Saturday, October 14, 2017

Introduction to the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church

This week Rev. Chris Fergusen from the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) and Rev. Debbie Braaksma (Africa Area Director for Presbyterian World Mission), visited Juba and met with several church partners here. I accompanied them on their visit to the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC), the partner that I am working with here. The visit was an introduction for Rev. Ferguson to this church and also an introduction for SSPEC to the work of the WCRC and an invitation to explore membership in this global communion. I thought I would share a summary of the visit as a way to introduce you to the church partner and some of the colleagues that I will be working with.

Rev Madut shares history of SSPEC

Rev. Madut Tong shares the history of the church

Rev. Madut Tong, Deputy General Secretary of SSPEC, shared that SSPEC was formed as an extension of the Presbyterian Church in Northern Sudan, based in Khartoum. When South Sudan became an independent country in 2011, many Southerners were pushed out of Khartoum. Those from the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church who were displaced into the new country of South Sudan regrouped and began planting their own churches. When support from the leadership in Khartoum was cut off, they formed their own denomination, the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC). Currently, the young church has about 30 congregations, but because of the ongoing conflict many of those congregations are in IDP camps or comprised of people displaced from their home regions. Because of the instability and crisis in the country, the focus has been on planting churches and getting a basic building to worship in. Pastors and church leaders are bi-vocational – all of them have taken on jobs outside the church to support their families. Rev. Ferguson shared experiences from some other churches in regions of conflict, and encouraged the SSPEC leaders that sometimes conflict and crisis give us a chance to re-evaluate systems and make changes.

SSPEC leadership meeting

Meeting with the Executive Committee of SSPEC at their offices

The church has a vision to create a Bible school that would provide education at a primary-school level and training in the Bible and church ministry to adults who feel called to ministry but are not qualified or able to enter university. South Sudan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, currently at 27%. Rev. Philip Akway, General Secretary for SSPEC, also said that their vision for the Bible school is to combine education with vocational skills, to further build people’s capacity and ability to thrive in ministry. Rev. Ferguson encouraged the church with this vision, and said that sometimes the church is a person’s only opportunity for education, and that the training provided can increase the capacity of the community as a whole.

Achol SSPEC

Achol Majok, chairwoman of the women’s desk

“Women have been included as a key organ in the church,” shared Madam Achol Majok, chairwoman of the Women’s desk for SSPEC. Women are active in the church, but because of the current crisis in the country their activities are currently focused on promoting peace. Women of several congregations gather in monthly prayer gatherings and hold marches to promote peace. Several members have been trained in trauma healing and reconciliation, and workshops have been held to promote healing. Achol is keen on women being involved in the process when the church’s constitution is reviewed and translated from Arabic into English.

Jebel Market church with pastor, members, and Lynn

The Jebel Market church, including pastor (left), members,
and mission co-worker Lynn Kandel (middle)

The delegation visited the Jebel Market congregation, whose members were proud to show off their newly constructed building with shiny red iron roof sheets and fresh-caked mud walls. Support for the roof sheets was given from the Presbyterian Church (USA). The church, established in 2006, had been worshipping under tarps for 3 years since their temporary building collapsed in 2015. Most of the members live in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp at the edge of town, and often are not able to make it to church because of lack of transport. The congregation worships in the Nuer language, one of several languages used in SSPEC congregations.

The SSPEC leadership hosted a dinner for the visitors at a hotel in Juba to show their appreciation for the visit. Rev. James Partap, moderator of SSPEC, acknowledged that one of the church’s biggest challenges is the reality of being displaced – congregations that were established have dissolved when whole communities fled because of war. Pastors and leaders of SSPEC are still scattered across the region, including Kenya, Uganda Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. Current congregations are comprised of people who are displaced from their home regions and are therefore transient. On a positive note, the church has also seized the opportunity that displacement presented by establishing new churches in places where their people take refuge when they have been displaced.

SSPEC - sharing with leaders over dinner 2

Rev. Chris Fergusen discussing with SSPEC leaders over dinner, including
Rev. Philip Akway (far left) and Rev. James Partap (right).

The leadership of SSPEC was encouraged to hear about examples of ecumenical efforts that WCRC has facilitated, such as a partnership between a church in Taiwan with a church in Colombia to train pastors in advocacy and community organizing. Rev. Ferguson emphasized that the strength of the WCRC is leveraging the experience and skills of churches to partner together to benefit each other. SSPEC is interested to explore membership in WCRC and to benefit from the experiences and connections with other churches in areas of conflict, crisis, and displacement.

Presenting gift to Philip Akway, SSPECPresenting the SSPEC leaders with a gift

Now you know a little of the history, vision, and challenges of this church partner. I look forward to joining them as together we seek to make the gospel known and raise up disciples in the midst of the challenges of displacement, instablity, and conflict.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Have Mercy, LORD

It happened so quickly.  There I was on the side of the road, talking with Abdullah.  The bag hung over my right shoulder, non-street side.  Abdullah and I had exchanged greetings and I was describing to him in Arabic where I was headed.  Suddenly and inexplicably, Abdullah leaned in, embracing me as the motorcycle whizzed by on my right side.  Before I could gasp or say a word, we stood there shell-shocked as the thieves absconded with all of my bag save one of the two straps.  We had heard of this happening to others, now I was the victim.  Abdullah saw that I was okay, except for a minor abrasion where the canvas bag had been ripped away from the grip of my arm.  Others standing in the vicinity came over to offer solace. 

I continued my short trek down to the store to buy a few things, still feeling a bit jarred.  On my way back, there was Abdullah, where I had met him.  He has tracked down the remainder of our bag which the thieves had discarded when they realized there was nothing inside.  The sturdy bag that has served us well for many years and elicited many compliments was tattered and torn, but looked like it could be re-stitched.  I was so grateful to Abdullah for going to find the rest of the bag, a very thoughtful and kind gesture. 


At that very spot, in front of the mosque, sat Ismael, a neighbor.  I shared with him and others there what had happened.  They were sympathetic.  “Allah kariim,” God is generous, we all noted, giving thanks that the situation had not been any worse and giving thanks to God for His provision.  I went home and explained what happened to the guards where we live.  They also were kind and concerned.  I told the whole story to Kristi in our apartment as she attended to my wounded arm and spirit.  Shortly thereafter Lynn and Sharon Kandel, our Regional Liaisons, came down to encourage me, having heard about the traumatic event.  The following day at the market, two women whom we frequently buy things from, Kapeeta and Amina, noticed my wound and expressed sympathy.  The following day Emmanuel, the manager of our building, came down just to see how I was doing after having heard of the affair.  In short, I felt a lot of care and concern and sympathy from our community here.

Another conversation during that time stands out.  Susan, one of the women who cleans our building, explained how there are many people here who are hungry and are driven by their hunger to steal.  I had thought of this reality, which gave me some compassion towards the two men who had stalked me.  I cannot say that their actions are justifiable, but I do see their actions as reflective of the social challenges faced by so many here in South Sudan.  Soldiers, police and teachers haven’t been paid in six months.  The ongoing civil war has displaced millions.  Children are without parents and scavenge for food on the streets alongside dogs.  There are so many sad realities here that simply break one’s heart time and time again. 

This episode serves as a good reminder not only to be vigilant when walking in Juba, but also of the desperation felt by so many.  Lord, I forgive these two men and I pray that You would provide for their needs so they do not feel the need to steal.  May you soften their hearts and change their circumstances, and may You hear the cries of the many who are struggling.  Have mercy, LORD, on this distressed land.   

    

Friday, September 22, 2017

Home visit

We have really enjoyed getting to know our Arabic teacher, Elder Charles Peter during our lessons. We hear about his family, his neighborhood, and his work as a missionary, showing the Jesus film and preaching in various parts of town. In Africa you don’t need to wait for an invitation, so one day we told him that we wanted to visit his home. “Wonderful!” He replied in Arabic, “My wife will make kudra for you. It is delicious!”

