Thursday, February 12, 2015

"There must be something in the staff," said Moses

I have a love-hate relationship with Country music. If you don't remember my last emotional foray into it, you can catch up here. Country songs can be so great--they tell the story so much better than other genres. Or at least, more clearly. You can follow the plot--as opposed to, say, U2.

I love U2's Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World, because it resonates with me, in theory. But honestly--tell that story. You've been working all night; you're tired and beaten; you're far from home; (I'm right there with you, Bono.) Then you dream of the Dali Lama at a grocery store hugging a woman and driving a car through a needle (an updated reference to the rich getting into heaven? I don't know!) Then you gotta make your faith see (ok) and a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bike (I've had that thought before, but...nope, you lost me).

So back to Country music, where the lyrics may be depressing but at least they make sense! To Chad's relief, we don't have access to country music here in Kenya. Except that I just found iTunes radio!!!!!  The first song to come on was Carrie Underwood's Something in the Water.

I'm a fan of believers invading secular space with truth, and I'm impressed she was able to make this song a hit, played on all the stations, and there's a lot of truth in it. But...

I want to tell you another story. I'm going to summarize for you, but you can read it all in Numbers 20: 2-13, and Deuteronomy 32:48-52. Basically, the people have fled captivity in Egypt, they're wandering aimlessly in the desert, and they're thirsty. Time and time again, God has provided for the needs of His people, and yet still they "quarrel" with Moses and think back to Egypt as the "good ole' days." But this is not about the sin of the Israelites. Moses takes the quarrel to God, and God says, (listen carefully) "Take your staff...and tell the rock to yield its water." So Moses "takes his staff  as (God) commanded him," goes to the rock, and says, "Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?" and strikes the rock...and out comes life-saving water.

But Moses is confronted by God, who says, 'Because you did not trust me enough to honor me as holy..." and after 40 years of wandering, Moses doesn't get to cross into the Promised Land. In Deut. 32, God reminds Moses that his punishment is for "breaking faith with me."

I always thought that Moses' sin was claiming credit for the water ("shall we"), and that's still probably part of it. It's never a good idea to take credit for God's action! But now I've lived in Africa for some years, and I have a new understanding.

So here's what Africa has taught me: it's really easy for us, weak-minded humans longing to cling to the physically seen, to put the power in things created. Like the staff--which clearly God had used to transmit His power. It turned into a snake, parted the sea, brought water from the rock the time before (when God TOLD him to strike the rock with it), made the battle go in Israel's favor...it seemed to be a pretty powerful tool! There must be something in the staff, Moses might have thought. So when the people needed water, and God told him to take his staff and speak, he just got confused as to where the power really came from. And so he "didn't trust God enough to honor HIM as holy."

We see this all the time in Africa, where traditional religion has long-taught that physical objects can be imbued with power. We of the Western mind might be tempted to smile or chuckle at the thought that ground-up geckos hidden in a husband's food will keep him "close to the home" (ie--not cheating), or that a ritual performance would empower a stone necklace to keep a child from getting sick. But...

There must be something in the water.

Is our popular form of Christianity so different? Don't we hear implied that the special formula of the "sinner's prayer" saves? That ritualistic church attendance on Sundays is enough? That claiming a promise of God with enough faith can force God to bless us in the ways we define blessings? That only some versions of the Scriptures can impart truth? That the method of baptism is so important that some ways are valid and some aren't?

Is one dunk enough? Or does it have to be 3? Does it have to be backwards or is frontwards also salvational? Is an ocean baptism ok? What if the pool is so shallow there's a spot of dry left? What if it's in a place as unholy as a bathtub? What if culture prevents men and women touching, so the one doing the baptism is a...gasp...woman!

Is there something in the water?            Or is there something in the Giver of water?
Something in the method?                     Or is it the Way Himself?
Something in the performance?            Or is it the Lord of the dance?

Let's be careful that we trust God enough to honor Him as holy. Him--not our cultures or our practices or our rituals.  They're all good, but they're not God.

 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Single Story

I think my favorite blogger right now is a woman named Rachel Pieh Jones, writing at Djibouti Jones. I don't know her, but I resonate with her, struggling with expatriate issues and acculturation with deep authenticity. She has a great post called, When Rich Westerners Don't Know They are Being Rich Westerners that every cross-cultural worker and every short-term mission team should read as a pre-visa requirement!

