What is important?

imageLast week, we (Amanda and me) spent a day hiking in Bandelier National Monument. We spent our day in one valley, and at one point hiked a mile to the top of the ridge. The ancestral Pueblo people arrived in this valley in the mid-13th century, building villages on the valley floor and also living in caves carved from the canyon walls. By the 15th century, the people moved on to other areas of what is now New Mexico. We spent our day exploring many of the caves, climbing the ladders to get inside their homes and see the petroglyphs painted on the walls.

imageThe ancestral Pueblo people left no written history, and yet archeologists have learned much about the way they lived, how they established community, and the values that were important to them – all this just by uncovering what they left behind.

This week, I read the book, “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life”, by Richard Rohr. He suggests there are two halves to life. The first half of our life is about finding the starting gate. It is creating the container of our lives and what makes us significant. But the second half of life is claiming the meaning and purpose of our lives and living into that meaning and purpose. To do that, we’ve got to leave home (i.e. our comfort zone) just as Abraham and Sarah left their comfort zone to go to the place where God would lead them.

As we hiked and learned about the ancestral Pueblo people, I realized that regardless of my intentions, my life, my words and actions, will echo into the next generation. What is important to me? I am already answering that question, even if I’ve not been doing so purposefully. But, in reading Rohr’s book, I can claim the second half of life purposefully using my past (challenges, struggles and even failures) as the foundation for what is important to me. Often I give lip-service to what’s important. I can list what’s important to me, but one day an archeologist (or a great, great grandchild) will uncover what was truly important – because my life will echo into the future.

It was interesting to learn that today’s Pueblo people believe their ancestors still live spiritually at Bandelier. We see the reminders of their lives and literally walk in their footsteps.

I am leaving footsteps. Am I leaving the footsteps that I want others to re-visit? I wonder…as I live into the journey.

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born in the USA

It was 30 years ago this month that Bruce Springsteen released his song, Born in the USA. At that time, I was living in Duluth, serving two struggling churches in two struggling neighborhoods. This was before Duluth had discovered the importance of developing the waterfront for tourism. Iron mining and shipping had taken big hits and manufacturing plants had closed, resulting in high unemployment and not a lot of hope. We had arrived in Duluth fresh from school and eager to put our degrees to work. After four years of trying, Amanda was only able to piece together a couple of part time jobs. But Bruce Springsteen’s anthem to the hardship of the working poor resonated among the people in the neighborhoods where we lived.

If you know the song, it was written in response to the challenges that Vietnam veterans were facing ten years after the end of that war. The song, however, called forth a patriotism that had been missing during the years that this nation was so conflicted over the Vietnam War. As a nation, we may be hurting – as individuals, we may be in the grip of unemployment – but we are “born in the USA.” There is a hope and a resilience that these things will not defeat us. That’s the spirit of being an American.

imageAmanda and I returned to this country on July 4. During the flight home and in the days that have followed, I have returned to a question that I was asked by a little girl named Zubeda. She asked a lot of questions. Soon after we arrived at Light of Hope School on a Thursday evening, she took me hand and with several other girls gave me a tour of the campus. All along the way, she asked one question after another: what is your favorite color? what is your favorite food? what is your favorite thing to do? By Sunday, her questions forced me to think before answering: what’s your favorite subject? what’s your favorite Bible verse? And finally this question: What is your favorite thing about your country?

What’s your answer? Remember this is a child who is asking. My answer, though I admit that I’m still reflecting on other possible answers, was the ability to travel anywhere. I was doing something that she could not do, even if she had the financial resources. It is unlikely that she could gain a visa to enter the USA, but as an American, I have the freedom to go almost anywhere in the world. And in the USA, I am free to travel. I am not stopped on the highway each day in order to pay a bribe. We have a highway system that makes travel manageable. I told her that my children live more than a thousand kilometers from me and yet we can travel to see each other. It seemed a way to describe freedom that she might understand.

In the weeks since I returned, I’ve thought a lot about why, of all places we could travel, that we would choose five weeks in Kenya. Then I heard my answer in Genesis 12. Blessed to be a blessing. Abraham was called to make a journey to only God knew where, but if Abraham would go, he would be blessed. We went to Kenya, hoping to bless somebody, because we have been blessed incredibly. Just the view from the car window made that clear. Walking through town made that even clearer. Talking with Zubeda made that absolutely clear. We are blessed. We took five weeks in an effort to be a blessing. I hope we were successful. But this much I know for sure, we were blessed – and are blessed.

