Friday, April 28, 2017

Refreshed

We just completed a truly amazing week in Rwanda, and feel refreshed, encouraged, and excited for our next steps. Nearly 50 other mission-coworkers serving in Africa gathered in Rwanda for this conference, along with several of our mission leadership staff based in the US. As you can imagine, the fellowship of people with similar experiences and passions is particularly sweet – and throw in the Holy Spirit and our connection as God’s children, and that made for a uniquely powerful time together.

Kibuye breakfast
Breakfast with colleague, overlooking Lake Kvu

The conference happened to be in Kibuye, a town in Rwanda that is right on Lake Kivu. Lake Kivu is dramatically beautiful, with hills along the shore, islands dotting the horizon, and a lush green landscape where bright flowers and birds are plentiful. Fishermen in large dugout canoes sing together as they head out onto the lake at night. In 2003, Bob and I first met at another gathering on Lake Kivu, so it was particularly meaningful to return after so many years.

Loving the view of Lake Kivu!

The week started by visiting the genocide memorial in Kigali, which walked us through the tragic and horrible cataclysm that was the genocide in Rwanda. Each day after that, we heard from a Rwandan church leader about their process of healing and recovering from the genocide, starting with the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda’s confession in 1996 of their failure to be a prophetic voice speaking out against injustice and genocide ideology. One of the most tragic aspects of the geneocide was that massacres happened in the very places where people expected to find sanctuary – in churches, schools, and stadiums. You can imagine how hard it would be for someone whose family members were killed in a church to return to the church to worship, with all of the memories and trauma that experience includes. This is why one of the msot poignant moments in the week was hearing from a few members of a reconciliation group called Umucyo (light). Pastor Jerome was sent to Zambia to be trained in reconcilliation and conflict resolution. He returned to Rwanda, and realized the deep trauma and fear that many members of his congregation were experiencing. Many had lost spouses, children, parents, or close friends, and their homes and livelihoods had been destroyed. At the same time, around 2008, people who were in prison for participating in the genocide were going through a community judicial process – those who confessed their crimes were allowed to return home to their communities. Pastor Jerome gathered both survivors and perpetrators together, and helped them to gradually find healing, forgive, and be willing to pursue reconciliation. We heard from one woman, whose husband and 5 children were killed in the genocide. She shared how traumatized and immobilized she was for years after the genocide. Yet becaue of her participation in the light group, she has been able to forgive individuals who killed people during the genocide, to the point that she can socialize and appreciate other members of the group who were perpetrators. Seeing the evidence of that before our very eyes was powerful – a true miracle.

Testimonies in rwanda - AnastasieAnastasie shares her testimony

We also spent time getting to know our new colleagues who are based in South Sudan. We have a lot of respect for these fellow-mission co-workers who have walked with the South Sudanese in spite of long years of instability and conflict there. Most of them have been evacuated at some point from their homes in South Sudan because of conflict in recent years. Yet, they return and continue to be present and continue in partnership with the church in South Sudan. Over meals, we talked and laughed and continued to anticipate jumping into life in Juba in a few weeks and building relationships with our new South Sudanese collleagues.

After this week of refreshment and inspiration in Rwanda, we continue our journey of transition by going to Kananga. We look forward to reconnecting with friends and colleagues – important links in the chain of our life and experience on this amazing continent of Africa.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Wilderness Within


I entered this essay on wilderness into a contest for the Christian Century two months ago.  Some of the images and metaphors are inspired by the late poet and philosopher John O’Donahue in his seminal work, Anam Cara.  

