Friday, March 14, 2014

The Desk

I am no good at my job. Since I arrived three years ago (and a year and a half before that), around $80,000 has disappeared from this hospital. The number has yet to be determined. It was probably all or mostly removed by one man, my administrator, whom I trusted too much. I have no administration experience or education and have never even taken so much as high school accounting. The hospital was making money and the hospital was growing and we were slowly making strides in our organizational structure, quality of care and infrastructure. I thought everything was going well. Now I know better.

So I am learning as I go. And I am hating it. I am the all-time reluctant administrator. I don’t like politics. I’m no good at it. I’m no good at inter-personal relations when I am the boss. I’m not organized enough. I’m not motivated enough. I don’t set a good example. I’m only the administrator because my wife refuses (unhappy wife makes unhappy husband) and my father-in-law doesn’t speak enough French.

Oh, and I’m overworked too. That might decrease my efficiency. I need to see the pediatric and medicine patients, handle radiology questions, see private consults, consult any complicated emergency room patients, do any potentially-tricky anesthesia, oversee construction (although Jamie handles 99% of this), make the nursing schedule, arrange for employees’ time off, handle any issues which arise (which is several times a day), govern meetings, fundraise, collect donations of money and equipment, find projects suiting the needs of donors, start a nursing school, a midwifery school, an anesthesia school and a surgical training program from scratch, get all my volunteers short-term and long-term visas, build proper local and national government and church relations, etc.

Oh, and I’m also AHI Director for Tchad/Cameroon. So in theory I need to oversee Moundou, Abougoudam, Buea, Koza and Batouri. For the most part, I have very little to do with them. But if I did my job well, I’d be much more helpful in getting Batouri and Koza more supplies and staff. And I’d be recruiting more. Oh, and I’m responsible for getting volunteers here, which involves getting them from airport to N’Djamena lodging, then to police station, then to change money, then on a bus to Bere, then arrange food and lodging in Bere (although I have help finishing the food and lodging). Then return them back home. We had over fifty volunteers in January. I’m in charge of taking care of all Tchadian nursing and medical students sent through school by AHI, which is 17 this year. I need to get them their monthly stipend, pay their tuition and ensure they are actually enrolled in the school they say they are. I also oversee our public health project (although I have good help here), govern more meetings, handle incoming containers, make sure all paperwork between AHI and the government and our institutions and the government are in order, etc.

So now, after missing all this money, I also realize I must meet with my new administrator and new accountant daily to count and sign off on the previous day’s income and receipts, I must sign off on every expense, I must ensure daily store room status and I must make out our staff’s payroll. I also need to confirm retirement accounts for my employees and that they pay income tax properly.

Oh, and then I need to spend several hours a day responding to emails and working on the computer. When I work at the hospital, patients and staff are constantly coming to find me. When I work from home on the kitchen table, my children want to play. So it was decided I needed an office.

My loving wife cannibalized a guest bedroom in our house and Jamie made me a desk. Well, he actually found an old desk frame in really good shape and put a nice piece of American plywood on top, with the edges sanded to perfection. But it needed painted.

So Lyol and I painted it. Sort of.

Lyol grabbed a medium-sized paint brush and gave me a pencil-sized paint brush. He then proceeded to slop paint out of the bucket onto the desktop. Occasionally he would push the paint around a bit, not unlike you might see an octogenarian do on the senior’s professional shuffleboard circuit.

Handicapped though I was by the size of my brush and my desire to not merely use the brush to dip-and-drench, I still managed to keep pace with him on my side of the table. I helped paint the edges. As the desktop was nearing completion, I picked up the paint bucket so we could paint the last remaining corner of plywood. Each time he dipped into the paint bucket, Lyol managed to scrap half of his paint off on my hand. Lyol decided it might also be wise to paint the base supporting that new sheet of plywood, so he slashed a stroke across it. And then tired of his labors.

He stepped back from his handiwork and looked. I too stepped back from the desk and sized up my five-year-old son, trying to determine which had more paint, the desk or his skin. He pronounced his work good and moved on to play in the yard, but not before getting cleaned up with gasoline to wash off the paint, leaving behind only traces of gray as evidence of his hard, sloppy labor.

