Friday, October 19, 2018

Finding the Good Shepherd

This week I took a two-day personal retreat at the Good Shepherd Peace Center a few miles outside of Juba. Getting there was a bit of an adventure (of course!) as I tried traveling by public bus on a route we have not used before.  But as soon as I arrived, I felt myself relax and let out a big sigh, eager to leave behind the hustle, noise, and dust of the city for a few days. I spent long stretches of unstructured time praying, reading, watching nature, taking slow walks, and thinking. I felt like I was experiencing the verse in Psalm 63 that says “my soul is satisfied as with the richest of foods” as I reconnected with God, refocused, and was refreshed.

Leaving for retreat

On my way to catch the bus…

Here are a few of the mental images that stood out to me during this brief retreat:

  • The iridescent blue of the swallows as they swoop by me.
  • Sinking knee-deep in mud when I tried to wade in the river
  • The silhouette of an owl at dusk, perched at the top of a nearby tree
  • A mourning dove’s call, like the purring of a contented cat
  • Sitting alone in the chapel, enjoying the sense of God’s love and presence as I prayed.
  • The amazing variety of patterns and sizes of the butterflies, dancing around the flowers.

    Butterfly 5        Butterfly 6

  • The greeting of the hunter I encountered on my morning walk, carrying a bow and arrow as big as he was.
  • An inspiring conversation with a Catholic sister about her experiences in South Sudan, who declared “God sent you here! I’m so excited to meet you!”

Good Shepherd Chapel

The chapel at the Good Shepherd Center

I returned to Juba refreshed, refocused, and reminded that depending on God and focusing on Him is what will accomplish more than any effort I put in on my own. Does taking a retreat sound like something you need too? If so, I hope that you can find the time and space, in whatever way it looks like for you, to step back, disconnect from the demands and routine, and reconnect to the Source.

“…In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)

Friday, October 12, 2018

Lord, in Your Mercy

Brief Caution:  Some of the content of this blog post may be disturbing.  Please be prayerful if/when you read, in a good state of mind.  

Standing in the hall 48 hours later, just behind the one-inch-diameter-hole with jagged rays emanating out from it in the large vertical pane of glass, felt a bit eerie and surreal.  I wondered what the tall, slight young man in the white shirt thought that morning when he woke up.  Surely, he did not say to himself, “Today is the last day of my life; I will be sure to make the most of this day.” 

Standing behind the window on the first floor
two days later; seeing my own reflection feels a bit eerie...

Friday afternoon around 3:30pm I was taking a short nap after a long day at the college.  I was looking forward to getting up shortly so that Kristi and I could go visit Mary, Galdino and other friends at the “mahel shayi” (tea shop) located in the “suk” (local market) across the busy Konyokonyo Road which separates our four story building from the market and the Malakia Police Station.  At first one might be tempted to think that the sound was the harmless popping of firecrackers, but quickly it was clear that these pops were something altogether different, something altogether ominous.  At least twenty gun shots went off in rapid succession in less than one minute in the vicinity of the neighboring police station.  Reacting, I did what most people unthinkingly do in such a situation.  I went to take a look.  I found myself in our hallway, observing the scene from three flights above.  Traffic had come to a standstill as people were either running, ducking for cover, or frozen in shock.   