We hadn’t planned to do such a long hike. We were just excited to be in the wilderness of Yosemite for a couple of days in November. Yet when I overheard the Park Ranger describe to a couple of chaps the fourteen mile hike up Vernal Falls, and then up Nevada Falls, then hiking above and crossing over on the Panorama Trail, marching up to Glacier Point, and then blazing down to the valley floor on the Four Mile Trail, my curiosity was piqued. We approached the elder statesman of our national parks, and, with a twinkle in his eye, he gave us the same recommendation. He sized us up, “Yah, you’ll make it, but you sure as hell will be tired and sore afterwards. This is the type of hike you want to go and discuss doing over pizza n’ beer. If you do it, it’ll remain in the family annals forever.” My wife Kristi and I went outside and sat under the glare of the mid-day sun. “So, what do ya think?” we asked each other. It certainly wasn’t the relaxed jaunt we anticipated, but there was something captivating about the ranger’s recommendation. We felt we could do it, but we also knew it would be a stretch. The decision was made.

The following morning we arose before sunrise. It was thirty five degrees out, so we outfitted ourselves with long underwear, jackets and stocking caps. Along with our lunch, we packed lighter clothes, knowing that the temperatures would climb into the seventies. Crossing a river, we headed up towards the falls. Like a giant monolith, Glacier Point towered above us. I crooked my neck to see the top of the precipice. The trail going up and up and up was heavy underfoot with large stones. The morning was gray and bleak and cold. The silence and grandeur were palpable. Our bodies were miniature in scale compared to the vastness of the wilderness surrounding us. It felt like we were the protagonists in a Lord of the Rings movie, moving towards some enchanted land. The undulating, sometimes unsure path maneuvered us hither and to, across rivers and up waterfalls. Finally we reached a high haven where the glory of Half Dome spoke majesty to us. The trail delivered us over and down, across, and, was it true? Up another mountain? Yes, it was true! We soldiered on, walking like persons half dead, drinking in the beauty, begging our bodies forward to the pinnacle of the day’s adventure. Finally, atop Glacier Point, our beat-up bodies radiated sheer glory. We found rest in this holy habitation, looking down on all that we had covered, enjoying a moment of sublime ecstasy. After a fine rest, we sallied gaily down the mountain. After an eternity of switch backs, we returned to the valley floor, where, returning to our digs, we did enjoy a pizza and a beer. We did it, and yes we were tired and sore.

Often, wilderness takes us “out there.” We take a hike. We sit on a rock. We backpack through wild and uninhabited regions. We breathe in the thin, untainted air. We sit under a two hundred year old tree. We feel small, yet alive, broadened. These are the hallmarks of the external journey. But another wilderness journey beckons us. It is far more grueling, demanding so much more. Feeling unforgiving and inhospitable at times, this journey delivers us home. It is the journey to the wilderness within, filled with rocky crags of hurt and disappointment, with giant monoliths of pain, but also covered with cool streams and green pastures of hope and healing. This journey is not one of bagging or conquering. It is subtle, disarming, beckoning us to come and look, as the flaming bush brought exiled Moses to I AM. Actually, this journey requires patience with self, a touch of gentle, loving care. Strength is found through solitude, in the wilderness within, in this journey home. It is the journey of the soul, and it is the journey we do well to take. In our nurtured souls we find shelter, as we take the time to be, as we become acquainted with our true selves. Inside of us resides a world unknown. Looking into the eyes of a stranger, a friend, or a loved one, we look into a world we cannot fathom. Often, we are a stranger even to ourselves. Our fragmented lives bury shards of pain unuttered, memories unspoken, incidents of shame, relationships distressed, and a weightiness of heart which overwhelms. There appears no path home. There is no peace. Joy is ever elusive.

Our Yosemite adventure last year was sandwiched by two heart-wrenching blows. Before, was a failed and final fertility attempt. “Why, O God, do you stand so far off? Why are we left out, while others are brought in?” The sharp daggers of disappointment dug deep. After, and most recent, we found ourselves on an island of uncertainty, standing before a closed door. Stripped of agency, we could only pray and wait.  I found myself puzzled and panged, which is why I packed my bag and took the hike into the wilderness within, the wilderness of the soul. On this solitary journey I found mountains and crooky crags, longings unfilled and hopes dashed, but I also found the sweetness of silver streams of grace mingled with golden, glorious rest. Reflection, solitude, diving deep within, here is where I make a friend with myself again. Here is where the Holy One sets out the linen, prepares the table. I just stop, sit, and listen. At the end of the day, it is the wilderness within, the journey I take in, back, to my Faithful Friend. Thank you, Lord Jesus.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Last Hurrah