Last week the big day came. We took two different buses out to Gudele, a district near the edge of town. We met him on a busy street corner, and then took a rickshaw (a three-wheeled covered contraption that holds 4 people) down a dirt road until we reached his neighborhood. Then, a short walk, where we were thrilled to see grass and flowers along the sides of the road and streams that bisect the road (and swell to make them impassable when it rains). In the middle of town where we live in a 4-story building, we are a little starved for nature, so it felt very refreshing to be reminded of what a more typical neighborhood looks like.

Bob and Charles on the road in Gudele - Enjoying the green!
When we reached the house, we met his wife, son, nephew, and a few neighbors. We were ushered into the
house, and we enjoyed the chance to finally talk with his wife who we had heard so much about. We looked through pictures from their wedding and early years together. We heard more of their experience in Malakal in 2013, when war erupted and they were forced to flee, leaving all of their household possessions to be looted by the invading soldiers. They lived in a UN camp for a few weeks, sleeping under only a tarp, until a friend helped to evacuate them to Uganda. They returned to South Sudan because of a commitment to God’s work here, and their persevering hope and sacrifice to make the gospel known is humbling. Most of our conversation was in Arabic, which meant that sentences had to be repeated sometimes or new words clarified, but still a victory to be able to connect meaningfully in our new language!
Then, lunch was served and the awaited kudra was brought in. Kudra are leaves that are ground and cooked to make a thick green soupy mixture, often with chunks of meat included in it. In Juba kudra is eaten with a starch like kisra (similar to Ethiopian injira) or asiida (like ugali in East Africa). Charles Peter was right—it really was delicious, and Mama Wigdan was vigilant to make sure that our plates were never empty until we were stuffed and protesting that we couldn’t possibly eat any more.

Eating kudra for the first time – a favorite dish in South Sudan
After that great meal, we realized clouds were gathering and we should start the journey home. Charles accompaied us back to the main road, rode the first bus with us and even paid our fare on the second bus back to our part of town. With Bob’s energy still low because of the virus, big outings like this feel very special and appreciated. We felt so grateful for wonderful people like Charles Peter and Wigdan who exemplify to us the warm hospitality of the South Sudanese people.


With Charles Peter and Wigdan, at their home

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Sitting with Suffering

We Americans have many natural gifts and talents derived from the strengths of our culture.  We are good “fix it” people.  If there is a problem, we are right on it.  A natural disaster happens, a flood, a hurricane, and we have already mobilized first responders even before the catastrophe happens.  Months and even years later we give money and our time to help those in need.  We are creative problem solvers who cannot live with intolerable suffering in our midst.  On the other side of the pendulum, on the negative side, lies our propensity to shield ourselves from the pain of others, because often we cannot identify with their suffering.  When someone we know is in pain, we may try to placate the situation with statements such as – “Just give it time, things will get better soon enough.”

We, Americans, are good at "fixing things," but not always
good at sitting with suffering


Having lived in places like Rwanda, Congo, and now South Sudan, I have come to realize that our American propensity to fix things and to avoid pain with polite half-truisms will only take one so far.  What happens when the problem can’t be fixed, or be fixed expeditiously and efficiently?  What if time isn’t enough to heal generational wounds?  Here in Juba, South Sudan, it feels like every day we are bombarded from all sides with needs.  Every time we step out of our building we are accosted multiple times by men, women, and young children who have the look of hunger and hopelessness in their eyes.  They ask for a handout but obviously they need so much more.  How can one “fix” this problem?  What words will ever be enough?  Last week Susan, one of the cleaners of our building, came up to Kristi and grasped her hair, saying, “God must love you White People.  He gives you nice, soft hair and a good life.  God must love you more than the rest of us!”  Kristi, understandably, was at a loss for words.  How does one respond to such an honest lament?  How does one respond to the inherent injustices of our world, a warped world which favors some to the exclusion of others?

Two years ago I was asked to provide time for theological reflection for a divinity student named John who had come to Congo on a summer internship.*  Every few weeks John and I would sit down and reflect together on what he was seeing and learning.  In one particularly poignant session, we reflected on the nature of suffering.  John told me that the suffering he was confronted with in Congo made him want to turn and run.  The suffering John was witnessing was simply intolerable to his American, white, middle class sensibilities.  Yet, as we sat together with the Scriptures and in a posture of prayer, we came to see that Jesus was unique in that he was able and willing to sit with people in their suffering.  He did not turn and run from them.  This theological reflection became an object lesson for both John and I, that sitting with people in their suffering is a form of ministry, even when we are unable to fix their pain and don’t have the words to make things better.      

This lesson has become even more poignant to me on a deeply personal level over the last three months as I have been diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr Virus, an illness which has rendered me weak and tired, an illness which lingers and can last months and even longer.  It has been difficult for me and others to understand that this sickness has no medicine and no defined time frame for improvement.  It feels like there is no real "fix" to this ailment - just time and rest and a good diet.  I am thankful for many of you who have expressed both lament and support through this period.    

Beyond my own ailment, so often I feel rather helpless here in South Sudan.  I cannot fix the multitudinous problems and my words will never be enough.  What I can do, as I am learning even from my own situation of pain, is to simply sit with people in their suffering.  I can bless and serve them by looking them in the eyes and seeing them as human beings worthy of dignity and honor.  Of course I can also pray for healing and change and seek to find long term solutions, but perhaps what is most needful in the moment by moment realities of everyday life is to just accompany people, sitting with them in their pain, and being present to them with their questions.  Sitting with suffering, I believe, is what God is calling us to do, above and beyond what our cultural instincts might tell us.  Lord Jesus, may we heed this call. 

*John is a pseudonym for the divinity student mentioned.    

   

             

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Learning, like little children

I am repeatedly reminded of the similarities between us as language learners and very young children as they are learning to talk. When we walk the streets of Juba and greet someone we know, other heads turn in amusement. “You speak Arabic?” they ask. When we say yes, we are learning Arabic, people are excited, and often want to quiz us on what we know. One fruit vendor pointed to different fruit “what is this? And this one?”, celebrating the ones I knew and correcting the ones that I had forgotten. And then they might rattle off some question that we don’t understand at all. When we ask them to repeat and slow down, they happily comply, simplifying the language so that we are more likely to catch the meaning.


We enjoyed a long talk in Arabic with Santos about life, family, and farming –
using lots of gestures and props to help when words were lacking.

One of our favorite places to practice has been Mary’s friendly tea stall across the street. The tea stall only has room for about 8 people, all facing each other. It is a great atmosphere for conversation, and often everyone gets engaged in the conversation. It is rather humbling and embarrassing when other conversations stop as people ask about why we are in Juba, where we are from, etc. We have met some wonderful people and patient teachers on our random visits there. Many people patiently repeat what they are trying to communicate or help to correct our pronunciation—just like you might for a two-year old. When we manage to use a word or phrase that is an idiom, or is perceived as beyond our beginner level, people laugh and exclaim and praise us—just like you would for a precocious young child. And then, of course, there are the times when people talk ‘over’ us, conversing about us while we are left guessing what they are saying. Or going back to their ‘real’ conversations while we listen and observe and just guess at what they are discussing—just like children overhearing bits of the ‘adult’ conversation!
Mary, making tea for us at her tea stall

Most people we encounter are amused and affirming of our desire to learn Juba Arabic…even when we make mistakes. When we are trying to say something but have the words bumbled up or the wrong pronunciation, they are patient with us as we search for words or try to explain until they finally understand and laugh at our mis-pronunciation or wrong words. We are grateful that we can provide some amusement, and also grateful that people are willing to be patient with us and help us learn…just like adults do for young children!

