You know the story of Moses and the burning bush?
In Exodus 3 we’re told how God spoke to Moses through “flames of fire coming from a bush” (v2). In some ways, I’m really quite envious of Moses here. God spoke to him so directly, so clearly. He even called out “Moses, Moses!” (v4).
Something we long for is clarity and clear instruction. Going out with blind faith, unsure of what’s to come is not always straight forward.
Whilst in my first year of sixth form I made up my mind about taking a gap year: it was something I really wanted to do, especially as my uni course is five years long.
Doing a Christian gap year was a bit of an uncertainty to begin with: I doubted myself. I doubted my spiritual maturity, my faith, my ability, and I wrestled with the idea. God however wasn’t going to let me wimp out and whilst pondering options He was busy pressing on my heart.
I had also always thought of gap years as a whole 12 months overseas trip but through discussing with other Christians at my church, I realised that there were so many opportunities to serve God in my local area.
Over time I really developed a heart for the community and when it came to the end of my final A level exams I started volunteering at my town’s Foodbank. It was a very special time for me and God started revealing His heart for the community, in particular those in need.
It was an eye-opening experience: the devastating reality hit me that so many people in my small home town open up their cupboard doors to see empty shelves.
I previously had a very narrow minded view on what poverty is: it’s what charities and adverts on the television tell us, it’s nothing to do with the west. However, I realised that this is not true. There is so much desperation on our doorstep.
1st of February I departed Heathrow for Malawi on a Tearfund gap year. Different to Moses’ experience, I’d had no clear instruction to go to Malawi. I was desperately awaiting that I-am-certain-this-is-God “Yes” but I believe that by denying me this, the Lord was teaching me to just trust Him.
I did however feel a strong sense of peace about going to Malawi.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7]
I think one of the scariest bits for me, scarier than the idea of leaving my family or entering a new culture with a bizarre language was the idea of spending five months with five strangers!
In the time leading up to the team orientation I felt quite unsettled with both excitement and fear. What will they be like? What if we don’t get on? What if they don’t like me? When I first met the team I wasn’t filled with the instant sense of security and assurance that I was hoping for. In fact, I felt that we were all very different and I doubted that we’d click very well.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure that God had made the right decision in putting us together.
This reminds me of the story in Matthew 8 when Jesus calms the storm. The disciples are faced with a situation where they feel so vulnerable and fearful: they’re on a boat in the middle of a pretty intense storm. Rather than trusting that God will bring them through the storm safely, they are convinced they will drown. Jesus answers their cry with: “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm. [v26]
Similar to these disciples, I doubted God’s power, his faithfulness, and yes, I had little faith. But, The Lord has shown himself to be so faithful to me during this trip.
Indeed I was very wrong about my team and I have been abundantly blessed by every team member. We are very different but we have much in common too. Our differences have taught each other a lot, challenged our views and strengthened our faith.
The reality that God hand-picked us all to be on this team blows me away and makes me want to worship Him. Doing nightly devotions has been so beneficial and has helped me grow as a person.
Studying the Bible as a group and also doing my individual reading has broadened my understanding of God’s word and has challenged my views and motives. Being with the team has also made me realise the importance of fellowship and that we are one body.
I am by no means saying that team life is ‘oh so swell’: there have been struggles and times where I’ve had to take some time to be alone with Radiohead blaring through my eardrums.
I’ve thoroughly exercised my ‘patience muscle’ and at times I’ve had to summon up the courage to address issues with members (but out of love and not out of frustration). Something I have to admit I’ve struggled with, and still do sometimes (do even though I’m over three months into my trip) is that need to feel like a superhero.
There’s that temptation to prove myself, to be able to come back from my trip and feel like I’ve made a difference, like I’ve made this world a better place. I won’t speak on behalf of my team, but I think it’s a familiar feeling for many youngsters on gap years.
We want to feel like we’ve done something, that we’ve been a success.
I’ve learnt though that God didn’t call me to Malawi so that I could return home with great stories and cool pictures. I’m here to serve the Lord and although I want to be the one to impact other people’s lives, I’m learning to accept that I’m the one who’s going to impacted the most.
The villagers in the communities we visit have taught me so much about humility, generosity and hospitality. I go out to villages longing to serve and I am served tenfold what I offer them.
Rather than being task focused and having that satisfaction of ticking boxes on the ‘To Do’ list, I’ve learnt that actually what people need is time and love, and that in everything I do it has to be out of love. “I may give away everything I have, and I may even give my body as an offering to be burned. But I gain nothing if I do not have love.” [1 Corinthians 13:3]
To be motivated purely by love for Christ is something that will forever challenge me. It is also something that really excites me.
I haven’t written this blog to say that taking a gap year is the only way of deepening your relationship with God, but from personal reflection, I believe that it has taught me to lean on Him, and through this He has shown His faithfulness and Fatherly love.
I have experienced a new and exciting culture by going overseas and I have developed a love for the local community by serving in my home town.
I have met incredible people throughout this year who have taught me so much about loving others humbly and living out each day with joy.
Although it will be very difficult to say goodbye to Malawi, I feel better equipped and motivated for my life back in the UK and starting university in September.
I pray that everything I’ve seen, experienced and learnt over this year will not leave me when I return home, but rather, it will stir me to live out a more Godly life. To those of you who think God might be prompting you to take a gap year, I say “Go for it!”
I wasn’t sure what I was ‘supposed to do’ or if I’d made the right decision. I didn’t have a Moses-like encounter with God. I had big doubts. And despite all of this, God has been watching over me, and I have felt utterly loved, protected and blessed by Him during this gap year.
As it says in James 4:8, “Come near to God, and God will come near to you.”