Tuesday evening, early, my house is visited by some of my favorite high school seniors. They fill my kitchen, spilling out into the living room, and suddenly my house is alive with laughter and conversation and singing along with Taylor Swift. After months of this weekly rhythm, they easily fall into roles of chopping and sauteing chicken, making peanut sauce, steaming cabbage and carrots, washing dishes, wiping counters. Brownies cook in the oven, and nachos feed us while we wait for the main coarse to be ready. We talk about college acceptances, and future plans, and memories from previous years, and always (are your surprised?) boys. Each week someone leads in prayer in a different language, and this week our food, and our lives, are blessed in Danish.
These last couple of weeks have been involved all the sorts of things that make work challenging: heavy realities, confusing situations, discouragements, uncertainties. Most of these things happen quietly under the radar, but they can take a toll on me that comes out in crankiness, quietness, or fatigue. Because of the weightiness of things, I have needed help to do the job I feel like I should be able to do on my own, and I don’t like adding to the burdens of others in a place where I know all my colleagues are already stretched. In the last couple of days I’ve also caught a cold, which I acknowledge may be skewing my perspective on things a little, since small struggles loom larger when you’re sniffling and sneezing your way through them.
Regardless, it has been an appropriate time to consider the ways we bear one another’s burdens. I listen recently to this message, which talks about bearing the burdens of one another as one of the primary roles of community. And as a teacher, and counselor, and team leader, I see the privilege of coming alongside the people around me as they walk through struggles and joys. But it can seem harder or perhaps riskier to acknowledge how much I also need people who are willing to bear with me. When I am overwhelmed, loneliness or feelings of aloneness can seem to be what is most true, and I can feel as though I have to do everything on my own.
And so tonight, I am gratefully mindful of the sheltering community that surrounds me. For the gift of Serge teammates who pray with me, and listen to me, and offer to bring desserts. For the counseling and administrative teams I work with, who come alongside me and remind me of what is true, who make phone calls and write e-mails on my behalf, and even send me flowers. For friends here who are in similar life stages and who plan adventures for our midterm break meaning that I get to spend the weekend in a Swiss Family Robinson style tree house while eating Indian food, binge watching Person of Interest and knitting like a grandma. For a wide-spread group of friends who remember me here and send me e-mails and imessages and letters and packages and support and all manner of love. And I’m especially grateful for the students I’m privileged to work with, who bring laughter into my house, who speak wisely and bravely in my counseling office, who consider what it means to walk in the light of community, who bear with me as I learn what it means to live and work here.
I’m grateful for these many blessings of life in Kenya as they come at unexpected times, through surprising people, and sometimes even in Danish.
“The moon sets and the eastern sky lightens, the hem of night pulling away, taking stars with it one by one until only two are left.” -Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power… You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.” Hebrews 1
On this tilting planet, yesterday marked the darkest night of the year for the Northern Hemisphere. And after spending a few weeks of shortened days and protracted nights since returning to the US, I celebrate the returning of the light.
One thing that always strikes me in returning to the States is the brightness. Reliable, consistent electricity means that places are rarely really dark. But this year, I’ve also been surprised by the darkness. Even though I live in the Southern Hemisphere in Kenya, I live so close to the Equator that days and nights are pretty evenly split between 12 hours of dark and 12 hours of light. I find it a little disconcerting to return to Middle Tennessee where it currently gets dark around 430pm. It’s hard to want to continue with regular rhythms and routines when everything is dark. After 5pm, I feel like it’s time to put on pjs, watch Christmas movies, and drink cocoa. Is that concerning?
It’s not Christmas yet, and so you may find yourself caught in the busyness of gift wrapping and traveling and events. I am grateful for recent opportunities to decorate trees in Charleston, and watch ballet recitals and elementary school basketball games in Kentucky and have friends from Sudan and Burundi converge in Nashville for a Christmas concert at the Mother Church of Country Music (That’s what it’s called. Seriously!).
I love all of the rhythms of Christmas: reconnecting with people, lingering with family, cheering for the kiddos of life-long friends, walking familiar streets, listening to holiday music, baking, reading, reflecting, writing. And this year especially, all of it has seemed like so much light. Tastes and pictures and reminders of the joy of that first Advent 2000 years ago, and the Advent that is to come.
As I write tonight, I’m sitting in front of the glowing Christmas tree and I’m thinking of gifts of faith and community that are light shining in what can sometimes be dark dailyness.
Soon enough Christmas will be here, and soon after a new year of work and worry, laughter and hope, helloes and goodbyes. Perhaps this year, as every year, it is important to pause before the baby who is the “radiance of the glory of God” and to remember that “the hem of night is pulling away.” The One who is the Light of the World has come, comes, is coming again. His Light never changes.