 
I read that blog while on Stateside, and somehow with it I also discovered an amazing TED Talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie  regarding the Dangers of a Single Story. It's worth every one of the 17 minutes to listen to her!

Both hit me in the gut, at a time we were regularly telling the story of our past 4 years in Malawi and Kenya to churches and small groups and the few individuals who asked and then actually stayed around to hear the answer to "What was it like..." I immediately went back to our slide-show and watched it through my new lens. Was I telling only one story? Was I selling Africa short by continuing the single-narrative of poverty and ignorance and tragedy? By showing all we had done to "save" it? I removed a few slides, added a few others, edited what I said. Became, in general, more aware of telling the full story. The victories of our Kenyan friends along with their challenges. The strengths of our Malawian friends, not just their obstacles. This was an issue I had always struggled with, these very thoughts nagging from the back of my brain since my days as an kid in Ethiopia, but never able to be coherently expressed. These women nailed it.

We've been back in Kenya for just over a year. Now that the issue has moved from the primal but unspoken brain into the forefront, I notice more often when people are telling a single story. And I realize it deeper when I'm suddenly faced with my own 1-dimensional biases.

I have always felt incredibly blessed to have been born an American. Through no merit of my own, I was born in a rural, run-down hospital; brought into the world on a cold metal gurney in a place with no back-up generator, nursing call-lights, or any sort of neonatal care, like the majority of the world. And yet I thrived, and I was awarded a blue passport, like the minority. It was my duty, it seemed, to be grateful for this gift. And I took up that duty with zealous compassion and humility--so much opportunity. So much responsibility.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I ran into a series of old friends from my days in Kenyan boarding school. Kenyans and Ethiopians, mind you. And I heard them tell their stories since high school...of world travel, of top-notch higher education. Of International awards, and earth-changing innovations. Of their estates and their staff and their vacations. And I realized, all along I had thought of myself as the lucky one, even next to them. Because I had the American passport. Yet I assure you...it's not them with the envy!

And again, our church announced a fund-raising effort to fix the leaking roof and pave the parking lot and help with local ministries. It's a good-sized community, with a great mix of social classes and few expats. The pastor challenged us to think of what we could give above and beyond our tithe, and I found myself just a little bit proud that I thought we could donate 80,000KSH (roughly $1000) from funds we've set aside to use to help. I didn't mean to feel proud, but it was there anyway, an uninvited and mostly invisible guest until the pastor went on to announce that one church member had pledged to give 1,000,000KSH. Before some of you glaze over the numbers, or others bring up your calculators, let me help. That's $12,500. Twelve.thousand.five.hundred.dollars. And since I know the other 2 expat families in the church, I know for a fact it was none of us!!!! No, that was a Kenyan family, pledging to give the church $12,500 over the next year, and I identified that unwanted guest called pride when it was thrown back in my face.

I've also been trying to keep up with world news better, trying to pray through each 'top story' each day. But I'm in Kenya, so I'm international enough to get my news through Al-Jazeera, and American enough to have felt a little weird about that at first! But it's opening my eyes to bigger pictures, to fuller stories. And I'd like to think I'm better for it.

Not perfect, but faster to see my prejudices and my biases; faster to repent for believing a single story could ever sum up a people or a position. So I challenge you to look for the full stories; among the 55 different countries of Africa, among the suffering of Muslims at the hands of Jihadists, among the political parties of America, within the vaccine war. It takes more time, sure. You might have to think more. But aren't we as people, as ALL of us equally created in the image of God, worth it?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Life's a Dance

My dear husband made the sweetest offer.

"Go sit. Relax. Read a book. Drink something warm. I'll put the kids to bed tonight."

He's been gone a lot so far in 2015--away from Nairobi for something like 17 days of the first 31. It was all really important stuff, and I was happy to hold down the fort while he was gone, but I'm tired. Particularly tired of my nemesis, otherwise known as bedtime. My heart swelled at his offer.

I had been pondering several blog ideas throughout the day. Moses and his staff were on my mind. As was a scene in a great movie called Instinct. Swirlings of thought I figured might come together nicely with a hot cup of apple cider, my hair up, and my door closed against the bedtime routine of 4 happy, hyper children.

