. Today it was publicly announced on their website that Thrive is closing. I cannot tell you how shocked and dismayed I am by all of this.

I had the incredible opportunity to return to Thrive this past summer to see the ministry in action once more. I went out to dinner with the then director and some missionary staff who were nice enough to answer any questions I had about the situation of the ministry. Unsurprisingly, HE came up. And the director said something which unexpectedly stuck with me.

“His actions do not undo the truth of the things he told you.”

This entry is not being written to cast blame. It is meant to show that in spite of everything, God is good. Thrive was an active, flourishing ministry for 13 years. It impacted the lives of thousands of South Africans and North Americans who served under them, including myself. Even now a new ministry is being formed to continue much of the vital work that Thrive has done. Today is without a doubt a sad day, a day I will join in with many in mourning the end of a fantastic ministry. However life, work, and ministry continue unabated all over the world and the actions of no one can hope to stem the flow of the love of Christ on this lost and hurting world.

I finish this entry with a Bible verse that sums up things better than I could ever hope to.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.—Romans 8:38-39

 

In Africa

The World Cup, friends in Johannesburg, and the ministry I was with in 2008 has offered the perfect trifecta of excuses to make a very big detour on my way home from the Czech Republic. I’m here for 17 days and will fly home on the 17th but I have been loving every minute so far. And just so we are all clear: no I haven’t gotten to a game but it has been awesome nonetheless.

Simply put, I love Africa generally and South Africa specifically. People who know me well will know I don’t use the following language lightly but I really feel that Africa as a whole is something that God has literally put on my heart. I have spent most of my life wanting to come here. Studying, reading, thinking and writing about the place is simply what I do. Spending a year here in 2008 was fantastic and now having the opportunity to return has been better than I could have imagined.

I wasn’t sure how coming back would feel. A lot can (and has) change(d) in a year and a half. However even amidst the culture shock I am reaffirming how much I love this place. I have reconnected with people and friends I haven’t seen for more than a year. I’m meeting new people who are here for the first time. It is chilly but beautiful. I am surprised about just how ecstatic I am to be here.

Many people have understandably raised the idea that if I love it so much why don’t I just return permanently? Good question. Many variables are in my life right now. Beyond this fall I have no clue what will happen. But I’m so thankful that God has allowed me to come back even for only a few weeks and simply sear South Africa into my heart, this time for good. I may not return permanently, I may not return for a year or more. But I will come back, that much is assured. And it will be fantastic in a way I am unfit to describe.

Impact South Africa

Many of you know that I spent almost all of 2008 in South Africa. During this time I was an intern for the ministry Thrive Africa. It was an incredible year. If you want to see what I did there and the impact it had on my life you can check out my blog from that year at: http://mattinsouthafrica.blogspot.com/

Since I left in December 2008, Thrive Africa has experienced some unbelievably difficult pressures on their ability to operate their ministry. The most obvious is the economic downturn that hit the states. Thrive Africa relies almost solely on generous donations from and partnerships with people and churches in North America. If the donations stop, Thrive will shut down. It’s that simple. And lately the money has been drying up. They have started a capital campaign to raise $80,000 by this summer. You can get all the lowdown at: http://www.impactsouthafrica.com/

Let me be very clear. I believe in Thrive. I believe in its vision, its mission, its leadership and what it is doing and it is without a doubt effective. These guys aren’t out there helping poor people to make themselves feel better. They are attempting to change the face of a nation and thereby a continent with life changing spiritual and leadership education. And to my knowledge they are the only long-term organization doing this in a township area of roughly 2 million people. You can find out more information about thrive at: wwwthriveafrica.com

This is bigger than just keeping a few North Americans in Africa. Thrive employs over 50 nationals on a full-time basis. In a country with an unemployment rate of nearly 25% this is a big deal. They teach thousands of students every year in local schools about important and taboo topics such as leadership, purpose, sex and AIDS. I personally visited an orphanage on a weekly basis when I was there. I was able to watch kids grow and learn as we spent time, played, taught and loved them.

If the money stops, if this capital campaign fails, all that is over.

I am a competitive person. When I am part of something it becomes my team. I want to see it succeed and do well (you could even say “thrive.” I’m sorry I couldn’t contain myself.) This was true when I was doing high school sports, collegiate sports, with ESI now, and of course with Thrive. Four of my fellow interns are long term staff with them now. I want them to be able to fufill their calling from God with Thrive.

What can you do? Pray and Give. The websites above indicate how. I know many of you don’t have the personal experience I have had at Thrive so you have to trust me on this but please. Give. It will truly make all the difference. Can you imagine what it must feel like having a vision to change a country and the only obstacle is money? The soil is fertile, the workers are there and continuing to come. All that is needed is the senders. To help with this campaign Thrive has recently set up an online store where you can buy, amongst other things, African-grown fair-trade coffee. Proceeds go to Thrive. You may not care about South Africa. You may not KNOW about South Africa. But I bet someone in your life likes good coffee. Check out http://www.thriveafricastore.com/

This is important. And you can help. Give to Thrive Africa today.