And we DO make plenty of mistakes. Here are a couple of our recent faux-pas.:
During a language lesson, Bob got  call from a man who wanted us to come visit. “Let me talk to Kristi”, Bob said in Arabic, and then meant to say “then I will call you back”. Except that the word “call” in Juba is the same words as to ‘beat’ or ‘hit’ something. So without the right conjunction, what Bob said was “then I will beat you”. Our language teacher, listening to the conversation, corrected him and then burst out laughing at the difference. Lesson learned!
I was sitting outside with two women, Umi and Mary, one evening. I mentioned an area of town where we had visited a church, called in Arabic “the Arab neighborhood” because historically there was a concentration of Arabs there. Except that I did not remember the name correcty, and instead said, essentially, “The neighborhood of the long white robes”. Similar word and similar concept, but they found it a rather amusing slip. Umi roasts and sells pumpkin seeds on the street, so she offered some to Mary and I as we chatted. I was happily chewing mine, when Mary asked me “Kristi, where are your shells of the seeds?” I realized then that she was spitting them out, and I was swallowing them. Oops! They laughed again at my naivete, but I am so grateful for they were willing to point out my mistakes and help me learn.
It feels like this is a sweet ‘period of grace’ in our language learning. After three years, we will no longer be the novel new people, and will not be shown the same grace and patience with language that we are today. We hope that with the help and correction of many ‘elders’ around us, we will improve and mature in our ability to communicate in Arabic.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Meeting the Neighbors!


Last Sunday we decided to take our daily evening walk in a different direction.  On the way towards one of the shops we frequent we saw the smiling face of Adil, the shop owner.  We stopped to chat and before we knew it, he invited us to his home!  Then we saw the butcher of the shop, Anwar, trailing close behind.  The four of us walked the short distance to their home, learning that Adil and Anwar are brothers and live together.  Entering the compound of their home was surreal.  It felt more like an open air boarding house for young migrant workers.  We saw several other workers from the shop/butchery and were surprised that they all live together.  Being in the relaxed environment of their home was a pleasant experience.  Most of them donned their “Jalabia,” the long flowing white robes which conjure images of Middle Eastern life.  They gave us sodas to drink and peanuts and other snacks to eat.  They took out their phones and began taking pictures with us all together as we laughed and enjoyed this serendipitous moment.  All of these men are from Sudan (the neighboring country to the north) and their families and children all live in Khartoum, the capital city.  One of them whom I spoke with returns once a year for a couple of months, which is probably more or less true for all of them.  

Picture taken with Abdulafat (left) and his brother who
sent us this photo from his phone via WhatsApp

Before leaving, Anwar gave us a tour of the place, leading us back to Adil’s room, the only fully enclosed room on the compound that we observed.  Adil is the elder statesman of the group, a wise and affable looking fellow who will soon be travelling back to Khartoum for the big feast of Eid al-Adha.  Adil has a nice room with a couple of beds and a television; when we entered his room he was watching an impressive prayer service from Saudi Arabia.  He took out a small bottle of cologne and began spraying us with it – commenting on how nice it smells! 

Walking in the other direction on most evenings we have met Ismael, Adam and Naem.  All three are young men and live near each other and possibly work together repairing cars.  Ismael’s father died and his mother and siblings live in Khartoum.  He is of the Dinka tribe and is originally from a place called Bor.  Adam, his friend, is from Darfur.  Naem, whom we have met twice now in the last week, lives with his son and mother and other children related to their family.  His mother, Helen Frederick, is a dignified looking woman who calls us “her children.”  She has invited us to come and visit her in her home sometime.  Ismael and Naem have invited us to join them for the upcoming feast commemorating the sacrifice God provided in place of Abraham’s son.

A significant component of our language learning methodology and philosophy is learning language in community, not in a classroom.  We don’t have a language teacher but rather a “language helper,” and our goal is to learn with him on a regular basis, but then to be “out and about” listening, learning and speaking with native speakers of Juba Arabic and Sudanese Arabic.* 

Each person whom we have named in this blog post is Muslim. It has been interesting how we have connected with several Muslims in our neighborhood in the process of language learning.  While the Arab/Islamic influence from the North is indeed strong, South Sudan is a predominantly “Christian” country, in that most of its citizens would ascribe to being either Catholic or Protestant.  South Sudan is the only Arabic speaking country in the world which is majority Christian.    

We are enjoying building these relationships in the community and thankful for these new Muslim neighbors and friends.  Here in South Sudan there is a great deal of acceptance and grace given to one another across the religious spectrum; there are even inter-religious marriages between Muslims and Christians.  In a world that is becoming increasingly polarized along national, ethnic and religious lines, we are grateful for the opportunity to build bridges with our Muslim sisters and brothers.  Pray that we can continue to find ways to bless one another!

*Sudanese Arabic and Juba Arabic are two distinct languages, similar but different.  Sudanese or Khartoum Arabic is closer to the Classical Arabic of places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  If one knows Khartoum Arabic, one is able to speak more widely in the Arab world.  Juba Arabic is a creole or pidgin.  It is a language unto itself yet does not have an official status, not even in South Sudan.  It is widely spoken and understood here in Juba and throughout much of South Sudan, particularly the Equatorial regions. We are primarily learning Juba Arabic, but also picking up some of the more classical words and expressions as well.    
 
 


Saturday, August 19, 2017

Waking up White

I am half-way through the book Waking Up White, by Debby Irving. I heartily recommend the book to anyone, and appreciate hearing Debbie’s story of her long search to understand race and its impact in America. The book is thought-provoking and disturbing in good ways – I think it is always good when our assumptions or the status-quo are challenged so that we have to really think about what we are doing and why. I wanted to share a few things from the book that have stood out to me so far or have been helpful.

One idea that stands out is the idea that both discrimination and privilege are components of racism. Irving says, “Just as time has compounded disadvantages for people living on the downside of systemic racism, it has compounded the advantages I and other white people enjoy. My life is built on family members able to get citizenship without a fight, land grants for free, GI Bill benefits, low rate loans, good education, and solid health care. Each generation has set up the starting point for the next, perpetuating the illusion that white people are more successful, not beneficiaries of an inequitable system.” I admit that I have somehow had the notion that racism was just an act or perspective of discrimination in the present—conveniently ignoring the fact that if there is privilege for some, then there is discrimination or lack of privilege for others, even if that is the result of actions taken in the past.

Living in places like Congo and now South Sudan, we are challenged often by the reality of our privilege while living in countries where poverty is pervasive and extreme. I never had to stay home from school because my parents could not pay the school fees, nor was forced to flee my home alone when it was attacked. I grew up speaking a language with a wealth of educational materials and came to know early the incredible love and grace of God. Sometimes the disparity is overwhelming as we recognize we do not deserve anything more than anyone else of any nationality. We are humbled and grateful for many brothers and sisters in Christ who are materially poor but who inspire us, teach us, and welcome us to join them in seeking to make the Kingdom of God known.
The second concept from the book is that “…Not talking about race [is] a privilege available only to white people.” This really struck me – I admit that exploring my own privilege or the ongoing effects of systemic racism in the U.S. are uncomfortable subjects that I try to avoid – but to realize that some people in America are daily facing the brunt end of discrimination while I can ignore it was really disturbing. “This widespread phenomenon of white people wanting to guard themselves against appearing stupid, racist, or radical has resulted in an epidemic of silence from people who care deeply about justice and love from their fellow human beings”. How often do you have conversations about race (unless something like Charlottesville happens)? When I do not feel well-versed in a complex and controversial issue, I tend to stay silent. So this is my fumbling effort to put a few thoughts out there to start a conversation, given that we are far from the U.S. and not able to have these conversations in person.

