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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Open Thou My Lips…





We hope that the Christmas and New Year holiday season was a joyful blessing to you and your family and that the coming year brings the blessings of the nearness of God and the bounty of His providence to you all.

 

Janet and I were given an amazing gift from God, an answer to much prayer and planning.  The swiftness with which we were blessed reveals that God knew what we wanted (and needed) even before we brought our prayers before him.

 

Four days before the New Year we were visited by a friend whom we had not seen since we returned in October and who had not been to our home for more than two years.  As we sat on our front porch talking over glasses of Coke, Blondine noticed the sewing machine I have been repairing sitting on our porch.  Janet explained to her that we hoped to use the sewing machine as the seed to a program to teach widows and other marginalized women to sew and that we planned to do this in a community center in a location we have not yet discovered.  Her face lit up as she shared that she knew of available land in our very neighborhood. 

 

The next day the three of us drove to the land that was actually within walking distance.  We drove down an uncharacteristically flat dirt road to a typical weathered cement block wall with a couple of rusty gates and a matching passage door.  Blondine opened the gates and we all stepped in.  The land was overgrown with waist-high weeds and brambles.  Windblown litter fluttered among the weeds and the occasional lizard scrambled across the block wall.  Janet and I paused in dropped-jaw silence for a few moments as we took in the view.  As we walked among the weeds avoiding tripping on tangled vines and large stones we began remarking aloud, “Look! A mango tree! And there is a papaya tree!  Then we saw what we had hoped to be able to plant ourselves—a small cluster of Moringa trees!

 

The land includes a typical Burkinabé concrete block house with two bedrooms, a living area, and a future bathroom.  The home was filled with assorted lumber, furniture, construction materials, and the obligatory abundance of swirling red dust.  It was small, but very well suited for use as a meeting room with two offices or an office and a dedicated-use room such as for training.  Across the way from the house was a single room “magasin” suitable for much storage such as baby formula, rice and beans, sewing machines, and more.  There was also a small outbuilding with a “squatty potty, a small shower stall, and a room for a lavabo or hand washing sink.  The land has a water tap and hose bib (with running water) and electrical service.

 

We were not there long before we again saw the hand of God.  The property was ideal for all that we had in mind to do as we had shared with the Sheltering Wings board, albeit smaller than our too-big eyes had imagined.  The property was all that we had hoped for, and more.  It is situated across the road from a large school, a short distance from a large evangelical Baptist church and a few houses up the street from a mosque making it an area especially well-suited to sharing the love of Christ, disseminating the Good News, and developing synergies and working with and supporting a local church and a nearby school.

 

We contacted a good friend, a former coworker from the SIL translation center where we had served until last October.  Adama is a true Christian brother who has copious experience working with government agencies, NGOs, and hapless foreigners feeling their way through an unfamiliar social structure and a convoluted and often tortuous legal system to make the initial contact with the “proprietaire”—the landlord.

 

We had a visit from Adama yesterday evening after his meeting with the landlord.  Adama sat in the sofa across from us, his usual poker face belied a nascent grin—he had good news.  The landlord was not just amenable, but wholly supportive of having a social service entity occupy the property.  Not only did the landlord reduce the rent by one third, but rebuffed an offer from a small group of men who arrived as he was bidding “adieu” to Adama and who offered to rent the property at the full asking rate.

 

Janet and I have prayed much before and since finding this property.  There is no doubt in our minds that a God who knew what we wanted (and needed) even before we asked has tipped His hand.  We began the process of planning improvements to present to the landlord.

 

…And My Mouth Shall Show Fourth Thy Praise

 

God again has made His hand visible in ways that make us fall silent and watch Him work.

 

We met with the landlord and Adama, our friend with SIL.  The landlord is a Christian brother who appears to have a grand heart for Jesus and a deep love for improving the lives of the Burkinabé people.  He is very supportive of the work to which God has put our hands.  He is amenable to a long-term (five years or more) relationship as we work to raise up Burkinabé colleagues to whom we can entrust the project.  We shared the rendering of how we would like to develop the land.  He was pleased and encouraging.

 

Now the work begins.  For the next few months we will be rehabbing the home to serve as an office, classroom, and a meeting room; installing water and electrical service; installing an exterior kitchen for demonstrating how to prepare food with Moringa leaves and to feed pregnant and nursing mothers; installing a covered, outside work area for teaching mothers how to safely prepare infant formula, to sew by hand and with a sewing machine, to make soap, and peanut butter; plant a Moringa grove; plant an organic demonstration garden irrigated with grey water; build a chicken coop and fenced enclosure to teach chicken raising and to reward women with laying chickens and the opportunity to have more food and to raise their own chickens;  to teach women basic literacy and numeracy; and to do as we are led to share the love of Jesus Christ with His children and His creation.  As always we pray that God’s providence will supply the resources needed to do the work to which He has put our hands.

 

We will be using some of our personal support funds to get the project started and we have set up a Sheltering Wings Community Center project account which can be found on our Sheltering Wings website page.  We will share a more complete plan and budget as soon as it is finished.

 

While in Africa, we have learned to wait upon God, to listen for His voice, and to trust in His will.  We are blessed beyond belief to watch Him work as we do what little we can.  We are blessed to have mission partners like you who lift us up before the Father in prayer and share of His bounty to follow His leading.

 

May you all be blessed at least as much as you have and continue to bless us.

 

Que les bénédictions de Dieu tomber sur vous comme la pluie, (May God’s blessings fall on you (plural) like rain.)

In His hands

Don and Janet

Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas Poverty


Janet and I have learned or relearned some particularly important things living in Burkina Faso.  Most of the people here are what we in the USA would consider to be poor—very poor.  On the surface that is very true.  While people who work for the government, nongovernment organizations, or who work in various professions are economically better off, the average Burkinabé may earn less than three dollars a day.  However, we have also learned that there are very different types of poverty.