I got the cider made and the hair up, but just as I sat down...life.

Sometimes life comes in the form of an unexpected visitor, since we live at the guesthouse. Often it's a phone call. At times it's all forms of new-under-the-sun crazy from the kids. Tonight it was a combination. Chad's phone rang (one of his main student leaders) at the same time one child had sudden, explosive diarrhea...and didn't make it to the toilet in time.

Dearest Chad. He had the best intentions of letting me put my feet up and eat bonbons for once, but it was not to be. Just the phone call? No problem. But I couldn't leave him stranded in the middle of a code brown!

Flowers and Buffalo Poo
It was right for Chad to offer me a break after an intensive few weeks solo. It was right, and I accept its intention for all the love it was offered with. But it was also right for me to roll up my sleeves without being asked...my hair was already up, remember?...to help with the messiness of life when everything (literally) exploded.

So I guess that's the dance of marriage--both knowing when to offer grace, and knowing when to accept it. When it works the way it's supposed to, what a beautiful flow it has! We've stepped on each others toes aplenty these 16 years, but it's a dance I long to get right.

So my deep and ponderous blog didn't get written, and my cider cooled down. But my kids are clean and unashamed and resting up for another day. And Chad and I both feel loved and supported in this life, despite never knowing exactly when or where the poop may fall--all because he showed his love by making an offer I couldn't refuse; and I refused it anyway.

Perhaps I'll get my quiet time tomorrow. Or not, knowing life. Sometimes it really is the thought that counts!


 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Advanced Parenting: the Shame Shift

Confessions of a not-so-secret nerd: I've always loved school. Fresh notebooks? An excuse to buy pens? Life was great with a book bag and studying and learning new things every day. Even now I see my friends from Grad school on Facebook heading back for PhDs, and...I know, I shouldn't admit it, but I do--I feel a twinge of jealousy!

Funny I didn't have that same reaction when our counselor said we were incredibly blessed to have a child who would help us go beyond 'Parenting 101' into 'Advanced Parenting'. I was quite content being a 'good-enough-parent'...you know the kind? Nothing stupendous or miraculous, making my share of mistakes and learning as I go, but well-intentioned and full of love and always providing basic needs. No one is perfect; good enough seemed a reasonable goal.

Except that I forgot one thing. Being full of love and communicating love are two different things. There's this pesky little thing in communication called the other person! Drat!!!

See, I thought I understood about shame and kids. Remember...good enough! I wasn't saying, "You're a rotten kid!" "Why can't you do anything right?" "Why can't you be like..." or "What's wrong with you?" Ok, that last one might have slipped out once or twice, but I knew it was wrong and I felt terrible, and that's part of what led us to realize that good enough wasn't good enough anymore!

What I was saying most days was, "Because you made that very poor decision, you've lost the ipad for today" or "Because you just deliberately disobeyed my instructions you'll have to go to bed early" or sometimes just, "Arrrrrggggggg! What is going ON with you????" It was all a combination of honest bewilderment and what I thought was clear communication of consequences. I swear it was in that Basic Parenting 101 text they don't give us new parents upon discharge!

What we didn't know was that our son was hearing only one real word in all of it..."you" along with sensing the mounting frustration and stress in all the unspoken communication.

We really had to come to grips with the difference between guilt and shame. I had never pondered that one, to be honest. Seemed like semantics. But guilt is good--guilt says, "I've done something wrong" and it leads to repentance and reparation. Shame says "I am bad" and what's a little boy to do to fix that?

Even now I tear up at the thought of what that must have felt like to him; the hopelessness of feeling innately bad. It certainly didn't lead him to making "healthier decisions," which frustrated us, which heaped up more burning shame upon his head. You get the picture.

And yet he makes some really poor decisions--ones a good parent can't ignore. For weeks we felt trapped in no-man's land between loosing all the 101 tools and yet not really understanding Advanced Parenting-ese.

But slowly, I was able to get my head around what the counselor and the books meant when they talked about looking for the meaning behind the behavior. So now I try to say, "Wow. That ipad has really made you hyper! To help you make better choices, I'm going to put it away for the rest of the day." Or "Yikes--watching a movie right before bedtime makes it really hard for your brain and body to settle down. Since sleep is so important for you, I'm going to make sure you get enough sleep by not having us watch movies before bed again." Because I'm the parent and I'm going to make the hard choices that he doesn't have the maturity to make. Not as punishment, but in love, because that's what he needs.

