Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Bethel, House of God

When [Jacob] reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord… (Genesis 28: 11 – 13a) 

When God meets us and speaks to us, the world becomes more brilliant. Such was the case for our brother Jacob when he fled the home of his fathers to find his Uncle Laban. In a dream, God reminds Jacob of who God is, extending the promise to Jacob that had been given to his fathers. Jacob’s human pilgrimage shifts.

For years, Kristi and I have been in the habit of “retreating” from the cares of normal life, setting ourselves apart in lonely places where we can think, meditate, walk, write, and pray. Earlier this month, we took several days to do just that. As our favorite retreat center was closed, we chose an inviting Airbnb in a neighboring town called Eureka. Close to our abode was a nice lake, walking trails, and a labyrinth. On our first day, Kristi spent time at the labyrinth, praying that God would help her live a life of faithfulness. She prayed that God would give her a sign in the form of seeing an owl. Later, as this glorious autumnal day was coming to a close, we walked by the lake. “Hoot hoot…Hoot hoot” we heard just overhead. We scanned the trees to no avail. As we turned and looked out over the lake, a large presence flew overhead, wings flapping with equanimity and tremendous force. An owl. 

Eureka Lake, where we enjoyed walks and saw an owl 

Labyrinth on the Eureka College Campus 

Each day I holed myself up in the frigid upstairs of this humble 1920’s era home. I was reading and writing “memories,” a project Kristi and I are working on with a friend, hopefully in time yielding a memoir. I am currently writing experiences from Rwanda. It feels amazing to look back on those years, seeing pieces connect in new ways. For instance, I could see more clearly now how God had orchestrated my time there, namely my choice to stay longer. Yes, it was a choice, but God gave a "light touch" in fashioning my path. It was a joy to re-read these memories, and to write new ones. It made me felt more integrated, more whole. I spent time at the labyrinth where daily I saw a woodpecker as together we enjoyed a wondrous grove of elms. I also spent time reflecting on the life of Nehemiah, how he spent his "social capital" on the needs of the poor and marginalized Israelites dwelling in destroyed Jerusalem. “Oh Lord,” I prayed, “how can I use my 'social capital' to help others, especially the poor and the marginalized?” 

Working upstairs on memories (not much heat!) 

Kristi walked along the shores of the lake on a bright morning, feeling the crunch of the leaves underfoot and the brisk wind on her face. She worshipped and prayed, watching the geese on the water and the juncos in the bushes, allowing the peace and glory of nature to restore her spirit, connecting her with the Lord of creation. Later she meandered through a cemetery, noting names and dates, imagining life from ages past. A large tree stood near the graves, the long roots entangling and pushing up the graves, a reminder of the brevity of life and our need for God’s perspective. 

Canadian Geese

Walking Path, our Journey Continues...  

Jacob called the place where God met with him “Bethel,” meaning “the house of God.” After several days of retreat at our Airbnb, we left Eureka, our earthly loads lighter and our world a bit brighter. We all need a house where we can go and meet with God.

Saturday, November 7, 2020


Resilience. What does resilience mean to you? How would you describe it? I just finished a course called STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience), and one thing that I really appreciated was exploring what resilience is, hearing from those who have gained it, and learning some ways to build resilience. A few descriptions of resilience that we used were:

  •  Ability to bend and not break
  •  Ability to adapt to challenges or change;
  •  Healthy power amidst vulnerability and uncertainty

While living in Congo and now South Sudan, Bob and I learned some of the history of those places, which includes horrible exploitation, conflict, and suffering. 'Resilient' was often the first word that we would use to describe people in those countries who have survived, persevered, and adapted in the face of so much challenge.

But now I am realizing that simply surviving is not enough, because unhealed trauma continues to affect a person and their relationships for many years, even being passed down to their children genetically and affecting whole groups as historical or cultural trauma. Resilience does not mean merely surviving trauma – it means finding ways to heal and learning practices to maintain perspective and stability in situations that might be traumatic.

Rev. Peter Yien Reath is one person in South Sudan who has embodied resilience. He was falsely accused, imprisoned, and nearly killed in Khartoum because of his faith and his work as a pastor. After he was freed, he attended college in Nairobi and was trained in an approach to Trauma Healing. He now serves in South Sudan, starting and facilitating healing groups in rural areas. He has had to adapt to living in different places and respond to various challenges and threats. He has experienced the peace and strength of God that sustained him through those times of challenge.

Rev. Peter Yien Reath

We learned in our class about a concept called the “Window of Tolerance,” a zone where our nervous system is relaxed, calm, and engaged. When our ‘window of tolerance’ is open, we can respond thoughtfully and more calmly to bad news or frustrations. But when we are already stressed, tired, or depleted, our window closes, and we might erupt in anger at a slight provocation or go into despair from bad news.