 

As we walk or drive around the country we always see young dust-covered children without shoes who may be wearing tattered shorts and perhaps a tee shirt that is one or two washings away from dissolving into a handful of fibers.  Some of those children could be struggling to push fifty-five gallon drums of water on small handcarts over heavily-rutted dirt roads in clouds of dust raised by passing cars and motorbikes.  We know from experience that most of the children and their families even in our “quartier” (neighborhood) eat one meager meal a day. 

 

Children whose families can afford the equivalent of $20 or $30 dollars a year to send one of their children to school for a year may only be able to do so until the child is old enough to work as an adult in caring for the farm crops.  The family struggles to raise crops in a land where it does not rain during the nine or ten-month dry season.  When more serious drought conditions strike, some families resort to eating their seed stores and have nothing to plant when the short rainy season begins.  Then they must search for food such as roots, seeds, or small animals to eat in the dry brush of the countryside.

 

Parents work long hours often starting before the blood-red sun rises and working until many hours after the dust-obscured sun has set.  People here are very industrious and entrepreneurial.  A father may labor all day under the scorching sun digging ditches in the city, making cement blocks by hand, making deliveries with a donkey cart and then work as a night guard for a private home.  Many work two or more jobs. Mothers often work at raising their children which may number five, six, seven, or more.  Often the mother will leave the oldest child or children in charge of the other children as she works as a cook or housekeeper for another family or she may sell hand-made items or simple foods along the roads. 

 

Everyone, even children as young as four years old may have a job to do.  It is not unusual to see a six or seven-year-old girl with a small infant strapped to her back running across a busy street choked with huge tractor trailer trucks and hundreds of motor bikes.  In the countryside boys as young as eight or nine may be responsible for herding cattle as large as small cars.  Children grow up very quickly here in Africa.

 

Yet, there are very different types of poverty.  Children freely smile, especially at white strangers who are called “Nasara.”  Children play with whatever “toys” they can find or make.  An old bicycle tire or a football (soccer ball) made from rolled-up plastic bags can entertain a small group of children for hours.  Children almost never play alone—they usually have a least one friend to play with.  Laughter and squeals of joy are recurrent, especially with others.

 

Adults are very social creatures as well.  They almost always try to work in groups.  There is always much talking and almost as often there is laughter.  Smiles authenticate the love for friendship and comradery among the Bukinabé. The Burkinabé love friendship and company. It took me a while to become accustomed to holding hands with another man while walking along the road.

 

There are also many churches in this largely Muslim country.  Churches are as small as a home or as large as the National Cathedral in the capital of Ouagadougou.  The churches we have attended in Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Cameroon, and Ethiopia are usually filled to capacity with row upon row of worshippers standing for hours in the rear of the church.  It is not unusual to have five or six pastors preaching and as many choirs leading the congregation in joyful worship.  Prayers of pastors and individuals in the congregation fill the service with adoration, thanksgiving, and praise. 

 

Whether Christian, Muslim, or Animist, the concept of atheism is largely incomprehensible.  To not believe in something, either Jehovah God, Allah, or spirits is like not believing in the ground upon which one walks or not believing in the air that one breathes.  I was once asked, “How is it even possible to believe in absolutely nothing?”

 

As we celebrate Christmas, the day a loving God became man to call us to a renewed relationship with Him and offer everyone the choice to spend eternity in His presence if one just believes and trusts in Christ as the one who can erase all of our sins, turn our thoughts to those things that are truly important.  God is not the most important thing, He is the only important thing in all of reality.  Without Him nothing would exist.  There would be no purpose to anything.  In Him we have our being.

 

When we have the blessed opportunity to look into the eyes of a child who once sat on death’s door step because of malnutrition, but now coos and smiles, when a withered, emaciated woman receives a couple of bags of rice and beans and turns to another woman as in need as she and shares half of what she has just received, when a church celebrates opening a case of Bibles in long prayers and song, we celebrate God become man whatever the date.  There is a material poverty that robs billions of people of food, clothing, shelter, and a full life.  But even in this poverty they can and most often do find faith, love of family and friends, and loving obedience to the will of God. In these ways even the poorest are actually very rich.

 

Then we begin to discover our own dire poverty amidst our abundant material riches.  We have more food than we need, we each have closets filled with clothes enough for a family, we live in a house big enough to hold the population of a small village, and we rent space for possessions that will not fit into our homes.  We become painfully ashamed when we think of trash cans that hold what would be feasts for those who eat one meal a day…or less.

 

We are often so caught up in the busyness of each day that we fail to pray.  We fail to thank God for his protection of our family during the night,  we fail to thank Him for each new day filled with promise, liberty, and a degree of luxury that leaves at least a third of the world in stunned disbelief.  We often fail to see rain as a blessing rather than a bother of damp clothes or muddy shoes.  We fail to thank God for another day for each child spared any of the myriad diseases that are deadly in the developing world but have been eradicated in much of the rest of the world.  Many of us have complained of having to work in jobs that would cause most of our African neighbors and billions like them to fall to their knees in thankful prayers to God.  We possess so much that we may often suffer from a poverty of spirit.

 

I am mortified when I sit at the laptop on which I write this message and realize that it represents years of some people’s incomes.  I am more than embarrassed when I realize that my small collection of hand  tools is beyond the dreams of my neighbor or that when I fill our old and rumbling (by American standards) pickup truck with diesel fuel that I just spent someone’s monthly rent, food allotment, water cost, and spare change for medicine. I think back six decades and cringe when I think that the cost of batteries for my few Christmas toys could have fed some families in the world for an entire week.