On this day after the darkest night of the year, we are almost ready to celebrate to birth of a baby. His light, His radiance, still shines for a world that grows weary of the darkness. I hope your Christmas, wherever you are on this lovely tilting turning planet, is filled with hope and joy and ever so much light.
“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit…They shall not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Isaiah 11
“Suffering and solidarity with the suffering of others has an immense capacity to ‘make room’ inside of us. It is probably our primary spiritual teacher.” -Richard Rohr
December has arrived, and so have I, hitting the ground running into the craziness of American Christmas celebration. I saw Christmas trees and garlands as soon as I walked through customs and into the Chicago O’Hare airport. So far, I’ve had peppermint coffee concoctions, and eggnog, and fudge. I’ve heard carols, and watched holiday movies. I’ve used something called Jamberry to put festive holiday designs on my fingernails. I’ve driven through a fantastical light show at James Island County Park.
I’ve been back in the country for all of 5 days. I would say I’ve been using my time wisely.
The glitter and sparkle and shine is, at times, a little overwhelming. It’s so very different from Christmases I’ve spent in Uganda and Sudan, and also very different from the quiet story of a small stable, a humble couple, an at-risk baby, and shepherds and animals.
This weekend I’m in Charleston, visiting close friends from college. Absence has a strange way of tempting me to doubt my relationships with people, and so I relish the opportunity to reconnect face-to-face with people who know me well. I’m grateful to be here.
Yesterday, I spoke at Redeemer Church, sharing about life in Kenya and how Advent reminds us that this good news is for ALL PEOPLE. I’ve gone to Uganda and Sudan and Kenya, because I remember that He has come to us, and His coming empowers us to go until the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
After church, I was at Laura and Robbie’s house, and we put up the tree. As a kid, I never thought about the practice of putting up a Christmas tree, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it is kind of weird to bring a tree into your house. Maybe that’s why I’ve been struck this week by the verse from Isaiah that talks about a branch that bears fruit coming from the stump of Jesse. From something that seems dead, and lifeless, and like a failure; new life is coming. This is the beauty of Advent, the true sparkle and glitter and hope. So, we put up a tree, and cover it with lights. We drink eggnog and peppermint lattes. We sing and pray and see dear friends and family, and we remember that this branch, this shoot from a stump, is something to celebrate.
I know Christmas can be a hard time. And there are likely places in your life where you are disappointed or discouraged, where you wonder what is going on, and if anything good will come out of it. Even if your personal circumstances feel perfect, you don’t have to look to far too feel this loss and brokenness of the world around us. I hope, as Richard Rohr says, that suffering can “create space” for you this holiday season and that in that space there will be a shoot of hope that grows and spreads. May that hope then transform a suffering world, until the earth is filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
where we are
i envy those
who live in two places:
new york, say, and london;
wales and spain;
l.a. and paris;
hawaii and switzerland.
there is always the anticipation
of the change, the chance that what is wrong
is the result of where you are. i have
always loved both the freshness of
arriving and the relief of leaving. with
two homes every move would be a homecoming.
i am not even considering the weather, hot
or cold, dry or wet: i am talking about hope.
This morning, I woke up to see the sun streaking orange on the Doha horizon.
Last night. Sarah and Mary Howell and I left Kijabe. It had been a muddy, rainy day; and I spent most of it holed up in my house with a roaring fire and last minute packing details and friends coming over for lunch. Fog enveloped us as we drove towards Nairobi, but by the time we reached the airport, the weather had cleared and, besides for a long wait time, the rest was relatively easy.
And now I’m barely awake, and sipping an overpriced cappuccino in a new country, surprised by the contrasts of life here. Our pre-boarding area is making everyone sit according to the row we are assigned so that we can board in an orderly manner. What?? Lines are still a thing? Someone has forgotten to inform the Nairobi airport about this very pleasant practice. Also, the duty free shops are a funny mix of high end fashion items from Prada and Bulgari, fancy chocolates and snacks, and giant bags of Nido (milk powder) and Foster Clarks (knock-off Tang powdered drink), 2 things I bought regularly in South Sudan. Finally, you see women fully covered except for faces and hennaed hands, and other women in leggings and cropped tops, and some women, inexplicably, in high heels.
Between 2 places, observing cultures crossing, fighting jet-lag, using free wi-fi, counting down the hours until I see my family: I’m glad for this early morning, drinking coffee in Qatar, and feeling the tension of living in 2 places and the always present hope of home.
Sometimes, I feel like I spend half my life either packing or unpacking.
You’d think my packing skills would improve with practice, but no. I’ve realized that the unexpected situations I’ve often found myself in (lost luggage! rainy cities! soaring temperature! cultures requiring head coverings!), means I now feels as though I must pack for every eventuality. And, there must always be enough snacks to share with any hungry or stressed person i might encounter. So, packing is not something I take lightly.