So how do we build resilience? I have fresh appreciation now for the amazing, complex brain that God designed to help us perceive threats and stress and regulate our emotions and our nervous system. Our brain is integrally linked with the rest of our physical bodies – so sometimes physical actions (deep breathing, movement) can help to relieve mental or emotional stress, or physical pain can be a source of psychological or mental stress. This is why we are told that it is important to exercise, get good sleep, and eat healthy to promote mental and emotional well-being. Prayer, meditation, and being in nature are also important for me to nurture my spiritual life and relationship with God, which helps my ‘window of tolerance’ to stay open by reminding me of God’s perspective and presence. What are practices that you have found helpful? I’m sure that during this pandemic and election season we all need to have a few positive practices to help quell the anxiety and maintain hope.

A labarynth that we like to go to in Bloomington - 
praying while moving is one thing that really helps me

"There is need for...materials of refreshment, challenge, and renewal for those who [are] intent upon establishing islands of fellowship in a sea of racial, religious, and national tensions." Howard Thurman (quoted by Brenda Salter McNiel in her book, Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0)

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Radical Empathy

Recently I had a conversation with a family member about empathy. What does it mean to be empathic to others? Is empathy a natural gift or a skill we develop? When I lived in Rwanda, one of the greatest services the visiting short-term church teams performed was sitting quietly and humbly listening, giving space for widows and others to share their stories. In the midst of our current racial reckoning in America, as a means of becoming more empathic to the challenges faced by communities of color, a colleague recently recommended listening to the voices of persons of color, to not just read their autobiography or memoir, but to listen to them speak for themselves their own life story (via audio book).

Back in June, while we were living in an apartment lent to us by a church acquaintance, one of the regular highlights for me was listening to Trevor Noah describe growing up in Apartheid South Africa in his memoir, Born a Crime. Noah describes what it means to be “colored” or mixed-race, but not fitting into any of racial categories because of his particular social location. Noah candidly describes a life of poverty, living on the margins, the challenges women like his mother face in their culture, a life of robbery and thuggery which many blacks are forced into because of poverty, and the challenges faced in the Homelands because of State-Sanctioned White Supremacy. Noah looks back on his formative years with a compassionate lens, describing for the listener the countless injustices he and his mother and his community faced. Noah astutely compares the Apartheid and racist South Africa of his youth with that of the United States of America, where he now lives. Listening to Noah, at times I found myself laughing, but other times I found myself crying.  I experienced a mixture of tears and joy with Noah's poignant and dramatic conclusion. 

Earlier this year while we were still in South Sudan before being requested by our mission leadership to return to the United States, Kristi listened to former First Lady Michelle Obama speak her life story in her memoir, Becoming. Without partisan loyalty, Kristi simply wanted to hear Obama’s story. I remember seeing Kristi in the kitchen or in the bedroom with her headphones on, laughing, or perhaps, on the verge of tears. Obama gave firsthand account of the pressures of being married to the most powerful man in the world and what it meant to be a black woman thrust into the spotlight. Mrs. Obama described also growing up on the South Side of Chicago, her family witnessing the travesty of real estate agents lying about home values and manipulating their clients, exacerbating “white flight” and the devolution of her neighborhood. 

In August, Kristi and I listened separately to When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, the life story of Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter organization. Khan-Cullors describes growing up “between poverty and police” in Van Nuys, California. Khan-Cullors describes how her mother worked three jobs to barely support their family, how her father figures were “missing in action” due to their jobs being taken away and because of the “War on Crime” and mass incarceration, how her brothers were harassed by the police from their early teens, and how her bi-polar brother Monte was deemed a terrorist for a minor traffic accident and beaten senseless and tortured by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. Sitting on the shores of a lake in Central Illinois with my headphones on, I wept as I listened to the sad account of her father Gabriel’s substance abuse and early death. While Khan-Cullors has been labelled a “terrorist” and worse, in listening to her share her story, it became abundantly clear to me that Khan-Cullors' life passion is simply seeking life, dignity, and freedom from injustice for all persons and communities. I wonder aloud with her, “Is that too much to ask?” 

Patrisse Khan-Cullors 
Last week Kristi and I finished listening to 12 Years a Slave, the firsthand account of Solomon Northup, a colored man born free in New York but kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep South. His story is wonderfully narrated by Richard Allen. Less wonderful is Northup’s jarring depiction of chattel slavery as he experienced it on Bayou Bluff in Louisiana between 1841 and 1853. Most distressing was the scene of fellow slave Patsy, brutalized with no mercy by their master Epps. This scene, the culmination of other monstrous scenes, bespeaks the hideous nature of chattel slavery in the United States of America. Northup’s personal account and words directly challenge the uninitiated and naïve when it comes to the dark and pervasive realities of American chattel slavery. As history now tells us, the American public in the North  were overwrought by the depiction proffered by Northup and Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, two accounts which dramatically moved the country in the direction of the Abolitionists’ Cause. 

A colleague in mission cites the wisdom of an Asian proverb, “To hear is to forget, to see is to remember, but to feel is to understand.” May we ‘feel’ the pain of others, listening to their stories, and thus ‘understand’. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Isabel Wilkerson, acclaimed author of The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste, describes the need for “radical empathy.” Along with Wilkerson, I believe that this ‘radical empathy’ only comes when we hear the stories of others, have a more complete picture of our history, and are motivated to action, action which will create a more just and loving world. Amen.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Disasters upon disasters

 Last week there was severe flooding in several regions of South Sudan, particularly along the Nile River in Jonglei state and in the region of Pochalla in the east. In Pochalla, hundreds of homes were destroyed, crops were ruined, and thousands of people were displaced. Everything is underwater in the village, a central population center for hundreds of miles.