 

It will soon be Christmas again.  Gifts will be shared, packages opened, an abundance of food will be consumed, holiday celebrations will be viewed on television, families will gather to celebrate and to make new memories, and warm glows will radiate from countless homes filled with holiday cheer.  Not too far from the celebrations and merriment someone will be sitting alone, perhaps in the cold and dark of an empty home, in an institution, or under a bridge.  Close to home there will be someone dreaming of the next day’s meal in a nearby dumpster or trash can.  Not too far away there may be a homeless person bundled against the biting cold counting on a cheap bottle of some beverage to dull the chill and dreaming of some past pleasant Christmas only to not wake up Christmas morning.

 

We talk about the spirit of Christmas.  We recall that it was the Magi who gave gifts to the baby Jesus as angels announced to shepherds that God has become man.  Christmas night the cries of millions of hungry babies will waft around the world and may cry that night for the last time.  Christ told the rich young man to sell all he had and give it to the poor.  The rich young man walked away sad because he had many possessions. 

 

May we who are indeed very rich ourselves not fail to comprehend that the joy of the season is not in what we receive, but in what we give and to whom we give it and from whom we receive so much.  We should celebrate the day and give thanks to God who blessed us with abundant riches.  We rightly gather to share the abundance of a loving God.  We remember that God became man that He could reconcile us with a just and merciful God. 

 

But also remember those who live on the margin’s and knife’s edge.  It was after all the poor about whom Christ spoke the most. Let us not allow the abundance of our riches make us the most pitiable of the truly poor this Christmas season.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Being a Utility



Sitting in our house I can hear nothing but the roar of our diesel-powered, three-phase, 10-kilowat generator.  Although it produces more than enough electrical current to run the entire house, we try to conserve what begins as expensive diesel fuel, especially for a missionary couple dependent on God’s grace and faithful supporters.  We maintain a stock of about 75-liters of diesel to guard against occasional fuel shortages due to strikes, theft, or political circumstances.
Later today I will take a shower that is supplied by a 1000-litre black polyethylene tank sitting atop a substantial steel tower at the corner of our home.  The tank can keep us supplied for up to two weeks if we are very conservative. With the low water pressure from our tank we can manage a shower with less than four-liters of water, six or eight if I splurge.
After Janet and I purchased the tank and the landlord provided the tower, I offered to connect the tank to the water system.  The landlord was dubious of my ability and instead furnished his very qualified plumber.  It took only a short time for us to realize that 1000-liters of water was not lasting nearly as long as it should.  Often, our tank would empty in less than a day.  After breaking out some concrete I discovered that the very capable plumber had made at least three times as many connections between pipes as necessary.  Consequently, the tank would quickly empty at the beginning of a water cut in attempts to keep our neighborhood supplied with water.  On the other hand, when there was an adequate supply of water to our house the water would flow backwards and overfill our tank.  A couple of day’s work and no less than three check valves and our system now works just as the landlord intended for his plumber to make happen.
When the daily water cut lasts longer than the usual 12-hours or so, our water supply may serve more than our household as children knock on our gate and ask for a drink.  In anticipation of long water cuts we normally stock around 250 small plastic sacks of drinking water, 50 or so of which we keep in our smaller freezer as a special treat for the children during the hot season when the temperature hovers around three-digits.
Today we have no sacks to offer.  We had recently traveled to a village more than seven hours away to celebrate the translation of the New Testament into the Kaansa language, the 24-year labor of faithfulness and love by Stuart and Cathie Showalter who have lived and raised their three children in the distant village.  We have not yet found time to replenish our stock of sacks since we returned.  We will then share the 90 to 100-degree water from our tank with the children.  In this tropical climate we find even warm water refreshing to drink.
As a small “utility” we are also responsible for waste water treatment.  We rely on a “fosse septique” and a “puit perdu”, a septic pit and a lost well--an African version of a septic tank and leach field.  To extend the life between visits from the “camion a vindager” the truck that pumps out the septic system. We, like our neighbors, throw out our “grey water” either where it can irrigate our shade trees or help to keep the dirt street from ejecting too much dust in the air as motos drive by or a gust blows down the street. We dispose of left over bleach-based dish rinsing water down nearby area drains to discourage malaria-bearing mosquitos.
We also manage our personal gas supply by hauling empty butane (not propane as in the US) bottles to the service station.  We keep a bottle in reserve should the lines become insufferably long when the huge gas delivery trucks get held up along the road or are stopped by a strike. 
We finally gave up on dealing with the local Internet service provider because they a) could not locate our home, b) forgot to send a technician out to test our line, or c) mistakenly connected the service we requested at our place of business which caused the resident IT person no shortage of confusion.  In light of the frequency of Internet cuts caused by treasure hunters who steal and resell the copper or fiber optic cables and by the grace of a couple of dear friends who gave s their “old” smart phones we were able to bypass the local ISP and use the smart phones as local hotspots (THANK YOU Matt and Tari!!)
Our next foray into being a local utility will be when we reward local children for disposing of trash into a poubelle (waste can) we will chain to the front of our home.  This will be a challenge since the ground is considered to be the customary depository for waste.  Each day neighborhood women (usually) sweep up the refuse and burn it in the street.  The preponderance of the waste material consists of various plastics.  The smoke and soot can at times becomes unbearable.  The residue includes dioxins that can poison the air and ground water.  Maybe collecting and centrally disposing of neighborhood trash will improve the environment and quality of life in our area.  Maybe it will simply provide neighborhood children with employment and rewards of peanuts or cookies.
Being a personal utility has both its advantages and disadvantages.  I may be required to spend half a day changing oil and filters and doing other preventive maintenance on our diesel generator for every 200-hours of run time (about a month), but we have a huge honker of a diesel generator that much like Tim Allen on “Home Improvement” I can show off to other tool guys while making animal grunting noises.  I may be required to do chemical tests on our water tank and add chlorine to keep it from turning into a Petrie dish, but I get to take the credit if I overdose the tank and the house winds up smelling like a municipal swimming pool.
The real upside is when we get to invite 60 or 70 neighborhood children into our courtyard in groups of five and we hand each a sack of frozen water or a squirt from a hose on a day hot enough to give one a second-degree burn just touching a piece of metal that has been sitting in the sun.


Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Day after Thanksgiving


When I was younger—much younger, I had the opportunity to participate in something called, “The Day after Thanksgiving Dinner.”  It was the one Thanksgiving that will for me be impossible to forget.

A friend of mine had an apartment in the Capitol Hill section of Denver, Colorado.  Back then, Capitol Hill had a particularly seedy reputation as a crime-splashed haunt of druggies, street people, hookers, and dingy apartment houses that wafted of urine and Pinesol.  It was the type of place that most folks drove through without stopping.  There was always some wretch with a greasy rag to smear your windshield and a foggy dream of getting enough coins to buy the next bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 to retrieve yesterday’s stupor.

Probably because of some recollected experience my friend was mysteriously moved to prepare a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and to invite the neighborhood.  Maybe he was trying to relive and savor some meaningful moment in his past. The signs he had posted in the liquor store, 7-11, and laundromat windows invited anyone who missed out on Thanksgiving dinner the day before to show up, hungry.

I came more out of curiosity than the need to fill any remaining crevice left from dinner the day before.  I showed up early and in time to begin to watch the neighborhood arrive.  It was a sunny but frigid day.  The old radiators were hissing hot and chased the chill as soon as I walked in.

A single mother with a nursing child in her arms and a four-year-old daughter in tow was the first to arrive.  She sheepishly knocked on the wide-open door and peered around the corner.  My friend Jack and his girlfriend Amy were in the tiny kitchen making last-minute preparations. 

Being the only other person there I assumed the role of greeter.  “Come on in and make yourself to home,” I smiled as I offered my hand, “You’re right on time.”  The four-year-old flew in first on the aroma of roast turkey that filled the apartment.  “Have a seat,” I encouraged mom.  She found a seat in the most anonymous corner of the living room, sat down with her baby, and smiled at the floor.

While her four-year-old was hugging and petting my friend’s dog, a miniature golden retriever mutt, a twentyish couple in jeans and leather jackets entered without knocking (as intended), stood in the middle of the living room and the guy asked, “Is this where we get the free dinner?”  “Sure is,” I responded.  “Cop a squat,” I added in their assumed genre.  They sat down on the big, faux suede cushion, a sole survivor of a love seat that was now only a memory.  The girl asked no one in particular, “Why the free meal after Thanksgiving?”  I wasn’t sure myself.  “You might have to ask our hosts when they are finished in the kitchen.”

A large, pleasant-looking black man with a face that looked like it was accustomed to lots of laughing knocked on the open door.  “Is this the place?” he smilingly asked.  “Yeah,” replied the young man in leather, “Have a seat.”  He walked over to the great, fan-backed wicker chair by the bow window and stopped, turning on one foot and said, “Guess I oughta be polite and say, ‘Hi’ to everyone,” at which he offered his hand first to mom, then the young couple, and then to me. He had a firm, confident grip and smiled, “How ya doin’?  He then plopped down in to the big chair and smiled some more.

While I was appreciating this man for his friendly presence I noticed the young waif standing just outside the open door in the dimly-lit hallway.  She was slight, plain, and darkly dressed, almost blending into the background, looking around as if for an excuse to turn and hurry away. 

The smiling man in the big chair surprised the others who had yet to notice the young woman in the hallway, “Whatcha doin’ out there?  Come on in and have a seat.”  She hesitated as she considered her last chance to escape.  She took a stealthy step inside and paused a second or two, looking around the room at the growing ensemble.  “Come on in.  You can sit here,” he offered as he stood up and took a couple of steps away from the big chair and sat down on an old wooden kitchen chair with a worn vinyl cushion.  The young woman in dark seemed to float rather than walk to the chair, turned to sit with two thin hands in her lap and smiled nervously.

“This your place?” Mr. Smiles asked me.  “Oh no, I’m a friend of the guy who’s cooking.  I’m one of the guests.”  I asked him if he lived nearby.  “No, not nearby, at least not now,” he replied.  “I’m from Chicago.  I’m between jobs and was staying at a friend’s place in Aurora.  I was on my way to catch a bus to San Diego where my cousin may be able to get me a job.” 

“Really?  What do you do?”  I asked.  “A little of this and a little of that,” he responded.  “I wanted to be a teacher when I was younger, but we couldn’t afford me goin’ to college.  I had to drop out of high school and get a job ‘cause my daddy never came home one day.” 

His smile straightened and became serious.  “Daddy was always a dreamer.  He was always tellin’ momma and us that one day he was gonna hit it big and that we’d all have whatever we wanted.  He worked hard, real hard, but never had a job that paid more than minimum wage.  He busted his butt to feed us and to pay the rent, but with me and two sisters he just couldn’t make it work. 

Just before Christmas last year we got a phone call from the police.  Turns out that a friend of my daddy’s offered him a hundred bucks to stand outside a liquor store and yell if he saw any cops.  Daddy was so hurtin’ to give us Christmas presents that he said he’d do it as long as nobody got hurt.  My daddy never hurt nobody even growin’ up in the south side of Chicago. 

While he was standing outside of the liquor store he heard a gunshot from inside.  His friend came runnin’ out and disappeared ‘round the corner.  The store owner, a small Korean guy came out with blood runnin’ from his shoulder and a big, shiny pistol in his hand.  Seeing that he was hurt, my daddy took a step towards him and the man pointed the gun at my daddy and shot him in the head. 

Momma collapsed and dropped the phone when they told her that daddy was dead.  She cried a lot after that, almost all the time.  I could hear her cryin’ in the middle of the night sometimes.  Not long after, momma collapsed again.  This time she didn’t get up—she just laid there on the floor.  She peed herself pretty bad. I raised her head with my hands and looked into her eyes.  This time it was me who was cryin’.  “Momma, Momma, what’s wrong?  Can you hear me?  Momma say somethin’.”  She didn’t say a word.  She just looked at me with tears runnin’ down her face.

