Saturday, December 13, 2014

Breathe

The water was pouring down, and I was floating in the deep currents of the Zambezi River. During rainy season, no one could do this. But the waterfall was low, and we were able to raft out, underneath one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Victoria Falls is breath taking, but I didn’t realize what it would feel like to have my breath literally taken away. After hiking down to the boiling point, where the waters of the Zambezi gather into rapids, we climbed over sharp, slippery rocks, across narrow, high ledges, and lowered ourselves into the raft. Paddling with all our strength against the current, we arrived at another mountain of slippery, enormous boulders. It was time to climb again. I fell, and emerged, bloody and bruised, on the other side of the mountain. Then, it was time to descend into the water.

We swam against the current, and arrived underneath the enormous waterfall. Our guide directed us onwards, until we swam to the point where the water poured down on us from three hundred and fifty feet. Everyone else made their way underneath the waterfall, but I was terrified. Alone in the water, I knew I had to follow, and so I continued to struggle, and joined the others underneath the flood. “I promise, there is space to breathe,” the guide assured me. 

Holding my breath, I entered the cascading falls, and bumped up against my companions. Water was everywhere and the mist surrounding us allowed little space for oxygen. “I can’t breathe...I can’t do this...I need out...” I was stuck in a tiny space, floating underneath the waterfall, unable to fill my lungs with air. But there was no way out, except to go underneath the falls again. “Just breathe,” the guide said.

And so I did. I inhaled air and felt my lungs fill with oxygen. Again and again, I sucked in air, and I realized that I would be okay. I could breathe. I could survive. And as I looked around, I saw a million cubic meters of water plummeting over me, and realized that I was in a beautiful place, an amazing place, and I was filled not only with air to breathe, but also with wonder.

After we swam out of the falls, and back towards the enormous boulders, our guide informed us that we would do a rock dive. Upwards we climbed, slipping on sharp stones, until we emerged, twenty-five feet above the Zambezi. The guide demonstrated: three huge steps forward, and then he flew into the air, and plummeted into the waters. Another person followed suit, and then another, and then another. The other guide told me, “You can climb back down to the boat if you are too afraid.” I decided that I would not let fear control me. One, two, three huge steps, and I flew off the rock cliff and into the swirling waters below. I sank down into the river, and emerged, full of laughter. As I paddled back to the raft, I looked around again. The cliffs emerged three hundred and fifty feet above me, and the waters fell with power and beauty. I had done it, and I had survived. I could breathe. I could jump. I could trust.

The days lately have been hard, and there have been times when I thought I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t move forward. I couldn’t survive. But I can. And I did. And I will. Sometimes, all you can do is open you mouth, and suck in the air, and know that the will to survive, the power to live, is deep within you. You breathe again and again, until you can look up, and look around, and see the enormous beauty that surrounds you.

I have said good-bye to people that I love lately. I have struggled with decisions that feel impossible. I have wondered if anything I do matters, if my work has meaning, if my life here has had purpose. I have felt my breath catch and wondered if I am out of air. And then I breathe. And then I look around. And then I see the enormous love, the enormous hope, the enormous resilience of those around me. And I know that beauty will win. I know that we can breathe, through the pain and through the fear and through the impossible good-byes.

We aren’t enough. We hear the stories of the racism and death and cruelty and oppression. We live these stories sometimes. Just feeling like I can’t breathe brings to mind Eric Garner and his last moments of life. It may make us all feel like we can’t breathe, like we can’t move forward, like life is just full of cruelty and despair. But we do breathe, and we do look around, and we do see that there are people full of love and courage, ready to breathe hope and justice and transformation into the world. And we realize that we can be those people, too, that we can be enough.

We keep on breathing. We keep on hoping. We keep on surviving. And in so doing, we can breathe love into the world. We can breathe hope into the world. We can breathe life into the world. We can be the beauty. We can be the breath. We can. I can. You can. No matter what waters try to pull us under, we will emerge. Again and again, we will emerge. And no one, and nothing, can keep us down. 

God willing, we will keep on breathing, until we see the beauty beyond the bruises, beyond the floods. Until we are the beauty.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Let Us March On

“I don’t want to talk about it.” The eyes that I have known since birth fill with water, and she turns away from me. I see her glance at my son, her darling grandchild, as she retreats to the kitchen. 

