perspective check: the kingdom always lies beyond us, and other reminders

26 08 2010

I found myself forgetting things this morning: I left the house without my gym shoes when I needed them to go walking after work.  I left my mug on my desk as I walked to the lunchroom to get (a cup of) tea.  Little, nonessential things slipped my mind.  Sometimes we operate in life thinking we’ve got everything we need in view, and then a random thought, unexpected phone call, or calendar alert on our phone pops in out of nowhere and shifts our perspective.  Forgetfulness skews our perspective.  Reminders keep us on track.

While I was forgetting non-essentials today, I found God reminding me of very important things, essential to the core of my being.  Some of them are things I have been straining to remember for the last year (or more) and refusing to forget, despite a host of other things competing for my attention.

He reminded me that the knowledge of God can also be the quickest thing to separate us from him and that my theological education means nothing if I fail to behold the beauty of the Lord.  For a great sermon on the topic, check this out.

He reminded me today during chapel, as we heard from youth involved in World Vision’s Youth Empowerment Program, of his heart for young people to know him and for especially forgotten, oppressed, or abused youth to be empowered to rebuild their own cities (Isa 61).  He reminded me of the way he has built that part of his heart into my own, and of the ways he has been stirring me to be a peacemaker.

He reminded me of the passion I had once that burned deep in me for others to know the Living God and to be changed by his love.

He reminded me of the way he calls his people to live like exiles: by praying for the city they are sent to, settling down and making it home, even if they are far from the place and community they love (Jer. 29).

And he also reminded me, through these words by the Archbishop Oscar Romero, of the greatness of the kingdom of God, the privilege it is to live in it and work for it, and the meaning inherent in every small way we participate:

“It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that
is God’s work.  Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the
Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for
the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”


Six World Vision Pakistan Employees Killed in Attack

11 03 2010

Please join me in prayer for my colleagues in Pakistan.  I am reminded during this Lenten season to prepare the way for our Lord’s coming again with prayers for peace, and to weep over the violence in our cities as Jesus wept over Jerusalem before his final entry.

New York Times article here.

Close to the Earth

12 02 2010

So, we’ve had a week without internet as we left the city of Bamako and headed to “the bush.”  For those who’ve yet to experience Africa, “the bush” is the term for the “boondocks” – the rural villages far from modernity or contemporary comforts.  It’s pure Africa.  The bush is slow, and quiet, and close to the earth.  Donkeys and carts can be found in place of cars, mud huts in place of brick houses, roaming sheep, chickens and cows in place of restaurants.  There is a baby swaddled to the back of almost every woman and often also children, and the rhythmic pounding of millet in the mortar by the young girls paces the day.  The customary greetings are sincere and melodic – they ring like chants in the Bambara tribal tongue and bounce from greeter to guest like a seemless game of ping pong.

My first day in the bush was a challenge; The lack of connectivity and activity made me antsy.  I felt stripped bare, and sometimes bored.  We’d get back to the WV office after a long, hot, dusty day in the villages and there was nothing to do but take a cold shower, eat dinner, and swat mosquitoes.  Much of our day was spent sitting:  sitting in low, wooden, reclining chairs under straw-thatched covers held up by old twisted tree-limbs, sipping tea and watching donkeys pulling wooden carts slowly amble by, guided by children.  Our feet get dusty from trouncing through the villages and the smells of living with livestock fill our lungs.  It’s like someone pushed the slow-motion button or sent us back in time a couple thousand years. 

In many ways it’s been a needed retreat for me.  In Mali I have felt low to the earth and close to creation.  And as I squatted onto tiny wooden stools listening to children giggle and received the gracious welcome of village elders, I’ve asked God to meet me in the dust.  I want to feel God’s presence in the slow things, in the silent things.  Usually, I really connect with God when I can turn on music and journal – when I get lost in my head and try to take everything in.  Here, it was an excercise to connect with God on the ground – not up in the clouds, not taking everything in, but rather just taking in the moment.

Even with all the stillness, we’ve had quite a productive week.  We’ve taken thousands of pictures illustrating wonderful education initiatives; multiple schools have ceased their daily activities for hours to help us with photo shoots.  Despite an incomprehensible lack of resources, they’ve got wonderful parent-teacher committees, literacy centers, entrepreneurship programs for out-of-school youth, well-disciplined children and communities that really care about their children.

The cross-cultural communication is exhausting, but fun.  Each idea goes through multiple translations with the help of our World Vision hosts, before anyone knows what the heck is going on.  Everyone is so patient and good-natured so we mostly just have a lot of laughs.