“Mrs. Jenkins our neighbor had a cellphone and called 9-1-1.  They came and took momma to County General.  She had had a stroke and couldn’t talk no more and she couldn’t walk too good neither.  Our aunt in Detroit said momma could stay with her and her family for a while, but she couldn’t take us kids.  My mom’s dad and mom took my two sisters, but didn’t have room for me.  That’s why I’m heading to my cousin’s in San Diego.”

There wasn’t a sound in my friend’s apartment at that moment the day after Thanksgiving.  Even the four-year-old girl just clutched her mother's dress and looked at the pleasant-looking black man.  Even the cooking sounds stopped in the kitchen.  Jack stood in the kitchen door with his hand on Amy’s shoulder.  Amy had stopped in the middle of drying a dish and they both stood silently looking at the no longer smiling man.

“Hello?” said a small, heavily-accented voice from the doorway.  One by one each head slowly turned away from the pleasant man to look at the voice.  A shrunken, wiry man of about 80 years wearing a worn suit with frayed elbows, a pressed white shirt, and a necktie that was nearly as old as he stood with one hand on the door jamb and one holding a cane to steady himself.  “Is this the right apartment for the Tanksgiving dinner?

With those words we were all reanimated.  I cleared my throat and managed a jovial, “Why yes, hello!  Come on in, you are very welcome.  The slight man shuffled across the hardwood floor and offered his hand.  “Happy Tanksgiving!  Are you the host?”  “Oh, no I replied,” still a little tight in the throat.  “Here’s the host and hostess.  This is my good friend Jack and his friend Amy.

The wiry man with a twinkle in his eye took Amy’s hand in both of his and gave it a little squeeze.  “Hello, I am very happy to make your acquaintance.  It is so very thoughtful for you to make this dinner and to invite strangers to come to your home to eat.  I am honored to be here.”  He then shook and patted Jack’s hand as he smiled.  His presence and words lifted the somber mood like a blanket.  The others began to welcome the wiry man.  Jack took a long look at Mr. Smiles who sat silently hunched in his chair as Jack regained his voice and announced, “Everyone, dinner is ready.”

Young mom sat with her baby at her breast and her daughter to her right.  A still subdued Mr. Smiles sat to her left.  On his left was the dark lady and then Amy.  Next was the leather man and on his left was his companion.  Jack sat at the seat closest to the kitchen.  To Jack’s left was the wiry man.  I was between the young mom and the wiry man.

After everyone was seated, Jack asked if would be okay with everyone if he said a blessing before we ate. Mr. Smiles was the first to respond with a fervent “Yes!  Momma always said a blessing over every meal.”  Young mom smiled and silently nodded, the leather couple looked at each other and bowed their heads.  She crossed herself after the Catholic fashion and elbowed her companion who then did the same.  Amy reached over and put her hand on the folded hands of the dark lady who began to pull her hands away, thought better of it and put her hands on top of Amy’s.

Jack began the blessing.  “Dear merciful father God who gives all good things to His children, we thank you for this meal that you graciously set before us.  We pray for all those who have less than we.  We thank you for all the blessings that you shower upon us...”  Jack then hesitated before he began the last petition of the prayer, “We ask this in the name of your only Son…”

Jack raised his head and looked at the wiry man with the accent whom he guessed was Jewish.  Without looking up, the wiry man smiled, slightly nodded and Jack concluded, “…Jesus Christ.  Amen.”
The platter of sliced turkey, bowls of mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole, stuffing, and cranberry sauce were passed and eagerly emptied.  Just then, the wiry many exclaimed, “Oh my goodness!” 

He sat looking intently at the golden braid on the table with tears welling in his eyes.  “It’s challah!  Why do you have Jewish challah bread on the table?”  Jack replied, “I’m not sure.”  Jack continued, “While Thanksgiving was originally a Christian celebration, it just struck me that our faith has very deep Jewish roots.  It only seemed reasonable during this meal to remember our Jewishness.” 

With a few more tears in his eyes, the wiry man raised his head, put his hand on the loaf of challah and spoke softly, “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, Hamotzi lechem min haaretz”  (That is in Hebrew, “Our praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.”)

The wiry man explained that his mother according to tradition would make challah for holy days and special occasion meals.  It became her trademark for special family times.  She loved to make challah because it had significance in the Jewish faith.  The wiry man explained that challah is traditionally made with two strands and often six twists to signify that during the Exodus manna fell from heaven for six days, but not on the Sabbath.  The day before the Sabbath a double portion fell.  Hence the six twists and two strands.

The wiry man had not had his mother’s challah since he and his family had been arrested while living in Cracow, Poland in 1939. The Gestapo kicked in the door to their apartment just as the family was getting ready for their Sabbath dinner at which challah was always present. 

His father confronted the jackbooted thugs who kicked in the door and berated them for disrespecting the Sabbath.  One of the Gestapo men reached under his black leather trench coat, pulled out a pistol and shot his father in the head in front of his family—the wiry man’s mother, two sisters, and a brother.  They were all dragged off by the brown shirts never to see each other again.  That was the very last time the wiry many had eaten any challah.  Mr. Smiles took special note of this story and ached more than the others for the wiry man.

The things the wiry man spoke of came as much of a surprise to the leather jacket couple.  They had heard that Jews had been persecuted by the Nazis, but had never really understood the extent the persecution reached.  The wiry man explained that life in Poland as a child and young man was about as idyllic as one could imagine.  He grew up in a city of old and often ancient buildings, neighbors that cared for each other, his mother’s wonderful cooking, playing ball with his siblings, and where his father a worker in leather would take him fishing in the large lake near their cozy home.  The wiry man explained that things became frightening in 1939 when the Nazis and what seemed like the entire German army and air force invaded Poland.