One of our favorite things is getting out into nature, and if it happens to be at one of the iconic natural wonders in our national parks, well, that is an opportunity not to be missed! For that reason, when we recently had to travel from California to Illinois, we opted to go by train and stop off in the Grand Canyon on the way. We made our plans and reservations with just two weeks notice (not recommended during spring break season!), and were grateful for God’s provision of this refreshing and inspiring experience soaking in the beauty of God’s creation before our 3 weeks of flurried preparations to move to South Sudan!

We got off the Amtrak train (at about 4AM) in Williams, AZ, and took the historic Grand Canyon Railway up to the Grand Canyon. We wandered along the rim at sunset, marveling at the variety of colors of the rocks and the way that each new spot presented a different landscape and a new persepctive on the spires, canyons, and cliffs within the vast space that is the Grand canyon. We had not realized that the canyon is more than 250 miles long, 10 miles across, and 1 mile deep—that’s big!

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On our second day, we took a hike down into the canyon on the South Kaibob trail. We met a couple of men on the shuttle who were backpacking – taking the South Kaibob trail all the way across to the North Rim (over 2 days), and then coming back again. We were inspired, and set the goal of someday hiking all the way across ourselves. One of these backpackers told us his favorite view of the canyon is from the bottom – and truly you can see more depth and appreciate the vastness of it from down inside it. But not this time! Just a couple miles down for us, and then we turned around the start the endless climb back up to the rim.

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Pictures from the hike – on the lower right photo, do you see the people? There are switchbacks all the way up the cliff, and you can see people on the path on almost every level if you look close!

Our final day at the canyon, we had the privilege of watching some Native Americans performing traditional dances and singing songs in their language. This happened to be the first weekend of the year that they were doing it! A real highlight, especially right at the edge of the Grand Canyon, which has been such a significant historical place for some of these tribes.

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And then we got back on the train, to return to Williams, and then rejoin the Amtrak at four o’clock in the morning again as it headed east. We did not have a sleeper car, but the coach seats work OK for us as long as you are only on the train for one night at a time. The seats are wider than airline seats, with more legroom (and therefore the seats can recline more) and there is a leg-rest that extends the seat—so it is rather comortable. We also spent lots of time in the lounge car, enjoying the big overhead windows and interaction with other people. We even got some work done and figured out how to create a hotspot with our phone!

Bob in lounge car

A great trip – so nice to have that time on the train to slowly transition back to Illinois and the busy pace of our preparations to leave. We are becoming big fans of train travel – if you are planning to try it and want any tips, let us know!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Spiritual Direction through Art Therapy


That fateful Monday after Thanksgiving we learned about the possibility of not being able to return to Congo.  It was a heart wrenching day.  Thankfully God provided us the cushion and the blessing of being with friends that day and the days following.  Todd and Michelle Olson have been close friends for more than 20 years.  Todd and I have been prayer partners and friends since the late 1990s.  We continue to Skype each other on a regular basis and hold each other up in prayer.  Todd stood alongside me as the best man in our wedding.  I cannot imagine life without Todd.  Like myself, Michelle has travelled the long road of ordination preparation in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  She leads a vibrant ministry despite health challenges.  She serves as a spiritual director and a retreat guide, and her life is marked by deep and abiding faith.

