The months before I left for my escapade to be a student missionary, I was told that as a new and unqualified teacher I should expect to be no more than a week ahead of my students in regard to lesson plans. However, When I left home for a brief training in Hawaii, the training mentors admitted to us that we could only really count on being two days ahead of our students. Determined to avoid the anxieties that came with the obvious fact that I had no idea of what I was getting myself into, I told myself that I would go above and beyond, defy the odds, and have a completed yearly plan by the time school started. Yet before I knew it, preparation week had come and gone, and I began my career as a teacher with a plan which did not encapsulate the next eight months, nor the next week, but simply a skeleton of what the next few days would look like.
Even so, when I think back on the feelings of that first week of school, one particularly happy image comes to mind. A picture of me sitting with a few students after school waiting for their busses to arrive, most of them running around looking for flowers. Skillfully, they made them into leis, piling them on my neck, head, and wrists, and calling me the “queen of nature.” There I was, still very much a scattered work in progress, but that no longer mattered as these small humans adorned me in flowers and crowned me with their affections. By the end of that first week of school, my heart was light and my tired limbs were energized, and though I still lacked a plan, I was sure that Yap SDA was where I was meant to be.
This confidence that I was exactly where God wanted me to be was something I would reach back to for encouragement in the uncertainties of the weeks to come. My first bout of doubt emerged a couple weeks after school had started when we received the discouraging news that, due to an outbreak of dengue fever and leptospirosis on the island, school would be cancelled for a month. Our SM family was disappointed and we were not sure of how to deal with this setback, but we kept our heads up and made the most of the time. God proved to continue to be faithful and in a couple weeks, school was up and running again. Our short pause was over and school resumed as normal, yet in the following weeks, my spirits seemed to spiral between highs that soared and lows that hit hard. It was a cycle between instances that felt like gifts and moments that felt impossibly heavy. The latter came from a homesickness which I had never felt up onto this point, from a growing fatigue that I had to hide once I stepped foot in the classroom, and from a struggle to be present in this life which I had dreamt about for so long, and now that I was there, it felt as if I still sat in the waiting.
Ann Voskamp, an author who has spoken truth into my life time and time again, often writes about praising God even in times of restlessness and uncertainty. She describes the first instance in scripture where thanksgiving is spoken of, mentioning how the Israelites were to give ten offerings of bread in obedience to God, one of those offerings being leaven bread. She questions, “Why would leaven, yeast – that which is seen in Scripture as impure, unwanted – why would leaven be included in the thanks offering?” and then concludes that “Authentic thanks is always for all things, because our God is a God kneading all things into a bread that sustains” (12).
During this time, I read over these truths and I realized that in order to be present in my current situation, I would need to be intentional about giving thanks in the challenges. I would need to develop eyes to focus on the gifts among the leaven bread.
I remember one day especially well, a day amidst a week in which the hours dragged on and my patience was thin. I had come into my classroom at lunch to find Nina*, one of my students, sitting at my desk, with her head down crying. I sat with her and found that her troubles came from a classmate who had hit her with a ball outside. This small dilemma turned out to be a sweet blessing as Nina went on to speak to me openly about her friendships and gave me a glimpse into other aspects of her personal life. It was the first time I had felt a connection to her, and in this, God handed me a gift. Later that day, school was done for the day and I was filing papers in my classroom. Without warning, three of my fifth graders decided to pay me a visit and before I knew it, they were running like little roadrunners chasing bouncy balls around the classroom. I couldn’t stop laughing watching them play their endless game, savoring the quality time with my kiddos outside of class time. Here was another gift, already two within one day. That afternoon, I was thankful that I didn’t have supervision or tutoring, it was just me and these three crazies who were swelling my heart and filling my cup without even knowing it.
And just like that, when I decided that I wanted to embrace the gifts often hidden in leaven bread, God began giving me eyes to see them. I saw gifts in the joy of spinning with second graders during recess time, in playing tag and kickball in the pouring rain with my SM family. I saw them when my kids taught me to eat rice with my hands in proper Yapese fashion and when we listened to Christmas music in November; when my housemates and I went on spontaneous market runs to buy ampan (my favorite Yapese pastry) and when my principal surprised us with cookies during staff meetings.
I have come to believe that God is not only in the business of changing hearts, but that it’s one of his favorite things to do. He often doesn’t change the circumstances which His children are in, He simply gives them new eyes to see within them. For me, there were still many days when I didn’t want to give thanks for the leaven bread of life, but whenever I allowed God to widen my view, I wasn’t disappointed. There were always gifts to be found, there was always joy in abundance.
*name changed for privacy
Voskamp, Ann. A Thousand Gifts Devotional. Zondervan, 2011, p.12
Rebecca (Becky) Orozco, a Student Missionary from Walla Walla University, recently returned from serving as a 5th grade teacher at Yap Seventh-day Adventist School in Yap, Micronesia. Sadly, school came to a sudden close in March due to the threat of COVID-19, sending Becky and most of her fellow volunteer teachers home a few months early. Becky is taking some time to walk through her experience in Yap as she transitions home, and is kind enough to share it with all of us through this blog post series.