Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Waiting for rain

I have been waiting.

The dust, fine and red, coats the plants lining our roads. Sweat beads on my upper lip. Last night as my children lay awake in bed, I stuck my head in and reminded them to keep guzzling plenty of water, after a friend of theirs landed in the clinic for dehydration. Cooking in the warm afternoons in my kitchen, with my hair twisted off my neck, I’ve been praying, coaxing the weather. C’mon, rainy season.

waiting for rain

I suppose it parallels my parched insides the last few weeks. So many tasks to which I put my hand seemed to droop, languishing and limp. The cost-benefit ratio of my parenting, my career, and a handful of relationships seemed tilting precariously in the wrong direction. It’s funny how failure stirs up silty questions that had lain quiet in the soul.

What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? Does any of what I do matter?

A friend this past week had mentioned how, when we trust God in the dark, it’s amazing how so many things begin to happen.

Honestly? I was thinking, what about the times when you trust big, and nothing big happens? What about when everything feels sluggish, fruitless, and cracked?

Perhaps part of my withered outlook were the weeks I’d been away from the class I teach--I love!--at the refugee center. I’ve been prepping to do something new—something that wasn’t a slam dunk, but more of a venture; a sizeable, gulp-worthy leap. I was moving away from what worked, leaving that in the care of other teachers. I was opting for something that could either produce exciting results—life-changing ones in my students, I hoped—but that could also wilt in my hand. The stakes felt high.

Normally, I’m not beyond attempting items in the “are you loco?” category. But now, I wasn’t sure if I could stomach more mediocre, questionable results.

Yesterday, in faith of the rainy season—which in truth, has occasionally tarried until April (April!)—my ten-year-old and I transplanted a purple, spiky, unidentified shrub. He is anxious to use his new gardening tools, but cannot plant all his little seeds (“Jalapenos, Mom!”) until the season arrives. So he gleefully dumped black soil in the gaping mouth of the pot; gently nestled the plant in place; watered. I love the metaphor in these grubby, earthy actions: I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.

It wasn’t lost on me. No matter how carefully my son tends his garden, no matter how he prepares, growth is ultimately out of his hands. Out of mine.

And two friends reminded me gently, What if we redefine success to mean “faithfulness”? Sure, God wants us to get excited about results, too. He’s designed purpose for us. But don’t forget the “fruit” in His eyes starts long before what we see.

This morning, I stirred in the early hours to a rushing sound outside of my flung-open windows; a deep rumbling had brought at least one child to bring pillows and blankets to the floor around our bed. And yes! The sunrise was grayed by pouring rain, sluicing down the sidewalk. I pulled the sheets taut around my shoulders.

And today, grinning and bubbling over, I addressed my new class. Somewhere, amidst the raised hands and laughter, I thought, I can’t believe I get to do this job. I felt the term’s potential ripening in my hands, sweet and red.

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul…Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame. 

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The stories He writes

It’s strange being back here, in this place.

I can still see the Nile directly out the window, though my husband and I actually stayed in the banda next door that night. They still leave in triplicate the same brand of packaged soap in the bathroom. I remember how the Nile had stretched before us in the morning, pink sunlight pooling on its surface while men fished from canoes hollowed from logs. On the banks, monkeys leapt like kamikazes from limb to limb. The scene is the same four years later. I remember crying, weeping, actually, from this very porch that night after dark under a spangled sky. I had been so very excited; so very afraid.
I was wondering if God was asking us to come to Africa.

Tonight I stood on the same small peninsula to which I’d walked with my husband. But on this night, our group from the refugee center sang worship songs, and I bumbled along when it was in languages I couldn’t even identify. There was something wholesome and good about hearing praise authored in their own language, spilling from someone’s heart like that. We sat on woven mats and talked about the love of God, about the lies we believe about it, about the stories He writes in our lives. And—looking how far he’s brought my family and me—I marveled.

Moving to Africa, as much as I was flabbergasted that the dream would come true, also crumpled me with fear inside. Even more than my fear of the harrowing traffic (which, let’s face it, still holds its own little flame of terror in my heart): my fear that God would take the life of one of my children.
My trepidation was enough that six months after we moved here, when my son fainted as we measured muffin ingredients for breakfast, I screamed and woke the entire house. I actually remember thinking, Is this it? Is this when God takes one of my kids?

