Looking Back, Looking Ahead

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us,
so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures
and the encouragement they provide, we might have hope.
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you
the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had,
so that with one mind and one voice
you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Romans 15:4-6 (NIV)

Almost ten months ago, we moved to Tirana to begin serving at GDQ International Christian School. It’s been a busy year, one filled with as much learning as teaching. After twenty years ministering in Latin America, we still look around us and ask ourselves, “How did we get here?” God surely has a sense of humor to call us to a new place, a new culture and a new language at our age! Yet we are confident that He has brought us here and that He will continue to sustain us with endurance and encouragement that we may bring Him glory through this work.

So now we need to spend some time reflecting back on this school year, peeling back the layers on all we have experienced. We’ve visited several historic sites this year – castles and ruins – and have been undeniably impressed by the effort that goes in to peeling back the layers of time to uncover centuries of history. How much we can learn by looking back! Though we’ve had years of missions experience and came to teach and to serve in administration at GDQ, we’ve found we still have much to learn. In the Albanian language (speaking of much to learn!), the word “mësoj” can mean “I learn” or “I teach”. In the same way, we have found teaching and learning inexplicably intertwined through our hearts and minds this year.

Through innumerable meetings and cappuccinos, Len is learning how to appreciate the culture and history of GDQ School, how to navigate our educational software systems, and how to implement changes in a way that serves the needs of a diverse international population of staff and students. As he’s taught Business Math in the high school, he’s learned more about the culture and personalities of students whose parents are from Guatemala, the United States, Norway, Italy, Hungary, and Albania.

In Middle School Bible classes, Betsy is learning to teach God’s Word to students with disparate background knowledge of and interest in the Scriptures. As she participates in the Middle School youth ministry and leads a small group of Grade 6 girls each week, Betsy is discovering the unique stories, gifts and struggles of her students from varying faith experiences. Leading Lower School chapels continues to reveal the need to share the stories of the Bible in an understandable, creative and meaningful way with children.

And among other things, we’re learning to pay our monthly internet bill on time so it doesn’t get cut off. We’re realizing we need to invest more time and energy, even after long school days, into learning Albanian so we can build relationships within our community. Our understanding of the fascinating and complex history of Albania, politically and spiritually, is being enriched by wandering Tirana and by traveling to sites and cities outside the capital. Finally, we’ve come to know how much we depend on serving with a community of believers and co-laborers who share their guidance, counsel, friendship, joy and struggles in life and ministry.

Looking back over this year and looking ahead to summer in the United States then returning to Albania for the next school year, we are filled with hope. In so many ways, it has been a great year, but it’s not always easy, especially being so far from our own children and granddaughter, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. We miss many special occasions back home in the US. We struggle with the cold in winter and the heat in summer and the constant noise and pollution in the city. We are frustrated at our lack of ability to communicate. We are often exhausted after a long week of school. We’ve made mistakes, offended or hurt others through miscommunication or misunderstandings. Sometimes it’s just plain hard.

And yet, we are filled with hope – hope that we can make a difference for God here, hope that He can use us to see lives and hearts and a society transformed by the power of the Gospel, hope that any sacrifices we make will seem as gain as we relentlessly pursue obedience to Christ. Pray with us that His Word will peel back the layers of many hearts and plant seeds of hope through personal knowledge of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!

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Keeping up with our Steps

We see many of our friends and family relying on their fitness trackers to keep up with their steps throughout the day. Though we don’t have one (yet), we thought we’d look back and update you on some of the steps we’ve taken over the past six months. Don’t worry – it won’t add up to 10,000!

We arrived in Albania on Friday, August 25, and began the school year at GDQ International Christian School on Tuesday, August 29. Those first weeks were a whirlwind of unpacking, shopping, meeting people, and learning our way around the city of Tirana. Even with Google maps we’ve managed to get lost a few times as we’ve walked around the city. Thankfully, we haven’t yet gotten on the wrong bus!

Being Head of Secondary Len walks back and forth from our high school campus (9-12) to our lower school campus (K-8) several times a day. It’s only a ten-minute walk but it can be an adventure getting past the loose geese in an empty lot. Apparently Len’s briefcase comes in handy as a shield! Though Betsy stays at the lower school campus, she gets her steps in going up and down from the staff room and printer on the first floor to her office and classroom on the third floor, as well as frequent trips to the nearest grocery store.

A huge step in our journey these past months was Len graduating from Columbia International University with his Master of Education in Administration in December. Though he wasn’t able to attend his actual graduation ceremonies, he was surprised with a “ceremony” complete with hood and stole during a Friday morning staff meeting at GDQ. It’s been a blessing to work alongside the rest of our K-12 staff at school. Many have come to serve here from the United States, but others from the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Finland, South Korea, Canada and Albania. Though our instruction at school is in English, numerous other languages are represented in our school community. As we begin more formal language training in Albanian, we are hoping that our having learned Spanish will help us in understanding some of the grammatical rules and constructions. But we are more than a few steps away from being able to hold a conversation in Albanian!