God of our weary years

But for some reason, I have to talk. There are others....She knows this. Still I go on through the list: the twelve year old boy, shot dead because of a toy gun; the young woman, shot dead after a car crash; the young man, shot dead because of loud music...

God of our silent tears

My mother shakes her head; her light brown hair catches the sun as she whispers the words, “How will he be safe?” Johnny is eating cereal and slurping his milk. He cannot hear the fear in her trembling voice. My son, with coffee colored skin and eyes so deep and dark I could stare into them forever. 

Thou who hast brought us thus far on our way

I cannot see what is next. What will happen in the years to come. I remember the words of a white acquaintance when Johnny joined our family. “Oh, I just love brown babies. They are so cute.” And I wanted to scream. Because they grow into black teenagers, and once they are no longer cute babies, some of them get shot.

Thou who hast by thy might led us into thy light

People warned us over and over again when we moved to Zambia, “Oh, please be safe. Oh, please take care of yourselves. It is dangerous over there.” I look at Johnny and I wonder. How do I keep him safe? Will it ever be safe for him in my country of origin? 

Keep us forever in thy path we pray

My mother has rocked him and sung to him and loved him since the day he joined our family. In her eyes, I see my love for him reflected. I know that his life beats in her heart. I know her suffering when she hears of black boys shot.

Lest our feet stray from the places our God where we met thee

And then I think of Michael Brown’s mother, and Trayvon Martin’s mother, and all the mothers whose worries have been realized, whose fears have broken through into horrifying reality, who don’t have to speculate; instead, they must say good-bye with weeping and wailing.

Lest our heart drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee

To be the mother of a boy with brown skin. My words fail me here. And so, I have been listening to these words, over and over, performed by the Boys Choir of Harlem... 

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty...

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

Yes, please. Please, dear God. Let us march on til victory is won.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Frankie's birthday

 
Today is Frankie's 9th birthday, which means I have been a mother for nine years. I clearly remember that first night after he was born. It was an overflow evening in the hospital, so we were sharing a room with another family. Two newborn babies, four parents, one hospital room = lots of crying and zero sleep. At one point, as I was lying awake, still in enormous pain from the birth, Frankie was screaming, the other baby was screaming, and Joel was somehow asleep on the couch. I grabbed my pillow and with all the strength I could muster, heaved it towards Joel, in a desperate attempt to wake him up. I missed. And so I lay there, now pillowless, trying to reach a screaming baby in the dreary, drugged stupor of someone who has been a mother for seven hours.

In the days that came, I found that my exhaustion and overwhelming feelings of incompetence were only matched by the intensity of my wonder and love. Figuring out the puzzle of a brand new human being was an amazing task, and when I felt that tiny person sleeping on my chest, I breathed in awe and gratitude. At the same time, whenever the baby monitor began to sputter the little noises that indicated that Frankie was ready to eat, yet again, my awe often turned into despair, and my gratitude fell towards desperation. I needed sleep. I needed time. I needed to not be a 24 hour feeding machine.

Nine years later, I cannot believe the person that Frankie has become, and I feel far more awe and wonder than I did in those early days. He is kind - so very kind - always willing to help and love and care for others. He is so generous that I worry, as he gives away his favorite possessions without hesitation. He is polite and thoughtful and insightful and easy to talk to. Conversations with Frankie make me think, and he often challenges me to be a better person, through his observations and concerns. I am astounded by the opportunity to be his mother, by the blessing of knowing this child.

It is still true that there are hard days; days when I worry that he is so sensitive that he will be hurt in a world that is not always so kind. There are times when he is so hard on himself that I want to require him to misbehave, so that he can learn self-forgiveness. I want Frankie to love Frankie as much as I do, and that is hard for him. The intensity of my love for him has only grown and this brings the agony of hurting with him whenever he feels pain.

There are ways that this reminds me of life in Zambia. The awe and beauty of being in a place full of faithful, generous, loving human beings. The wonder of being welcomed into a community, despite my difference. The honor of walking with friends through tremendous pain and incredible challenges. The privilege of working with colleagues as they transform communities and share the love of God in powerful ways. It is a deep joy and an amazing opportunity.