Four years later, we have weathered malaria, weird tropical illnesses, a terrorist threat, and troubles closer to home. But even listing them out now honestly feels a little lame. Something about living around people in poverty, or working with refugees who packed only a suitcase and shattering losses to cross the border, makes you realize you are most certainly not the hero here. (He’s much bigger.)
Nevertheless—there is nothing like God writing your family’s story. Somehow four years later, with this place holding very little fear and so much promise and beauty, I comprehend Jesus’ words more than ever:  “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). I get how it’s fuel for the soul. I know well how it sustains and comforts and invigorates in unthinkable triumphs and unspeakable pain.

As a writer, I carry a keen appreciation for the creative mastermind behind a rip-roaring story with a timeless moral, with perfectly tuned characters I could never dream of myself. My Kindle books are full of highlights of brilliant turns of phrase, of vocabulary and characterization I applaud. But as I sit back and look at the stories God authors, each one far surpasses the human mind. Truth is so much more astounding than fiction. No novel could ever adequately appreciate the ways God’s engineered the intricate, elaborate paths that make up us.  How He handpicks circumstances and conversations to mold lives into striking works of art our younger selves wouldn’t recognize. How he architects the world for the sake of His great name.

The African worship leader there on the peninsula did interpret one of the songs’ lyrics, Wahambanati, written in Zulu. (I think it was after she insisted that us three white ladies needed to dance out of the fullness of our hearts for God just like everyone else.)

She explained, “It means, ‘God, you have walked with us this whole way.’”

For we are His workmanship [His own master work, a work of art],
created in Christ Jesus [reborn from above—spiritually transformed, renewed, ready to be used] for good works,
which God prepared [for us] beforehand [taking paths which He set],
so that we would walk in them [living the good life which He prearranged and made ready for us].
Ephesians 2:10, Amplified Bible

Monday, December 21, 2015

Reflections on a Christmas Robbery

Christmas robberyMy husband and I, kids in tow, were maneuvering at a snail’s pace through a traffic jam in our trusty high-clearance minivan. Our speakers happily trumpeted the Christmas CD my mom had sent, and we chatted, our energy high for our Christmas shopping in the city and the Christmas party of our non-profit (which, with the barbecue and kids running around in shorts, tends to look a little more like the Fourth of July). It was sometime after “Let it Snow” that our heads all swiveled to the driver’s side, where a man was banging—hard—on the outside of our van. Never a good sign in Kampala.

And that’s when his partner whipped open my car door and swiftly grabbed my bag slouched at my feet. My casserole dish skidded across the pavement as I unbuckled without thinking, standing between the unmoving lanes and yelling something very helpful, like, “HEY!” as he and his cronies ran away with my reading device, my phone, the drivers’ licenses from both countries, and our house keys.

I make it sound lighthearted, typing to you over a week later. But really, I just started sobbing, my hands shaking–which probably frightened my children just as much as the stranger flinging open the car door.

Truthfully, the highlight of my day took place about thirty seconds after that lowlight. My eleven-year-old: “Guys, it looks like mom is really upset right now. Let’s all pray.”

You know, when he was born, all of the parenting magazines kept telling me how to keep him safe from everything: from choking, from bullies, from cyberspace. And keeping our children safe is a godly desire. But I’m also reminded that God’s “faith school” for my kids is so good, to teach them, even while they are quite young, who He is in suffering. As a friend wrote me this week, The very thing we would protect our children from experiencing may be the very thing that God wants to use in their lives now so that when they are adults, they’ll know how to respond to crisis.

That He gives, and He takes away, and we can sing Christmas carols with full hearts afterwards. That this isn’t a “when bad things happen to good people” kind of thing. From dust I came—and hell I deserve.

After the police report, after the two hours spent at the phone company, after breaking in to our own house, my emotions were as tangled and frazzled as my hair.

For one, all of my muscle to make it to the end of the year in a foreign country felt suddenly spent—a year complete with harrowing accident and move to a new neighborhood and all the little pecked-to-death-by-a-duck cultural frustrations. The sledgehammer in my heart had fallen, and the bell at “WEARY” dinged.

I felt vulnerable. Violated. Stupid. Shaken.

And still—I kept thinking, This is why He came. This is why we need Christmas. Not for some vague, nebulous, Christmas-movie “Christmas is about giving! The Christmas spirit is in our hearts!”

Because it is—but it isn’t. We needed Him because Christmas—an unselfish, give-till-it-doesn’t-make-sense, fatal rescue mission—was not in us as we mourned in lonely exile here, basting in our own junk and selfishness, as both victim and criminal.