Peering curiously down into the scene below I was suddenly jolted by the extremely loud gunshot which seemingly shook our entire building.  Hitting the deck, I began crawling on my stomach back to our apartment, now 20 feet away.  What was first a curiosity now turned into what felt like a war zone.  Halfway back, the tall, slight young man with the white shirt came ambling as fast as his wounded body would allow him, rounding the corner from our second floor stairwell.  My mind took a moment to register what my eyes were seeing.  The tall, slight young South Sudanese man was half bent over and his white shirt was soaked with blood.  His body, now not able to direct itself, careened into the wall just in front of our apartment as his head then slammed into the base of the wall, near our door jam, the pall of death glazing over his face as his eyes communicated complete consternation.  His writhing and semi-inert body blocked my return to our apartment. Kristi, hearing the commotion in the hall and my exclamation, wisely locked the door, not having seen what I had seen and not knowing what was going on outside.  Terrified, she locked the door, sat near it to welcome me in, and prayed.  I turned on my belly and crawled in the other direction where I found another young man who had been behind me, this young man holding a pistol, scouring the streets below with his trained eye for would-be assailants.  Thankfully he did not mind me as I continued crawling, now knocking at the base of the door of Leisa, our neighbor, colleague and friend.  Uncertain herself what was going on and what to do, having heard everything and seeing the man in the hall with the gun, thankfully she quickly opened her door after I calmly explained my situation.  We found sanctuary in her back bedroom where we phoned Kristi, our colleagues and friends upstairs, and the apartment manager.  We prayed, waited, and kept calm as our bodies and spirits trembled in fear and uncertainty.

Our hallway, the second door on left is ours; I crawled the hall
on all fours when I saw the man turn the corner and then come and fall in front of our door

Later we would learn that the tall, slight young man with the white shirt died from his gunshot wound shortly after I saw him.  What happened?  Who shot him?  Him being curious like many of us, he had been down at the window in the first floor hallway where he was struck by a stray bullet which came whistling up from the police station below.  We learned that the young man is a relative of the family who temporarily lives in the large apartment at the end of our hall; the young man patrolling our hall with the pistol is a bodyguard to a high-ranking military official who is currently renting that apartment.  That afternoon two other bullets struck our building, one in the ground floor showroom and the other on the fourth floor, the police shooting bullets in the air in seeming indiscriminate fashion.  The whole affair began when a man came to the police station with multiple grenades, ready to use them due to a domestic dispute involving his wife and possibly someone from the station.  He was shot by the police but not killed.   

The police station across the street from the first floor of our building;
three bullets hit our building from across the street

As for Kristi and I and our three colleagues/friends who live together in the same building, we are still in shock and we are still recovering.  Weekly, we hear stories of gun violence, robberies in the neighborhoods at the edge of the city, and killings across the city and country.  Within the last few months, Susan, a dear woman who cleans our building, lost her sixteen year old son, senselessly shot and killed while attending a neighbor’s birthday party.  A week ago Wednesday the home of Terenzo Lako, the new guard of our building, was attacked by robbers in the night.  Stories we have heard from friends and daily news reports have now became a close-up, lived and witnessed reality for us.  

Saturday morning Kristi and I went down to the quiet serenity of the Nile River to find a healing calm.  We read from Psalm 91, words which now possess new and special meaning at a moment when it felt like one of us could have suffered the same fate as our young South Sudanese neighbor.  We appreciate your prayers as we heal and recover from the trauma, as we seek to not live in fear, and as we seek wisdom for such situations and how we can best be equipped to serve in this needy land.  We invite you to pray with us for the family of the young man who died a rather senseless death.  Pray for wisdom in how we can show our neighbors love and solidarity.  Lord, in Your Mercy.       


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Celebrating milestones

Just in case you noticed that there has not been a post for awhile….we have been on vacation, and then recovering from a terrible cold that hit us after the long travel. So, now we are able to reminisce and be grateful for the days that we had away, exploring new places and savoring some time to catch up with family. But the main reason for this special vacation was the fiftieth wedding anniversary of Bob’s parents. Definitely a milestone worth celebrating. So, please indulge us as we share a few pictures of the beauty that we found in Spain.

17-DSC_0725 20-DSC_0728 lions, each unique 
Bob at Washington Irving door Alhambra, early evening
Some pictures from the Alhambra, where we were amazed by the architecture, the intricate, detailed designs, and the history and stories from several centuries ago.

55-DSCF1374 56-DSCF1376 57-DSCF1382
  IMG_4590  IMG_4328 (2) 

Most of the time we relaxed together in Marbella, playing games, eating lots of good food, enjoying the pool and the view of the Mediterranean, and doing a little exploring of the area. And taking every opportunity to get ice cream, of course!