Life quickly degraded into a fight for survival for Jews in Poland and soon in the rest of Europe.  The wiry man described how Jewish shops and then homes, including his father’s shop were vandalized and eventually shuttered.  He told how many of their neighbors began to revile and mistreat them.  He and his family were spat upon.  He showed the young couple the numbers that the Nazis had tattooed on his arm.  He said that his youngest sister was taken by a group of Nazi soldiers and repeatedly ravished.  At his words the dark lady hunched over and began at first to weep, then to sob, and then to sob uncontrollably.

Amy sensed that there was great pent-up pain churning in those sobs.  She turned in her chair and faced the dark lady.  Amy pulled her close and hugged her as the dark lady’s tears wet her own cheeks.  Her sobs continued until her breathing itself became one long sob.  The young woman in leather rose and walked over to the dark lady’s chair and put her hands on her shoulders and gently squeezed as her own cheeks bore tears, the young mother came over and took her hand and silently began to weep with the dark lady.  Mr. Smiles, the wiry man, the man in the leather jacket, and I silently exchanged pained glances with each other and then looked back at the dark woman being comforted by those who were once strangers.

The dark lady sobbed that she had been raped by a group of boys in high school for most of an afternoon.  She never told anyone including her parents.  The boys continued to torment her with painful sneers, snickers, and jokes that made her time in high school torture of the worst kind.  When her period stopped a month or so later she found a clinic that would help her without telling her parents.  This heaped trauma upon trauma.  She thought that she would never know any happiness or love in her life.  The long scars on the insides of her arms spoke of a serious attempt to end her pain.  Her life became very dark.  The wiry man listened to her tears and thought how much she looked like his sister a lifetime ago in Poland, and his eyes fell.

The young mother, moved by the dark lady’s tears also began to weep. She held her baby close to her chest and sat her daughter on her lap.  She hugged them as tightly as she dared.  The wiry man rose from his seat and walked over.  He offered the young mother his neatly pressed handkerchief.  His eyes filled again as he watched her tears fall onto her baby and daughter.  He took her hand and put his other hand on the baby’s head and silently uttered a prayer in Hebrew.

Once the handkerchief was dripping wet and the young mother could cry no more she shared that she and her children had also lost family, at least in a way.  She explained that her boyfriend was less than overjoyed when she told him that she was pregnant with their first child.  He had always said that he wanted children, just not yet.  He was likewise sure that they would marry, but he just needed a little more time.  The young mother waited for the right time, but it never came.  When she became pregnant with their second child, her companion decided that it was the right time—to leave.  She never heard from him again.  He had left her with one child, another on the way, a stack of bills, and, it seemed, no hope.

The young man in the leather jacket rose from the table and strode over to the large window and gazed on the street below.  Striking an almost defiant pose with his arms crossed over his chest he stood nearly unblinking as cars and people passed by.  He couldn’t take it anymore. The collective misery and tears were mixing with his own dark memories making him angrier by the minute.  He clenched his jaw making the skin of his cheek ripple. He was close to putting his fist through a wall.  He wanted to break something.  Anything.

Jack had been sitting at the table stunned by the transformations in a room of strangers who were now confessing to and tearfully comforting each other.  This was supposed to be a happy occasion, or so he thought.  Instead, here was a handful of people, victims, if you will, of life.  People who were carrying bags of sad memories and bad experiences.  This was supposed to be a time of thanksgiving, a time of joy, a time of love, and a time for good memories.  Instead, it was crying and hurting people.

Jack then noticed the young man in the leather jacket with a seriously clenched jaw staring out the window.  Jacked slid past the table of injured people comforting each other and stood next to the young man in leather.  “Pretty sad, isn’t it?” inquired Jack.  “Whaddya mean?” asked the leather jacket.  “All this pain and sorrow.  This is supposed to be a happy occasion, right?”  The man with the seriously clenched jaw turned to Jack, “Happy?  Why happy?  Why exactly should I be happy?  Life sucks, doesn’t it?  You get screwed and then you die.  What’s happy?  Jack could almost feel the heat of the young man’s anger.  “Aren’t you a bit young to be so angry and cynical?” asked Jack.

“No, I’m not cynical, I’m realistic. And yes, I’m angry.  Nobody really cares for anyone else, not really.  It’s all for show.  Maybe it’s just to keep the peace.  All you get when you care for someone is a reason to hurt and to feel bad. Look at all of these people.  They are all miserable.  And no one really sticks around because they want to.  It’s all for show, really.”

“So you have no feelings for your companion?”  He looked at me and slightly unclenched his jaw.  “I don’t know, I’m not sure.  Maybe.  We met by accident at permanent temporary foster care with a family a few years ago.  She lost both of her parents in a car wreck and had no other family.  We just sort of fell together.”  “And what about you?  How did you wind up in foster care?”  His jaw became a mechanic’s vise.  “I got dumped because my loving and caring father killed himself and my mother drank herself to death rather than care for her three children.  Ain’t that love?

I scanned his face.  He didn’t look quite so angry as he did hurt.  I looked back at the small group sitting around the table; strangers only an hour ago they were now crying and comforting each other.  They were now becoming to each other what missing family could not be.  Hands were holding other hands, hearts embracing other hearts, and arms entwined while tears touched other cheeks.

The wiry man gingerly took the loaf of challah in his hands, broke off a piece and passed the loaf along until each of us had a piece.  The wiry man smiled as one lone tear fell to the table cloth and we each gestured with our morsels as in honor of his mother and ate the bread.

We began to eat our cold dinner each of us with an arm around or holding a hand of someone next to us.

After dinner and sharing doggie bags with young mother we took a long time to say good-bye to dear friends who we would likely never see again.

After all of the recent, former strangers left, Jack, Amy, and I sat silently in the living room regarding all of the now empty chairs.