He, too, was here to help, and people wanted to take what they could get for themselves. He was subject to far more injustice and hate than a purse-snatching. He bore so much more grief than I have, so that my treasure could be not in a purse or an iPhone, but in a place untouched by thieves and tears.

This is only a pinprick of suffering. But still, it was as if His hand rested on my slightly-slumped shoulder this morning when I happened on C.S. Lewis’ words from The Magician’s Nephew. Somehow it reminds me that “faith school” though it may be, God’s pain in the midst of my pain is real: that I am not merely a project to be sanctified, but a child who is loved after a crime.
“But please, please–won’t you–can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?’

Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.

‘My son, my son,’ said Aslan. ‘I know. Grief is great.”

And so I find that this Christmas is yet again painting in vivid strokes that God is with us, wrapping our injured flesh around him, breathing our air and walking our sod.* Thank God for Christmas.

*Lyrics from Welcome to Our World, by Chris Rice.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving memos from a bunch of refugees

refugees 1

Author’s note: This post, originally appearing on my other blog, is not at all intended to be a political statement regarding the recent controversy over refugees (see this article for a Christian point of view on the tension between security and compassion). It’s simply a memo to myself as I look at Thanksgiving this year, in light of what I’ve learned from the crazy-fun group of refugees I teach on a weekly basis here in Uganda.

Sometimes I’m as much a student of them as they are of me, as they sprawl in their chairs there in the sticky heat or the lazy afternoon sun.

Sometimes when they stand next to me, I have nothing to do but laugh out loud at the picture we must make: me with my German build and American clothing, my skin that best stay out of the sun after fifteen minutes, sky-colored eyes—and them, some even built like ebony marionettes, towering above me at six feet-two or –four, their toothy ivory grins and an arm around my shoulder, their tribal language to a friend resounding like African drums.

Author’s note: This post is not at all intended to be a political statement regarding the recent controversy over refugees (see this article for a Christian point of view on the tension between security and compassion). It’s simply a memo to myself as I look at Thanksgiving this year, in light of what I’ve learned from the crazy-fun group of refugees I teach on a weekly basis here in Uganda.
Sometimes I’m as much a student of them as they are of me, as they sprawl in their chairs there in the sticky heat or the lazy afternoon sun.

And so I think of them this year, even as I look online for the best recipes for our feast with friends. Thanksgiving is a bit of a personal journal on the year for me. It seems like a good occasion to contemplate the year stretching behind me: What has God done? How do I remember Him being faithful? What must I be vigilant not to miss?

So my friends who have fled here from all over East Africa have reminded me, just from their own stories, the journal of their own lives. Don’t forget. Count every single one of your blessings.

Count, they would tell me, your ability to speak fluid English—the doors it opens for you, the jobs it gets, the ease it provides you in so many places around the world.

Teacher, count that you have been born in a time of relative peace in your country, not war. That justice is often done when you go to the police or in your courts; that people do not have to take the law into their own hands. Justice in your country also means most of your friends and/or relatives are still living; thriving, even.

And that because of all this, you have received an education—and not just any education. You went to a school that has books and lunch and can make photocopies and has less than thirty students per class!

Count that your basic education means you know basic first aid, means you have a certain degree of reasoning and logic skills. That you have a mass of essential knowledge that, even finding yourself in a place of sudden poverty (the developing-world kind), would not leave you there for long.
You can be thankful, Teacher, that your life expectancy is beyond 49.[1] That in your country, if someone steals, they keep both of their hands.[2]

My friend, count that your home has a floor, that you have a car and know how to drive it, that you have been to a dentist in your lifetime. Remember you can easily find doctors who know what they are doing; the money to pay them and not draw it from something else you need, like your child’s school fees.

Thank God, Teacher, that you got to choose your husband! And he is a good man, with a job, who has never laid an angry hand on you. That you got to choose your job. That you have driven on smooth, safe roads. That you don’t worry much about your children dying; that malaria is no longer in your country, or typhoid, or cholera, or ebola. You have clean water—in your own house, right from your own tap!

You might think these are simple things, Teacher. But to me, they are not. Thank your God for these things on Thursday. They are sweet things, Teacher. So sweet.

[1] This is life expectancy in the Congo. South Sudan is 54; Somalia is 55.
[2] See Sharia law.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

For the days when helping hurts [you]

This post originally appeared on my (non-Africa) blog, A Generous Grace.

At first, I thought she cheated my son.