Finally, this book explores what it means to be “white” in America, and the history of racial perceptions. Irving says, “understanding whiteness, regardless of class, is key to understanding racism.” What are my particular cultural values, and how does that impact how I perceive others or the assumptions I might make? Of course, one or two hundred years ago in America there was much more distinction and discrimination between some of the European immigrants – the Irish, the Germans, or the Swedish had their section of town and may have felt discriminated against by other groups. But gradually these distinctions blurred and gave way to discriminations against other races. We, as a country, have come a long way from the legal racial segregation and oppression that used to occur in our country. Perhaps the white supremacist gathering such as in Charlottesville is a visible expression of what you could call “extreme” racism. But I wonder if there are many more subtle ways – even subconscious—that we perpetuate racist systems or legacies that give us ‘privilege’ over others? Last year Bob and I started reading The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. It is a long, heady, book, but he does a masterful job of laying out the history of African Americans in the U.S., particularly regarding education and economic opportunities. Understanding our own history and the particular history of other groups that we intersect with helps us identify our cultural values and how they might clash with the values of others.

These are just a few things that are ruminating in my mind. If some of them resonate with you or challenge you, I encourage you to read the book or explore in other ways. I welcome your thoughts and feedback as I (and we) continue to learn about the tragic mistakes of the past, our own faults in the present, and seek to live lives that communicate God’s heart of love and justice to each person created in His image.




Saturday, August 12, 2017

Life with the Epstein-Barr Virus

In the August 10th entry of the popular devotional, Jesus Calling, Sarah Young writes “Energy and time are precious, limited entities.  Therefore, you need to use them wisely, focusing on what is truly important.”

Seven weeks ago I was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV).  Commonly associated with and commonly the cause of Mononucleosis (Mono), this virus is very common but only manifests itself in a small percentage of the population.  Essentially it renders one weak, tired and achy and it can take weeks and even months (and in some cases even longer) for the body to fully recover.  A former colleague from African Enterprise (AE) recently wrote, telling me of his experience with EBV.  He contracted the illness a week before his wedding and was essentially “man down” the first year of marriage.  It took him a full year to recover and five years before he could safely call EBV a memory.  In another case, a friend contracted EBV three years ago and is still dealing with the challenges of this virus which has morphed into Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Does that sound encouraging?  No, it doesn’t, and it has not been an easy road for Kristi and I to walk these past three months.  Towards the end of June, our doctor in Nairobi gave us the go-ahead to return to Juba, but he cautioned me to take it easy and to “tithe it out.”  Since our return, we have been balancing my getting rest with learning a new language, building relationships in the community, and simply getting to know our environs.  I have begun a daily log whereby I record how well I sleep each night, how many naps I take each day and the length of each nap, each activity I do and how it affects me, and I rate my energy level each day on a scale of 1 – 10.  My energy level hasn’t been over 7.5 since I began recording eight weeks ago, and averages at about 6.5 per week.  I try to average 2 hours of rest each day, napping.  Our hope had been that I would be 90% strong before returning to Juba.  That didn’t happen…so here we are, having made the decision to return but still waiting for and seeking to promote healing, doing our best to navigate this place under less than ideal circumstances. 

So, how does one deal with a health challenge while adjusting to a new culture and language while also still grieving the loss of ministry and identity in another place?  Well, I am no expert and please do not look to me as a guide.  On many days I feel that God has dealt us an unfair hand.  It often feels like life has become unfair and the scales of the Universe have tipped against us.  “Why?” is a regular refrain on our lips.  We have prayed for healing as have countless others, but it feels like the heavens are silent. 

What I am learning, rather slowly and obstinately, is that the challenge and dark companion of an illness like EBV can actually become a teacher.  In the entry entitled “For a Friend on the Arrival of Illness,” the late John O’Donahue in his wonderful little book called To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, writes most poignantly regarding illness, saying “You feel that against your will a stranger has married your heart.”  Those words have bounced off the echo chambers of my heart - so true!  While O’Donahue uses poetic turn of phrase to identify the pain and frustration of illness, he also encourages the friend to embrace the illness as a companion and teacher.  He encourages one to listen to the illness which can illuminate new qualities that will emerge within you.  He encourages the friend to ask why the illness came, what it wants you to know, what quality of space it wants to create in you, and to ask what do you need to learn to become more fully yourself so that your presence will shine in the world. 

Going back to the quote from Sarah Young’s devotional, I am learning how truly valuable and precious time and energy are.  I am learning that both are limited entities, having to choose only what is needful and necessary and not doing many of the things I would otherwise do and enjoy doing.  I cannot exercise as I normally would, and I am obliged to limit my outings from our apartment, only doing what feels most important.  Throughout the day I am constantly napping and needing to forgo the desire to be productive.  As an example of my limited energy, last Sunday we went to worship at a local church.   The entire outing was about four hours long and it took me two full days to recover. 

On a positive note, when I do go out, I tend to notice things and enjoy the experience more than I might otherwise.  Simple conversations and experiences are perhaps cherished more because they are in short supply.  I cannot say that I am good at embracing this new way of experiencing life.  There are many days when I feel somber and depressed at my current life state; I just want to curl up into a cocoon and bid the world “adieu.”  However, I am slowly learning to accept this illness as a companion and teacher that will indeed develop important qualities in me, qualities like patience, compassion and humility. 


If you are a person who prays, I welcome your prayer for me to learn all that God wants to teach me through this illness.  Of course, I also welcome prayers for healing and full recovery.  Whatever happens, my hope is that my life will be surrendered to God and bring Him all the glory.  Thank you for reading.                 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Taking the plunge

This week we worked with our Arabic helper to create a ‘text’ for a conversation about family. We learned to briefly introduce each other, say that we have no children, and describe our families in the US. We then would ask about the other person’s family – are they married? Do they have children? Are their parents living, and where? Do they have brothers and sisters? We recorded our language teacher saying all of this, so that we could listen to his pronunciation when we practiced and mimic it. We rehearsed with each other, pretending to be various people. All of this working up to going out in the neighborhood to practice.

But going out in the neighborhood to practice a text feels intimidating sometimes. Will we draw a crowd? Will I understand what people are saying to me? Can I make this a real conversation, not just repeating memorized lines to get through it? So this morning we prayed that God would lead us to the right people, and make this an encouraging experience. And we reminded ourselves that our goal in learning Juba Arabic is to connect with people – to be able to communicate and understand them.

As we headed out this morning, we saw Mary, one of the ladies who cleans our apartment, as we were going down the stairs. We asked if we could talk to her about family, and Bob launched into the text. People passed by on the stairs and some of the security guards came to join the conversation. These are people we know and see regularly, and all of them are excited that we are learning Arabic, so it was an encouraging place to start.

Kristi with two women who work in our apartment building – our favorite conversation partners!

Then, we took the plunge, heading across the street to an outdoor market area. We were able to engage a few of the venders, learning their names and now learning a little about their families. We found Mary, a woman we had met before who has a tea stall, sitting with some of her customers. Once we started greeting them in Arabic, we were kind of a novelty and they were eager to talk. We introduced ourselves, and began our discussion about family. Some responded with long explanations about what their children were doing or the challenges of life, and we were quickly lost. We’ve only been studying Arabic for a whopping three weeks now!

We decided to stop for tea at Mary’s stall. This provided an opportunity to get to know her a bit more. As we sipped our tea and coffee, other customers came into the stall, and joined the conversation. Bob was able to talk to a policeman who sat next to him, who is based at the police station right next to our apartment. Mary does not speak English, but we were pleasantly surprised at how much we were able to understand with our limited Arabic. As we ask people about their families, we are often confronted with the hard reality that many of their family members have died in South Sudan’s long conflict, or that their children or siblings are far away, living in a refugee camp. But hearing those sad things from an individual puts a personal face on this tragic environment and helps us to come to understand the daily struggles people face here. We came back home after an hour encouraged and grateful that God had answered our prayers. Please continue to pray for good conversations and relationships as we go out to practice Arabic, and also for Bob’s energy to continue to improve so that we can go out more often to practice.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

God's Refugee

Sometimes when reading a book one gets the extraordinary sense of God’s presence.  Such has been the case for Kristi and I as we have just finished God’s Refugee, The Story of a Lost Boy Pastor, by Rev. John Chol Daau and Lilly Sanders Ubbens.    