And then, of course, we enjoyed some time of marking the milestone of our parents’ anniversary, followed by our anniversary (although we are many years behind them!)

68-DSCF1396 IMG_4285 (2)

DSCF1404 (2)

Now back to work in Juba, with happy memories to look back on.

“How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me?” Psalm 116:12

Monday, August 27, 2018

Getting to the root of the problem

For every problem that a community faces, there is a solution. And to really solve the problem you need to deal with the roots of it. We used a tree to symbolize the problem – the trunk is the core problem, with roots being the causes of the problem, branches being behaviors that result from the problem, and the fruit as the consequences. For example, civil war in Sudan is a problem in our communities. The consequences that we see are displacement, destruction, insecurity, and death. The root causes include politics, inadequate resources, a culture of revenge, tribalism, etc. Unfortunately, many organizations that come to provide relief in South Sudan only deal with the consequences – the UN provides shelter for the displaced, others provide healing for the wounded, or support to rebuild what was destroyed. But how can we deal with the roots?

CHE training - tree exercise

Elijah identifies parts of the tree as we talk about the tree as a symbol for our problems
(and yes, it was COLD in Nairobi!)

Last week I attended a training in Kenya on Community Health Evangelism (CHE), along with Elijah, one of the elders in an SSPEC congregation. CHE is a strategy for empowering communities to take ownership of addressing problems and improving their physical, social, and spiritual health. Real lasting transformation happens in the health of communities when the truth of the gospel is integrated with truths about physical health. But too often, community leaders are not taught how to work together to resolve their problems—they just wait for solutions to be brought to them from the outside. Those of us coming to help need to be careful that we are not imposing solutions that disempower people or prove harmful long-term.

CHE training - identifying priorities

One way to ‘vote’ on the priorities among all the problems in a community.

In our example of the ‘problem tree’ of civil war mentioned in the beginning, the corresponding ‘solution tree’ would be peace and stability. Peace comes from the roots of unity, equality, forgiveness, etc. Those roots are truths that we must understand and experienced in order to realize peace and stability. In the struggle with civil war, too often the lies at the root (tribalism, corrupt politics, revenge, etc.) are what flourishes in our societies and what we believe. This is a key part of CHE’s approach: integration of spiritual and physical truths to address the beliefs that contribute to problems in our societies. When we recognize Jesus as Lord and look to him as the source of truth, then we can see and deal with the lies at the roots of our problems.

CHE training - Margaret

We were pleased to meet a few other people from South Sudan at the training.
This is Margaret, president of the women for the Africa Inland Church.

For example, one lie common in African societies is the men are more important than women. Some behaviors and consequences of this belief are girls being left behind in education, a culture of accepting men beating their wives, and women not having a voice in their society. Today in South Sudan, girls are encouraged to go to school with money to support their school fees…but does that change the root belief? How can this problem really be resolved?

CHE training - presenting seed project

Presenting our plan for a ‘seed project’ to the group.

An illustration about a community that lived at the top of a mountain brings home the principles of Community Health Evangelism (CHE).  According to this illustration, the people living atop the mountain would go down the mountain to trade and work in surrounding villages. Many times, people fell on their way down the mountain and were seriously injured. One visitor to the community noticed this problem and generously provided an ambulance. The ambulance was parked at the bottom of the mountain, ready to take wounded people to the clinic 10 km away when they fell. The community was happy, and many people were healed. But after awhile the ambulance broke down. The community leaders went to the donor, and he agreed to fix the ambulance. But when it happened again, he got frustrated, and said he had no more money to give. Then a church leader came to visit, and said that the diocese would build a clinic at the bottom of the mountain. They built the clinic, provided staff, and treated many people, including those that fell on their way down the mountain. But after awhile the resources ran thin, and the church closed the clinic. The community is now back to the same place they started, with people continuing to hurt themselves and die as they try to go down the mountain. They did not know what to do, because they did not have the resources to run the clinic or repair the ambulance. Finally, the leaders came together to discuss what could be done. One wise man suggested that they could build a fence along the path down the moutain using some trees and rope. Everyone agreed, and they worked together to cut the trees and build the fence. They raised a little money for cement so that the poles could be secured in the ground. Now, people could safely go down the mountain. After a few years, some of the poles rotted and needed to be replaced. But the community knew that this was their fence, and it was not too difficult to work together to replace the rotted poles with new ones.

