Desolation and Mango Trees

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Desolation is defined as extreme sadness caused by loss or loneliness; the condition of a place or thing that has been damaged in such a way that it is no longer suitable for people to live in; the state or condition of being desolate. It is the word that comes to me over and over while driving through the camps.  The place is desolated, as are the people.  The loss, the loneliness, the homesickness hangs thick in the air.  There is great damage here in hearts and minds.  Every family has a story.  Every person within the family has one too. There are too many stories for all of them to be heard. It is collective sorrow.  Many of them have never known peace.  The tribal conflicts in their country have been going on for decades. The way I feel reminds me of after 9-11, when we were all shell-shocked and hurting in unison. Slow to trust. Feeling threatened. On high alert. In mourning. Trying to find our footing. Trying to rebuild lives with gaping holes in our hearts. Think of a day like that, only it lasts for forty years. What would it do to life?  Change it drastically.  I see that hollow shell-shocked look here.  It is heavy.  The physical loads they carry along the road are a representation of what their hearts are feeling. They are burdened under the weight of life. Hope is not visible in many faces or places. Even when talking about surface level things there is sorrow behind the eyes. Yet, they move forward.

At first glance, the primary school blends into the landscape as just more makeshift buildings in a countryside full of them. They are not much to look at, but they are sturdy pavilion-like structures that serve their purpose of protection of the students from the sun and the rain.  It is what is inside those pavilions which stirs my heart.  It is the teachers’ dedication to the students.  They see the kids as the future of their country.  They face insurmountable barriers and a lack of resources, but they continue on.  They are fueled by a spark of hope. I want to bring some oxygen to that spark while I am here.

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On the property of the school, the children planted some mango trees in the fall.  In the midst of a desolated land full of dust and heat, the tree team has faithfully watered those trees. They come even when the school is not in session to tend to the mangos. Each tree is small, and enclosed in a little cage type structure to protect them. If you look down into the enclosures you see green hope peeking back at you.  They are small representations, but they are taking root. The students who are tending them have a reason to get up and moving…they have ownership.  It is a beginning.

Peace for their country is being born here, in this one school, in this one settlement, in this one camp.  It seems a drop in the ocean. Why even try?  How will this really effect the whole situation? They are just kids, after all.  Ahhh, but do not undervalue what God can do with kids who have hope.  Kids who are resilient, who know what war feels like and do not want to return to it. They are moldable clay in God’s hands.  Designed for purpose.  Thoughtful and pensive.  Old souls in young bodies. Those who are learning how to dream about the future.

The teachers have been entrusted with this generation under some harsh circumstances.  They are passing the baton to this scared and wounded generation. They are teaching them to think of the future, since they have never thought past today. They are planting dreams, like the mango trees, and watching them begin to grow.  It is still too early to tell how many will survive, but with the right care there is hope, which is something that has been missing until they escaped the warzone. Mother Theresa said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean.  But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”  Each drop poured by the teachers into each child at Hope Primary School reaches each family and builds communities, which heals countries, which can change the world.  Do not underestimate the power of the mango trees.

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Success

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What is your measure of success?  Is it, what kind of car you drive?  Or if you have a nice house?  Is it, if you have a degree or two?  Is it, how much money you make or that you are raising great kids?  Is it, that you give back and serve others?  Or that you are a “good” Christian? Think about how you measure yourself and others for a minute.

The South Sudanese have a different definition of success which has stopped me in my tracks. They measure it this way.  None of my children have died today.  I got enough water to survive today. My house now has a roof. I found some food today to feed my family.  It is all so immediate here, in the camps. Not to mention the fact they had to journey through a war to get here. Lots of people on the roads going to and fro just trying to survive. If they survive the day they have been successful.

They have reminded me of how fragile life is and how much I take for granted. The things they work so hard for are things I hardly think about. I have water in abundance, and food and just about everything else they are fighting for. It is mind boggling to think inside the box of their limitations.

 

 

For example, I met with 3 of the teachers I will be training next week.  I saw the school, without the students, since they are on break until Feb.  They have no curriculum.  They have no walls.  They are just now getting bench-desks for the students, so they don’t have to bring their own chairs. There are 7 classes, grades 1-6, with a total of 600 students. Each classroom has between 76 and 96 students, with no resources. There are only 16 teachers total, and only 4 of them are officially trained. None of them are paid. The headmaster would like me to teach classroom management strategies, lesson planning, record keeping, and assessment for teachers who have nearly 100 students in their classrooms.

The main thing I want to bring them is encouragement!  It is so inspiring to see these men, who have all fled their country, come and teach the children.  The headmaster had oversight of many schools in South Sudan.  I told him how he inspired me, because I knew it is something deep within him. I am not sure if had I been through what he has I would take on such an undertaking.  I would rather sit and lick my wounds, but he said, “It is all about the children, and who will run our country in the future if we leave them now.”  Now, that is the long term thinking of an educator. Yet, I can see the enormity of the task is taking a toll on him. It is slow going.  One step at a time, but one step here can take months.  Getting a lunch program going is the current priority, otherwise the children leave midday and return hours later. If there was lunch on the premises they would get at least one meal a day for certain.  That meal would nourish their bodies, but also put their minds at ease from having to wonder when they will eat again.  The thought of starvation tends to interrupt concentration for things like reading and math. They are building the school to be a safe place for children.  A place of routine and normalcy in a chaotic environment.   Check out the kitchen below. Here’s the link to help.

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Down another road at Dreamland Children’s Home, the kids rushed the car with smiles beaming and arms outstretched.  Those smiles lit up the surrounding area.  They were some of the first genuine, joy filled smiles I saw.  Hugs were in abundance.  Those who have lost the most and are the most vulnerable have the most joy.  They brought some hope to my heart, which was overflowing with the bareness of what I was witnessing in the camp. There are 135 children at Dreamland, which is an orphanage that was established in South Sudan first.  They had to flee quickly with these children, as their village was overrun with rebels. What kind of fear does that bring? How long does it linger?