When I'm really in a good place, I can say, "Hmmm. You're flat-out refusing to do homework. You must be really scared or overwhelmed about something," because why else would a smart kid refuse to do 5 math problems????

When he forgets the family rules and climbs on the coffee table and jumps to the couch and back while watching Spiderman...yes, he's breaking my rules AGAIN. And yes, I've told him a million times. And yes, it drives me crazy and I feel ignored and disrespected. But I'm working to see that his disobedience and hyperactivity is a symptom, not the disease. He's reacting to the stress and excitement of the movie, and Spiderman literally makes him climb the walls!

I try to focus on being tuned in to what is triggering the behaviors or the bad choices, and addressing that rather than punishing him. Half the time he's only fractionally aware of what he's just done anyway! So we talk about how his brain makes him do impulsive things sometimes--not to remove his guilt. Never to disregard his responsibility. No--to remove his shame, so that he's empowered to know that he CAN do something to control it. To give him hope for growth and maturity.

And slowly by slowly, it's working. It hasn't stopped the behaviors necessarily, but it gives us the language to talk about them in a way for him to take ownership of them rather than recoil in powerlessness.

We're not ready to teach the course on Advanced Parenting by any means. And I'm a little slow up on the uptake, clearly, since we have FOUR children, and I've been a parent for THIRTEEN years and I'm only just now realizing how severely I'm getting my butt kicked. I mean, I knew parenting was hard. But it's H.A.R.D. Like--days where I would push the panic button and get off the ride if I could-hard.

I won't wax poetic about how it's worth it in the end. I don't doubt it will be, someday, and those who have gone before me and survived confirm that it is. But it's not enough for me in the trenches of today. It seems too far away to push through today based on the hopes for mature and well-adjusted adult children. But what I can fight for here and now and every day, in the battle for my children's hearts, is love.

Love that is not just communicated by me, but is felt by them. Because "there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." 1John 4:17-18.


 

Monday, January 26, 2015

The 12th Man in a Crowd of Witnesses

I love Hebrews 12 and the imagery of a race. The stands, the runners, the perseverance. 'Cause I'm good at perseverance. I often fail to stop and smell the roses, too focused on the goal to appreciate the journey, but I do grit really well. Head down, work to be done, let's go!

But, without taking a single ounce of truth out of Hebrews 12, an analogy can only go so far in explaining life. Life is too complex and messy and beautiful to be captured in one single simile. Or even one parable. Just think about how many times Jesus said, 'It's like..." Why? Because it's also like...

So, back to Hebrews 12. I'm a runner. I'm throwing off the entangling sin, and I've got a race marked out just for me. I'm fixing my eyes on Jesus who ran it first; the one who can ensure I make it across the finish line without growing weary or losing heart.

But you know where the analogy breaks down??? My friends and my family and my neighbors--
they're all running a race too. The same one, basically--maybe their race is marked out just a little differently than mine is, but we're all on the track together.

BUT WE'RE NOT COMPETING! That's the wonder of it all. It's not that kind of a race.

My kids had Sports Day this past Friday, and we spent all day there having a blast. The first part of the morning I stood with friends, talking and laughing and soaking up the Kenyan sun. I loved it. My kids weren't racing very often, so there was lots of time to catch up with the other parents.

This lady kept dashing past me, looking a little odd to be honest. Barefoot, in a skirt, racing up and down the track in the grass, dodging all the other spectators milling around. By the time she'd clearly sprinted the 400m at least 20 times (and I'm not exaggerating!), her hair was wild and she was panting something fierce. And she had rolled her ankle so she was limping during her few moments of rest while the next set of racers lined up on the blocks. But she never quit.

And then I started looking around. I saw myself hanging out with friends having a good old time. I saw kids running their hearts out, and some not doing so well--trailing well behind the others, panting and hurting. Definitely weary, possibly losing heart. And I saw this mom, in her skirt and no shoes, running up and down the final 400m for EVERY. SINGLE. RACE, yelling and screaming and cheering and encouraging EVERY. SINGLE. RUNNER. on her daughter's Team White.

