Have I already mentioned how this song almost always makes me cry? Because it does. I’ve had a few times when I can sing it with dry eyes, but for the most part, the timing or the words or my emotions combine with the music and lyrics to coax my close-to-the-surface tears (and snot) to come streaming down my face. This past week, I’ve gained a whole new understanding of oceans rising and feet failing. I’d say it’s been an “emotional roller coaster,” but that’s cliché and gives the connotation of something fun and exciting. While this week has had some exciting and fun moments, it’s also been rather challenging, heartbreaking, and just plain sad.
June at Sahel
One of the other missionary families here at Sahel has a common saying for the beginning of the summer: “June sucks.” Of course, Sahel students and teachers alike eagerly await the beginning of summer, in some senses. We love the freedom from planning teaching grading, homeworking, studying, and taking way too many IGCSE exams. We enjoy the accomplishment of finishing another school year. However, we also know that the end of the school year means the beginning of even more goodbyes. Seniors are graduating and leaving this place. Some families will be gone for only one year, maybe for a home assignment. Other families are changing locations, transitioning to a different ministry or job. Teachers come and go and mostly go, especially the pesky ones who had to go and get engaged. So amidst 5th grade and 8th grade recognitions, finishing exams, and a wonderful graduation ceremony, the Sahel community also has to say way too many goodbyes.
This happens every year. Can you imagine? Every year you love and cherish friends and teachers, only to say goodbye and never know if or when you’ll see them again. But this year, we had another unexpected, untimely, unfair goodbye to say.
On Friday, May 29, I gave a final exam to 18 of my students. Some time around 9:30, Jesse came up to my desk in the computer lab and handed me his typed response to the 2 essay questions he chose to answer for his World Literature exam. Even though he had missed the past few weeks of school due to illness, I had no doubt that Jesse was turning in high quality writing with a depth and understanding of the questions and the texts he referenced in his answers. He was always a diligent, high-achieving student in World Literature.
By 8:00pm that same day, Jesse had passed away.
He had been sick for a few weeks. I don’t understand everything that was going on, but maybe a half hour after he turned in his exam to me, Sahel staff rushed him to the medical clinic after he became very ill outside the school library. He stabilized that afternoon, and Jesse was able to talk with his mom and his older brother, Jordan, for a few minutes. Jesse talked about how he felt like he should be worried, but he just had so much peace. Jordan Jones was also in my World Literature class, and he graduated this past Thursday.
Here’s what you need to know about this whole mess of reality:
- Jesse loved God with all his heart. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind of where he is right now. He is whole. His body is healed. He is worshipping His Savior, and He has more joy and happiness than he could have ever known on earth.
- All but 1 of the elementary students were off Sahel’s campus, at the pool on Friday morning. They did not see Jesse that morning, and they will not remember Jesse as he was outside the library that morning.
- He passed away before the end of the school year, while all of the Sahel community is still here in Niamey, able to love and comfort and mourn together.
- God is good. He is here. He is sovereign. Death is not natural, and it was not in the original plan back in Eden. And yet, God redeems all things for His glory.
For these and many other reasons, I’m choosing to praise God through the pain, tears, confusion, sorrow.
Since last Friday
I’ve been to a great many events and processed a number of experiences since last Friday. While I’m sure I’ll go to some similar events and work through similar thoughts in my future, I certainly hope that I have time in between for healing.
I went to the home of a family who had lost their 11th grade son. I looked through childhood photos of a sweet, kind, smiley young man with the world’s most impressive dimples. I listened as a grieving mother remembered her last day with her son.
I looked through photos on the school computer to create a slide show for Jesse’s memorial service on May 31st. After that service, I had the chance to talk with one of my amazing, resilient, godly, courageous, and hurting now-11th-grade students. His thoughts and processing challenged and inspired me, and I was honored to be a listening ear for him.
I attended the funeral of one of my students. Do you know how much that hurts? I stood with one of Jesse’s classmates and tried to speak truth to her while the sweat dripped down my legs and the tears threatened to spill down my face. “Nothing you did or did not do caused this to happen.” “Yes, God could still bring Jesse back, but Jesse doesn’t really want to come back now. He’s in heaven.” “It’s okay to grieve in your own way; we all grieve differently.” And as they carried the closed casket directly in front of us, I held her tighter and supported more of her weight, literally and figuratively carrying this burden of reality and sorrow.
I also went to a graduation banquet, a final assembly, and a graduation ceremony to celebrate all of the achievements of these amazing Sahel students over the past years. We laughed together, we remembered, we prayed, we ate great food, and we said goodbyes. Only, really, we don’t quite say “goodbye” here.
A little over 8 years ago, my Grandpa Cline passed away. I still remember how distraught I was after viewing what used to be my grandpa in the casket. After the viewing, our dear family friend, Uncle Jim, spoke a beautiful truth to me:
“You know, for Christians, we don’t really have to say goodbye. We just say ‘See you later.’”
He might not remember saying that to me, but clearly I haven’t forgotten. So to sweet Jesse, to the amazing class of 2015 at Sahel Academy, to my students in all 5 classes that I taught these past 2 months, to the many other students who befriended me, and to the marvelous staff, my amazing friends, here at Sahel, I say see you later. And really, in the grand scheme of things, see you soon.
In the next week
I have a feeling that the ocean will stay pretty high for the next few weeks as I transition and process. I have 4 more days here in Niger before I fly back to the States. In these next few days, I have more “See you laters” to say. I also have some packing, cleaning, and classroom-preparing to do. Then on Friday, I get to see my fiancé again for the first time in 2 months. 🙂 Gracious am I grateful for that.
So in the next week, the week after, and the weeks to come, I’ll keep processing and praying. I’ll keep missing people and places. Hopefully, maybe, I’ll keep updating this blog. 🙂 (I mean, I’ll definitely let you know when I’m home, no worries.) I’ll keep learning about preaching truth to myself, which I realized in the past few weeks that I’m not so great at. So, I’ll start with part of the Oceans song.
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my savior…
For I am yours,
And you are mine.
And of course, I’ll go back to the source of truth:
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Also, I wrote that passage in my journal on May 14th, over two weeks before Jesse passed away. God is good and faithful.
Thank you again for your prayers.