Born in the USA…

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He didn’t have a Bible

image image imageThis morning (Wednesday), I gave a Bible to a young man and together we read from Philippians 4. I don’t know when I’ve seen such a big smile on someone’s face or heard such gratitude.

On July 1-2, Amanda and I volunteered at Heshima Children’s Center (www.heshimachildrenscenter.org) in Nairobi. Heshima provides services for children with disabilities and their mothers. Amanda offered music therapy to the children. I listened to the stories of the staff (many of whom are also the mothers of the children) and prayed with them.

On Wednesday, I met with the moms. I listened to their stories and what it is like to have a disabled child. This is a culture where often the birth of a less than perfect child is seen as a curse. This is a culture where often a disabled child is kept at home out of view from others and fed very little until that child dies. But these mothers wanted more for their children. One had welcomed the child as her own when her parents no longer wanted the child. Another watched as her husband left her, unwilling to be a associated with a wife who would have a disabled child. Each story heart wrenching. One mother carries her 11 year old child from her home to Heshima and back again. It is a walk that takes her an hour – longer when it rains and the roads are muddy.

Heshima provides therapy for the children, treating each child with dignity. And as you might expect, the children thrive on the care and love that they receive. It is the kind of care we take for granted in America. I asked if I could pray with them. Their requests for prayer are too personal for me to share here, but I was taken by how confident they were that if we prayed their prayer would be answered. Having heard the miracles that some of them had already witnessed, I too believe it is only a matter of time until each prayer is answered.

On Tuesday, I met with the men who work at Heshima. I spent time, listening to their life stories and how they came to faith. That’s when I met Chris, a guard at Heshima. Like so many places in Kenya, the compound is surrounded by a stone wall topped with razor wire. 24 hours of the day, a guard is on duty to open the front gate and watch that no one breaches the wall. It is an indication of the desperate poverty that anything of value must be guarded.

Chris is a young man who went to school through the eighth grade. He was unable to go to high school because that would have required money that was not available. Without a high school education, he was grateful to find a job as a guard. He attended a church revival last year and came to faith. He had never attended a church previously but he found one and was baptized. Chris shared with me the challenges that he faces and how he wants to live a better life as a Christian. How does one learn about this better life as a Christian? And then how does one live that way especially when what is familiar is not the way of Christ? Chris wants a better life but he does not know what a Christian life is.

Do you have a Bible? I asked. No, he replied. If you had one, which language would you prefer? (Swahili, English or his traditional language) English, he said. I think I can do something about that.

So, that evening, I found a book store and purchased a Bible in a translation that would be easier for someone with an eighth grade education to understand. The next morning, I greeted Chris and said, “I have something for you.” As I gave him the Bible, he had a huge smile and eagerly opened the book. It felt to me like I had not given him a gift but a lifeline. I had placed a bookmark at the gospel of Mark and suggested that’s where he could start reading. Chris was a new Chrisian, wanting to live a better life, but he did not even know how Jesus lived. But now he had a way.

And then I turned to Philippians 4, and we read together these words: Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

And he looked at me – tears in his eyes – and said, “thank you.”

Each morning when I awake, I thank God for the day and then I offer my life to God. Each day, I am hoping that God can use me in some way. And I thought, God is good all the time…

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imageSpeak, Lord, your servant is listening. (1 Samuel 3:10)

Before I made my first trip to Kenya in 2009, someone who had already made the trip recommended that I spend part of each day listening. Just take time apart from everyone and listen, he said. As I approach the final days here, I wish I had done more of this. I have wrestled the entire trip with wanting to be in control of the schedule and what to do while also wishing I could let go and simply live into the journey.

While at Light of Hope, I was drawn to one of the gazebos to sit and listen for at least a few minutes each day. Light of Hope is located far enough from the main road that the road noise is not a constant. In the distance, I could hear the sound of construction – everywhere there seems to be construction of some sort. But unlike the US, the construction sounds do not involve machinery – more often a hammer against stone. I could hear the farm animals (chickens, turkey, cows, and even the sound of goats munching on the grass). And the voices of children – voices from inside classrooms and the laugher of children playing in the playground. And amid this cacophony of sounds, there was a silence – a peaceful silence – broken only when some of the girls discovered where I was and came to join me.