Many accounts have been given on the lives of the Lost Boys of Sudan.  It is estimated that 30,000 young boys fled from their homes due to the Second Civil War of Sudan with only 10,000 surviving the journey.  Stories usually include young boys having to walk incredibly long distances, being hunted by the military from the North, travelling for days with little water and food, being attacked by wild animals, crossing crocodile infested rivers, and being forced to live in refugee camps for years on end.

The boy John Chol Daau’s story is no different.  What perhaps sets his story apart from other accounts is how his life is clearly marked by God from infancy.  He is named after John the Baptist by one of his uncles, an unusual name to be given.  Moreover, as an infant, he would not stop crying, driving his mother and family to exasperation.  Finally his Uncle Johnson comes and gently holds a Bible over young John’s head.  John quiets and reaches for the Bible.  His Uncle Johnson then prophesies that one day John will preach God’s Word. 

John becomes known as the drummer boy in his village, carrying his Uncle Elijah’s Bible and following him everywhere.  The two would lead church services under a tree, where John would play his drum with rapturous joy.  Their efforts, however, were not appreciated by most villagers until John’s Uncle Paul is miraculously healed.  A second intervention of God during a difficult pregnancy solidifies the power of Jesus over the Jak (local spirits or gods) in the hearts and minds of villagers.  People begin to flock to the church and begin burning their shrines to the local deities, local deities who had been exacting huge sacrifices on the people for generations. 

When John’s village is attacked, he and others ran…and ran…and ran.  Much of his account focuses upon life in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, where life is harsh for everyone.  Yet, in these places of suffering and humiliation and pain, God makes Himself known to thousands upon thousands of Southern Sudanese refugees.  What some missiologists refer to as a “People Movement” becomes the norm in these camps.  Thousands begin flocking to different refugee camp churches to worship.  The Holy Spirit begins inspiring these new Christians to create new songs, songs which are written and composed daily.  Believers are given new names which represented new life and freedom.  John writes, “We began to see that we were not displaced unknowns, but God’s people.  We were refugees in God.  We sensed that what had been lost to us, our dignity, had been returned.  We received a new status – one as real persons.”   The refugees were given new life in Christ.  They were given a new community and a new family.  They realized that even if they didn’t have parents, God was their parent. 

After years of living in the camps, serving God but being separated from his family, John is miraculously given the opportunity to study at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.  His world opens up as he learns more about the Bible, about servant leadership, and about community development.  He returns to the camps where he teaches others and helps equip those serving as church leaders in the camps.  Finally, after seventeen years, he is able to return to his home village of Baping where he is reunited with his Uncle Johnson and learns more about the fate of other family members.  Of course there is more to tell, but we won’t give more details away! 

If you are interested in South Sudan or just simply want to be inspired by the manifestation of God’s miraculous power to redeem brokenness in our world, we encourage you to read this exceptional story.  You can find God’s Refugee, The Story of a Lost Boy Pastor on Amazon at this link, or go to a local bookstore and see if they have it in stock or ask if they can order it for you.  Happy reading! 

   

Friday, July 21, 2017

Seizing opportunities

We laughed as we greeted the staff of the small grocery store down the street, and they quizzed us on their names. They were excited to see Bob, especially, since he doesn’t get out to the store as often since being sick. Anwar, the butcher, came over from the adjoining shop when he heard our voices. They would rattle off a question in Arabic, then repeat it or simplify it for us until we could understand. They were excited that our Arabic is improving, and seem eager to help us practice and also impatient for us to be able to converse fluently.

Anwar grabbed Bob’s hand and led him over to his side of the store. Anwar is a large man with a commanding presence, who likes to laugh and joke. We had actualy intended to buy some meat and had just learned how to say a few types of meat used here (goat, sheep, chicken, beef). Anwar pointed to the different cuts of meat, explaining the names of everything. He also introduced Bob to the other staff, wanting to make sure that we knew everyone’s name. We were the only people in the store, fortunately, and all of us laughed as they asked us questions and tested our limited Arabic.

We finally settled on beef, and Bob successfully said the phrase we had learned “I want half a kilo of beef meat.” Anwar looked pleased that Bob was able to repeat the precise phrase he had taught him for ‘boneless meat of the cow’. Most shop keepers know enough English to use English with their prices, but we had just learned our numbers in Arabic, and were able to practice with the prices. Anwar offered to cut up the meat for us and put it in a bag. We took it over to the cashier (right next to the meat counter), and the cashier asked us “What do you have?” We realized he was asking just to test our Arabic, but we took the opportunity to say again “this is half a kilo of beef.”, and confirm the price “tul tul miya wa hamseen” (350 pounds).

We left the store, feeling grateful for the warm reception and the opportunity for some good Arabic practice. While Bob is still recovering and his activity is limited, we are trying to seize every oportunity to interact and practice what we learn in our lessons. This gives you a picture of one of those opportunities – please pray for good daily interactions, especially as we seek to build relationships using our new language.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Jesus is our Peace

In Congo and in the US I have preached a message called “Jesus is Our Peace,” from Ephesians 2: 11 -22.  On our second Sunday here in Juba, South Sudan, I also preached this message, a message crafted for communities who have found themselves divided and in need of peace and reconciliation.

Looking across the breath of scripture, we find division within homes and communities.  Cain feels envious of his brother Abel’s offering and murders him.  Crafty Jacob steals the birthright of his brother.  Jesus and Paul suffer at the hands of their own people and are sent to the Gentile leaders to be executed.  In scripture, we find issues of jealousy, fear, suspicion, prejudice, self-seeking, and power grabbing.  Of course, we find these realities in our own worlds as well – tragic realities which drive us away from each other into our own cubby holes of smug self-satisfaction and security.  Into this sad reality, who can bring us peace?  Who can reconcile us to each other? 

In his epistle to the church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul recognizes that he is writing to Christian believers who are divided because of their socio-religious-cultural background.  On the one hand he is writing to the Jewish believers, those who have accepted Christ but are still stuck in their identity as Jews, following their age-old customs and traditions.  Significantly, these Jewish believers continue to disallow eating with Gentiles.  When they catch wind that Peter has eaten in the home of a prominent Gentile, they criticize him, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" (Acts 11: 2 - 3)

On the other hand Paul is also writing to the Gentile believers who have also put their faith in Jesus Christ, those who had formerly been alien to the promises of God made to Israel.  The Jewish believers addressed by Paul remain blind to the new reality of Christ bringing all peoples into one family of faith.  The fulcrum of Paul’s argument comes when he emphatically states –

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. (Ephesians 2: 14 – 16).    

Jesus, Paul contends, has inaugurated a new humanity where two alienating groups can now become one.  Jesus, asserts Paul, has come to break down the dividing walls between us.  Paul addresses the Jewish and Gentile believers, but in today’s world we now find multitudinous examples of division and separation.  In Africa, divisions are often found due to ethnic, tribal and clan allegiances.  In the US, our struggles are often centered on differing political ideologies, theological differences, socio-economic status, and even the color of our skin. 

In our divided and fractured world, we are like a sick person who needs a doctor.  In Jesus, God the Father is reconciling a lost world to Himself.  Through Jesus’ life and example, God has given us, the Church, the ministry of reconciliation, first to be reconciled to God, then to be reconciled to one another.  Jesus is the doctor who reconciles and heals a broken world; we as God’s people are to participate in and promote that healing.  In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, he drives home this point with great clarity, calling us ambassadors for Christ, that God is now making his appeal through us to be reconciled both to God and to one another (2 Corinthians 5).