We are excited to consider how the church can holistically minister to the community through the CHE approach. Please pray with us for this new initiative, and for God to make the way clear as we continue to explore and lay groundwork in the next few months.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

South Sudanese Hospitality

While in Uganda for vacation and R&R a couple of months ago, I stumbled upon an article in a travel magazine about Levison Wood, a British adventurer who walked almost the entire length of the Nile, a 4,000 mile journey along the longest river in the world beginning at the mouth in Rwanda and ending in the Mediterranean in Egypt (YouTube short video here).  While Levison’s journey was filled with misadventures, challenges and joys, one detail stands out to me.  Levison mentions the incredible hospitality and care he received in both South Sudan and Sudan.  In South Sudan, due to war, he was advised by the government military to divert his journey for his own safety.  In Sudan, a man walked forty miles with him and helped care for his camel.  Of all the countries he passed through, he spoke most highly of the hospitality in this corner of the world where we now live.      

Photo:  Levison Wood
Courtesy:  Associated Press/Ilya Gridneff at this linked article 

Hospitality is a core value in African cultures, a key feature which has drawn us back, time and time again.  While both visiting and living in Rwanda, I was so blessed by the care given to us during our visits and the efforts taken to see us off when we left.  While living in Rwanda, I was treated like one who truly belonged, like family.  In Congo, Kristi and I ate in countless homes and were treated like royalty.  We were welcomed with open arms by our wonderful host community.  Here in South Sudan, we have been blessed in similar fashion and always enjoy being in the homes of colleagues, friends and acquaintances. 

Making the journey out to the home of a student -
the last part by foot and it was quite muddy after a huge rain!  

Today was a special day for us in the home of a student and his family.  As our friend, Rev. Paul Hensley, wraps up his time here after teaching a three week intensive at Nile Theological College (NTC), a celebration to honor him was hosted by Rev. Santino Odong, the principal, and other faculty, staff and students this last week.  During that splendid affair with speeches, songs and food, Joseph Tubo Apar, one of our students, approached me and invited Paul, Kristi and I for a special gathering on Saturday featuring the local food of their Chollo (Shilluk) tribe.  The inspiration for this idea came when a couple of the students, Joseph and John Ohdong Mayik, learned that Paul would be leaving; they said to themselves, “Ah, we must do something!  We don’t have much here, and we cannot treat them as we would in our home region of Upper Nile, but we must host them and bless them before Paul leaves.”  Thus the impetus for a grand afternoon together, eating Akelo which is a staple for their people, a greens dish called Lōm, and fish.  This sumptuous meal was topped off by sliced guava and tea with ginger.  

John Ohdong Mayik serves us the famous Akelo -
a staple of the Chollo (Shilluk) people

All three students shared kind words of appreciation with us and we were introduced to each member of the family.  Before leaving, we expressed our gratitude and Paul prayed a blessing over the family and the home; we then snapped some photos together outside.  In good African fashion, they escorted us to the bus park and said goodbye as our bus took off, having already that day paid some of our bus fares and asking us to be sure to call them to let them know we had arrived home safely. 

Students John and Daniel (left, back) with members of John's family
also a close friend to John, pictured with Paul and Kristi 

Ahhhh, what a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon!  We are grateful for South Sudanese hospitality and the opportunity to enter into the homes and lives of our students here, students who are becoming so very dear to us.  May God bless Joseph, John, Daniel, and John’s family for their invitation and their gracious welcome and care for us.  “Allah kwes kalis!”  (God is so very good!).              