Besides learning culture and language, we are learning much about our students at GDQ. Our 137 students represent more than 20 different countries. Some have lived all their lives in Albania. Others, like us, only arrived a few months ago. Some are already planning to leave at the end of this school year, either temporarily or permanently. Most have had numerous experiences with transition in their lives. Wherever their steps might lead, we are thankful to have this opportunity to walk alongside them as they learn and grow academically, emotionally, physically and spiritually. As the GDQ International Christian School vision statement says, our goal is that of “educating international children to have maximum influence for the glory of God in their lifetime”.

A recent highlight that led our students to take steps in drawing closer to God was our Middle School Retreat. We spent two nights and three days at a campground outside the city. Activities included games of hide and seek, hiking, basketball, ping pong and other large group outside games. More importantly, as we learned how to have an unbreakable faith, the Lord moved on many hearts during our worship and small group times.

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Giving Thanks

Before November gets away from us we wanted to be sure to thank each of you for being a part of our ministry here at GDQ International Christian School! Without your faithful support and prayers, we certainly couldn’t be here investing in the lives of our staff and students. THANK YOU! Our hearts are truly filled with gratitude for the privilege of serving the Lord in Tirana, Albania.

Though Thanksgiving was a little different this year, we were blessed and thankful to still enjoy a traditional American holiday meal. We had several invitations to join others for the day and ended up spending the day with a group of missionaries, enjoying turkey with all the trimmings and some wonderful fellowship around the table. Though we weren’t with our own family back in Georgia and New Jersey, we were thankful to be able to speak to all of them via FaceTime over the holiday.

Other blessings we find ourselves thankful for include the opportunity to attend the weeklong conference of the Albanian Encouragement Project held in Budva, Montenegro. We rode up with World Gospel Mission coworkers, Nathan and Cydil Waggoner, and their two children. Len’s sister, Joy Phillips, also attended as she spent time in Albania as part of her responsibilities as WGM Regional Director for Asia, Europe and Oceania. It was a wonderful week of worship, fellowship, and learning more about various ministries throughout Albania

During the school week, our days are full, leaving each morning at 6:45 a.m. Many days there are meetings to attend after school as well, especially for Len in administration. With the time change recently, it’s getting dark here by 4:30 p.m. so our internal clocks are having a hard time realizing it’s not as late as it feels! Of course, after arriving home there’s always “homework” – lesson plans, grading, and for Len, finishing up his final online course at Columbia International University in South Carolina. As of December 8, he will officially graduate with his Master of Education degree! For that, we are truly thankful!

Again, thank you for allowing us to share with you some of the blessings God is showering on us here in Albania. And thank you for being one of those blessings!

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Settling In

It’s now been a full month since we arrived in Tirana, Albania! And it has literally been a full month – full of learning, lesson plans, new friends and new foods, more than a few humbling language struggles and missing family back home. We arrived on Friday, August 25. After a weekend of settling in to our 8th floor apartment, shopping for items for our home, learning bus routes and being generously welcomed and hosted by coworkers, we officially began the school year at the GDQ International Christian School.

Len is adjusting to splitting his time between the two campuses, about 3 blocks  apart. One building houses the K-8 and the other is for the High School. He’s been studying the school handbooks and spending time in meetings with other administrators and teachers, learning more about the history and operation of the secondary school. Betsy is teaching Middle School Bible and is getting to know her 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students. Being asked to help with a small group during the Middle School Youth Group time has been an added blessing in that regard! She’s also collaborating with Lower School Chapels each week, Mondays with Grades K-2 and Wednesdays with Grades 3-5.

Yes, this month has been one of learning. We are learning again to study and appreciate a new culture. We are learning to adapt to the busy, noisy life of a big city. We are learning to treasure FaceTime moments with our children and granddaughter across 5,000 miles and a 6-hour time difference. We are learning to accept the feelings of humility and incompetence that come from not being able to communicate the simplest phrases when a neighbor invites us over for a snack. We are learning that each staff member and each student at our school has a unique and fascinating story reflecting the working of God’s grace and love. But most of all, we are learning to depend fully on Jesus each day, realizing anew how much we need His wisdom and His strength to enter fully into the place He has called us to. In joyful obedience to His call to this place, we pray: “Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I trust your commands.” (Psalm 119:66) May we be a winsome witness to the love of Christ each day and to every person we encounter.

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It’s Almost Time!

