Saturday, September 21, 2019

Nothing Leads to My Best Something!

In Disney’s Christopher Robin, Robin, the main character, finds himself pulled between his family and his job. His boss scolds him, telling him “Nothing leads to nothing,” in essence saying, “get out there and do something if you want anything in life.” In the continued verbiage of Robin’s employer, Robin can either “sink or swim.” The inimitable Winnie the Pooh, confidant and friend to Robin, later counters, “Nothing leads to my best something!”

These last six weeks have been filled with a lot of ‘nothing’ for Kristi and I after the skateboarding accident I sustained on August 10th. Of course that is not entirely true, I have been faithful to my physical therapy twice a day and the daily tasks of life take more time during this recovery period. But there have been large swathes of time to do ‘nothing’, to just “be.” I have spent hours in the sun-porch just looking out into the green space behind the home of Jim and Sherri Bertolet, my parents in-law. We have been able to listen to baseball in the evenings, watch US Open tennis, watch movies, read books we have been chomping at the bit to read, spend time just chatting with neighbors, and take walks in the evenings as my hip slowly heals. I have been able to slow down to a pace where I don’t have to always be concerned about what to do and where to be next. Of course I have not been totally freed from my spirit of “do-ism” and planning, nevertheless, I feel more able to relax and "free" as a result of this forced rest. 

On sun-porch, resting and enjoying peace

Friends from church bring us a meal to share 

For someone like me who too often feels driven to action, I feel like I am “seeing the light” afresh, that indeed, “Nothing leads to my best something.” I am being confronted once more with the wisdom and truth that the notion of ‘nothing leading to nothing’ is a lie. Christopher Robin found himself sinking into the abyss of pandering to his employer at all costs, not honoring his True Self and not honoring his family and his own past which included the bear Pooh. His wake-up call began by finding Pooh on a bench near his flat in London, a meeting which would change everything.

For me, my accident was also a wake-up call. It was a reminder of my human frailty and, as a result of a broken hip and a broken elbow, a reminder of my dependency upon others around me, in this case for simple everyday tasks as simple as getting out of bed.  Kristi and I have experienced a fresh appreciation for the gift of life and the simple pleasures of being able to move, walk, travel, and enjoy the outdoors. We trust that these weeks of ‘nothing’ and forced rest will indeed ‘lead to our best something’. We do not know what that ‘best something’ is, but we trust that God has done something in us these six weeks which will prove profitable for His Kingdom here on earth.

Enjoying a short walk and enjoying the sunset

Putting together a puzzle

Thank you for those of you have prayed for us and encouraged us during this season. We appreciate the phone calls, the home visits, the meals, the cards in the mail, the emails, the puzzles, the movie recommendations, the Facebook posts, and the gifts sent. The words of the letter of the author to the Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses as we run with perseverance the race marked out for us in Christ Jesus (Hebrews 12: 1).

Indeed, as Winnie the Pooh reminds us, our “Nothing leads to our best something!”

Friday, August 9, 2019

Newsletter, Nile Theological College

We have enjoyed the last month here in the United States, visiting family, visiting churches and participating in a few conferences. We have also enjoyed being “reacquainted” with the beauty of our homeland, especially driving across the rolling green hills of Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia.

Before leaving South Sudan, our Media Team produced our second newsletter for Nile Theological College. Enclosed you will find insightful articles from faculty and students, and pictures from our 2018 graduation and Easter Retreat.  If you haven’t had the chance to read it, here is your chance. Follow this link – 

Enjoy the final weeks of summer!

Bob and Kristi

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Gift of Presence

I looked over at the faces of the choir members, rigid with intensity and dripping with sweat as they sang and danced down the road. The large drums beat load, but the people sang even louder, lifting their hands in the air. I was humbled by their enthusiasm and energy. This was something of a ‘welcome parade’ to greet the moderator and the team that accompanied him on a visit to Bentiu. We were walking (or dancing and marching, with the choir) through the large camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS), ending with a celebration at the church. Being met by such an enthusiastic crowd was humbling, and then we were welcomed in traditional Nuer fashion by having our feet washed. I was overwhelmed by the welcome, and realized how significant it was for this remote congregation to be visited by their leaders and feel connected to the church in other places.