Friday, August 3, 2018

Visit to the camp

It was only seven-thirty in the morning as our motorcycle taxis navigated the puddles on the muddy road that led to the big camp at the edge of town. As we came over the hill, the expanse of white tents came into view, which stretched as far as we could see. Later, one of the pastors would ask, half-joking, “Do you see our white city? This is our Jerusalem!” This was POC3 (Protection of Civilians Camp 3), for South Sudanese people displaced from their homes. We had come on this Sunday morning to join them for church.

The strong voices of the youth belted out their song in such an arresting way, and made me wish I could understand the Nuer language that they were singing. The pastor whispered to us that they were singing about their suffering, and asking whether it was because of their sin, or the sin of Adam or their ancestors that the suffering had come. Another youth choir followed, singing a song of lament about the suffering in South Sudan. “We are all scattered;” they sang, “we listen for sounds of peace, but there are none.” A third choir of youth sang later, about Jesus being our light in the midst of the darkness. It was evident that all of the congregation enjoyed the choirs and resonated with their songs. One woman, in particular, danced up and down the aisles during the songs, while holding high a small wooden cross.

A short clip of the first youth choir - an impressive group!

Bob preached from Lamentations 5, which describes the suffering of Israel as they are in exile. This chapter describes several specific aspects of Israel’s suffering that are true for the South Sudanese, thousands of years later. Homes being taken by foreigners, women raped, even going to gather firewood for cooking at the risk of their lives, This, of course, is why the Bible speaks to us today – because just as the suffering is the same, God’s power and promises are also the same today. Bob reminded us of reasons for hope that we find in the midst of the suffering described in Lamentations: That God invites us to express our laments, and He hears us; that God grieves with us in our suffering; and that God has the final word (and not any of the governments or leaders that appear to hold people’s fate in their hands). As Bob finished his sermon, one woman sitting near the pupit solemnly came to shake Bob’s hand. Several others followed, wanting to express appreciation, even as the service continued.

Bob preaching
Bob preaching while Pastor Peter translates into Nuer

After the service, we followed Pastor Peter and several elders, winding our way through the narrow paths between tents to reach the pastor’s tent. Pastor Peter built the home himself, using sticks for a frame that is covered with the UN-issued white tarp. They brought in several bowls of food, meat broth, fish, kisra (a thin dough/bread like Ethiopian injira), and kop (a small grain a little like rice). It felt like an extravagant gift of food, especially as we discussed the challenges that many of these people have endured. We learned that the pastor’s wife left him in the midst of her trauma of losing a child in childbirth. An older woman, who is an elder in the church, has no family because all of her children and close family have died in the conflict.
Pastor Peter in his home
Pastor Peter, sitting on the bed in his home in the camp;
a woman elder of the church is to his left.

Yet, in the midst of the long period of dispalcement and suffering, these faithful people persevere. The church hosts Good Shepherd Primary School in its building – 2000 students study in clusters around the large sanctuary, without any barriers to block the noise or teaching of the class next to them. Several of the members serve as voluntary teachers, wanting their children to get some education. Pastor Peter has lobbied to try to get a separate building for the school, but has not yet found the funds and permissions.

women sitting in church
The women’s section of the church – you can see a blackboard
on the wall that is used for the primary school.

As we prepared to leave, Pastor Peter expressed his appreciation to us for coming to worship with them. He said that our presence is a tangible reminder that they are not forgotten. We know that many of you far away are interceding for South Sudan, advocating for peace, and even contributing to efforts like education in the midst of the displacement. It is our privilege, in being present in South Sudan, to represent and communicate the concern and prayers of many of you. So, of course, we felt that Pastor Peter deserved our appreciation even more, for inspiring us with the faith and perseverance of these Christians, who gather to worship and seek God together in the midst of suffering.