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When craft time came they could draw anything, and most of the drawings were happy ones, of houses, and cups with water in them, flowers, and cars. There is resilience here, in the most unlikely of places, but it is not all sunshine and rainbows. There was one little boy, maybe 6 or so, who drew a helicopter, a flower, and an ax with a stick figure under it.  He said the figure was him, and it made me wonder what horrors he has seen. He did not tell me anymore of his story, but he was proud of his drawing. I found comfort in that the flower was bigger than the stick figure and the helicopter, because it means his hope is growing.   I am thankful for the hearts of those who lead this orphanage as well as those who support it so these kids can know some love which will begin heal their little hearts.

Success is measured in every culture, by the people in it.  Somehow, these strong people have measured it with every drop of blood, sweat, and tears they have shed. Success for them equals survival.

Prepare for Landing

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The engines roar down the runway.  A small plane, with 20 seats in all, lifts me into the sky. The sun is barely up, but it shines off the waters of Lake Victoria, which from the air, looks like the ocean. Once we are airborne, we are above the clouds. The sky is brilliant blue up here.  The view from my window looks like peace. A sea of smooth white clouds as far as I can see. In the distance, the sky and the clouds meet with a blue line between them. Higher up, there are wispy clouds above.  The whole scene makes me think of flying over the ocean.

It is hard to believe that below this peaceful view there is war happening, people starving, children orphaned or abandoned, and fleeing for their lives. It is hard to believe people directly below me are trapped by war, in a country that is not their own.  We land on a dirt airstrip and once my things are dropped off and we pick up the team of three who are already here, we are off to visit the refugee camp to see for ourselves.

The road is an hour and a half of potholes which shake the van so that it rattles loudly.  Along the way, we pass women carrying babies on their backs and loads upon their heads…branches, tubs of water, produce in bags, and buckets full of wet clothing they have just walked miles to wash.  The babies are strapped to their mothers’ backs, in what looks like an uncomfortable position, but they sleep soundly there.  There are young boys herding brahma cows along the road.  Other young ones carry water buckets for miles to fill them at the nearest borehole.   The men ride motor bikes, or bicycles, or are on foot.  All along the road…going however many miles it takes to survive for this day.

The land in the dry season is desolate.  Dust is everywhere.  Many of the trees are bare and what little grass there is, is brown.  There is a breeze, but the sun is brutal in its heat.  The camp is not what I imagined it to be like.  The people are more spread out and many have built huts made of mud to replace the tarps the UN gave them.  Thatch roofs dot the landscape all around.  They seem randomly placed, as if the people stopped and said this looks good, I’ll put my house here. On each plot, there are multiple “buildings” all made of a kind of mud or homemade bricks.  Strung between them, clotheslines are filled with clothes of multiple sizes and colors, the same ones the women walked miles to wash. It is the only color amidst the muted surroundings.

It is currently brick making season. There are piles of dirt with men and boys in them. They are chopping it into finer pieces before mixing it with water to make mud.  Then they pour the mud into a rectangular mold before moving on to the next one.  Rows and rows of bricks lie in the sun to dry.  Once dry, they are stacked into huge piles, which I am told are then burned to make them hard.  It is only some of the backbreaking work I see.  In fact, everywhere I look I see heavy loads, carried simply for survival.  They walk for water. They make bricks. They cook over fires, in the heat of the day. They work dying gardens. They attempt to grow their food so they will have some beyond the once a month delivery from the UN.

Their eyes are mostly blank from the day to day routine.  Walking along doing what they must, in the blazing sun and dust. I do not witness too many smiles along the road, but neither do I sense fear.  They seem to have left the horror of war behind them and only deal with surviving today, in order to survive tomorrow, and the day after, and after.  I recognize the look of simply putting one foot in front of the other. Moving, because if you don’t you will die. These are strong people.  Hard and tired.  They are brittle like the bricks, and their lives have seeped away out of their eyes, leaving them to fend for themselves in whatever way they can. Their dignity has been stolen by war.  The land in the camps seems void of joy and hope.  The spark which you see in people when they laugh and smile is not present here.

Within the camp, which is like its own city, there are settlements.  The settlements are kind of like neighborhoods, only more random and spread out.  In Rhino Camp, there are many settlements.  Over 250,000 people are in this camp alone, and it is not even the biggest one. There are many more, all along the Ugandan boarder with South Sudan. It is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.  The NGOs (non-government organizations) are all here doing some work, but there are so many people it is difficult. Feeding them all, for who knows how long, is not a viable solution, but seems to be the only one we have at the moment. I am overwhelmed at the size and scope of the crisis. It is a mass of humanity all looking with curiosity as we pass by.  All of this before we even get out of the van. God’s heart is broken for these people…so is mine.

Flying Solo

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It might surprise you to know that traveling for this trip made me nervous.  I have traveled on my own domestically, but never internationally. There is something unsettling about traveling to a place where they do not speak my language or use my money. The language part isn’t so much of an issue, until you leave the airport.  The money thing…well, it’s math.  Conversion rates, different forms of currency all worth different amounts, none of which I am familiar with are a great cause for my anxiety.  Math has always scared me.  When going to a foreign country, I am usually on a needs-to-know basis with veteran travelers.  I blindly follow them, like a sheep or a puppy.  All transfers and layovers, all currency exchange, all transportation needs, I just follow along fully trusting they know what they are doing. Because of this fact, I do not know what I am doing, and now that I am solo, I am having to learn.