Here are a couple of language lessons for you:

1.  Bicycle chicken = chicken that’s run around a lot and makes really strong meat.

2. “We are going to visit a youth entrepreneurship program” = “We are going to drive 45 minutes on a bumpy dirt road.  We are going to the Village Mayor’s office to greet him and his staff.  We are going to the program teacher’s house in the village to greet him and his family and drink tea.  We are walking through the village to greet the village chief and his family.  We are walking through the village to meet the program teacher’s 105-year-old father and listen to him tell stories.  Then we are walking to the entrepreneurship program.”

3. (My personal favorite):  Our wonderful host and translator Pierre is still refining his English.  As of now, every time he says the word “poor” it sounds like “pure.”  “The village is very pure….that family is very pure.”  I like his version better than ours.

I’ll be home on Saturday.  In the meantime, stay close to the earth.

Where the Blacktop Ends

8 02 2010

There is a country song that Keith Urban wrote that I like to sing along to, called “Where the Blacktop Ends.”  I thought of it today while driving through the bumpy, dusty dirt roads of Bamako after a long Sunday afternoon of lounging in the home of my World Vision colleague Pierre and his family.  The chorus says this:

“Gonna kick off my shoes and run in bare feet, where the grass and the dirt and the gravel all meet.  Goin’ back to the well, gonna visit old friends, and feed my soul where the blacktop ends.”

What Urban describes as an ideal weekend, is everyday life for Malians.  There is very little pavement to be seen, and this slows life down.  People are busy working, cleaning, constructing, but all of this is done with a simple, peace-filled kindness unlike anywhere I have experienced on earth; As one of the five poorest countries in the world, they may not have much to eat, but their way of life feeds the soul.

Yet pavement has its benefits.  It makes a rough road smooth and lays a foundation for progress.

Since arriving Tuesday night, I have spent my days here in the care and company of my World Vision colleagues Pierre and Peter, meeting World Vision staff, planning our schedule, and meeting with researchers and Ministry of Education staff to discuss the state of education development in Mali.  In case you ever doubted the importance of education for poor nations, Mali points clearly to the need.  With an official literacy rate of only 50% (and, in actuality it is much lower – closer to 30 or 40%), most Malians lack basic skills to read, write or do math in either their native or national language.  This means that they cannot ever make a living or provide for their families.  Mali’s history as an independent nation is very brief.  They are celebrating 50 years of independence in September.  What this means is that only 45 years ago, after France withdrew its colonial grip from the region, did Mali begin to write their tribal languages.  Prior to this they did not have an alphabet.  For many years, schools only taught in French – the national language – leaving the majority of children unable to access a basic education.  Now the ministry has created teaching materials in Bambara and 12 other tribal languages, and schools are bilingual, but many Malians lack schools in their villages, cannot afford the fees, do not have qualified teachers, or have over-crowded facilities (maybe three classrooms for 400 children).

In the Bamako Urban Area Development Program, I visited two functional literacy programs for village women this week.  These women, between the ages of 20 and 60 spend three to six months learning the alphabet and basic literacy, then put their new skills to use to start businesses making soap or textiles.  It’s a simple yet foundational element of development that we too easily take for granted in the West, where education is automatic.  When asked how the program has helped them, the women told us matter-of-factly, “Before the program I could not add or subtract numbers, and now I can do that so I can calculate costs, make a living and dial a phone.”  Imagine not being able to read numbers or add them together…or call a friend!

It’s a layer of pavement.

Saturday we attended a rally hosted by the Ministry for the Promotion of Women, Families and Children to raise awareness of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and to stop its practice.  The minister, doctors, and Imams spoke out against it, children performed skits illustrating its horror, and a movie was shown portraying a village woman who courageously stood against cultural tradition.  As I mentioned in my last post, FGM scars upwards of 92% of Malian girls and women, an unhealthy cultural practice rooted in folkloric animism and oppressive in consequence.  The fight to stop it has been going for nearly a decade now, and no doubt it will take more time still, but it was so encouraging to see women, children, and even some men, taking a stand against this unnecessary cultural practice.

It’s a layer of pavement.

Today, after a lively African church service, Pierre invited us to his home, where his wife and children had been preparing a delicious traditional Malian meal of stewed cabbage, carrots, chicken and spices with cous cous.  Upon arriving, he immediately took off his bright green tunic and layed horizontal on his couch.  “You are family,” he said as he extended his arms across the room and invited us to relax.  And relax we did.  For five hours we ate “lunch” and talked about philosophy, politics, theology and development.  His wife slept in the chair next to us, and the cups were continually refilled with jus d’ananas (pineapple juice), water, and arabic sweet tea.