On Saturday was the ordination service. The church was packed to standing-room only, with several visiting choirs and representatives from other churches. One pastor was ordained, along with seven elders and thirteen deacons/deaconesses. Several of the elders and deacons had traveled long distanced to come and be ordained because according to the church policy an ordination can only be done by at least two members of the central Ordination Committee. So, this was a rare opportunity, which had not happened in more than five years. Bentiu was not an easy place to get to. We had traveled by cargo flight, sitting on boxes instead of seats, because that was the only way to reach this remote location. While sitting in the service, I reflected that this visit had been more than six months in the planning. The physical visit of our team showed value to the people of Bentiu, but more than that, it helped me and others to connect and understand in a way that was not possible only through hearing stories.

The newly ordained pastor reads Scripture on Sunday morning 

 laying hands on new deaconesses as they are ordained

On Sunday morning in church, the youth choir again impressed people with their full-throated and exuberant songs. I asked Nyakuma to explain the song to me. “They are singing about suffering,” she said. “We are dying of hunger, disease, and war. Come close to God, and He will comfort us. He is our only hope in this suffering.” I was surprised – somehow, I did not expect them to sing about suffering. But that is the reality in the region around Bentiu, where conflict and instability have driven most of the population into one huge IDP camp. As we drove to our lodgings that night, Nyakuma pointed to the places where dead bodies had lined the road when she was fleeing to the camp in 2014. Her family had been living in the swamps and bush for 3 months at that point, because their village had been attacked. They ate waterlilies until starvation forced them to find a way to the camp. She recalled the struggle to get her siblings past the roadblocks so they could enter the camp. On this visit five years later, she was glad to see Bentiu again when it was peaceful, even though the displacement of so many people continues.

The youth choir sings on Sunday morning

The environment of Bentiu felt harsh and barren to me. When it rained, the clay soil because gooey mud that you sink into or that sticks to your shoes in big chunks. At those times, everyone either goes bare footed or wears gum boots. In the sun, the ground became hard – not ideal for farming. The land was dotted with scrub brushes, but not big trees or lush green like I expected. I learned later that large trees near the camp had been cut down to prevent soldiers from sitting under them and attacking refugees coming to the camp. Yet, in this remote, harsh environment, communities are slowly rebuilding and people are surviving, healing, and holding onto hope. I join them in praying that peace will continue to come, and that doors will open for them to leave the camp and rebuild their lives.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Visit to the Holy Land

At the invitation of Kristi’s parents, we recently returned from almost two weeks in the Holy Land, visiting sites situated in modern day Israel/Palestine. After visiting two coastal cities and going to the top of Mount Carmel, we spent a few days on and around Lake Galilee, smelling the scents, listening to the birds, treading the areas and seeing the very landscapes where Jesus and his disciples made known the Kingdom of God through demonstrations of God’s mercy and power. 

Mt. Arbel, the highest point above the Sea of Galilee where Jesus may have ascended to the Father;
we spent some time here in mediation and prayer

Our first evening together in Galilee, a wonderful meal overlooking the Sea (or Lake) 

I was moved to tears leaving the very place on the shores of Galilee where Peter was restored by Jesus after Peter’s failure. Moving up to Dan in the high north, we stood at the entrance of the city which Abraham would have entered 4,000 years ago, also passing Caesarea Philippi, a place of a panoply of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses where Peter answered Jesus’ question about his identity, confessing to Jesus, “You are the Messiah.” Moving south, we travelled down into Jericho, down to the Dead Sea and then up again through the Judean Wilderness on our way up to Jerusalem. 

Tabgha, the place of seven springs where Jesus restores Peter
after his thrice-fold denial (see John 21)

Touching a stone from the original synagogue in Capernaum where
Jesus taught and healed

 I was deeply moved as we prayed alongside devout Jewish men, women and children at the Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall), and it was a blessing to exchange greetings in Arabic with young men in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. We were mesmerized as we descended down from the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane and, on our last day, as we walked the traditional Via Dolorosa (the Way of Suffering), following the general path Jesus would have taken from the traditional place of judgment outside the Temple (destroyed in 70 C.E.) to Golgotha, where he was crucified. At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of execution and a traditional site for burial and resurrection, I was able, despite the masses, to meditate on Jesus’ agony and enter into the spirit of the place alongside Eastern Orthodox believers who spread their cloths and kissed a holy stone believed to have been in the tomb where Jesus lay. 