After recently preaching this message at the Atlabara parish in Juba, the leader of the service came up to me after the service and quietly confided, “We need this message. We are sick here in South Sudan.”  Friend, whether in war torn South Sudan or in our divided national landscape in the US, Jesus is the doctor who has come to heal our fractured lives and communities.  Jesus is our peace.  May we fully enter into our troubled landscapes as Christ’s ambassadors for healing and peace.     

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Walk slowly and carry a grateful heart

This morning we were sitting under a tarp sipping tea at a road-side stand in Juba. We watched people passing on the road, women frying bean-chapati wraps, and the three young women who were busy washing cups and serving tea in their makeshift stall. Business slowed, and they circled their chairs around a bowl of beans. One of them beckoned us over. “Come, eat,” she said invitingly, first in Arabic and then in English. They added chairs in their circle, and we joined them, dipping pieces of bread in the common bowl of beans. We only know a few words in Arabic, but we were able to introduce ourselves and ask their names, and it felt like a meaningful connection. “We’re eating local food.” Bob whispered between mouthfuls, “This is what we’ve been praying for!” Truly – just because of the way things worked out, we had no yet eaten truly ‘local’ food with South Sudanese people…until today.

We returned to Juba from Nairobi on Monday. Bob is still recovering from the Epstein-Barr virus, but we are slowly re-engaging with life here in Juba as his energy allows. Before going to Nairobi, we had been in Juba for two weeks, and had just begun to find our way around the city and get settled in our apartment. But those two weeks were enough to make it feel like we were coming ‘home’ this week, even though we had been gone in Nairobi for five weeks. We were so grateful to finally unpack our suitcases after our long absence and reconnect with new friends and colleagues.

On Tuesday, as we were eating dinner and reflecting on our first day back in Juba, Bob said, “Even though I don’t feel 100% physically, I feel much more ready now emotionally and mentally to engage in life here.” And it does feel like even with our current limited activity, we’ve explored new places in the neighborhood, practiced new phrased in Arabic, taken the bus to the end of the line near us, gone to the immigration office and gotten three-month visas, and as of today had tea at a road-side stall and shared a meal. So many little steps that go towards making us feel much more ‘at home’ here than before.

When we were preparing to return to Juba, my Dad suggested the phrase “Walk slowly, and carry a grateful heart” to use as a repetitive prayer, or ‘breath prayer’. As Bob is stil recovering, we need to remember not to push too hard or too fast. And we have much to be grateful for, and being concsious of those things helps us to have the right attitude that can weather the challenges. Yesterday when the sun finally cooled down around 6pm, we were strolling down a dirt road in our neighborhood, watching kids playing and men drinking tea. We recited to ourselves, “Walk slowly, and carry a grateful heart” and then we started naming some of the many things we were grateful for in that day. So many things! After our weeks in Nairobi dealing with sickness and being forced to take a slower pace, we are more aware of our own weakness, reminded of our dependence on our Good Shepherd, and grateful for the simple pleasures and victories of life.
Sunset from our balcony
Watching the sunset from our apartment – one of the many things we are grateful for!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Stirring the Waters

This last Sunday and the Sunday previous Kristi and I worshiped at Christ Church in Westlands, Nairobi, a wonderful community of faith which is walking distance from the guesthouse where we are staying.  The theme for this last month has been "Celebrating our Differences," a theme bent particularly on lifting up persons with physical and emotional challenges.  Two Sundays ago the church invited an African Albino man to preach.  Albino persons in Africa are often marginalized due to pigmentation of their skin.  This last Sunday a blind woman read the scripture passage using Braille.  It took a long time to get through the passage, but she persevered and the congregation was patient.  Also on this last Sunday the guest preacher was wheelchair bound doe to a work related accident sustained twenty years ago.  Before his preaching, a member of the congregation gave testimony concerning the challenges she faces raising her son who is afflicted with both Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Dyslexia.

In all of these cases I am impressed by the Christ Church's willingness to highlight those we too often push to the margins.  The "differences" expressed by these children of God remind us all of our need to find meaning and help beyond ourselves.  The wheelchair bound preacher from last Sunday cited Paul's testimony regarding the thorn in his flesh.  Three times Paul petitions to Lord to remove the thorn, yet the Lord's gentle response to Paul is, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12: 9a).  The preacher gave testimony that had he not had the accident he probably would be arrogant.  He shared how God often likes to "stir the waters of our lives," shaking things up so that we recognize our dependence on Him.  The preacher also described how meat is only flavorful and juicy when it is cooked.  The fire or flame of the stove brings forth these juices.  The unspoken implication is that the fires of sorrow and suffering in our lives add new dimensions of growth and provide space for God's creative work to happen.

Two nights ago Kristi and I watched the movie "Joni" which chronicles the true life story of Joni Eareckson Tada who was paralyzed at the age of seventeen from a diving accident.  The film masterfully shows the horrific struggles she faced during the early years after the accident, but how faith in Jesus Christ took hold of her and she then blossomed in ways unimaginable.  In one poignant scene, she shares with a disabled Vietnam veteran how she would rather be in a wheelchair with Jesus in her life than be able bodied without Him.  I was moved by her words which affirm how our weaknesses and suffering humble us and force us to recognize our need for love and help outside of ourselves.  Our setbacks, our sorrows and our sufferings drive us to the One who can heal all of our inner wounds and pain and give our lives true meaning and purpose.

Joni Eareckson Tada has lived a life of faithfulness!
(Image borrowed from this website)

These last five weeks have been weeks of struggle for Kristi and I as I was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr Virus.  It feels like God is stirring the waters in our lives.  The Lord has permitted me to fall victim to this Virus which has greatly weakened my body and caused severe achiness.  Kristi and I have been forced to radically adjust and change our plans.  The Lord has given us a forced season of rest.  We have been obliged to stop and take a good look at our lives and to surrender all to the Lord - our health, our hopes and desires, our plans, our sense of call, our reputation and even our mortal lives.  Our Heavenly Father, in His infinite wisdom and mercy, has upset our well contrived and manufactured plans.  The Lord Jesus has reminded us of our need, our utter dependency upon Him alone.  We can do nothing without the leadership and enabling of God's Presence and Spirit.

And so I pray,

Father, thank you for stirring the waters in our lives.  It has not been fun and it certainly was not expected, but I have now come to recognize this season of being set aside as necessary for the larger and greater work you seek to do in both Kristi and I, and for that I am profoundly grateful.  I bless your Holy Name.  Thank you for sending me this unexpected visitor called Epstein-Barr.  I love you Lord - keep me humble and needy!  Hidden in You, Bobby.  

I am grateful that my body now seems to be on the upswing.  With my doctor's blessing, we plan to return to Juba, South Sudan, on Monday.  For that we are profoundly thankful.  Yet, we are also grateful for being set aside and more fully prepared for all that lies ahead in our new call.  May God be glorified in our lives - particularly in those places of challenge and pain.

** This blog post is an amended entry from Bob's personal journal which he has been writing in quite frequently lately!  :)    

         

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Finding company in great books

We have been in Nairobi for nearly 4 weeks now, addressing Bob’s sickness and doing everything we can to promote his return to health. We finally got a positive diagnosis this week--Bob tested positive for the Epstein-Barr virus (aka Mono). During this month of being ‘sidelined’ for sickness, what is a good introvert thing to do? Read, of course! Bob hasn’t had much physical or mental energy, but reading a book together provided a good low-key distraction. Either together or separately we’ve been reading an eclectic mix of interesting books this month, some that have felt particularly relevant to our situation. So I thought I would share what some of them are.