Monday, July 23, 2018


We just had to introduce Derek to our friend Mary!  Having just finished lunch at a local South Sudanese restaurant, we ambled through the “suk” (market) where we were suddenly and happily detained by a parade of friends whom we have gotten to know over the past year.  First there was the stately Santo, then there was Wanny with his incorrigible stutter, then the young and omnipresent Simon who lives on the streets, and then of course we also stopped to see the market vendors whom we have grown to know and love  – Kapeeta, Amiina, Saiida, and Alima.  After the hoopla of shaking hands, exchanging greetings and pleasantries as we introduced Derek, we made our way to our destination, Mary’s Tea Shop.  Though being the hottest time of day, we sat and ordered coffee and tea.  Familiar faces and other patrons soon filled the joint as we enjoyed lively conversations in this small container building with chairs closely facing each other, forcing conversation and community!  We told Derek when he arrived to South Sudan that Mary’s Tea Shop has become to us like the 80’s hit TV show “Cheers!” – a place where everyone knows your name, a place where everyone is always glad you came.  Derek was in seventh heaven, exclaiming when we got home, “This is what everyone wants!  We just don’t know how to get it.” 

Rev. Derek Macleod, pastor of St. Andrews-Covenant Presbyterian Church
in Wilmington, NC, treats us to dinner on the Nile!  

Paul knocked at our door late Sunday afternoon.  “I just need someone to talk to and pray with.  It will only take five minutes.”  Paul quickly shared how the reality of South Sudan had suddenly struck him square.  He need to talk, to pray, to cry.  We sat and listened and prayed with our brother.  He had been reading the book of our friend, Rev. John Chol Daau, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who was displaced from his village when he was fourteen, his people attacked from the army and the government in the North.  John would spend at least thirteen years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, separated from family, surviving by faith and the grace of God.  His story, the story of his people, the story of his land and the story of his young country struck a bull’s eye on our friend’s heart, leaving a forever impression.       

Rev. Paul Hensley, second from left, is a close friend from Fuller Theological Seminary-
he is an Anglican priest and has come to teach an intensive course
at Nile Theological College where I (Bob) teach

Revs. Derek Macleod and Paul Hensley have braved the ominous and foreboding travel admonitions to South Sudan provided by the US State Department.  They have found ways to mollify the fears expressed by family, friends and church members.  They have come to see us in South Sudan with a determined and courageous spirit, a willingness to fully engage with us, our neighborhood, our church partners, our students, and our friends.  They have encouraged us.  They have given us new eyes to see our life here in a new light.  They have spoken prophetic words of hope.  They have represented well not only their churches but also the Risen Christ.  Their coming has put “wind into our sails!”  They have reminded us that we are not alone.   

Visitors!  What would we do without them?  One of the many proverbs we learned in Congo says, “Nzubu kayi ne benyi, neafue,” or in English, “A home that does not have visitors will die.”  You can bet your bottom dollar that we are grateful for Paul and Derek.  May the Lord bless them for sharing with us the joys and challenges of life here in South Sudan.      

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Happy Independence Day?

Last week we saw pictures on Facebook of fireworks, picnics, and parades in the U.S., celebrating the fourth of July. South Sudan’s independence day is July 9, just a few days later. This year is seven years since they became a country in 2011– still the youngest country in the world. However, most people were not celebrating.

The newspaper announced that there would be no public celebrations of independence. A government minister explained that there was no need to celebrate the day when most of the citizens were in refugee and IDP camps. The government also urged that people not shoot guns in celebration (as many people are traumatized from violence and living in fear already). Conflict and killings erupted in 2016 around Independence day, so since then many people are wary. Some organizations urged their staff to stay home on that day (rather than risk insecurity in the streets). Overall, it was a rather depressing day.

In the afternoon I went across the street to buy a few things in the market. I stopped to chat with our friend Mary in her tea stall. I expressed surprise that she was working on Independence Day, when all the stores were closed. “If you have money, it is nice to be able to stay home on the holiday,” she responded, “But if I stay home, where does the money come from to eat tomorrow?” So, she sat at her tea stall, even though patrons were few because most had stayed home for the holiday.

In contrast to the sobering reality of ongoing conflict, economic crisis, and suffering in South Sudan, I experienced dramatic faith, hope, and courage yesterday in a monthly women’s prayer gathering. Since 2013, women from various churches have been gathering to pray together every month. Because of schedule conflicts, this week was the first time that I have been able to attend.