And I now had a pretty good idea of what moved Jack to celebrate the day after Thanksgiving. 

There are actually 364 days after Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Lacking Nothing


Janet and I are coming upon the end of our second year on mission in Africa.  We are well beyond the end of our third year away from the U.S. including time in language school in France.  We are still by almost any measure neophytes barely acculturated and still very much in the language learning mode. 

We have “regular” positions as support missionaries working for the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.  For the remainder of our time we have a number of ministries ranging from feeding undernourished babies to hosting Sunday school in our home to planting trees to distributing Bibles and New Testaments to Africans who otherwise could not afford to buy them.  We manage to stay busy.

One of the more challenging needs is to learn how to live and work on support that would be occasionally lacking and often irregular.  Trying to maintain some semblance of a budget and withstanding unexpected expenses can take a lot of doing.  We often must rely on our dwindling savings to connect loose ends.  That’s not a complaint—we know that all of our support originates with gracious God who takes care of all our needs and comes from people who love us and enjoy participating in God’s work.

We just learned that our 14-year old truck now requires major surgery.  The speed bumps, rutted roads, and age have taken their toll.  In addition to the tie rods which have worn out, the relay bar--it connects the two front wheels so they steer the same--needs to be replaced.  Total materials cost is 569.984CFCA or about $1,100.00.  Labor will run another 25.000 or about $50.00 (labor is cheap here.).  That's almost a new refrigerator, which we also need.

I'm starting to see a very well-defined pattern here.  I'm thinking that we must be getting very close to doing what God wants us to do and may just accomplish something good for his Kingdom.  Maybe enough people are starting to experience God working through us.  It may be that the enemy now has us on his radar.  It could be because of the baby formula or the Bibles or even just Sunday school or our work at SIL, but it very much seems like the enemy is firing some of his artillery in our direction.

If we think about it, he has been attacking us through the most basic stuff needed just to live.  He's attacked our health in a big way with some pretty stunning tropical diseases and infections such as typhoid fever, dysentery, and various parasites in search of a home.  Our water supply has been attacked by making our water tank either overflow or flow backwards during water cuts so as to keep our neighbors provided with water. The enemy has stricken our electrical supply through frequent and extended power cuts that eventually burned out our first generator and that consume costly and occasionally unavailable diesel fuel. He has hit our food supply when our third-hand refrigerator lost part of a compressor valve and necessitated our disposing of much spoiled or suspect food, something more profoundly painful to do in a land where some people are glad to eat even once a day,  

The enemy may well have been the cause when our tin roof began leaking at the beginning of the recent wet season.  We needed to replace 400 rubber washers to the bolts that secure the roof and spend enjoyable hours in a cramped attic that could be used to bake cookies. I have had to repair so many plumbing problems—pipe leaks, broken toilets, dead faucets, and numerous inadequate previous repairs that I might be able to fall back on that skill for supplemental retirement income.  We have also enjoyed the comparatively slow or often nonexistent Internet service that is the norm here in Ouaga. Laptops have failed because of the copious dust and 100-degree-plus heat.  Almost everything that could break, melt, stall, leak, burn, or disappear has.

At times the enemy has brought his weapons to bear on our relationship making minor transgressions into major sins, a glance to be pregnant with covert meaning, and “that tone” to be the prelude to a squabble.

Old Nick has also been sowing the seeds of doubt regarding our regular and side jobs here in Ouaga  This is all in addition to the usual smoke he blows in our direction with normal life here with horrible smells, intolerable temperatures, noise, dust, French, and the fact that everything just takes so much more time, effort, and money.  We volunteered to care for a small dog that poops in the house and wets our bed.  Then there were interpersonal issues between coworkers that left me emotionally drained after carrying other people’s burdens.

Just writing the preceding paragraphs makes it much more obvious to me that compared to our life in the US, we are getting whooped big time.  The silver lining for me is that it has and continues to improve my personal prayer time and Bible reading.  I hope in some Job-like fashion for all his efforts the enemy only drives me further into the arms of Jesus Christ.  Satan’s attention reminds Janet and me that we need to be more disciplined in our prayers together and Bible reading or he will squeeze us much more.

Janet and I realize that if we're catching the enemy's attention, we must be doing something right.  We don’t have anything to worry about at all.  Trials will come and our faith will be tested, but God promises that we will not be made to carry any more that God’s grace will enable us to carry.

I'm listening to our African music that I often listened to during the times I ached to be on mission.  Each song takes me back to a time when I was working, studying, reading or praying and always hoping to one day submit to Jesus Christ’s Great Commission and to go to the land for which he gave me a great hunger even as a child and to be doing it with the woman I had been praying for even before we had ever met.

I am still so excited and happy to be here carrying water for Jesus.

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  James 1: 2-4 (ESV)

Janet and I are truly lacking nothing.

Dieu est grand!  God is good!

Monday, March 2, 2015


Deadly Serious Fun

"Most members of my family were short livers; a few were long livers, and at least one or two who drank to excess had almost no liver at all." 

Like most people I have no idea how long I will live, but I do know that I am almost six-and-a-half decades closer to going to meet the Lord than I was the day I was born.  While death stinks, my redemption by the sacrificial love of Christ is going to lead me to yet unimagined sweetness and glory.  I know that I am just passing through this short life before I enter the eternal presence of Father God.  I am more than just a little eager to be embraced by Christ who bore my sins that I might live because He loved me before I ever was.

Yet, at times I feel a profound sadness run though me when I recover my eschatological perspective after having savored some frivolous pleasantry or other.  That is not so say that I am continually glum, far from it.  There is too much to seriously enjoy in this life. God the Provider showers us daily with an abundance of things to enjoy and savor, but this pleasure has a quality of seriousness in its origins and in our participation.  God makes for some serious fun.