1. A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park.
This based-on-a-true-story narrative describes the lives of two children in South Sudan, in two different decades. It is really written for older children (middle school?), but adults would enjoy it too! It is a great description of the every-day challenge of life for a refugee or people in a situation like South Sudan, and the perseverance and resourcefulness it takes to survive. A powerful and poignant story!

2. Into the Niger Bend, by Jules Verne.
We stumbled on this novel in the library of the guest house here in Nairobi. We wanted something light to read aloud, and Jules Verne’s humorous dialog and eccentric characters made us laugh when life felt otherwise rather discouraging. Unfortunately, this book is just the first section of a larger novel, so it left the characters stranded and under attack in the middle of the Sahara dessert, and we are not able to access the next book in the series. And because it is one of Jules Verne’s lesser-known works, there does not seem to be a kindle version. If anyone can find one, please let us know!

3. A Concise History of South Sudan, Edited by Anders Breidlid, et al.
The authorized history of South Sudan, used as a textbook in high schools within the country. We found it in a bookstore in Juba, and I thought it would be a good historical introduction to our new host country. We appreciate that it starts the history as far back as archeological evidence allows, thousands of years ago, and describes the origins and movements of peoples in the region, including the illustrious history of several kingdoms and ‘black pharoahs’. When the Bible refers to Cush (e.g. Isaiah 18), it is probably referring to modern-day Sudan. I also enjoy reading about the distinctions and origins of the many tribes of South Sudan, although it gets to be more detail than I can take in as a newcomer!

3. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
Another book I stumbled on in the guest house library. I don’t consider myself a ‘writer’, but this book of advice about writing was helpful and humorous. As a reader, I often fall into the perception that the book or article I am reading was produced as the words just spilled effortlessly onto the page as fast as the author could type them. The book is a good reminder of how much difficult mental work goes into writing, and of the importance of editing and revising (which I don’t do nearly enough of).

4. Extreme Prayer, by Greg Pruett
As we were praying for Bob’s recovery and asking for prayer from others, I remembered this book, recommended to me a few months ago. I found a Kindle version (e-books are incredible for those of us living internationally!), and started reading about Greg Pruett’s testimony of life and mylinistry in West Africa. I appreciate that much of his growth in faith and his commitment to pray came out of humbling experiences. Isn’t that the way with all of us? This book is a wonderful inspiration to consider God’s vision for His Kingdom and how He wants us to join him.

5. The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway
I found an online book club that is reading this book, and decided to join in the discussion. In this memoir of her early life, Conway describes growing up on a sheep farm in the Australian Outback in the 1930s and 40’s. She gives vivid descriptions of the bleak landscape, the challenges of raising sheep in the arid climate, and the unique cultures that her family mixes in. Her father dies early in life, and her family pushes on through that tragedy, drought, and the depression of the 1930’s.

6. Hinds Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard
After we finished Into the Niger Bend, we stumbled on this classic, again in the guest house library, and it felt like a good one to read together. In this season of struggling with sickness and having to surrender our plans and control, this book feels so applicable and encouraging. The analogy and imagery of this story are incredible, and it is evident that this is written out of much life experience and encounters with God. One quote that stands out is when the Shepherd chides Much-Afraid after an encounter with her enemies, “When you wear the weed of impatience in your heart instead of the flower Acceptance-with-Joy, you will always find your enemies get an advantage over you.”

Reading Hinds Feet on High Places at the guest house in Nairobi

We are so grateful for the company of these books that have inspired us, spoken truth, or provided an escape from the drudgery of being sick. Any other books you want to recommend to us?

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Surrender

“Father…not my will, but yours, be done.” 
Luke 22: 42


On Wednesday morning of this week Kristi went for a bird watching jaunt with the Nature Kenya group.  I stayed at the guesthouse and took some time to rest and do some therapeutic, meditative coloring.  While I was tempted to color in the page with the theme of “Healing,” I was drawn in my spirit to color in the dramatic “S” for “Surrender.” 


Surrender feels like the greater, all encompassing theme of our lives, while of course we are earnestly seeking and praying for healing.  We came to Nairobi three weeks ago from Juba regarding a couple of health issues which were badgering me.  First was a fish bone I swallowed in Kinshasa which left my throat perpetually disturbed.  Second was an inexplicable tiredness and lethargy that still won’t let me go.  Over the last three weeks we have been to see the doctor four times and had two multitudinous rounds of tests performed. 

Last September we surrendered to God our desire to have children.  Right now we feel like we are having to surrender something we too often take for granted, our health.  During these weeks of convalescence we have to take things day by day, depending on how I feel and how much energy I have.  We have also had to surrender our plans to the Lord.  Our plan was to begin language learning three weeks ago and jump in with both feet our new life and ministry in Juba.  Instead, we find ourselves exiled by choice in another country, shuttling back and forth across busy Nairobi to see doctors, also resting and rejuvenating ourselves physically, emotionally and spiritually. 

Bob under his favorite tree at the Amani Gardens Inn 


The peace and tranquility of Amani Gardens
has been a 
salve to the soul


While we fully anticipate and hope/plan to return to Juba, we have even had to surrender our sense of call.  Indeed, we feel called to serve in South Sudan, but when one’s physical well being gets pummeled, you begin to ponder your call.  It has felt like everything is up in the air until the ever elusive signs of improvement in health and well being reveal themselves.  As our days prolong here in Kenya, it feels like we also need to surrender our reputation, not knowing whether or not we are able physically to fulfill the call set before us. 

For me personally, I have also had to re-surrender my life to God during this time.  Last week on Wednesday night Kristi had just sent out a prayer email to friends and family when I was suddenly hit with a terrible case of the chills, complemented with a fever which seemed on the verge of spiking.  As I haven’t had a fever in years and am not well acquainted with having chills in such a deleterious manner, I felt in my heart that maybe God was now calling me home to Him; I had to surrender my desire to live and be at peace with the possibility of my days on earth ending here and now.  Thankfully, by God’s grace, my fever turned after a few hours in the night.  I rejoiced the following morning, feeling that my life was restored.  On that note, it has felt like a spiritual battle with forces set against us and against the good future God has for us.  Yet, we are confident that in the strong, all powerful Name of Jesus we will prevail! God has even spoken to me reassuringly in a dream about His guiding Hand of protection.       

Our hope and prayer is that this time in Nairobi will prove to be a time to recover physically from these ailments, to recover emotionally from the last few months of huge transitions related to our call, and to regain our spiritual bearings before re-engaging our new role in South Sudan.  Our time here in Nairobi has proven to be a soul searching time, as we have had to surrender our health, our plans, our sense of call, our reputation and even our mortal lives to the Lord.  Our firm desire and resolve remains to get well and return to Juba.  Pray with us for God’s healing and that it would come very soon!  Most importantly, please pray with us that our will aligns with God’s will as we embark upon this new season of life and ministry.  “Asante sana!” (Thank you so much!)   


“S” for Surrender

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Detour

We felt like we were starting to know our way around Juba --finding things in the market, taking rickshaws, and practicing new phrases in Juba Arabic. We were reviewing our language learning books and preparing to start lessons this week with a tutor. And then a few physical/medical issues stopped us in our tracks and forced us to change our plans.

On our last evening in Congo three weeks ago, we celebrated with a nice dinner of fish. Bob ate his with bidia, which camoflauged a fish bone in his mouth until he felt it poking his throat on the way down. We hoped that the bone had not gotten stuck in his throat, but when he still felt like something was caught there two days later, it was hard to be sure. We saw a doctor as we passed through Ethiopia en-route to Juba, who said that there was no bone in Bob’s throat, but that there was some inflammation where perhaps the bone had poked him. He gave Bob some antibiotics and sent us on our way. Good news! Except that, two weeks later, Bob’s throat still periodically felt sore or clogged, and it was disconerting that it did not seem to be healing.