The women often march together from a designated location to the church where the prayer meeting is held. Joining the march on my first time to participate felt intimidating, so I arranged with some women I knew to meet them when they arrived at the church. I waited with some other women at the church until one woman brought word that they were getting close, and we should all go out to welcome and join them. We walked down the street, in a very busy part of town near a bus park. I saw women carring a banner describing the gathering of women to pray for peace as they led the procession.

women's march with banner

The procession stopped, and all the women kneeled down in the street. One woman prayed over the loudspeaker for God to bring peace, healing, and restoration in South Sudan. Kneeling there with them in the street, I was moved by this public and bold cry to God for peace. I learned that they stop several times during the march, and each time someone from a different church leads the prayer on a different topic. Episcopal, Presbyterian, Pentacostal, Catholic and African Independent Churches were all represented. What an impressive show of unity in our fragmented church and society!

Women praying in street

The women finally reached the church, entering the building singing and dancing jubilantly. They continued with worship and prayers for specific topics such as the economy, church and government leaders, and for an end to random killings and robberies. The worship was energetic and exuberant – impressive for women who have just walked and prayed outside for an hour in the hot sun! To me it showed the power of their faith that God does hear our prayers, and delights when we join together to seek His grace and healing for those who are suffering.

Women marching

The pastor preached a message on their theme verse, Isaiah 43:18-19, “Forger the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.” This message seems so poignant and applicable to South Sudan – a promise of hope when all the circumstances indicate despair. I left this joyful gathering renewed in hope and faith for what God is doing in South Sudan.

women's prayer t-shirt 2

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

“If the Lord Does Not Come”

As I nestled into the large outdoor couch overlooking the majestic African valley deep in Murchison Falls National Park during the early evening hours, I took out our iPad and quickly glanced at a few personal emails.  One message grabbed my immediate attention and kept it.  News had come from Khartoum that morning, Wednesday, June 13th, that Rev. John Tong Puk, a close colleague and friend, a leader in the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SSPEC) and Dean of Studies at Nile Theological College (NTC), where I teach, had died that morning.  I read the message over and over in disbelief.  I had just been with him and greeted him before his journey to Khartoum to see family.  Could it be?  It was like a dream.  For the next twenty four hours I kept saying to myself, “John Tong Puk is dead,” a statement of sheer disbelief and quiet quandary. 

This last Saturday SSPEC leaders hosted a memorial service for Rev. John Tong Puk here in Juba; he had been buried in Khartoum the week previous.  The Saturday memorial was a significant event, well attended by family, friends, colleagues, students, church leaders, politicians, and even the first vice-president of the country.  It began at 1pm and we didn’t find our way home until after 6pm.  A heavy storm with rain threatened to disrupt our holy gathering; Kristi and I were impressed in the way everyone "made do" as heavy water leaked between the tent tops and as people squeezed closer in as sheets of rain invaded our gathering.  I was particularly impressed with Rev. Phillip Obang Akway, General Secretary of SSPEC, for his quiet leadership and powerful preaching.  I was also impressed by the engagement of Rev. Michael Aban, a colleague and friend at NTC, who spoke well of our late brother and stayed engaged throughout, listening closely to each speaker until the very end.  For this momentous occasion a white bull had been slaughtered beforehand and the hundreds of attendees were well fed.

Short Video of Memorial Service for 
the late Rev. John Tong Puk

Three significant memories come to mind when I remember our late brother, the Rev. John Tong Puk.  The first memory is his “watchful spirit.”  On most occasions when conversing with him, he would always conclude our time together saying, “[We will do such and such and see each other again] if the Lord does not come.”  Rev. Puk was ever mindful of the reality that Jesus’ coming again is imminent, that we should watch and pray and always be ready.    

The second significant memory lies in the humility of our late brother.  In my final conversation with him, I gently confronted him about calling me “kawaja” (white person) a few times over the previous few weeks.  Trying to be as gracious and loving as possible in a culture which usually shies away from direct conflict, I took his hand and shared with him how as a Christian brother, colleague and friend, I would appreciate if he would call me by name rather than using this general term that often carries a negative connotation.  His response?  He humbly and graciously apologized and asked my forgiveness.  Turning to leave, he looked back and said, “Thank you for telling me.” 