Tomorrow evening, I leave for the States by way of a small Middle Eastern country whose airline had the most reasonable flight price. Which means I am flying east to go west, and that one leg of my 3-legged journey will be 15 hours long. True story. So, you can see my concern about having enough snacks.
Today has been a surprisingly cool and gloomy day in Kijabe. I’ve been doing what I do the day before holiday travel: organizing clothes and Christmas gifts in 2 black plastic Contico trunks, washing dishes, having friends pick up last-minute things from Nairobi, and having other friends drop by with their Christmas cards for me to mail in the US. I’m charging electronics, and trying to figure what toiletries can be packed, and which ones I still need to use. I’m cleaning out the fridge, and wondering exactly what is in that Tupperware I found at the back.
To me, this is always the worst part. The rush and bustle, the details and forgetfulness, the feeling that it won’t all quite get done. But this time tomorrow, my packing will be finished, my goodbyes will be said, all the undone things will be left until I return, and I’ll be sitting with friends at the Airport Java House with nothing left to do but wait. And I can’t wait to get there.
“From of old, no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for Him.” Isaiah 64
“The theological virtue of hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution, and still be content and even happy because our Satisfaction is now at another level and our Source is beyond ourselves. We are able to trust that He will come again, just as Jesus has come into our past, into our private dilemmas, and into our suffering world.”-Richard Rohr
“It impresses me, therefore, that all the figures who appear on the first pages of Luke’s Gospel are waiting. Zechariah and Elizabeth are waiting. Mary is waiting. Simeon and Anna, who were there at the temple when Jesus was brought in, are waiting. The whole opening scene of the good news is filled with waiting people. And right at the beginning all those people in some way or another hear the words, ‘Do not be afraid. I have something good to say to you.'”- Henri Nouwen
On a rainy afternoon in Kijabe, I knead bread dough, listen to Over the Rhine, and reflect on waiting.
The school term is over, the students are gone, the campus is quieter, and I don’t yet miss the hustle. I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving (twice) and missed my family in America and also missed the traditions I forged during my time in Sudan.
And today, after a long and tiring term and 2 days before I fly westward to the States, Advent has arrived.
As I made the bread for our team Advent celebration tonight, I reflected on my own weariness with waiting. I often find that Advent brings with it a surprising realization that many of the things I hoped would change over the last year haven’t really changed at all. There is still so much I am waiting for. My tendency is to feel embarrassed that I am still waiting, especially about things for which I feel some responsibility. And, reading updates and posts and all the other polished snapshots into other people’s lives can make me feel like maybe I am the only one still waiting.
Into all of that mess of insecurity and self-focus, December comes at just the right time. As I reengage in the old story of Christmas, I am reminded that my hope rests in the One who “acts for those who wait for him.”
I’m sure you know that after the work of mixing and measuring, of kneading and covering, the most important part of baking bread happens when you allow it to rise. I had to be willing to leave the bread alone, to trust that what was happening as I waited was as significant as what happened while I worked. After it had risen, I slipped it into the oven, and then carried it warm down to the Massos’ house, where our team gathered to enter into the season of Advent. We broke bread together, and heard stories from Jennifer’s recent travels, and lit the first candle in the wreath. We laughed and sang, talked and prayed, listened to Scripture and listened to Liana on the violin. And then, we watched Elf and participated in Christmas karaoke.
Paradoxically, as I acknowledged my own waiting, I also experienced pictures of Christ’s presence. In small but sweet ways, I sense His coming in the gift of community, the beauty of Kijabe, the joy of serving at RVA, and the opportunity to visit my family in a few days.
May we enter this Advent season with renewed hope that His first coming ensures His second, and that this Advent season affords a new opportunity for Him to come to those of us who are still waiting.
“You’d think walking should be the simplest thing,” she said at last, “Just a question of putting one foot in front of the other. But it never ceases to amaze me how difficult the things that are supposed to be instinctive really are…Eating,” she said at last. “That’s another one. Some people have real difficulties with that. Talking too. Even loving. They can all be difficult.”-Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
“When the weather is good, sometimes when it is only tolerable, I am drawn to the woods on the local hillsides or along the streams…In such places, on the best days, I experience a lovely freedom from expectations-other people’s and also my own. I go free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays, and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts: to what I am very willing to call inspiration…to be quiet, even wordless, in a good place is a better gift than poetry.”- Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems
After Sudan. After the ants, and the heat, and the breaking bicycle. After sorting through, and packing up, and giving away. After rain and ridiculous muddy roads. After hugs and recounted memories and sad goodbyes over shelled g-nuts. After receiving a chicken that had to be left behind. After making space for soon-to-arrive teammates, who I wish I could welcome to life in Sudan. After realizing again that I loved my life in Mundri. After all of that, I was spent, and in need of some perspective.