As he played in the yard 40 feet away from me, I tried to clean up his workmanship just a tad. I tried move the paint from places that seemed a quarter inch thick with it to places still brown and barren. I painted the edges. I finished the base, which I wasn’t intending to do, but needed done since he started it with a singular broad stroke.

I knew the entire time I could have done a better job and done it faster on my own. But I enjoyed doing it with him. I enjoyed spending time with him. I enjoyed watching him learn to do something. And I think the next desk he paints will be better off for it.

That was yesterday and I moved my desk into my office today. It now has the handprints of all three of my children on it. Is it composed of the greatest, highest-quality parts? No. Is it the craftsmanship that makes it valuable? By no means. Does it stand apart by virtue of it’s attention to detail? Certainly not.

But it’s my favorite desk in the world. It’s the perfect desk. Why? Because my son and I spent time together painting it. The two of us. Our project.

So now I sit down at my desk and work. And I think of my mountains of assignments. I think of my stress. I think of what a shoddy job I’m doing.

And I realize something.

I’m taking my medium-sized paint brush to this hospital and to AHI. And I’m just slopping paint all over the place, willy-nilly. Some places are way too thick. Other places I miss altogether. I forget. I don’t pay attention to detail. I’m painting things that shouldn’t be painted. I’ve started painting some things and I’m running out of steam to finish them. I’m getting myself very dirty. And I’m even slopping paint all over the Guy holding the bucket.

God is holding the bucket. He’s standing by observing, content to watch me do my miserable best. He’s patiently letting me cover Him with my lousy efforts to paint. He watching me get myself dirty. He’s seeing all the places I’ve overlooked. He sees how uneven I am, how I make neck-deep pools of paint where a sixteenth of an inch would have sufficed. He watches me paint things that were just fine without paint, then tire out. Then He patiently does His best to douse me with gasoline and scrub me clean, leaving behind only the traces.

And then, He ever so patiently takes the piddly pencil-sized brush I’ve left Him with and starts going over the places I’ve missed. Finishing what I couldn’t. Smoothing over all the irregularities. And without ever groaning, He merely bears the paint I’ve smeared on His hands by my clumsiness and shortcomings and inattention to detail. And He stands back and smiles.

Yes, the job could have been done better and faster without me. But you know what? He CHOSE to do this with somebody. And you know what? He CHOSE me! And when He sits down at His desk to work, He thinks back on spending time with me. He thinks about all my silly little efforts to do my best, tongue hanging out in concentration and everything. He sees the imperfections in my work, which are not hard to find. He runs His fingers over the places where He remembers me particularly messing up or where He remembers working hard to erase my mistakes.

And He smiles, saying to Himself, ‘This is my favorite desk. I made this with my son.


  1. Great Post. Sorry about the money/administrator situation. I've got the perfect solution for you though: Make days last for 36 hours instead of 24... that will give you (almost) enough time to finish and fix all the things on your plate. If you can't do that... just keep doing the great job you guys are doing with the 24hrs you have.

    Good looking desk btw...

    You're in my prayers.

  2. you get it, this is your life------, you are first a son of God, second, a husband, son , and so much, ----- a dad. Isn't it cool, that your desk is not perfect? It actually is beautiful. You are not perfect, you are always being challenged, and this is the beauty of your life. Prayers to you and your family daily.

  3. Couldn't say it any better than that! Thank God for using you to make that mess…and that masterpiece.

  4. Wow!!!! The first post I read from this blog by recommendation of a missionary friend, and it's awesome! How amazing is our God! I'll start my Internal Medicine Residency this year and I look forward to be a volunteer soon!!! God bless you!

  5. Wow. Sorry to hear about the administrator. May God give you strength and wisdom to handle all that you have to do. Maybe someday soon, I`ll come and volunteer there for a longer time than 2 weeks. Keeping you guys in prayers. Blessings :)

  6. Olen, this was such a powerful post. Thank you for sharing, it was just what I needed to hear today! I pray that God continues to work through you, even though you don't always feel the most apt for the job. You are blessing so many people!

  7. I hate that you have so much stress. But I love the comfort God is providing through the Spirit's insight. I can see how God keeps forming you into a stronger and better man. So awesome. So inspiring. Thanks for posting, Mr. German. It was a blessing and a very eloquent, much-needed reminder.