And I thought, "What am I doing?? I'm at the race, and I'm not doing a single thing to support anyone!"

So I joined the nameless Mamma, and I felt totally silly at first. I didn't know most of those kids; they didn't know me. I was just some stranger on the sideline, cheering them on, telling them they could do it, that it wasn't much further, that they were doing well. Some looked at my oddly at first, but every runner picked up his or her pace. Or straightened their back just a little. Or just gave me a wry smile like we both knew they were about to fall over. And every time a group of kids sprinted, or jogged, or especially when they trudged past me, and I started running beside them, I got teary as I cheered. Because let's be honest.

Who doesn't need some serious cheering as we go through this race??? And just how often do we hear what we need to hear from those around us?

How often have I been too busy chatting with friends to notice other runners who needed a shout-out? How often have I been sucking wind in my own race and everyone else seemed too busy with their picnics to notice?

So yes, I'm the runner.
But as a person of faith, I'm also in the great cloud of witnesses along with the Hall-of-Faithers.

Am I cheering?
Are you?
Are we doing all we can as the Church to support each other in our race? I've seen lots of posts lately about not competing with others, about the Mommy-Wars and the criticism we pour out on each other. And that's spot on. We should stop that craziness. But let's not stop there at benign disinterest in others' races. Let's take it a step further.

The Seattle Seahawks have a good thing going by promoting the 12th man...they understand the power of the fans to influence their players. The team raises a flag in honor of the 12th Man before every home game. Think about it...screaming fans supporting overpaid men running around in tight shorts and fighting over a leather ball (this from a football fan).

How much more should we stand tall, cheer loudly, and be each others' 12th Man? Along with Abraham, Moses, and Rahab, we can rock this stadium!


What do you think? Have you been cheered on by someone and you'd like to share it? Or have an experience of a time when you cheered someone on? We'd love to hear!  

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Not a Waste

In our last prayer letter, we mentioned a tree planting ceremony we had for Dad. That was back in July, I think, and now it's November, so clearly I'm not doing great with my updates! But as much as I consider myself a "thinker," not a "feeler"; as much as I 'deal with it and move on,' I have to confess this stuff with loosing a parent isn't easy. I've not found it easy to face the feelings and emotions, and have discovered what a cowardly avoid-er I actually am when it comes to unpleasant things!

But this tree-planting was a great idea, given to us by great friends, Don and Jane Jones here in Nairobi. It opened a can of worms the day we did it--Ethan in particular had emotional melt-down after melt-down, and I myself was on the grumpy side (though don't let Chad know I'm admitting it!) But it did, in an inexplicable way, give us something concrete to funnel our sadness into, or to remember Dad in a way that wasn't too raw or painful. And tending to the tree even now gives us a little something physical to do that seems to help. And bit by bit we're all doing better, I think, with time and with God and with counseling and with each other making adjustments and communicating love and acceptance better.

Loosing Dad so unexpectedly, so early, so quickly, so agonizingly slowly...I will never say that it was fun or good. I still maintain that evil's death and destruction and all that is wrong with the fallen world is personified in the face of ravaging cancer. I will never say that God made Dad suffer in order to teach me something, or to grow my family's depth or make us face issues we were trying to avoid. Never.

But cancer happened. And God was with us through it. And may I never be so blind or hard-hearted to not learn something through suffering. God forbid I waste Dad's cancer.

And so the dominoes of life fell at unexpected angles as they often do, triggering chain-reactions we didn't realize were there. Dad's death was a significant blow to our son, and overwhelmed his ability to process all the see-you-later-but-probably-not good-byes that he has faced in his short life. His grief led to challenging behaviors, because he's a kid, and that's what kids do when they are overwhelmed! It exposed weaknesses in our ability to correct his behaviors AND communicate love and acceptance, which led to depression, which led to counseling.

And counseling has led to better understanding, more acceptance, free-er expressions of unconditional love with Ethan, with our other kids, and with each other. It has forced self-reflection, and reliance on God.

So, when I watch this funny African pine tree (a perfect symbol for my quirky, Pacific Northwest father!) grow and thrive, I will always remember the other side of suffering. The growth that comes out of death, if you face it and roll with it and let it add to your life.

So, whatever you do, don't waste your suffering.