Sunday morning as we walked through the gate at Light of Hope, we could hear the singing of children coming from inside the dining hall where worship was beginning. There is something special about hearing such singing as we arrived for worship. Especially when that singing is unaccompanied and simply the voices of children all singing grateful praise.

imageI was asked to give the sermon. I selected the shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. “Love The Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” Why would God want us to love God? I asked the children. Because when we love as God loves we become the person that God created us to be. And we are able to love others with God’s kind of love. We are able to be a jamani (neighbor). Then I offered holy communion – something many of the children would receive for the very first time.

And there was a moment as Amanda and I served the children. Out of the silence with children walking forward to receive the bread and the cup, unprompted, a child began to sing “Jesus Loves Me”. And soon the room was filled with every child, not just singing but proclaiming that she is loved.

And I listened. Girls who have come from some of the worst living conditions imaginable, many orphaned, some HIV positive, all of them the recipients of hope and singing “yes, Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me.”

Yes Lord, your servant is listening.image

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Today a prayer was answered

imageToday (Friday, June 27) a prayer was answered.

Each time that we have been at Light of Hope, we have had the privilege of participating in the rescue of girls from a place of hopelessness and bringing them to Light of Hope.

Miriam, the director of LOH, and Hilda, the social worker, invited Amanda and me to go to a home outside of Karate. It was a small 3 room house made from stones, mud, and a metal roof. It had a dirt floor and part of one wall had collapsed, meaning there was no safety or security to found in this home. A trough was dug in the floor, because when it rains the home floods. If ever they have anything of value (food, for example), it is stolen. The house is situated by a stone quarry. The father took his own life in 2010 after learning he was HIV positive. He hung himself in the bedroom, leaving behind a wife and four children. A fifthimage image child was born after another man made a promise to the wife but ran off when she became pregnant. The singular goal each day is to survive that day. Frankly, even that seems hopeless. There is no such thing as a future. The children range in age from 2-15 years, but all of the children are malnourished and appear much younger than their age.

The mother and children work in the stone quarry, breaking stones just in case today might be the day that someone would pay them for the stones they have. Rarely is today the day. The only water that they have is ground water (a stream that is currently small pools of standing water). Honestly, most of us would not even allow animals to live in such conditions. Word of mouth referred this family to LOH. On this day, the mother had been told the social worker would bring a visitor to her family. The mother did not know today would be the day a prayer would be answered. As we entered the home, I said to the social worker, “today the direction of their lives changes forever.”

Two girls would come to LOH this day. I am so glad that I was not asked to say anything, because my struggle was to keep from crying. They were asked to collect their things. They each put a couple of clothing items in a bag, but their thread-bare clothing would never be worn again. Two bags of groceries were left with the family. Then the mother holding her baby climbed into the car with her two daughters. The other children would wait at home for their mother’s return.

As the car entered LOH, the students were singing. Immediately my thought was this must be what it’s like to be welcomed by the choir of angels at God’s heavenly gates. What did these two girls do to deserve this – nothing. This is the power of grace and hope at work in this world. Every girl that was singing had been in the place of these two children who had been at a point of utter hopelessness.

As her two daughters were welcomed by the girls of LOH, the mother stood weaping. Today her prayer was answered.

Within the hour, the two girls were showered and given new clothes and shoes. What a privilege to be a witness to answered prayer. You, people of Messiah, made this rescue possible.

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Holy Ground

image image image imageIt is important to have a dream. In fact, I think God-sized dreams are best – the kind of dream that on our own we could never fully accomplish, the kind of dream that can only be fulfilled when we let God take control.

Today, Imara International is only able to serve ten young women and ten babies because that is as much space as is available in the current facility. Therefore, Imara is in the process of purchased twenty acres of property to begin constructing a village that can serve at least five times the number currently possible. Even this will serve only a fraction of the need in this country, but it is a start, and for each teenager it is likely the difference between hope and hopeless, life and death.