I went with Heidi, and Alyssa from Burundi, and Stephanie from Kijabe to the island of Zanzibar, right off the coast of Tanzania. I realize that the name Zanzibar sounds exotic enough to be fictional, and the experience of visiting did feel a bit like stepping into a story. It was beautiful, with clear water, and sun, and seafood, and spices growing up from the ground. I swam almost everyday, ate fresh lobster grilled right in front of me, and went to a restaurant opened, strangely enough, by Freddy Mercury of Queen.
I was glad to be with wise and fun friends who are all in similar life stages, talking about the good and the hard of the last year. It was interesting that each of us had, on our own, made significant international transitions over the last year, and so we were all able to speak of the beauty and the struggle of a transient life.
Our second to last day, Alyssa and I went sea kayaking for about 20 minutes (in case you were starting to be impressed by my athletic adventures, I just wanted to reassure you that THINGS HAVE NOT CHANGED and I still think the main point of a beach visit is sitting on a chair and watching the ocean come close while sipping a tropical beverage). Anyway, as we were about to head back, I felt a sting on my arm, and looked down to see a small, clear string wrapped about my wrist. Only, it wasn’t a string. Instead, it was a Portuguese Man-of-War that had wrapped around my arm. With some teamwork, Alyssa and I were about to set my arm free and send the jellyfish back out to sea. But, I was left with a tingling arm and an impressive scar.
Returning from Zanzibar, I almost immediately headed towards the highest point in Kenya in order to celebrate my birthday. As I get older, I feel like I need to do hard things to fool myself into thinking that I am not really getting old. Karen, my dear friend now for over ten years, went with me, along with my RVA neighbor Krista and Mae Mae, one of Serge’s amazing interns. They were the best possible people with which to undertake such a climb. Their tenacity and humor kept me going. That, and the Starbucks coffee we brought with.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, even before it started. We ended up with a shady guide who stole our money and had to be fired before we got to the mountain! But eventually, we actually made it to national park, and began to climb.
There is something amazing about the vastness of the national park, with flora and fauna that reminded me of Dr. Seuss drawings. Our 2nd night on the mountain, we woke up at 300am at 4,236 meters and began our climb up to Lenana Peak. It was cold, and dark, and we shuffled slowly up the mountain. But the stars. I wish you could have seen the stars. With little to no moon showing, whenever we would pause, breathless, I would turn off my headlamp, and get swallowed up by starlight.
We walked on, glad that the darkness kept us from knowing how high we’d come or how far we had to go. We just followed the steps of our guide. Gradually, the colors began to return, with a shock of pink streaking the horizon, announcing the sun. We reached the top, the highest I’d ever been, feeling like we’d arrived. Little did we know that there were still 11 hours of serious hiking separating us from our supper.
Those hours, those days on the mountain were challenging, and not at all what I expected. But they were beautiful, and sweet, and I felt privileged to witness the wildness of creation. One surprise was the drama of my jellyfish-scarred arm as I climbed. It turned shockingly purple, leaving my overactive imagination to infer that perhaps I had been stung by a radioactive Portugese man-of-war, and that I now, like Peter Parker. was becoming a super hero. Did I mention that I also recently watched The Amazing Spiderman 2?
Unfortunately, I did not actually become a super hero. Fortunately, my arm has now mostly healed as have my sore limbs from the hike. Even though we lost some money and confidence after being bamboozled by our guide, we were kept safe and still able to climb Mt. Kenya. In a one week period I saw giant tortoises, and red starfish, and giant lobelias, and rock hyraxes, and bamboo forests. I swam in the Indian Ocean, and hiked in Kenyan snow. I am privileged to have witnessed the diversity of creation on this beautiful continent I currently call home.
As Wendell Berry says, there is something that happens when you step out of your sheltered environment and into the wildness of creation. Away from errands and internet, there can be space for “unintended thoughts.” And for me, those thoughts involved realizing again the privilege of this current adventure, of the wild unpredictability of the life of faith.
I am grateful and excited that new teammates are starting to work in South Sudan. But, I am also surprised and delighted to have been brought to Kenya for this season. I love where I get to live and what I get to do, and I can hold that in tension with the sadness of leaving so many other places behind.
Perhaps, even better than the the “unintended thoughts” is the gift of silence. I am someone who loves words: stories, letters, songs, poems. But, sometimes, “to be quiet, even wordless, in a good place is a better gift than poetry.” These last 2 weeks have given be space to hear words from dear friends, but also to receive, in the quiet and the beauty, a better gift than poetry.
Tomorrow, RVA resumes, and I trade the wildness of the mountains and the seas for a well-structured school schedule. I leave quiet and sabbath for work that involves many words, grateful for the travels of this summer, and praying that the gift of time away will translate into a better listening ear for the students I am privileged to interact with.
PS: Will you pray for the Wallace family as they begin their journey to South Sudan this week?