You can imagine how disruptive and scary this would be. In the U.S. we are learning more and more about disruption with the impacts of the Coronavirus coupled with natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, even a derecho that swept through the Midwest this week. So please join in praying for protection for people in South Sudan. Our colleague Rev. Philip Obang lamented this week as he shared the news that now they are facing floods, Coronavirus, desert locusts and regional, ethnic fighting. He particularly urged prayer for those who will not have food because of this flooding and the water-borne diseases (like cholera, typhoid, and malaria) that are sure to follow. 

Let us join together in interceding for our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Sudan, for provision of food, shelter, and health. God sees and knows the people in these desperate situations and can turn around what looks impossible to us. 

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam, 
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
Psalm 46:1-3

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Bob's Dissertation Journey

Research Proposal Accepted

On Tuesday, July 14th, the Research Committee of the Department of Systematic Theology and Ecclesiology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa met to review my research proposal for a doctoral program. Dr. Retief Muller, my research advisor, was part of that meeting. Dr. Muller wrote me following the meeting later that day to inform me that things "went rather well." He said that members of the committee were "overall complimentary" of my proposal. They accepted my proposal with encouragement to make a few changes and improvements, including changing the title. I feel blessed to have reached this stage in my dissertation journey! Below is the title and the "abstract" (short introduction) which I would like to share with you.


Reconciling Worlds: A Critical Examination of the Social Interface of the Lifeworld of the Nilotic Peoples of Upper Nile, South Sudan, with the Lifeworld of White Euro-American Christianity


The Chollo people[1] of South Sudan describe God as like the wind or the air. God is ever present. God’s ongoing providential care finds expression in all of life. As an African mother would carry her child on her back, nurturing and cherishing that child, the Kiga people of Uganda describe God as Biheko, meaning “He carries everyone on his back” (Mbiti 1989).

While missionaries from Europe and North America made extraordinary sacrifices and accomplishments in Africa over the last two centuries, one African Christian scholar posits that “Missionaries came to Africa with the wrong diagnostics.”[2] Despite Black Africans being “notoriously religious,”[3] White Euro-American missionaries failed to meaningfully connect the rich cultural and religious history of African peoples with the Christian faith. Problematic was the idea that White European and North American “civilization” was inextricably linked with the Gospel; to become a Christian implied conformity to White Euro-American cultural values. As missionaries sought to “replicate” themselves in African converts, missionaries did not grasp the deep religious insights of African peoples (Bediako 1999: 234; Mbiti 1989: 56). Thus, this White Euro-American ethnocentrism led to a misguided theology of mission, a theology of mission which failed to perceive how God has manifested God’s Self in unique and specific ways to African peoples. As most White Euro-American missionaries failed to understand the universality of God’s presence among the peoples of the world, ethnocentrism is a significant factor in the story of Christianity in Africa (Bediako 1999: 236).

Seeking a path forward, Kwame Bediako and scores of concerned voices herald their conviction that for Christianity to be deeply rooted and intrinsic to African peoples, we must name this tragic legacy of mission and then meaningfully engage with the thought processes, religious histories, lived experience, and contemporary challenges of African peoples. We must foster deep and meaningful dialogue between African Religion and experience with the Christian faith. This research will assume a posture of listening and learning as we sit at the feet of South Sudanese sisters and brothers. Adopting a creation-centered theology,[4] this project seeks to understand how the Nilotic peoples of Upper Nile, South Sudan, connect their traditional religion and lived experience with the Gospel message and the Christian tradition. This research will utilize the Sociological-Anthropological Approach championed by Justin S. Ukpong, combining a sociological understanding of culture with anthropological factors, honoring the unity of African thought, that all of life is bound up together. Moreover, this research project will follow the trail set by Justin Ukpong, Emmanuel Katongole, and others concerned with the personal, the communal, and the social ramifications of life in God in Jesus Christ, particularly in terms of personal and communal identity formation and reconciliation with “the other.”

[1] Chollo is the true name of the tribe otherwise called “Shilluk,” a corrupted Arabic designation meaning “scars”
[2] Quotation from lunch conversation with Dr. Elisée Musemakweli, Vice Chancellor of the Protestant Institute of Arts and Social Sciences (PIASS) in Huye, Rwanda, in February 2019.
[3] A well-known quote from theologian John S. Mbiti (Mbiti 1989: 1)
[4] A creation-centered theology sees the world as sacramental, a place where God reveals God’s Self, assuming continuity between human experience and existence with the divine. This orientation stands in contradistinction to a “redemption-centered theology” which assumes culture and human experience need either complete transformation or total replacement…that the world is not a vehicle for the presence of God but that reality and creation distorts God’s reality and is in complete rebellion against it (Bevans 2002).