Hannah booked all of the details over Christmas while she was home.  She had the utmost confidence in me, so much so, I starting having confidence in me, too. Even as I approached the international terminal with knots in my stomach, I kept telling myself ‘I can do this.’  Have you ever noticed how irrational fear is, well, irrational? I arrived many hours early because I would rather sit around the airport for hours than get caught in a mad rush to make my flight.  I had managed to check in online the night before with a bit of help from some friends, so I simply needed to check my bag once I arrived. Piece of cake. I watched the bag slide through the little door into the black abyss with satisfaction.  I was done in five minutes.  It has been a while since I checked a bag, and to be walking with only my purse felt freeing.  However, as I walked away, I noticed the bag ticket was for my final destination, not my layover.  In a calm manner, I went back to the desk and asked the woman if I would have my bag in Qatar for my overnight layover. The very nice lady said, no, I would not. Fortunately, I had packed my medicine in my purse just in case my bag got lost…I had no idea I would shoot myself in the foot before I ever took to the sky.  Still that little glitch wasn’t the end of the world.  I chalked it up to a rookie mistake.

I managed to get to the right gate, in the right line, and into the right seat.  I know, I know, I hadn’t even left Atlanta yet and everything was in English, but still, I felt accomplished. In my seat was a packet with a sleep mask, socks, earplugs, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and lip balm.  Hurray! I tucked it away for my layover. Once we were in the air, the meal came and it wasn’t too bad, until the flight attendant spilled someone’s tomato juice down the side of my head.  I was covered with juice, in my hair, down my neck, and all over my shirt.  The poor girl, was horrified and tried desperately to wipe me clean with cocktail napkins, creating some early flight entertainment for all of my middle eastern friends. Eventually, she got some wet wipes and allowed me to try to clean myself off. Sticky, but tomato free, I continued on.

There was an adorable elderly couple next to me.  They spoke no English, but we did our best to communicate.  I helped the woman get her seat leaned back, much to the dismay of the man behind her.  Several hours into the 12-hour flight while I was sleeping, she began to groan.  I woke to her pulling on my arm.  After a game of charades, I discerned she was asking for a gas pill, which I did not have.  The poor woman was miserable for most of the flight, crying out in pain and switching positions every couple of minutes.  At some point her husband got up and let her lie down in both their seats so she could sleep.  I tried to go back to sleep to no avail.  On the bright side, I got to watch 4 movies.

When we arrived, I took off my compression socks to feet swelled up like grapefruit. All my calisthenics while waiting in line for the bathroom, had failed to keep cankles from appearing.  I did however, keep the audience entertained with my walking in place, ankle twirls, and toe lifts.  So that is something.

My true test came when trying to get from the airport to my air b and b.  This short little transfer involved money, transportation, and a language barrier.  I managed to get through immigration and to the taxi stand.  Cash only.  I had planned to pay with a credit card, so I wouldn’t have to exchange money for such a short stay.  I didn’t want to turn on my cellular data to get an Uber, so I went to the ATM.  I had no idea how much to get, so I asked the cab lady and she told me what to do. I got a cabbie who was super nice, but didn’t know where he was going, so I had a nice tour of Doha before finally arriving at my hotel.  The room looked nothing like the pictures on the air b and b website, but there was a bed and a toilet and a shower, so I was happy. I went to take a shower to remove the last of the tomato juice from my matted hair, but there were no towels.  I went to plug in my phone, but my adapter was not with me. Rather than try to find a place to eat, I ate the snacks I had in my purse…thank God, I put them in there!  I decided just to go to bed, in my clothes, tomato hair and all.

I went to bed at 6:00 pm local time, exhausted from my lack of sleep.  I was in deep REM when the mosque next door had the call to prayer, loudly over the speakers. I had heard one while on my driving tour, but somehow being woken from sleep made it seem louder.  Honestly, I thought it was kind of beautiful, but to hear it so often I think I would not like it for long. I did wonder, if I had a reminder to pray several times a day if it would help me remember.  I wished I had used those earplugs, for now I was once again wide awake at 8:00 pm.  Listening to cats fight in the streets…I think it was cats, anyway.  I drifted out until my room phone rang brining me back awake again.  It was the front desk calling to tell me they had a driver available to take me back to the airport at 4:00 am.  I had a few more hours of sleep before waking and being unable to go back to sleep.  That’s why I am writing this blog, trying to empty my mind so I can get drowsy again.  All of this adventure…on my first day.  Seriously, I thought this might be the most lighthearted of my blog posts on this trip.  A few more hours before I take my wrinkled, matted self, back to the airport.  Who knows what my next two flights will bring!  Stay tuned…

Pray for Me

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If you had told me a couple of years ago I would be going to Uganda to help establish a school in a refugee camp, I would have never believed you.  I walked away from a 20-year career as a public educator with no idea what I was going to do.  I only knew I couldn’t continue in the public-school system.  The grace had lifted. My time there was up.

Starting an educational consulting and tutoring company seemed to be a commonsense move.  Once an educator, always an educator…in some form or fashion. To supplement a start-up, I took a job with Adventures in Missions walking the parents of World Racers through their own journeys.  I had been volunteering for them since Hannah’s return, and it was something I loved doing. Why not get paid to do it?  Mornings in the office, afternoons building up the tutoring business.  Win-win.  I had this feeling someday these two jobs would intersect.

In October, I had a nudge in my heart to go and find out if the plan for long term missions bases had an educational component to it.  When I asked, I discovered Adventures was a partner in something called the South Sudanese Refugee Project.  Currently, the largest refugee crisis since WWII is happening with over 2 million people displaced due to the war in South Sudan.  Have you heard about it?  Me neither.

What I found out is as shocking as it is heartbreaking.  86% of those in the camps are women and children.  Many of the children are orphans or unaccompanied minors who do not know if their parents are alive or dead. They flee in the night through the bush to try to get to Uganda before they are caught by the rebels. Some families send their children because they have a better chance to make it out alone than with the whole family. Some families, attempting to escape, have taken in children they come across along their way.  In the refugee camps, these families have as many as 10 or 15 children living in the tarp covered shelters with them.  They flee with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.  Many die along the way from dehydration, or malnutrition. Others have witnessed the rebels come through their villages killing everyone.  Kids have seen their parents slaughtered.  The trauma rate in the camp is nearly 100%.  Everyone has a story of the atrocities of war due to the fighting of numerous rival tribes in the region.  This is happening in 2018.