From a kingdom of God perspective,  it was no coincidence that we were at the home of Todd and Michelle and their children when this hard news hit us.  God met us in our time of need and uncertainty.  Each morning we did spiritual readings and spent time together in prayer.  Late that week Michelle led us in spiritual direction through art therapy.  She instructed us to prayerfully look through magazines and find clipping that resonated with our spirits. She gave us free reign to color and draw and create something that reflected the deep things happening in our hearts.  In this blog post I will share with you what came forth for me. 
Using the template of the prayer of examen, I organized my collage into a section on desolation and a section on consolation.  I felt inspired to add a third section which painted a hoped for and hopeful future.  (see collage below)


Full page, reflection


Desolation

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In the desolation section (see photo above), anger at what had happened to us came to the fore.  As my anger burned hot, I noted Psalm 137 which is a psalm of retribution, which is how I felt.  I noted the sense of being in the desert, feeling unclear about our future.  Another dimension was the pain and disappointment we have felt over the last several years at not having children. While we haven’t shared this widely, a major reason for coming to the US early last year was to pursue fertility treatment, which sadly failed.   

Consolation

Second section, reflection

In the consolation section I felt led to reference the need to just “be” during this season.  Moreover I felt an admonition from the psalms, the familiar scripture passage which reads “Be still and know that I am God.”  I also sensed the importance that “it is not up to us” to chart the course of our future, that we can “take it slow,” relaxing in the strong and loving arms of our savior.  I found a special photo of a baby elephant at the foot of his mother, this photo speaking volumes about my relationship with God, remaining in this “One State” of abiding in the His presence.  In God we find our “liberation.” 

A hoped for and hopeful future

Third sectio

The last section depicts a future filled with hope, a “journey of discovery” whereby we would “fall into our next adventure.”  It is a “divine” adventure, a future which includes ‘'God’s mission in Africa,” continued learning, places of rest and reflection, advocacy for those in need, and participation in God’s transforming work in the world. 

This collage has been a guiding map for me over the last three months.  I even brought it with us to California to help me continue to make sense of this time of transition, this time of grieving and loss, this time of waiting on God for guidance.  Today I praise God for Todd and Michelle, good friends who met us in our time of need.  I praise God for giving us peace in the midst of this storm.  I praise God for opening up a new path of life and ministry out of the crucible of pain and loss. I am thankful for spiritual direction through art therapy, a tool which has helped me navigate this season of transition and uncertainty.  God is so good! 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Praying for Congo

We continue to ask for prayers for peace in Congo. DRC is a lush green land with so many hard-working, loving people –why in so many places is an already very difficult life made more vulnerable by conflict and fear? Here are just a few highlights, if you have been wondering about the situation:

1. On February 1, Etienne Tshisekedi, the primary opposition leader, died in Paris. The Congolese government did not want to allow his body to be brought back to DRC to be buried, because of how that might stir up his supporters. They have finally accepted, and his body is due to be brought back on March 11 (see here for more details). There is still controversey, however, and this could potentially stir up political tensions again. Please pray for a peaceful buriel, Kasai is his home region, so the people there are very concerned about this.

2. At the end of December, a peace agreement was signed between the goverment and an opposition coalition. One of the primary stipulations was that presidential elections would be held by the end of 2017. The government finance minister recently said that elections may be too expensive to hold, which throws some doubt on whether the government will respect the agreement. Pray that there would be willpower and cooperation in the government to hold fair elections this year, and that a good leader would be elected.

3. There has been a tribal militia group active in Kasai since September 2016 (see our blog post from that time for more details). We thought that it had fizzled out, but recently learned that they have actually gained steam and recruited many local youth to join them in opposing the government. They control a few vilages surrounding Tshikaji (near Kananga), and the schools there have been closed since December. The government army has been actively fighting this militia (referred to as the Kamuina Nsapu militia), and a few weeks ago there was a clash in a village market, killing more than 40 women.

There was also an attack (we think by this same group) last week on a Catholic seminary in Kananga and the surrounding neighborhood. The kids in the Ditekemena program, which now includes some refugee children from the village where the militia originates, were once more forced to move from their Center and relocate to the homes of caretakers because they are in the same neighborhood as the Catholic Seminary that was attacked. Please pray for resolution to this conflict in Kasai, that kids in Tshikaji would be able to resume school, and for protection on the Ditekemena kids and all the innocent people in this region.

Thank you for your prayers. We join with our struggling brothers and sisters in Congo to pray for peace and a positive way forward for their country. “In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.” (Ephesians 6:18 from The Message)