We are on our way! We will be traveling to Tirana, Albania, leaving Atlanta on Thursday, August 24. It’s hard to believe the time has already arrived. But God has proved Himself so faithful – and we are incredibly thankful for each of you who has felt led to partner with us through financial support and through your prayers.

These last few weeks have been a whirlwind! An international move involves quite a bit of preparation (not that we ever start early enough!). Our checklist this summer has included such things as:

  • Sort, organize and pack all our household belongings for storage.
  • Schedule physicals with our family doctor.
  • Find a loving home for our cat.
  • Forward mail to family members.
  • Upgrade and unlock our phones for international usage.
  • Buy things we know we’ll need for our new home in Tirana and can fit in six suitcases.
  • Make sure our three children have any important documents they might need for the year.
  • Close out accounts and utility bills.
  • Prepare for classes and ministry at GDQ International Christian School.
  • Spend as much time as possible with our family before leaving.

We are excited and looking forward to all God has in store for us in Albania, though it also feels like a daunting challenge. As we go, we are leaning hard into Jesus for needed strength, grace and wisdom for life and ministry in a new place. Thank you for going with us!

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An Unexpected Journey

Not long ago we asked for your prayers for clear vision and direction. Thank you for praying! Your prayers, and ours, have been answered. God is leading us to Albania!

Jesus has provided an exciting opportunity for us to serve at the GDQ International Christian School in Tirana, Albania. Len will put his almost-completed Masters of Education to use through administrative duties as Middle School/High School Principal. Betsy will step into teaching Middle School Bible classes and will also coordinate Lower School Chapels.

GDQ  was founded in the fall of 1993 to support the efforts of the evangelical Protestant missionary community in Albania by providing a Christ-centered, academically enriching international education. Currently, about 75% of the student body are the children of missionaries serving in Albania and the remainder represent expatriates involved in the international business sector. Students and staff represent more than fifteen different mission sending organizations and come from Asia, Europe, Africa, North and South America. The vision of the school is to instill in students a God-honoring Christian worldview so they might have maximum influence for the glory of God in and through their lives.

Albania itself borders the Adriatic and Ionian Seas, Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro. A long and complex history, including centuries under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, ended with Albanian independence in 1912. Following World War II, Albania emerged under communist rule that lasted until the 1990s. During those years, Albania was declared an atheist state and all centers of worship were closed. Today, Albania and its population of 3 million boasts freedom of worship, with fifty-seven percent of the population identifying as Muslim and the remainder as primarily Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or nonreligious/undeclared. Evangelical Protestant Christians make up less than 1% of the population. Ministry at GDQ International Christian School  will allow us the great privilege of joining in the efforts of those bringing the Good News of Jesus to the people of Albania.

Please continue to pray for guidance at each step, for God’s’ abundant provision, and for our hearts to be open to all He has in store for our future as we follow His call to Albania.

If you want to partner with us on this journey by providing financial support, through either a one-time donation or ongoing support, please visit one of the links below. We can’t do this without you!

Len and Betsy Phillips at World Gospel Mission

Len and Betsy Phillips at TMS-Global (missionary ID #0514)

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Praying for Clear Vision

When’s the last time you had your eyes checked? Personally, I’ve tried to be diligent about a yearly eye exam, even though that’s meant I’ve had to reluctantly accept the inevitable. First it was reading glasses. Now it’s glasses fulltime. Every year the prescription seems to get a little bit stronger. Though I would prefer to turn back the clock and return to my pre-glasses days, I am honestly grateful to have decent vision. Every morning I put on my silver-framed lenses (which coincidentally now also match my hair color) and suddenly the world around me becomes much more clear and focused. img_1552-2

How I wish there were lenses that allowed me to see God’s plan as clearly as I can now read the instructions on my bottle of multivitamins!

Since returning to the United States in June 2013, Len and I have continually sought to discern God’s vision for our ministry. We had perceived His hand leading Len to study for a Masters of Education (with an emphasis in Administration) and we sensed that these years were a season to stay in the United States. God led us clearly to a new ministry serving as resources in educational ministries, on Special Assignment through World Gospel Mission to serve with the Global Resource Team of The Mission Society, now TMS-Global (see note below). We’ve been eyewitnesses to how faithfully God opened doors for ministry here and internationally and to how faithfully He has continued to provide through a team of many who pray and give sacrificially that we may serve.

Now we are again in a period of seeking; seeking God’s vision for what is next. In consultation with both our mission agencies, we are actively exploring opportunities for a return to international cross-cultural ministry. As we do so, we pray for clear vision. We pray not only for clarity to see the path God would have us take but also for a growing vision for all He has in store for us.

Won’t you pray with us? Pray that the Lord makes our way clear. Pray that we will discern His guidance. Pray that we will walk by faith, trusting for His provision as we take these next steps. It’s clear to us that your partnership makes a difference in our lives and ministry!

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