Ministries on the ground reached out to AIM and formed a team of volunteers to work with the refugees.  It is a big project with many moving pieces.  One of those pieces is Hope Primary School, which was started under a tree by a teacher who fled South Sudan.  He gathered children together and began teaching.  The South Sudan Project collected money to build a pavilion for the school so they could be under shelter.  Now, there are approximately 600 hundred children (numbers change quickly in refugee camps) and only 16 teachers.  The UN gave the school 30 desks.  One book per classroom.  No chairs.  The children bring their own.  It soon became evident to those working on the project that the school has the potential to become the center of the project. A bridge to create community and some routine in a rather chaotic place. The school is an important first step to educate the next generation of leaders of a war-torn region of the world.

The idea is to develop an educational model that would empower the children rather than just give them handouts.  It would provide practical involvement that would not only build the school, but give students opportunities to transfer their academic knowledge to real life problems in the camp and how to think critically about hard issues.  Growing food.  Building shelters. Having teams of students and community members working together on projects around the school. The overall project is huge, but starting with the school will help get the whole community involved in building, empowering them to take ownership and create what they want for themselves and their community for however long they are there.

For the school part of this project there was the need for an educator.  A practitioner who sees the strategic vision, but can put in practical steps which break things down in pieces that are manageable in such a difficult place.  I had no idea about this project, when I asked about an educational component.  When I read the documents about the school my heart about beat out of my chest.  All the initiatives, mandates, and reforms I have been a part of in my career are included in the outline of how this school is designed.  I cannot tell you how this will all look, or what the exact steps will be.  I only know the first one is for me to go to Uganda and meet these incredible teachers who have seen the future of their troubled country in the children.  They have put aside their own problems and are teaching without pay, so the children can have a better future.  As you can imagine, this pulls on my teacher-heart.

I leave on Monday for a 10-day trip to Uganda to see Hope Primary School first hand.  Please pray that what I bring will be useful and that I can do some training with the teachers as well as hear their stories.  I know my heart will be broken with what I hear and see. There is a media team coming a day or so after me to film a documentary of the crisis.  I will share their work with you as they post it.  It is our desire to blow on the coals of hope to ignite a flame.  Only God can do a work in such conditions, please pray his presence surrounds this camp and this project.

The Heart of God

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I climbed the marble stairs one at a time.  They were enormous, but beyond my notice because at the top of them were the most massive doors I had ever seen.  My heart pounded but it was difficult to distinguish if it was the climb or the awe which made it beat so rapidly.

“What is this place?” I whispered to no one in particular.

The doors stretched more than triple my height, and that fact alone was overwhelming. They were a deep chestnut-red with a rich grain that displayed the character of each board. The metalwork on the enormous hinges was exquisite.  Like a vine, it flowed across the bottom and top reaching the entire width of the doors, which was considerable. Standing at the top of the stairs, I just stared, taking in the craftsmanship.

I was drawn toward them with a sudden desire to touch the surface of the wood.  I had no idea how thick they were, but I knew feeling the wood with my fingertips would not create enough noise to disturb whoever was inside.  I just had to slide my hand along the grain. The texture was unusually smooth, like silk.  I thought it would be rough, or at least course, but instead it seemed to almost quiver beneath my touch.  The more I rubbed the surface, the more I felt a warmth radiating out of the wood.  I had only intended one touch, but I could not help more as I admired these doors.  With one hand sliding across the timber, the massive door creaked open a few inches.  I stepped back for fear of what might be inside, but only for a moment because curiosity pulled me forward again.

I lined my eye up with the crack in order to see within.  When my head rested against the door it opened wider.  I stepped into a great hallway, trying to see it all from high to low. My anxiety was replaced with a calm once I was inside.  The hall appeared to be never ending, and was at least three stories tall.  Each floor had doors on both sides. My footsteps clicked along the corridor as I approached the doors on the first level.

“Where am I?” I wondered out loud.

“In my heart,” came a voice.

I smiled because I knew that voice.

“Step into the first room.”

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I walked to a door, not nearly as big as the first door, but still formidable in size.  I turned the handle and pushed it open.  I was immediately in a rowboat on the ocean.  It was nighttime and I was alone. The water was inky black, as was the sky.  It was difficult to see for the blackness and shadows.  In front of me was and outline of what looked like a train.  It was hard to make it out, until I slid through the water nearer to the line of barges. They appeared to be like cattle cars, only instead of on land, they were moving across the sea. A Sea Train moving in the darkness.  My little rowboat was moving towards it. I felt drawn with the current and the boat I was in, carried me to the side of the train.  It was only when I got close, that I saw the cars were full of women and children.  One mother threw something which made a loud splash into the water near my boat; it was her baby.  I scrambled to get the baby before it sank into the sea, only to see there were hundreds of others already dead and floating in the water. Children from infants to older ones, floated like buoys.  Over the edge of my boat the ocean was filled with children sinking into the cold inky black. Some of them reached towards me desperate for me to take their hands, others stared blank dead stares.  Some were sinking and disappearing beneath the surface, and others were floating face down.  Horrified, I grasped the baby and pulled her out.  She was shivering and crying.  I had no blanket for her.

The Sea Train continued moving past me and other mothers were reaching through the bars on the windows of their cars.  Holding their children out to me.

“Please, take my child,” they urged.

“You must help me,” they cried.

“Here, please take him.”

They called out to me in quiet but urgent voices as I moved as close as possible to their train.  Babies and children were being tossed overboard for me to retrieve.  I was grabbing for the ones the mothers were holding out to me, while at the same time listening to splashes all around me. My boat was filling up with children, and more and more were raining down.  The water was filling with dead and crying babies.  The mothers were desperate. All of this was being done in secret, in relative quiet, under cover of darkness, and I knew if I was caught I would be killed.  My heart pounded hard.  I called out for someone to help me rescue the children, but I was the only one there.  I watched, weeping as children sank into the deep black waters. It was impossible.