Just as we were wrestling with these thoughts of Bob’s throat, he started feeling very weak, achy, and tired. We went to the doctor in Juba, thinking perhaps he had malaria. The malaria test was negative, but the doctor prescribed the treatment for malaria anyway, given that it could be in the early stages.   He also examined Bob’s throat with a flashlight, but did not have any equipment beyond that to asses what was irritating his throat. After a couple more days of resting, praying for healing, and seeking guidance but not feeling any better, we decided to come to Nairobi to see a doctor and get more tests.
We arrived in Nairobi on Monday of this week, and saw a doctor and had a battery of tests on Tuesday. We are very grateful for the encouragement to come and get treated, for the reassurance of ruling things out or knowing what is going on physically, and also for the time and space to rest and recover. It is humbling to be forced to change plans and accept physical limitations. We had only been in Juba two weeks before suddenly leaving again for Nairobi. But sometimes being humbled and forced to change our timetable is exactly what we need to ensure that we depend on God and the people around us rather than just on ourselves. So we are waiting and trusting God to restore health and energy so that we return to Juba and to language learning. And in the mean-time we enjoy some ice cream, cool weather, and bird watching while we pass the time in the big city of Nairobi.
Amani Gardens Bob reading
Relaxing in the shade at the guest house in Nairobi
IMG_3891
We appreciate the lush trees and flowers at the Amani Gardens Guest House

Friday, May 26, 2017

Connecting through Language


The other morning Kristi and I found ourselves in a lively conversation in the doorway of our apartment with Isaac, one of the guards, and Susan, who cleans all the apartments on our floor.  What was striking about this conversation is that most of it was in Juba Arabic**.  It began with the basic greetings that we have been learning, but quickly shifted to new vocabulary as Isaac and Susan saw pictures of our families on the wall mounting and began pointing fingers and asking questions.   We quickly learned the word for father, “abuu,” mother, “uma,” and sister, “okut.”  Susan pointed to Kristi in one picture from 8 years ago, and I responded, practicing in Arabic, “My wife.” “You have two wives??”, Susan exclaimed, and we laughed and assured her that no, it was really Kristi in the picture. We then learned that Susan was one of three wives, and has 10 children.

Later that morning a colleague asked Isaac, “So are you now speaking Arabic with Bob and Kristi?”  While our Arabic is still quite limited, we are making a little bit of progress each day.  Yesterday I was literally overjoyed when I figured out, after she had just left, what Susan had asked me – “Ita rija kalaas?”  (meaning, “You have returned?”).  I just about jumped off the couch and shouted when I realized she had introduced the verb “return” and the perfect tense which ends with the word “kalaas.” 

While learning vocabulary and grammar can certainly be an arduous affair, it can also be fun as it connects us to the people we have come to live amongst and serve.  In so many ways language is about connecting with people.  Even as we go down to the small shops along the way to buy this and that, if we can greet folks and say a few things in their language, it builds instant rapport.  While many people here speak some English and we can technically “get by” with English in our respective work roles, the Arab influence in South Sudan is still quite strong, so learning Arabic will help us build relationships with those we rub shoulders with everyday and strengthen relationships with colleagues.  It also helps us as we travel around the city and shop. 

While we served in Congo, we had no choice but to learn the language of the people.  Learning and speaking Tshiluba and then French built a permanent bond.  We hope that a similar phenomenon can happen here.  Having learned Tshiluba and French gives us confidence in learning a new language, Juba Arabic.  Of course many African tribal languages are spoken here also – Anywaa, Madi, Bari, Shilluk, Dinka and Nuer to name just a few.  Sadly, it will be impossible to learn all the mother tongues of folks we will grow to love, but hopefully we can learn a few greetings and phrases from these languages as well, showing an interest in them as valued persons with deep roots in this place. 

So, with all that sharing about language, we close with the familiar Arabic blessing, “Salaam alekum.”  May God grant you peace.   

**The localized form of Arabic in South Sudan is colloquially called “Juba Arabic” – a pidgin form of Classical Arabic.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Stuff

In the midst of our multiple recent moves and transitions I’ve been thinking a lot about possessions. After more than a year in the U.S., we packed up to return to Africa. I struggle every time we go “across the pond” with the tension of wanting to ‘pack light’ and not have too much stuff, versus wanting to have some of those things that will make life easier or which we can not get in Africa—like a bar of chocolate, a fun movie, or enough vitamin C. Most of our possessions had been left in our apartment in Kananga, because we anticipated returning there to continue working. In the process of moving to South Sudan, we anticipated returning to Kananga to say good-bye and collect some of our things. But because of current insecurity around Kananga, we had to plan for the contingency that we might have to cancel those plans at the last minute. Packing felt particularly challenging to me, wanting to bring enough to ‘survive’ if we could not go to Kananga, but also not bringing much since we anticipated getting most of our clothes, books, and other things from Kananga to take to South Sudan.

In the midst of our preparations, we heard from a few colleagues who had been evacuated from South Sudan during times of insecurity wihtin the last 5 years or so…at least two of those colleagues lost everything in the upheaval. They left their homes with a backpack and never returned. One warned us not to take anything to South Sudan that we did not want to lose. But, at the same time, we want to feel ‘at home’ in Juba and settle in there. So how to pack??

Just before we left the U.S. in April, I started reading the book Missions and Money, which explores the issue of ‘affluence’ in the Western missionary movement. Our Western culture is significantly more affluent than the countries we are sent to, especially those that Bob and I have found ourselves in. I am challenged and convicted by reflections from both westerners and Africans about the gulf that can exist between us because of our western sense of self-sufficiency, the value we place on privacy and private ownership, and our abundance of ‘stuff’ that we are so attached to. How can we preach Jesus’ gospel - ‘good news for the poor’—if we are clinging to our Western comforts? And truly, in our personal experience, one of the hardest aspects of living in a country like Congo is being confronted with the struggles of poverty in the people we relate to on a daily basis.

We gave our map of the tribes of Congo (a treasured
posession!) to Pastor Mboyamba’s family

When we arrived in Kananga, I was grateful to see everything in our apartment still there, safe and sound. We collected books – some that have been so useful or insightful to us that they feel like old friends. But at the same time we realized that most of what we found in our house, we could live without, or we could buy another in Juba. We started making piles of clothes, books, kitchen supplies, linens, and other things to give away. We had joked before that our apartment was almost like a museum of local paintings and carved figures—so we picked just a few pieces as momentos and piled up the rest to let our friends choose from. As Bob described in his post about Kananga, whenever friends came to see us and say good-bye, we invited them to take something. Some would ask for something specific – a basin, a radio, a skirt, or a picture of us. It was a little scary for me at first, inviting people to take whatever they wanted, but also very liberating. One friend in Kananga joked that you never realize how much stuff you have until you have to move! We gave away nearly half of our clothes and books, and even with the remaining, it felt like we had too much. Finally, we squeezed our stuff into five suitcases – two of them just for books—and took off from Kananga.

Donating some books to UPRECO, the seminary in Kananga

Our baggage as we leave Kinshasa for Juba

We landed in Juba last week with 6 suitcases, and found two there which had been brought previously by our very kind colleagues. A lot of stuff can fit into 8 suitcases! We unpacked, and are settling in to our very nice and modern furnished apartment here in Juba. And now I find myself constantly adding to a mental list of things we need – a frying pan, bowls, tupperware…and of course shelves and baskets to put all the stuff into! I’m trying hard to take it slow and try to get by with less, even if it means washing dishes after every meal or not having exactly the right utinsel. But mostly, I am grateful for this upheaval and long period of transition that has helped me realize how little is really essential, and the value of focusing on relationships and memories that last forever.

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:34)

“Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)