At one point in the afternoon, we talked about the long process of building his home – which he said he began doing back in 1994.  He saved enough money to buy the land, then bought the land.  Then he saved more money to lay the foundation, and laid the foundation.  Then little by little, he built the house.  “This is the way we do it here in Mali.”  And as you drive around the city of more than 2 million people, that is exactly what you see – half-built houses and buildings waiting to grow.

I suspect this will be how Mali develops in all ways.  Slowly, quietly, patiently, they are laying foundations of pavement that will become roads to progress.  They are adding infrastructure and capital one brick at a time and over time they will grow.

It’s still dusty land now, but they are laying the pavement little by little and soon we will look and find a house built strong and tall.

Safe in Mali!

4 02 2010

Hello friends!  This is a short and overdue note to let you know that I arrived safely in Mali!  The weather is warm and so are the people – we have spent the last two days at the World Vision office meeting staff and making plans for the next week.  Today we met with the mother-tongue literacy director at the Ministry of Education and discussed the challenges and progress Mali is making to increase the literacy rate (officially at 46%, but actually much lower) – one of the main impedements to development in the country.  This afternoon we’ll travel to the Bamako Urban ADP (Area Development Program) to start photographing some of their education programs, which we’ll continue to do tomorrow.  Sunday we’ll head to the Bla ADP, a region east of Bamako, to photograph there;  we’ll be in those villages all next week until I return home next weekend.

I’ll try to post some more updates as we go along, to share Mali with you, but for now I’ll just say Bamako feels relatively calm compared to other developing cities I’ve seen.  We are staying in a very nice hotel and I am grateful to currently have a small trickle of warm water to shower with, a working toilet, and an air conditioner.  I suspect accomodations will change slightly next week in the villages.  Today we ate lunch at the Ministry of Education (MoE) “cafeteria” – three metal tables and benches outside in an uneven mix of dirt and concrete under a shredded tarp curved around a large Malian woman scooping cow-tongue, fried fish and rice into bowls.  I opted for an orange and rice only.  🙂

Saturday we’ll participate in a city-wide campaign event that World Vision Mali has helped coordinate to raise awareness of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  Currently upwards of about 92% of all females in Mali between the ages of 15 and 49 have been subjected to FGM – a cultural rite of passage with disturbing consequences.  I’ll try to write more about it later for those of you who haven’t heard much about it.

For now we are happy and healthy and can’t wait to get out to the communities and see the kids!

Fast Facts About Mali

1 02 2010

In case you want to journey with me, here’s a link to a brief introduction to the nation of Mali:

Happy learning!

I’m Moving to Washington!

6 08 2009

seattleFor many of you, this news is not new at all, but I realized that for the rest of you out there, who I may not get to see or talk to on a regular basis, I should probably make it official that I am, in the very near future, moving to the beautiful (and by “beautiful” I mean “sunless”) state of Washington.

The specific city of my future residence is still TBD, but will either be Tacoma or Seattle.  The decision will be made soon, however, since I am moving in about six weeks!  I have accepted a two-year, full-time research position with World Vision in Federal Way, WA, working for their lead Education Advisor in the area of life skills development for children in poverty.  If you’re smart, you are probably recognizing this is not my area of expertise at all, and you are right.  So, if you want more details as to why I’m taking this specific job, shoot me an email or give me a call and I would love to explain it more.  World Vision is a wonderful relief and development organization and I am very grateful to become a part of their team.  Many of my studies at Fuller have focused on international development, and I am so excited to be involved in that kind of work.

Even with all the excitement and gratitude, I am definitely leaving with mixed emotions.  I really cannot describe the deep ways God has impacted me during my time at Fuller.  I feel more alive, and more myself, than when I arrived.  I have been gifted with some of the most supportive, fun, and challenging relationships that I have ever had, and I have fallen in love with Los Angeles.  I am grateful and excited for the growth that God will bring in the coming season, but I am deeply saddened that moving on will require letting go.  So, even though I have known about this move for a while now, I have been reluctant to make it “official” with a blog post – I’ve been happily living in denial!

However, the time has come for another new chapter, and I wanted to make sure everyone knew so that I can be sure to see (and say goodbye) to my LA – and California – friends before I leave.  If you’re in the area, let me know and we’ll arrange a time to meet!  For those in Fresno and Sacramento, I would love to see you as I drive north with my U-Haul.  And, I’m putting in my request now for Seattle visits!