The mothers kept moving on the Sea Train, towards their deaths.  Their hands were on the bars as they looked at me, with a boat full of their children.  As they wept, their tears glistened in the moonlight. I wept too. They trusted so completely, that they released their hands and let their babies fall into the sea, in hopes someone would rescue them. I wept that they had no other choice.  I wept that I could not save them all.  I wept as they died in the water.  I wept as I rowed my boat towards the shore in an attempt to keep some of them alive, knowing it was a fraction of those who needed to be rescued. Knowing that hundreds of others were floating alone in the darkness, never to feel their mothers’ embraces again.

Back in the hallway, I asked, “Why did you bring me here?”

“I want to share my pain with you.  I weary of carrying it alone.”

“Do all of these rooms have that much sorrow in them?”

“Yes, too much pain.  Every one of them,” he said.

“I do not think I could handle that much agony.  How do you do it?” I asked.

“I invite people into it with me. It is not up to you to handle it. I simply want to share some of it. I want someone to walk with me into it…someone to be in it with me.  It eases the grief to share it.”

“Like when a loved one dies and friends come around to sit with you?” I asked.

“Yes.  Like that.  All of these are my loved ones, and the weight of their suffering is heavy.  And you just went into ONE room.  There are hundreds of others.”

“I cannot imagine the ache of your heart,” I whispered.

“I would like to show you…give you a tour.  Would you do that for me…take a tour of my heart?  Would you write about my broken heart?  Share what you see and hear?”

“I will try, if you will give me the words,” I replied.

“I will give them to you…as always.”

I put my hand on the second door handle and pushed it open.

 

…I woke up from my dream on New Year’s morning, safe and snug in my bed, but with a new ache in my soul.  I did not know the full meaning of the dream or what God wanted me to do with it.  I have held it for two years, waiting for the release. First, the refugee crisis in Greece, and now there is a refugee crisis in Uganda where mothers are once again saying goodbye to their children.  Families are separated by war, and I am seeing from a distance the need for the story to be told, for the grief to be shared.  Stay tuned.

What is it with Millennials?

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By now most of us have heard or witnessed the problems with the millennial generation. This is what we hear, regularly. They cannot problem solve.  They have no motivation.  They want everything handed to them.  They are too sensitive.  We have also heard the reason for these issues is our parenting.  We presented them all trophies.  We overprotected them.  We solved their problems for them.  We gave them too much stuff.  All of these problems have been analyzed to death.  As with every age before us, there is a generation gap.  It is part of the individuation process for children to find differences with their parents.  No matter how much we thought “my children will never” our children did.  No matter how much we “trained them up in the way they should go,” some of them didn’t go that way.

However, I have a hard time painting all millennials with a broad brush. I know there are issues, but I do not believe every 20 something is responsible for acting like a spoiled brat.   I cannot jump aboard the millennial bashing train any more than I can take all the mommy guilt for raising them the best I knew how.  For me, it is not about finding out why this generation turned out the way they did.  It is about going forward now, and I am thinking maybe we need to look at things a bit differently.

  • The trophy generation- Every kid gets a trophy made them intolerant of injustice which is not a bad thing. They want to make sure everyone has equal opportunity. When they see injustice, they cry out loud enough to make others uncomfortable with the status quo.  Isn’t that what some of our revered leaders from history did?  They value fairness.
  • The technology generation- Raised on video games might have caused them to have a warped view of reality, but it also caused them to be innovative with all things techno…including all the apps we all use every day, and life-saving surgeries done by robotic machines. They think in computer language and interpret for the rest of us. They value technological progress.
  • The traveling generation- We wanted them to go, to experience the world in ways we never got to.  They came home with a global world view and the idea that people are worthy of care no matter their status. They love cultures and the differences in them.  They see value in diversity.
  • The spoiled generation- They got everything they wanted and then some.  They had so much that they realized life isn’t really about stuff.  They are not motivated by money and stuff because they realize it is futile.  They want to make a difference and change the world.  Hence, the tiny house generation. They value experiences.
  • The picky generation- They don’t want just any job.  That means good ones or bad ones.  They want the right job and because money doesn’t motivate them, they are happy to take odd jobs until the right one comes along. The corporate ladder doesn’t appeal to them, because they watched it nearly kill us.  They value balance in life.
  • The spotlight generation- They have lived their lives online.  Their every move is posted, and while this has contributed to self-centeredness and loneliness at the same time, it has also made them care less about what others say. They are bombarded with opinions that oppose theirs on a daily basis, in ways we could never imagine at their age.  That will be key when they are leading in the future and they have to stand strong.
  • The warrior generation- I believe these millennials have a unique perspective unlike any generation before them.  They are as yet, untested in what it means to lead others. They are idealistic and holding fast to their beliefs, unwavering and unwilling to compromise.  Just like we raised them to do.  We just didn’t think they would hold to beliefs other than ours.

So, to review. They wander.  They are not motivated by money.  They challenge the status quo.  They question everything and everyone, even us.  They don’t tolerate hypocrisy.  They accept all people.  They are passionate.  They are caring.  They want to love people and they want others to love people. They like to contemplate, discuss, and analyze. They make us think.

Jesus did all those same things.  Some of us taught them about him and his life, but we didn’t expect them to take us literally.  They snub the religious leaders of the day…which is us.  They walk away from church, because they disagree with the way it boxes God in and they are tired of being judged.  They question their faith, and many have left it entirely, because their views of the world don’t fit within the four walls. They have outgrown the church of their childhood; it is too small-minded for them in its current state.