For example, God gave us five senses with which to enjoy as well as to know and comprehend our environment.  More than simply knowing whether the temperature is warm or cold, we can enjoy and relish a cool breeze on a hot day or to cherish the scent of soil and molded leaves while on a promenade in the woods.  We can react to the horn of an oncoming car as much as we can delight in a symphony.  With the same skin we are motivated to escape the heat of a flame as well as to take delight in the soft touch of another person.  God created our senses to guard our lives as well as for us to know pleasure.

Frivolous pleasures are ones that involve little objective thought or lack the goal of glorifying God.  It is difficult to praise God for a silly or off-color joke.  It is correspondingly challenging to reflect God’s holiness while wasting time pointlessly surfing the Internet.  Can one seriously consider His greatness while absentmindedly chatting?

 So it is often after such inconsequential or trivial moments when I regain a more balanced perspective and consider the daily calamity of the tens of thousands of people who die each day having never walked with Jesus Christ.  There is a diabolical conveyor belt dropping untold numbers of family, friends, neighbors, people on the street, and myriad unknowns around the world into a hellish hole never to be heard from again.  They are gone forever. 

As a follower of Jesus Christ I have a full-time job.  More than the job which I believe puts food on my table or keeps a roof over my head, I have a very real job, a deadly serious job.  My “job one” is to share Christ with those who don’t walk with Him.  I can push papers, make decisions, write reports, and attend meetings, or craft plans, direct others, and aggrandize the organization, but nothing that I can ever do in that context has the unambiguous potential of helping to save someone’s eternity.

Reflective of 1 Corinthians 13, if I give away all that I have, if I deliver up my body to be burned, if I give someone a meal, a warm coat, or guarantee them their voting rights, but I have not endeavored to introduce them to Jesus Christ I am nothing and neither have I really done anything lasting, that is of eternal consequence for them.  I may have fritted away their time and mine pretending to do something of significance while I afforded them the horror of spending eternity separated from God.  This equation does not balance.

One must face the fact that our lives and the lives of everyone we know, love, or meet have a deadly serious quality. We can spend our lives building sand castles that wash away with the next tide.  We can try to ignore the fact that most of us will be largely forgotten within a generation or two of our passing.  We can spend our working lives or our retirement vacationing, travelling, having all sorts of fun, collecting seashells, or whatever trivialities we care to pursue.  Some of what we do will be of absolutely no consequence and will be as trivial and inconsequential as surfing the Internet or chuckling at a silly joke. In moderation, that’s okay.

However, there will come a time in each life when the scales are balanced.  At that time one can offer God all of the postcards, seashells, letters to the editor, signed petitions, Facebook posts, vacation photos, or quarters dropped into snowy Salvation Army buckets in feint hopes that the conversation will not turn to lost moments, missed opportunities, and unspoken conversations with those who passed through our lives only to fall onto the diabolical conveyor belt to perdition.

Yes, God gave us various sources of pleasure, He gave us myriad opportunities for fun, He gave us an entire world which to enjoy.  He also gave each of us an eternally serious job to do.  To pursue the former with not even a fleeting thought for the latter is to miss the entire point of creation and ultimately and eternally the very reason for each of our lives.

“Don’t waste your life.”  John Piper

“We are blessed so that we can bless others.”  Daniel, who gave the message at International Bible Fellowship in Ouagadougou on Sunday.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Stepping into the River of Time

Heraclitus lived about 500-years before Christ.  He conceived of a universe in perpetual change and coined the thought that we cannot step into the same river twice.  By some reasoning, we can’t even step in the same river once since it changes between the moment we step in and the moment when we withdraw our foot.  Time is like that.

We are all time travelers.  If you are a Christian you know that since none of us is really mortal, we are all traveling through endless time.  Being human makes it all seem very short, and if you’re not one of the aforementioned Christians, also very pointless by the by.  A human lifetime is actually an astronomical abundance of lessons crammed into a very small package.  For many of us, just about the time we encounter that fact we are also almost too old to benefit from that understanding.  “Too soon old, to late smart,” read the old wall trivet in a wise neighbor’s house long ago.

An automated email reply from a friend and former colleague made me once again take time to consider time travel.  To stretch Heraclitus, we cannot step into the same life twice, or even once.  The moment we contemplate the moment it is already another moment.  When you chain enough of the moving moments together you have a life time.  One result is that in regards to time, we are never really “here” since the river of time is continually moving us in and towards the “there.”

My friend’s automated email response carried me back to a much different time than I am now traveling through.  He reminded me of a point in the river that my wife Janet and I bathed our foot in so seemingly long ago.  It was a too short diversion, an instantaneous change in direction back into the river of time to a much different place, a much different life, and a very different time.

For just an instant I was back in Denver with Janet, an old home, two dogs, and the smell of damp leaves molding on the lawn begging to be raked.  I could almost hear the sound of the occasional car heading down South Washington Street as I stood with rake in hand contemplating the last of the leaves lingering on the tree.  I could hear the gentle laugh of a neighbor’s child playing in their yard and the distant hum of a last lawn mowing for the season.  I bathed in the last rays of the autumnal sun…until the rattle and rumble of a worn out truck trundling through the ruts and potholes of the dusty African road shot me back to this moving moment in the flow of time.

It was almost like being in two parts of the river at the same point.  I tried to savor the quickly evaporating memory and to force it to linger for just one more moment, but Heraclitus was correct and the memory flowed back downriver from where it came.

Most of the time it is easy to forget the river completely and imagine that all is nearly at the same spot of dry earth, static and unchanging.  It often seems like that.  The “today” feels like a snapshot frozen in itself.

A times like this I want to anchor the memory into the moment, to make it last, to relive it, to taste what it was like in the there and then, but to enjoy it like the here and now.  Heraclitus was right.  It runs away like quicksilver or a dream upon wakening, but the desire for that moment remains.

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”  C.S. Lewis