But when, yielding to my call, she trudged back up the steep grade of our hill, my frustration softened. Her wide black eyes slid up to mine, her forehead glimmering in sweat. Her faded, two-sizes-too-large men’s T-shirt was pocked with holes. She must have been walking nearly the entirety of the morning in those foam shower slippers with the toes long gone and sizeable gaps in their soles. She was thirteen, though looked all of eleven.

After greeting her in the local language, I turned to my housekeeper for help with translation. The girl’s utter fatigue was readily apparent in her soft answers. According to my housekeeper, the girl in her exhaustion didn’t even look at the bill my son had handed her. She returned the change.
As I pressed her gently with questions, we found that she and her siblings were orphans. It was challenging for her elderly, unemployed grandparents to feed them, so her brother was canvassing construction sites for odd jobs, and she walked the local neighborhoods selling kabalagala for two cents per banana cake.

My heart broke for this girl before me as my kids and I rushed to find her replacement flip-flops, a couple of shirts, a glass of water, a snack. Hearing her story, this seemed like a time for relief rather than development. So my housekeeper and I hatched a plan over the course of the next week, trying to best imagine what would help her family but not hurt them, cementing them further in poverty and dependence. When we all waved goodbye to the two motorcycles loaded with school supplies, soap, and other provisions, I was nothing short of giddy. I love this part of my life.

What I didn’t anticipate: the occasionally thrice-daily (always unannounced) visits of her brothers and cousins, sometimes with the two-month-old baby strapped to the seven- or nine-year-old’s back–smack in the middle of a nutso homeschool day, or my first guitar lesson (same undiapered baby who peed on my slacks during the lesson). I forgot they would lack skills to keep them from shoving my children, then laughing at them.

I was honored by the surprise visit of thanks from their grandmother (er, a half an hour before my dinner guest arrived, with dinner waiting on the counter for me to finish prepping it…and for me to find some deodorant and a comb, fast). I was less prepared for the subtle pleas for school fees that the children didn’t have–not really the truth, I suspected and later confirmed. I was also bewildered when children were sent to lie on the family’s behalf, in hopes for more “help.”

My heart twisted for days in a collision of emotions. I am convinced that for every success story of helping people in pain, there are exponentially more stories of failure, of unsuccessfully (whether we know it or not) failing to pull people from the cycles and behaviors and environments and choices that continue to enslave them. Does that sound cynical, or simply realistic?

Here is what I know. When God commanded us to “lift every yoke”–I’m pretty sure He knew the recipients would have issues. He knew they’d have their own moments of greed, ingratitude, pride, obliviousness, manipulation, like the rest of us. And as much as I wholeheartedly support concepts like those in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (and strongly recommend it)–no matter our best techniques, helping people who suffer will almost always be just plain hard.

How do I know He knows? Well, because I’m not the rescuer, as David Platt points out.

I’m the rescued.

I still return to my ruts of self-destruction, tearing others along with me. I’m still ungrateful, haughty, and enthralled with all the ways I “deserve” to be helped.

Maybe, like me, you’re in a place where helping has hurt you. You may be raw, reeling, weary, confused…or alternately angry, jaded, or cynical. Perhaps you can sense the blisters hardening into calluses, or perhaps you’ve decided you just don’t have what it takes anymore.

In a very real way, I think I get you.

This week I am remembering God didn’t ask us to step into suffering and poverty and injustice only because it does–slowly and gruelingly as a rule–change people. It doesn’t just put a foot down against the disintegration sin’s visited upon every crevice of this world. As my mom has so often remarked with arm around my shoulder, God calls us to faithfulness, not success. Compassion broadcasts what our God is really like: He’s the God who Sees, who adopts our pain. He remembers, even when it bites Him back. He walks into it not stupidly, but willingly and fully.

Compassion changes someone else, too: me. I see it morphing my kids into brave young people who see, and aren’t afraid of giving without great personal loss. I see them shaping treasures that aren’t from this broken world.

And that kind of success lasts forever.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Dinner with Monica

This post originally appeared on my new blog, A Generous Grace.

Months ago now, my family and I were invited to my friend Monica’s home—an experienced nothing short of delightful for all of us. We guffawed at each others’ comments, scooped steaming heaps of food on plastic plates, relaxed. But what struck me was the nature of my friend’s entertaining.

Monica is a local Ugandan friend. We drove to her home on roads with so many potholes our heads nearly hit the roof, save the seatbelt. She and her five relatives resided in a single concrete room with a barred window.