We are desperately trying to get them back in, but what if it would be better for us to get out?  What if, instead of analyzing statistics we stepped out into their world for a bit to see what it is that drew them there?  What if their dispersal is part of the plan to expand the church instead of allowing it to die?  They are going.  They are loving people.  They are changing the world.  I’m not sure they realize it yet, or if we do, but they are.  They are young.  Untested. Idealistic. (Weren’t we all?)  But they are powerful.  They have roots.  They are not snowflakes deep down.  One day, hardship will awaken them to resilience they don’t know they have yet.

What if instead of speaking of them as if they are less than, we encouraged them or prayed for them? What would happen if instead of bashing their ideas, we listened?  What would happen if we brought them to the table to reason together?  What if instead of preaching down at them we walked beside them, shared our lives and experience while allowing them to step up and do things their own way?

My point? It is a different world than we grew up in, with different challenges.  It will require a different group with different skills.  They are that group.  Recent history has written parts of their story that are beyond their control, or ours.  Their lives have been shaped the way they have, bad parenting and all, for a purpose.  I believe that to my core.  They are going to rise up and carry us into the future, where they will be the leaders of the world.  Don’t you think it’s time we helped them get on with that?

Lord,

I come and ask that you would preserve this generation of young people.  Give them grace to step into their roles which you have ordained for them.  Give us grace to let them.  I pray you pour courage and confidence into them as the torch is passed from one generation to the next.  I pray those who have left their faith would find it again and that you would whisper tenderly of your love for them to their ears. I thank you for their passion and their desire to make a difference in the world.  I thank you that they see injustice in places we have ignored.  I thank you that they feel deeply for the pain of the world and that they do not shy away from it, but lean into it.  Give them creative solutions and eyes to see how to improve things.  When they experience difficulty show them the resilience you have poured into them unaware.  Help it to bubble up from within and spill over.  You have given them the power of questioning, to bring the spotlight to every system.  You have created in them the desire to know.  The desire to change things.  The desire to be better than those before them.  Show them how to steward these desires.  Protect them from disunity and divisiveness.  Protect us all from these things, so that we can move together and not apart.  Draw a circle around us that builds us up together.  Help us to stay inside your protective shield.  Give us eyes to see this generation as the warriors they are, in their ability to stand strong.  In their compassion.  In their hearts of care.  Help us to learn from them, by listening and going to see what they see.  Help us to come along side and to allow them to show us their point of view.  Help us to share our experience with them in a productive and helpful way.  Guard our hearts and theirs, from the pride and arrogance which stifles our ability to build friendship with one another. Help us to lay down our offensive posture, and to pick up peace and a desire to forgive.  Heal the rift between us so that we all can move forward stronger together than apart.  Lord, these are amazing young people.  They emulate you in so many ways.  Thank you for spreading them out.  Give them a vision of why.  Show them what your body looks like in action.  In Jesus Name and by his blood, Amen.

Miracles (Part 3)

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I am a skeptic. I was raised in America where skepticism is clothed in the intellectual pursuit of knowledge.  The traditional church doesn’t seek out miracles due to the belief that they were only needed when the church was being formed and the Bible was being written.  The non-traditional church believes that healing happens every time, as long as you have enough faith.  I have walked both these paths. I have seen healing happen. I have also sat in hospitals and begged for healing that never came…at least not in the way I expected it to.  I wanted the supernatural-get-up-and-walk-out-completely-healed type of healing as I sat in the chemo chair.  I wanted the no-question-God-just-did-a-miracle experience when my husband had a brain injury. You know, take up your mat and walk.  Instead, I concluded there are many ways God heals, and sometimes he doesn’t at all.  He CAN heal, but he sometimes chooses not to.  It is what I have witnessed in my faith journey.  But just when I have come to some to peace with this healing question, he challenges me again by doing a miracle…the kind I have been asking to see.

IMG_1583In Romania behind a gate, a woman tells us she has trouble hearing us.  A scripture comes into my mind…faith comes by hearing.  I begin repeating it in my heart.  Faith comes by hearing.  Faith comes by hearing.  Over and over I pray it. The woman’s daughter tells the story to us.  Her mom had a bad ear infection.  They had gone to many doctors, but none of them could fix it.  It just kept coming back.  One doctor decided to go in and clean out her ear, which resulted in a punctured ear drum and permanent damage to her ear. Her head scarf covered her right ear.  A Racer on our team is bold enough to ask the woman if he can pray for her ear so she can hear. He asks her to remove the scarf and gauze from her ear.  He has seen miracles, and therefore knows they exist.  I, on the other hand, would not have been bold enough to even ask, because ‘what if’? What if it doesn’t happen?  What if she thinks we are crazy?  What if God looks bad? Fortunately, none of those questions had to be asked because after praying for her twice, her ear opened up and she could hear.  We offered a song and she gladly accepted the opportunity to hear a guitar and a chorus of Amazing Grace.

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Still amazed by this event, we continued our day with Kid’s Club.  It was a typical VBS type format, songs, bible story, and games.  Children followed us down the dirt road to our meeting place.  They arrived in all manner of clothing. Some with only underwear, some barefoot, some in clothes too big, all covered with a layer of dirt from the walking.  I was struck by the absence of shame or embarrassment as well as the innocence. During the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den, the reader asked, “Have you ever been scared like Daniel?”  There was a loud and unanimous “NO!” from the group of mostly boys. When the story was over, we were starting to make the transition to games, when one boy said he needed God in his life so he would not be afraid.  The other boys watched carefully as he sincerely prayed for Jesus to come and help him in his life to not be fearful.  Two more also wanted to pray, and though these childlike prayers were not dramatic on the outside, it occurred to me they were miracles nonetheless.  A broken heart made whole is no less significant than ears than can hear.