The third memory lies in his interaction with students.  Rev. John Tong Puk, the Dean of Studies, was one of two faculty members to consistently attend the early morning devotions with students before class each day.  As we would leave the place of worship to form a line to greet one another, he would come along and look us each square in the face, grip our hand firmly and lovingly, and say “Shining,” a massive grin written across his round face.  He also often greeted me personally saying “Haddim El Rop,” a classical Arabic expression essentially meaning “You are a Servant of the Lord.”  

Rev. John Tong Puk was a humble servant of the Lord.  He was watchful and ready.  If one paid attention to all the things that were said about him and considered his distinguished career of service, one would come to the conclusion that this life was one singularly committed to the Lord and to others. The Lord has come for our brother; may he rest in peace, may he rejoice in glory, worshiping and serving our Lord for all eternity.  I look forward to seeing him again, looking full into his bright, round face, and hearing him say, “Shining,” “Haddim El Rop.”

Rev. John Tong Puk, 1956 - 2018

Friday, June 29, 2018

Taking a break

We had been craving nature and a chance to get away. Uganda was exactly what we needed – refreshing time with friends and colleagues in Western Uganda (including their three energetic young kids), and then a week of real relaxation inside Murchison Falls National Park.

Elephant group drinking wide 2

   Female and young waterbucks A male hartbeast hippo charging

Seeing the majesty of these big animals in their natural habitat never gets old. The elephants, in particular, are so interesting to watch in their family groups. I read a book last year called Beyond Words: What animals think and feel about the complex social systems and emotional intelligence of a few animals, such as elephants, which makes me appreciate even more the expressive nature of these amazing creatures.

Plunging 40 meters down through a chasm 6 meters wide...  The Uhuru falls (left) and Murchison falls (right). Uhuru was created during a flood in 1962!

We took a boat ride up the Nile river towards Murchison Falls, and then hiked a couple of miles to get to the top of the falls. The river plunges through a gorge just 6 meters wide at these falls, and it is a dramatic show of the power that water has. Seeing the beauty and feeling the spray of these falls was exhilerating.

Red-throated bee eater  Pied kingfishers - we saw lots of these, and it was fun to watch them fish! Saddle-billed stork

     Crowned crane - the national bird of Uganda  A goliath heron 

We are growing into an appreciation of birds, and enjoy trying to see and identify them. The red-throated bee-eater was a new one for us. From the veranda of the lodge we could watch them swoop down from their perch to snag an insect and then loop back to their perch. The pied kingfishers were another fun one to watch, as they hovered stationary high above the water, beating their wings vigorously, and then would dive straight down to grab a fish in the water without going under. The beauty and the unique character that God created in each bird species is truly incredible!

DSC_0578 A colobus monkey DSC_0577

We also spent two days in the Budongo forest, where we found butterflies in such abundance that we said ‘it is snowing butterflies!” We watched monkeys (like the colubus above) leap through the tops of trees, and mused on the barking of the babboons. We spotted a few birds, but realized that in a dense forest seeing them is a real challenge!

Plane in arua with Kristi

Our flight from Aruba to Juba was on a small 12-seater plane. It was a rare experience for us to be on a plane where we could see out the FRONT window as well as the sides! Just as the plane revved up its engines and started down the dirt airstrip in Arua for takeoff, the pilot slammed on the brakes. We could see a few cows ambling across the runway in front of us. Fortunately, we did stop in time, and simply had to turn around and start the takeoff over again. But it was a reminder to be grateful for safe travel, especially in a place where we are reminded that you never know what to expect!

We are very grateful for this opportunity to get away and enjoy some of the natural beauty in this region. After this wonderful vacation, though, we were eager to get home to Juba, and grateful for our community and the ministries of the church here that make it a welcoming place to return to.