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

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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)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Returning Home and Saying Farewell


For the last seven years Kristi and I have made our home in the city of Kananga in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  For the last seven days we have been in Kananga, spending almost every waking hour either sitting with people we have grown to love or stripping down everything in our apartment that has made it our home.  Today our bodies and our emotions are weary.

On our first full day back we went to visit the grave site of Rev. Dr. Mulumba Musumba Mukundi, who served as the General Secretary of the Congolese Presbyterian Church (CPC) for the past twenty plus years.  Standing over his grave and praying felt like the end of an era.  Mixed with the morose feeling of loss and death were feelings of excitement and new life as we saw one of the graduates of the Ditekemena program for street children who came to greet us at Dr. Mulumba’s grave.  He and his sister are living with their grandmother in a new house built by the program and are worshipping regularly at a local church.  Because Dr. Mulumba has been buried at Ndesha Mission where he served as rector of the University of Sheppards and Lapsley (UPRECO), we were able to give away some books to the school and in doing so were able to spend some time with first year theology students, representatives of the future of the church in Congo.  It was a gift to sit with them, to see their bright faces and to hear briefly about their lives.   


At Dr. Mulumba’s grave with Pastor Tshipamba

When we arrived in Kananga we promptly informed friends and former colleagues of our presence.  While we only had time to visit a few friends in their homes, most of our time was spend hosting people in our home as we made coffee/tea and made regular runs to buy bottled water, peanuts and bananas to host our guests.  People came in and out of our home during the morning hours or in the afternoon.  We made spending time with people a priority, using hours in the evening and when we had a break during the day to pack up.  Kristi and I guessed the other day that probably an average of 30 people came to see us on most days.  While having so many guests could have been simply overwhelming, somehow God gave us the energy and ability to sit and visit with so many folks who have built rooms in our hearts over the last seven years.  In Kasaian culture, people often ask for something to remember you by when you part ways, so we invited everyone who came to see us to choose something from our house to take as a momento. After watching several people walk out with sacks full of stuff, I commented that perhaps this is how the Egyptians felt, being plundered before the exodus of the Hebrews.  We allowed ourselves to be pillaged in the Name of Jesus!    

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Visiting the family of Pastor Mboyamba

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We enjoyed hosting waves of visitors almost every day

The general response from most was excitement and surprise to see us, but then shock and dismay to learn that we would be leaving them.  While we have had time to process this change over the last few months, for most of our Congolese friends it was something new.  One pastor in Kananga had heard through their sister church in the US the news that we would not be returning to live and serve in Congo.  When I called him and told him that we were in Kananga, he was ecstatic.  I remember seeing his face light up across the room when I saw him in our home.  When we then explained to him and others the news that we would be leaving, his enthusiasm faded.  However, being a wise and discerning man, he and I then had a fruitful and affirming conversation about our life of discipleship and how God often takes us down paths unexpected but necessary. 


Tatu Willy and Mamu Monica and their three young children

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Kristi with Luse Kristi, her “shakena” or namesake, daughter of
Pastor Manyayi and Mamu Biabanya

A couple of conversations and meetings were particularly rough.  One such conversation was with Tatu Sammy, a retired driver for CPC with whom Kristi and I have developed a close bond over the years, travelling all over the Kasai region together.  Sammy sat alone with me in our living room thunderstruck, as if his whole world had been turned upside down.  His tears and lament were palpable; all I could do was sit silently with him in his pain and consternation.  Later that day he came by again and he couldn’t even bear to come inside. Sammy joined a few others who made the final trip to the airport with us yesterday, a ride drenched with immediacy and poignancy.

As we shared our news, we also listened to the news of our friends.  The major theme of what we heard was the insecurity and destruction of human life in Kananga and in the Kasai region.  One whole section of the city has become a ghost town, save the presence of soldiers.  This commune, called Nganza, is wedged between Kananga and the village of Tshikaji.  Government soldiers have sought out militia members in this area, but according to everyone we spoke with, they have killed indiscriminately, taking the lives of innocent men, women and children.  The grisly descriptions we heard were traumatizing.  Other sections of Kananga have been hard hit as well.  Our friend Pastor Manyayi and his family have taken in three extra children in their small home.  The parents of these children are missing.  The story is that the parents fled into the forest, but I wonder if the sad reality is that they will never be returning.  Pastor Mukendi and Mamu Helen, two close friends, have welcomed many into their home which has become like a refugee camp.  Young people are being targeted as members of the growing militia.  People fear for the lives of their children.  The government is showing no quarter.  During most nights during our visit we heard gunshots.  We also heard stories the following morning.  The day we left we saw four huge trucks filled with government soldiers driving into town, a foreboding image of what may lie ahead for those we love in Kananga.  I felt so grieved and angry watching the soldiers in these trucks arrogantly parading power and veiled terror, wanting to do something but feeling paralyzed and helpless.          

We knew that our time in Kananga would be good for us and those we saw, but also difficult.  It has given us and our friends and former colleagues the chance to saw “farewell for now.”  It has allowed us to share the depth of feeling we have for each other.  It has allowed us to pray together, break bread together, laugh, cry and fellowship together.  It has reminded us that life can feel capricious and uncertain, yet our faith buoys us as we have the hope of Christ in us, a hope which sustains us and gives us assurance that our our partings are truly only a ‘farewell for now’, that we will see each other again someday, either in this world or in the world to come.  Thanks be to God. 

Lord, bless and protect our dear friends in Kananga.     

Friday, April 28, 2017

Refreshed

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

Kibuye breakfast
Breakfast with colleague, overlooking Lake Kvu

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

Loving the view of Lake Kivu!

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

Testimonies in rwanda - AnastasieAnastasie shares her testimony

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

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Wilderness Within


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

Last Hurrah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Spiritual Direction through Art Therapy


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

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


Full page, reflection


Desolation

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

Consolation

Second section, reflection

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

A hoped for and hopeful future

Third sectio

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

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