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Later in the evening when all the teams were reviewing the day, another story was shared by another self-proclaimed skeptic.  The mom of a Racer told the story.  They were conversing with a woman who was blind, when her Racer daughter simply asked the woman if she could pray for her eyes.  The woman agreed. They gathered around the woman to pray and afterwards, she said she could see a little.  The Racer prayed again, because she wanted to woman to see a lot!  Soon the woman was dancing, running around, and kissing everyone she SAW, because she SAW them. Her eyes were healed!  As the mom relayed the story, she said, “I am usually a skeptic, but what I felt as we were praying was like nothing I have felt before. What I saw I have never seen before.  It was real, and the woman could see.”  For the skeptics among us it was a gate-opening experience.  The places in our hearts that were sealed off to the possibility of dramatic miracles were swung wide open.  The King of Glory came in and showed us all what happens when we open the gates of our hearts for him to come in.  Once again, he used miracles to get attention for something much deeper than physically seeing or hearing, but rather to open hearts to SEE and to HEAR his heartbeat for everyone to be loved and whole.  The gates of Romania and the hearts which visit there are opening.  Maybe not ALL the way, maybe things are tentative, but they are opening nonetheless. They are a representation of all the ways we close ourselves away.  All the ways we divide ourselves and forget to look up to the one who can…open ALL the gates.

Stories of the Gates (part 2)

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After the World Racers and their parents have been reunited with many tears and much joy, the mission begins. Over the next few days our hosts create plans for how we can help them in their mission to love their people well. It is pretty straight forward, feed the poor, care for the widows and orphans, open they eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. It is really not complicated.  Love people. Many are without food and so we are sent in teams to homes of those in need, to offer food and prayer.  Walking down the streets of Draganesti with my team, I am again drawn to the gates.  As we walk out of the small town to the smaller backroads, we go from pavement to dirt yet, the walls and gates remain the same. Every house is walled off and closed to the street outside. It strikes me that the people we pass along our way are also closed off with faces which express no emotion. Segmented.  Divided.  Shut away. Without our local interpreters, there is little chance we would be welcomed.  However, because we are with people they know and trust, the gates swing open to us, and inside we learn the stories.

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Our first gate is wooden planks that are roughly put together. No paint, no frills, just boards hammered together. On either side of the gate stands a cinderblock wall that spans the property. We are invited inside by a young girl of 14 with big brown eyes, who knows our Romanian interpreter. Inside are two block houses, which are more like single rooms, and a shed for the animals. The family transportation is an old red bike leaned against the wall. The first house within the compound is painted blue, with red trim windows which have no panes, but are covered with sheets.  The girl’s father is shy at first, standing behind a curtain which serves as his front door.  He passes out anything from inside that might be used for a chair. Every person with our team is offered a place to sit, be it a chair, stool, or crate.  There are numerous family members all in one compound and our interpreter explains that the man’s wife died a few weeks ago from a sudden brain aneurism.

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To show us the customary veil of grief over his home, the man comes out and points to a black cloth draped and tacked on the side of his house. His eyes tear up as he tells the story of his wife. He is overwhelmed by grief and what he will do to raise his daughter. He is roughly put together, just like his gate. He seems rickety in his sorrow. He points to his heart and rests his hand on his chest, which needs no interpretation.  We offer condolences and gather around them with our prayers. The food we leave is appreciated, and I find that within the walls and behind the gates the normally stoic people become open, passionate, and vulnerable.  They quickly go to the deep and painful places in their lives as if sharing their hearts is the most natural thing in the world. It is another Romanian contrast…indifferent on the outside, hospitable and tender on the inside.

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The next gate is made from tin. It is neatly cut and pieced together in three parts from bottom to top.  Its wall looks to be a rough stucco, or concrete of some kind. Once again, we are welcomed inside.  An older woman takes ladles of water and throws them on the ground to settle the dusty floors for our entrance.  That way our feet will not get dusty, and since there is no grass, this is the way to care for the yard. A man and his son, who knows our interpreter, begin the offering of chairs.  They redirect us into the shade of a tree in the front of the house and give us the best seats where we are most protected from the glaring sun. Again, there is more than one house and though it is unclear to us how they are related, we know each person within the walls are family.  Once they have brought every possible chair, we are seated. One of our team has a mosquito bite which is bleeding, and a middle-aged woman notices. She sends her son to get water and a cloth, along with medicine.  She kneels in the dirt to tend to the wound putting the needs of her guests as her highest priority.

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Soon after, she begins her story. Her mother died recently, and she explains that is why she still wears the black scarf of grief around her head.  She is full of emotion as she tells her story and at times, tears flow freely.  A man on our team tells her that his father just died recently also and they share tears of sorrow.  She cared for her mother for some years before her death and now she misses her.  She is hurting because her mother was too sick to make the customary trip to be baptized before she died, and it weighs on her heart.  A girl in our group paints a picture of her mother’s new healthy body being baptized by Jesus in heaven. We gather around the family for prayer and the woman looks us each in the eyes with gratitude.  They ask us to take a photo to remember them by so we can continue to pray for them. They are grateful for the food and for our visit, but not half as thankful as we are that she blessed us with her story. It is carefully crafted together from the cut pieces of her life, from bottom to top, just like the gate.

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Gate number 3 is a tall and strong gate.  It appears to be made from iron or some other kind of metal.  It was not ornate, but sturdy.  We were invited inside by a little girl of about 4 who was wearing only underwear and a smile.  Her face lit up like the sun and she ran to greet our interpreter, and pulled her into the gate.  This family compound had three four homes inside, all cinderblock. None were painted.  Rather than bring the chairs to us, this time the man brought us to the chairs, inside his home.  It was the only room we saw all day which had a door. The walls were barren in the small blue room, which barely fit a couch and a loveseat.  We each took our seats as directed by the man.  Soon he was surrounded by his daughter, and granddaughter and other children from the family because the door stayed open, and we were a source of curiosity.  He told us his story.  Drinking too much and how he realized it would kill him and so he stopped.  Now he works hard and he told us of his children and his 10 grandchildren.  His family are migrant workers who go to other countries to find work since in Romania the jobs do not pay enough to survive.  His sons live in Spain with their families because work is abundant there in the vineyards. He is proud of his home and the way he has cared for his family. He tells us of his hard work to pay for his compound.  He believes that many local people who say there is no work are simply lazy and are not willing to do what it takes. He tells us all of his children are hard-working and that they all work together as a team to provide all that they have.  He tells us that from Adam to Noah all men were from the same family.  At the tower of Babel is where we first spoke different languages and spread out, but under our differences we are all still the same family.  We are brothers and sisters.  We pray for blessings on his house and leave toys for the children. This strong and sturdy man does not need food for his family because he earns it.

