On an unexpected Wednesday, I find myself in southern South Africa, in a rental car, racing with friends towards the ends of the earth. We drive to that place where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans crash together, a place of storms and roughness and beauty, aptly named the Cape of Good Hope. As we enter the park that surrounds the Cape, Finch-man, with his endearing affinities for super-heros, War Eagle, and goat cheese asks aloud, “What is hope? Is it an animal?” Of course, this is an understandable question from a 4-year-old when he hears we’re going to the Cape of Good Hope. He wonders if perhaps hope is something like a lion or leopard or fish eagle, the wild things we might drive to see in this part of the world.
Heidi, Lesley, and I stumble around, trying to get a grasp on the slippery concept of hope, and seeking to explain it in concrete terms. Finch has moved on because there are Oceans! Rocks! and Wildness! to be explored, and we have already shown him that hope is definitely not as tangible as lions and leopards. The urgency of understanding hope has been eclipsed by the immediacy of adventure. But I think Finch has to have a little of Emily Dickinson in him, because remember how she said:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
I, on purpose, once visited Emily Dickinson’s house. It was exciting. Seriously. I made my friend Catharine take pictures me in front of the quiet New England home, and thought of that poet who hid behind walls and words, who lowered baskets of gingerbread to neighborhood children out of her upstair’s window.
Sometimes, holing up in a New England house, and making gingerbread and tea and writing on scraps of paper sounds lovely. And for Emily, it was a context for creativity and exploration. But generally, I think faith continues to push us out “in the chillest land, and on the strangest Sea,” to the ends of earth, to the places where Hope can seem hardest to find.
Many of my friends are walking through hard days. Loss, uncertainty, death, goodbyes, evacuations, and sadness have populated their stories. And yet, in all of them, there has also been this tenacious fight for Hope, belief that death is not the end.
I was at the Cape of Good Hope a week after remembering Easter’s resurrection story with my Serge colleagues from throughout East Africa. We gathered for in Diani for a week of training, but also for a time of encouraging one another in Hope. And I was reminded that Hope sustains us when it is grounded in reminders of a body broken for us, of a life poured out for us, of a gravestone rolled away, and a King who is coming soon.
At the place where earth ends and seas are joined, where waves crash and storms threaten, Lesley and Finch and Heidi stacked stones. Call them cairns, or Ebeneezers, memorials to close family members who have died, and also as reminders that death is not where the story stops. In Hope, even through grief, we cling to the promise and power of resurrection and celebrate the lives of those we love.
I am privileged to have stood in ocean spray at the Cape of Good Hope, and to have witnessed the wild work of Hope in the lives of my dear friends. Now I’m back in Kijabe, the Stevens are back in Uganda, and tonight Heidi flies back to the US. We are all getting ready to start back into the more normal (is it ever normal??) rhythms of our lives, and we are all wrestling with questions of calling and future. As we step away from the ends of the earth, and land in the middle of everydayness, may we, like Finch, continue to explore the wild beauty of Hope with tenacity and grace.
PS-Finch also encouraged me to live more boldly. Here we are outside of Stellenbosch, practicing our superhero poses and preparing to fight against all of the bad guys. He is the best!
By expenditure of hope,/Intelligence, and work, /You think you have it fixed. /It is unfixed by rule./ Within the darkness, all/ Is being changed, and you/ Also will be changed. -Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir
“The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever. All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying he has done it.” -Psalm 22: 26,27,30,31
“The Psalm verse Jesus had yelled out was of course the opening of Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ On and on goes the Psalm, plunging down into the depths of despair, of self-loathing, or helpless suffering…Verses 22-31 depend entirely on the twenty-one verses that precede them. They are the fruit of the suffering. We read them today, a mere ten days into Lent, as an act, not of respite, as though they cancelled out the earlier part of the Psalm, but of encouragement. This is where it’s all going, even if where we currently stand seems dark, dangerous, and sad…Even when we can see nothing but darkness, the cross still points upwards to the God who makes even human wrath turn to his praise. This cruel cross, planted roughly in the stony soil of Calvary, will thus bear fruit, fruit that will last: rescue, mission, praise. And we who find ourselves, this Lent, standing at its foot, in darkness and perhaps even despair, must learn to train our ears to hear these verses, not cut off from the rest of the Psalm but precisely growing out of it…Watch and pray for the day when these final verses will become as real and obvious in our world as the darkness and suffering is right now.”
-NT Wright, Lent for Everyone
This has been a heavy week. One close friend lost her mother to ALS, while another lost her 24 year old sister in a tragic car accident. Friends from South Sudan have come to Kenya for unexpected medical care and surgery. Friends here at school have struggled with battles big and small. My teammates at the hospital battle daily against death, and see death taking too many children. South Sudan is becoming less and less stable. I’ve felt stretched, and weary of the distance between here and America, and also frustrated with the ways that my school-based work can be perceived as less by those far away, sometimes simply because it isn’t as remote, edgy, or publicly presented as my work was in South Sudan. And then, I feel embarrassed when I feel defensive about it (or when I wonder if they’re right).
Of course, I’m giving you the broad strokes of struggle, and that is not the whole story. There have also been so many sweet things: beautiful sunrises over the valley, and friends stopping by with brownies, and cozy fires, and laughter with kids, and change witnessed in my counseling office. Good books, and plans for upcoming trips, and time with my team and community. Have I mentioned how much I love working with students at RVA? They constantly amaze me with their resiliency, kindness, and candor. As I would assume it is with you, my life is often a mystifying mix of laughter and tears, clarity and uncertainty, joy and sadness.
Nonetheless, this last week has felt a little darker than normal. During this season leading up to Easter, as we reflect on Christ’s sacrifice, I want to remember that, as Barbara Brown Taylor says, “…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
In these dark days of Lent, I believe that something new is beginning, even if I can’t see it yet. Because of this hope, I can rest in the small hiddenness of my school-based work, grieve deeply with those who feel the stealing sting of death, offer meals and hugs and questions to the displaced, and pray for the places shaken by instability. On this journey, may we sense the bright power of transformative resurrection at work in the places that seem to us the most dark.
PS: Regardless of your position on his perspective on Paul, I think you should consider reading some of N.T. Wright’s Lenten reflections found in Lent for Everyone: Mark, Year B.
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.