As I drank in the sight of my slightly sunburned husband walking through airport security today, I didn’t realize that I was going to receive a life lesson from the unpacking of his souvenirs. As he spun me around in his arms, heedless to the staring crowds, my heart nearly burst with love for this man, this perfect Gift, given to me by God. I had no idea, though, that his bloodshot eyes and his cliff notes recap of the mission trip would convey the poignancy of God’s mercy, the poignancy of His sovereignty, the poignancy of His grace. As I now sit next to his sleeping form, I give thanks, though, for the gift. Thanks for the trials. Thanks for the hope. Thanks for the picture mosaics of God’s glory brokenly portrayed in a window of storytelling colors.
A small metal teapot nestles in my kitchen cabinet – a new addition to the miscellaneous collection of candle sticks and coffee cups that rest on the wooden shelves. Wreaking of “Africa,” David’s luggage contained an odd assortment of filthy laundry, beaded necklaces, a cane knife, an intricately carved drum, and . . . an ataya set. Small glass shot glasses and boxes of potent tea leaves accompanied the ataya tea kettle, bearing testimony to the traditional Wolof tea ceremony regularly shared in Senegal. The kettle is very plain. Almost crass in its simplicity. Yet, it speaks volumes. Volumes to hearts weary from disappointments and doubts. Volumes to me.
Did you know that the ataya tea ceremony is experienced in three rounds by participants? I didn’t until today. I knew that the tea was highly-caffenaited and symbolic of the hospitality and friendship of the Senegalese people. I didn’t, however, realize that in the boiling of the herb leaves the taste of Life lingers on the tongue.
The first round of tea is strong and bitter.
The second round of tea is bittersweet.
The third round of tea is syrupy sweet.
Every round uses the same leaves. Every round is fully enjoyed. Every round is accepted for what it is. The Senegalese don’t pick and choose between bitter and sweet. They drink it all down and give thanks. They share the bounty of bitterness just as they share the bounty of pleasure.
Are we willing to taste Life in the same manner? Will we accept both good and bad, bitter and sweet, from the hands of God? Are we thirsty only for the syrupy sweet, or are we parched enough for hope that we surrender to the first round as though it was the third?
I’m not sure if I’m capable. I’m definitely not there yet. Learning to give thanks I am, but surrendering to the bitter is a difficult cup to swallow. Yet, I cling to the promise of Romans 5 – when we throw open our door to God, then we find that He has already thrown open His door to us and that there are not containers enough to hold His bounty (The Message). Overflowing grace. Sweet hope. Trials refining gold.
I think it is no coincidence that the Hebrew root word of the name ataya means “God is my helper.” God helps the bitter become palatable to throats that crave sweet. As He did for the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness when they came to the bitter waters of Mara, He will also do for us. He will cast His grace into the murky depths of discouragement and pain, turning the repulsive into the miraculous.
Sometimes, it takes three rounds. Sometimes, we have to come back for seconds. Never, however, is His grace found insufficient for the bitterness at hand. He’s not daunted by sickness, poverty, confusion, anger, infertility, hurt, death, doubt or fear. He’s pouring ataya for His children. He’s pouring tea for you and me.