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These are the stories of the gates.  Three of them.  Each one I pass on our way back to town I wonder, how many more stories of heartache and pain?  How many more are without hope?  How can they survive within the gates and doors that lock them away from others?  Authoritarian government from years past lingers over the people still.  Fear and mistrust hang in the air and yet, the gates are beginning to open. The stories are being told and hearts are opening up. Psalm 24 comes to my mind and I pray it as I pass each gate.  Lift up your heads, O gates of Romania, be lifted up, O ancient doors which try to close people off.  Allow the King of Glory to come in to bring hope and love.  Who is this King of Glory?  The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle, who will fight for you. He will fight for your family. He will fight for your life and your heart.  You are not alone behind your walls.  He is the Lord of hope who will make it safe to open your gates and doors.  Who is this King of Glory?  The Lord of hosts, he is the King of Glory. Precious people of Romania, you are not forgotten or abandoned.  You are not alone, the King of Glory sits upon your walls, he hovers over the gates and doors waiting for them to open.  Lift your heads O you gates and doors.  Lift your heads to hope.

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Romania (Part 1)

IMG_1629Outside my window there is a cacophony of noise, roosters crow, dogs bark, and pigeons coo.  Horse drawn carts clop, clop along and cars rev their engines and honk their horns.  The sky is baby blue with cotton ball clouds. Someone is sweeping down below and the sound of the broom echoes up into my 4th floor window, along with sounds of lively conversation in a foreign tongue of which I am beginning to become familiar.  After rain earlier in the week, there is a chill in the air, the first sign seasons will be changing soon.  Pigeons sit on the scalloped terracotta shingles; their feet make the sounds of tiny tap dancers above my head.  The gray concrete building contrasts with the tattered roof tops creating an old-world feel. In the distance, I hear a rooster crow and the birds outside my window seem to reply.  I do not understand the language of the birds here like I do at home, but I gather that they are joyful that the sun is shining. Some things are the same despite language and species barriers.

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Romania is a land of contrasts.  There are colorful signs in the modern cities which proclaim any number of products, sitting right next to buildings that have stood for centuries. The alleyways twist and turn in narrow branches which seem to have no pattern to my foreign eyes. Some buildings are skeletons of their former selves and others are shimmering with new sleek designs.  Cafes are hidden amongst the twisted maze of streets and behind the gates. If you stumble into one of the nondescript buildings you find laughter and good food abound within courtyard walls.  Just outside, markets from a bygone era boast with local produce. Drivers talk of old times, during communism when power came and went along with heat, but “It wasn’t so bad.” He tells us the fall came quickly, but the transition is very slow ‘in the minds’ because there are many who still think in the old ways.  The younger generation has their own vision, but it has not come to pass yet. We cannot tell if he himself has a preference.

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In the train station his words ring true, as I look into the faces of the Romanian people. The older women wear head scarves, printed dresses with aprons.  Their faces are kissed and leathered by the sun and hardened without a glimmer of a smile.  In stark contrast, the younger women are dressed in modern clothes. Old and young alike have eyes that tell a story of hard work and fending for themselves.  Old men with hats and talk to one another as if they are solving the problems of the world.  They are animated in their discussions revealing a passion you cannot see just by looking.  Aboard the train, chatter is happening all around and much of it contains the word Americani. We are easily identifiable among the local people. Soon we settle in for our 2-hour ride.  A baby cries nearby, and the mother works diligently to get her to sleep.

Outside the big glass window, the city fades into farmland.  Fields of corn and open skies trick me into thinking I am in the Midwestern US, until I see the fields upon fields of sunflowers.  Their heads are hanging down at the end of their season, but I can imagine the breathtaking scene it would be when they are in full bloom.  The farms roll on and on with villages in between. Patchwork rectangular fields create a quilt with dirt the color of chocolate, tall green grass, and swatches of golden stalks of corn at the finish of the harvest. Houses are surrounded with fences and gates, some beautiful, some bedraggled.  Most every house has some chickens wandering nearby. Within the many of the walls are gardens of flowers, fruit trees, and vegetables.  Roses and zinnias are lovingly cared for among many flowering plants which are unknown to my eye. On the streets, the older women sit on stools or benches beside produce that looks freshly picked from the garden behind the fence. In the heat of the non-air-conditioned train car, people doze on their journey to far away cities.  The occasional ring of a cell phone interrupts the feeling of being in another time period.

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The clouds outside the window have transitioned from white to gray and the sun has gone into hiding.  By the time we reach our stop the rain is beginning.  We hop from the train directly onto the track and wrestle our luggage over gravel and tracks.  We attempt to roll it down the stairs where we will wait for our ride.  The stray dogs greet us, hoping for a morsel of food.  It is clear that feeding one would start a frenzy from the others nearby who turn their heads our way, and so we resist the urge. After some time in the rain, we make our way under the overhang of a nearby building to wait for our ride who arrives shortly. We are travel-weary and wet while we wait, but once we are snuggly in the van, we drive past more gates of all kinds and colors.  They each tell their own story, and I have to quench the desire to stop and ask them for more details.  There will be time for that later.  We arrive at the church, the only gate that is open, and we are welcomed by our hosts with open arms and hearts.  I am intrigued by this country of contrasts and I look forward to having my curiosity satisfied in the days ahead.