Giving Thanks When Growth is Hard Work

By Bethany Ferguson on November 23, 2017

If you are American, you are likely in the midst of celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday.

Where I live in Kijabe, Kenya, we have a fairly large contingent of American expats, and so a butcher delivers turkeys to our campus every November. Somehow, I currently find myself hosting a 12.6 kg turkey in my freezer.

Otherwise, we are nearing the homestretch of our first school term of 2017. The term has been, as always, a mix of encouraging and exhausting. I’ve helped students address stressors many adolescents face: anxiety, grief, and loneliness. I’ve seen students find new hope and health, but I’ve also seen people struggling deeply.

I’ve realized again that the growth I foresee for these students only comes as they, day to day, learn to work for hope and change. It reminds me of a Wendell Berry poem:

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

-Wendell Berry, “X” from A Timbered Choir

I’m privileged to witness the work students do, and yet I often just want them to get to the joy. God continues to remind me that it isn’t my work but His grace that accomplishes change. It’s only when I remember that He is the one working that I work well, with a “Sabbath mood” resting on my days. Otherwise, I just feel hurried and harried.

It doesn’t help that these past few months have been a season of political upheaval in Kenya. August’s presidential election was declared invalid, and a second election was scheduled for the end of October. The timing of the election correlated with an exam I needed to take as a part of my continuing education as a counselor, and the only place I could take the exam was in the heart of Nairobi. Days before the exam, we were given a travel warning that strongly recommended avoiding central Nairobi. And yet, I had to take the exam.

I found myself in a taxi with my friend Jennifer, heading into Nairobi when it appeared everyone else was driving away. I sat through the exam, trying to ignore the loud call to prayer from the mosque next door, trying to keep anxiety at bay when I heard noise on the street, wondering what was happening outside while I wrote essays and answered obscure questions. After the exam, I arrived back at my hotel in time for a late afternoon swim, a lovely Thai dinner, and a news story showing that police had been using tear gas to disperse political protestors a few blocks from the building where I had taken the exam.

This is often the paradox of my days—making my way toward chaos when others are often going the other way. Stepping into risky and uncertain situations. And also, feeling the privilege of my life that allows for safe hotels, early morning taxi rides, and friends and colleagues who help me figure out which risks are worth taking.

In Kenya, I always feel like both an insider and an outsider, never really knowing where I belong. A day can involve tests and tear gas and police in riot gear at the same time it involves a rooftop pool and lovely Thai food.

The longer I’m here, the less I feel the pressure to reconcile all these things. I am weary of life in a place of struggle and injustice. But, at the same time, I am so grateful to witness God’s work in this particular part of the world. As Wendell Berry says, “Whatever is foreseen in joy/ Must be lived out from day to day.”

I do foresee a day of political peace for Kenya, a day of hope and healing for the clients I counsel, a day of equity and equality in this world of privilege and disparity. And yet, to get to the hopeful harvest, “the hand must ache, the face must sweat.”

If this world has taught me anything, it’s that sweating it out is not enough. We can work hard, and not always see the change we long for. But then, sometimes, when we’ve all but given up, “great work is done while we’re asleep.” For what we plant and nurture, God is growing into something beautiful and new.

I hope that during this Thanksgiving week, a “Sabbath mood/Rests on our day, and finds it good.” I hope you can pause from the busyness, and walk for a moment down paths of gratefulness.

May your work and your rest, your fasting and your feasting, your grief and your joy all be a part of God’s Kingdom coming to this broken and needy world.

Bethany Ferguson

About Bethany Ferguson

Bethany Ferguson is an educator and counselor currently working in Kenya. She writes about how the gospel brings transformation in her work and in her own heart at bethanygrace.wordpress.com.