So, on Wednesday, you, Messiah Church, did a good thing. You provided the funds to take the young women currently at Imara on a safari (swahili words for “trip”) to see this new property and begin to catch the vision that they are the pioneers of something much larger than can be imagined. This is not an easy thing to do – catch the vision. When your world has only begun to feel secure from the abuse of the past and you have yet to fully trust anyone, it is difficult to see yourself as whole much less becoming the first part of something that you can give to others.

We hired two matatus to take us the 40 minutes over dusty, rocky, dirty roads. We stopped to purchase a dozen trees for planting. We drove through the beautiful countryside, along parts of Ol Pejeta conservancy (we saw zebras and antelope), past farmland and across a river to twenty beautiful acres of land with a winding river along one side.

We walked along the river, looking for signs of hippos and dreaming about what will be. We ate our picnic lunch of pb&j sandwiches, and then planted the trees. Another group had planted a couple dozen trees during a prior mission trip. Most of the girls got involved digging the holes and watering the newly planted trees. And before we left, we prayed.

Remember when Moses was tending sheep for his father-in-law and suddenly saw a bush that was on fire but not being consumed by the fire. Out of the bush, the voice of God spoke: Take off your shoes for you are on holy ground. On June 25, we declared these twenty acres to be holy ground. We dedicated this ground, these acres to God, because what will emerge on this ground can only flourish if God is the guardian and guide. I gave each girl a tiny stone cross – and asked her to take one for her child. I invited mother and child to find a newly planted tree and to plant that cross with the tree, praying that God would bless what is emerging and help it (the tree and the dream) to flourish.

As we left that afternoon, several of us walked the length of the property. Carol shared the dream of what is planned, but I followed quietly giving thanks for what God will accomplish.

Standing on holy ground…

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To market

image imageI don’t know its source, but there is a saying: Live simply so that others may simply live. It is a catchy turn of words, but with all respect to the sentiment intended, it is not as simple as that, is it?

In Africa, I am learning to do with less. When I see that there are people here living comfortably with less than I brought in my suitcase, I’m not about to complain about what I am missing. Let me be honest, I’m writing this at a coffee shop that looks much like one we would find at home. I was able to take a hot shower this morning. I will have three good meals today, and if I wanted something, I have the means to hire a driver to take me into town to get what I want. A few days ago, we rode past homes being built inside Ol Pejeta, the wildlife conservancy. The homes look similar to homes being built in Plymouth, so that the homes will appeal to westerners. Our driver told us the price tag, thinking we would be surprised by the cost – 20 million Kenyan shillings. But that’s just $225,000 – a bargain! Living in Kenya, it would not be necessary to live with less. But I’ve been thinking about what I want and what I need and what defines my life. And what would God want for me?

Saturday morning, we went to market. At home, I love going to the farmer’s market, and this was the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market on steroids. The quantity of produce was impressive. Bananas right from the tree, mangos, popo, pineapples, potatoes, zucchini, onions, tomatoes, oranges, and so much more – even chickens ready to be taken home and butchered. Once again, the youngest children were fascinated by my presence. Carol and I were the only mzungus that I noticed in the market, but I think it was my size as much as my skin color that prompted the waves, the smiles and the giggles. Shake hands with this giant mzungu, and you’d have something to tell others when you get home! As is normal here, there are two prices for the produce – depending on the color of one’s skin and the ability to speak Swahili. And boda bodas everywhere. The boda bodas are motor cycles for hire. We’ve been amazed by the things we’ve seen hauled by motorcycles. (In Nairobi, it was a couch!)

As we came to the end of the market, Carol pointed out the matumba. This is the clothing market. Rows and rows of vendors selling clothing. The clothing is shipped in large bails from the US and Europe. It is the used clothing that has no useful purpose for Americans. The quantity of used clothing is especially impressive when one realizes this is just one of a great many such markets throughout the developing world. Do we really have this much excess? I think of my own home with closets that are bursting with clothing forgotten long ago, and I feel a little ashamed. I guess there is comfort in knowing my discarded clothing serves a useful purpose. It also explains why we see some people walking around in designer clothing – not knowing that it is designer clothing. Live simply and let your castoffs benefit others around the world.

This trip is about what lessons God can show me – if I’m willing. I see the marketplace. I see a contentment in what those around me have. Could there be a message for me in all of this? So, I opened the book of Proverbs to this verse: Honor the Lord with your wealth. (Proverbs 3:9) And a few verses later, these words:
Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding.

Living into the journey…

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