The iconic view of the Temple Mount from the top of the Mt. of Olives 

Devout Jewish men worshiping and praying
at the Western Wall (aka Wailing Wall)

Members of our large group on the Southern Steps, a place where Jesus and his
disciples would have entered the Temple

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a large an ornate church shared by seven communities of faith; it is the traditional spot where Jesus would have been crucified, buried and raised 

 Kristi and I want to express our immense gratitude to Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, the leadership of our trip and the local guides and bus drivers for organizing this significant pilgrimage, and we are so grateful to have experienced it with Mom and Dad Bertolet. It was amazing to see fellow pilgrims from all over the world, from Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Korea, Ghana, Ethiopia, Eastern Europe, the US, and other distant lands. May we treasure up in our hearts the things we have seen, heard and experienced as we continue to follow in the footsteps of the Risen One, the One who continues to tread through the steps of His broken and beloved people. Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Friday, May 24, 2019

How do adults learn?

A few weeks ago I (Kristi) attended a second training about Community Health Evangelism (CHE), along with two colleagues from South Sudan. We spent the week discussing how to effectively teach people in a way that they would connect and respond to, and also the vision for promoting spiritual growth and physical well-being in community.

One teaching was about how to introduce a lesson using a drama, story, or activity. We were each given a topic and told to come up with a ‘starter’ for the lesson that would grab people’s attention. The dramas had us buckled over in laughter. Through our healing and reconciliation workshops, I appreciate how much drama adds to a teaching by helping people to emotionally connect with the topic and visually see the principles at work. 

Peace and Tesila created a skit about family
that could be used to start a lesson.

A real focus for CHE is on empowering communities or groups to identify and resolve their own problems. With this goal in mind, the trainer always seeks to ‘facilitate’, to help people discover truths and solutions rather than just presenting answers. The goal is that the focus always be on the participant, not the teacher. Therefore, discussion, practical activities, or group work are always a part of any ‘lesson’ that a facilitator presents. We studied how the learning process is different between adults and children, including the importance of letting adults identify and own their own problems and be challenged to find solutions, rather than simply being told what to do. We looked together at Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well (John 4), and how he asked her questions and prompted her curiosity, rather just telling her the spiritual truth he wanted her to believe.

Elijah and Moi doing an exercise where one person describes a pattern 
of geometric shapes to the other person, who draws it without looking. This showed 
us how differently someone might interpret what we think we are communicating!

My colleague Elijah recently visited the town of Aweil, in the north-western part of South Sudan. While there, he visited a small rural congregation that started about two years ago. As is common in this culture, the congregation took the opportunity of having a visitor from the capital city to present their list of ‘needs’. They needed a building, and in the mean-time a large plastic sheet to worship under, they needed help getting land, chairs to sit on, instruments for worship, etc. As Elijah told me the story, he said “I decided to use CHE principles!” He listened to their request, and then challenged them to consider what resources they had and what problems could be resolved without appealing to the denominational leadership in Juba. “There are some things that you need help with, but you can not expect the denomination to meet every need,” he told them. The congregation realized that they could get the plastic sheet for a temporary building in their area, and that they could make bricks for a building. The local government also affirmed the positive impact that the church has had in the community and allocated a piece of land for them – they only required about $300 for finalizing the legal registration of the land. Elijah, encouraged by the significant work that the local pastor has done in evangelizing and helping the community, was able to give a personal contribution from his family towards the land registration, further motivating the congregation in carrying on the work. And, to top off the story, the congregation never realized that Elijah is from a tribe that has experienced a lot of conflict with their tribe.  I was excited to hear that Elijah didn’t wait for a ‘project’ or a designated training to share what he had learned.

Elijah visiting the church in Aweil

It is always helpful to be challenged to try doing things in a different way.  As we seek to promote God’s shalom, well-being, and salvation in our churches and communities in South Sudan, we know that it will not be easy. We are grateful for the principles of CHE, which always focus on community and its members as the owner and driver of any change that happens. We trust that God will guide and use us in the difficult but sacred process of learning and walking together with community leaders as we pray for God’s transformation in South Sudan.

Participants and facilitators at our recent CHE training in Nairobi