With her characteristic wide smile and giddy chatter, she dished the food in a small area partitioned off from the shared bunk beds by hanging bedsheets. Perhaps two of the worn plastic plates matched, but it didn’t really matter as we sat outside on fraying, hand-woven mats and plastic chairs, chuckling over stories about the waggling ducks and chicks that poked for food nearby. The food was local fare: not American, but more than adequate, and a clear display of her exuberance to have us there.

Together we washed the forks with soap from a plastic jug of water tipped over the dirt, then divvied out the sliced fresh mangoes and watermelon to share.

By the time we bounced out in our minivan, windows rolled down, she was waving with her entire body and already asking us back.

I realized what made my friend’s hospitality sparkle: It wasn’t her serving dishes, her perfectly-tuned recipe, or the (absent) centerpiece that made our time quality. It was simply her desire to honor us, to give generously, to connect with us and enjoy a relationship.

Now, my own artistic nature is energized creating that kind of atmosphere. The next night, in fact, I spread jars and bottles of flowers from my beds on the table, spent the afternoon chopping and simmering for a horde of guests.

But there are times when my stress and preoccupation from hosting—or, let’s be frank, my concern with my image—actually corrodes my original purpose of true fellowship, of deepened relationship. I’m not unlike my old friend from Luke 10, Martha, all concerned with preparations, and missing out on the privilege of my guest, the richness of his or her company.

Courtney Reissig puts it this way:
The purpose of the home is to be a place of refuge, grace, and productivity—not a platform for me to prove what a great homemaker I am.
I’m grateful to my friend for pulling out her best for us, but allowing the centerpiece to be her love for us and our friendship in Jesus. I’m thankful she allowed loose ends to fall where they may, and embraced my husband and I and our crazy kids without embarrassment or pressure.
I’ll sign up for that kind of hospitality any day.

For more thoughts on heart-healthy hospitality, click here.

Better is a dinner of herbs where love is… Proverbs 15:17

Friday, July 17, 2015

28 Signs I Might Be Living Overseas

      1.      I set a goal for Myself while jogging: If I can only make it to that goat.

2.      Everyone speaks more languages than I do.

3.      I have partaken of creatures I would normally not consume by choice, e.g. fish eyes, grasshoppers, and the like.

4.      People dispose of trash by simply throwing it out the window.

5.      A healthy percentage of my most delightful friends were born a hemisphere away from where I was.

6.      I avoid unfiltered water like the Plague. Because I’m pretty sure I've seen the Plague in there.

7.      My pothole-per-mile ratio exceeds 136:1.

8.      The concept of "home" feels bewildering.

9.      I answer to a wide variety of names that sound entirely different than the one I've answered to for the majority of my adult life.

10.  Fruit and other materials labeled "exotic" in my home country are available at that little wooden stand down the street.

11.  My children asked for a raise in their allowance based on the increasing value of the dollar.

12.  My electrical company is perpetually listed in my phone's recent contacts.

13.  Sometimes home feels like camping.

14.  Despite the lack of familiarity, there is something about the place I live that makes I feel so...alive.

15.  I adopt an accent when speaking, say, at the supermarket.

16.  My suitcase is filled with odd items, like 6 of the same deodorant, 18 months of underwear for six people, eight pounds of chocolate chips, and 12 jars of B vitamins. My carry-on is where I stash the Hot Tamales and six packs of Slim Jims.

17.  People attempt to compliment me by calling me “fat”, or in regards to my status, a “big woman.” …Yeah. Thanks.

18.  Ants in my home don't even capture my attention anymore unless in vast quantities or floating in my drink.

19.  The last trip to the States found me saying, "What in the world is 'Apple TV'?"

20.  I are content with my "dumb" phone, because pretty much everyone else has one, and if it falls in the toilet (or pit latrine) I can afford to replace it.

21.  Cops stop me because I are more likely to be a source of cash.

22.  "I'll Be Home for Christmas" gets me all sniffy.

23.  My bed is shrouded in netting, but somehow my arms and legs still have telltale welts of those little (literal) suckers.

24.  I keep toilet paper in my glove box. Because public toilets, when I can find them, are BYO TP.

25.  I give up asking for decaffeinated coffee, because people don't really know what that is (or why you would drink it), nor do they have it.

26.  I can pronounce all of the ingredients in my food.

27.  I am feeling a whole lot more deft with the metric system lately.

28.  My employer contemplates sending out regular deworming reminders via e-mail.
Time for some help with my list! If you've been overseas, what would you add?