At the same time, there is the anguish that comes from love, from vulnerability. The struggle of wanting change, and knowing that it will be too slow. The fury of seeing injustice and abuse and poverty and hunger, and not having the power to stop it. The heartache of violence and suffering that emerges when we dig deep in our walk with one another.

Whether or not we are parents, I think this is our reality when we choose to love deeply. We have the blessing of awe and wonder. We have the blessing of joy and relationship. But we also have vulnerability and struggle. We also have wounded hearts and painful realities. It is not easy.

Frankie's ninth birthday reminds me that it is worth it. That first night, those first weeks, were excruciating. And I didn't even mention the labor...I was tired. I was in pain. I was overwhelmed. And I would do it over and over and over and over again, to have this amazing child that I am so honored to parent. It is worth it to love, to make yourself vulnerable, to experience pain, to allow for suffering, and to recognize that love will win. It will win in his life, it will win in my life, it will win in this world.

I am so grateful for all the ways that Frankie reminds me that love is always worth the risk, always worth the pain, always worth the vulnerability....Happy birthday, my darling boy. Thanks for all you teach me!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

God ain't dead.

Someone I love was hurt the other day, and it hurts me. The next day, a close colleague lost his beloved grandson, his six-year old namesake, the little boy he was raising as his own child. Another friend is trapped in a situation of abuse and manipulation. While there is tremendous beauty and resilience here in Zambia, the reality of pain and loss is never far away.

It reminds me of a sermon illustration from James DeLoach, "Some time ago I saw a picture of an old burned-out mountain shack. All that remained was the chimney...the charred debris of what had been that family's sole possession. In front of this destroyed home stood an old grandfather-looking man dressed only in his underclothes with a small boy clutching a pair of patched overalls. It was evident that the child was crying. Beneath the picture were the words which the artist felt the old man was speaking to the boy. They were simple words, yet they presented a profound theology and philosophy of life. Those words were, 'Hush child, God ain't dead!'

"That vivid picture of that burned-out mountain shack, that old man, the weeping child, and those words 'God ain't dead' keep returning to my mind. Instead of it being a reminder of the despair of life, it has come to be a reminder of hope. I need reminders that there is hope in this world. In the midst of all of life's troubles and failures, it is a mental picture to remind us that all is not lost as long as God is alive." 

My friends know that God is alive. And so they get up in the morning, they dry their tears, and they continue the work of building God's kingdom on earth. We need our time for weeping, our time for sorrow, but we also need those words like we need air to breathe. Hush, child, God's ain't dead. That is the air I breathe, the hope I have, and the faith I have learned from the people around me. 

I ask you to please pray, for me and my family, for my friends who are in pain, for all those who suffer in unbearable ways. Because God ain't dead, those prayers matter. So thank you, friends. Thank you.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Water

We are in the dry season right now, which means we have not seen rain in over six months. Not a drop. The boreholes are drying up, the shallow wells are nonfunctional, and the heat is extreme. October and November are the hottest months of the year, and we certainly don’t live in a land of air conditioning.

Last week, I was sick for awhile. In the middle of the night, I woke up, sweaty and nauseous, my mouth dry, my body screaming for water. I went into the kitchen, but the tap was off, as usual. I walked towards our reserve water buckets. They were empty; Joel had bathed the children, and there was no water to refill our supply. I looked for a half empty glass, scoured the fridge for a forgotten sip in a bottle, but with no luck. There was not a drop of water in the house - no clean water, no dirty water, no water at all. My mouth tasted like sandpaper, and my stomach continued to churn. But there was nothing to do; I decided to try my best to sleep. I knew that I would be able to get water in the morning.

But there are a lot of people who can’t just get water the next morning. A lot of people who wait and wait for rain to come. A lot of people who pray that the borehole does not dry up. A lot of people who weep as their shallow wells become empty holes. I was sick, and I could not get any water, anywhere. But I knew water would come in the morning. Others are sick, and they cannot get any water, anywhere. And they don’t know when water will come. 

No matter where I live in the world, I hope I never forget the frustration, and sometimes desperation, that I feel when I turn on the tap and nothing comes out. I hope I never forget the feeling in my body, when I want water desperately, and I simply can’t find any. I hope I never forget how hot and dirty and sweaty and sticky and tired and nauseous and weak and sad and dried up it can feel, when the water does not come. I hope I never forget these things, especially if I end up living in a place where long, hot showers are always possible, where the water that flows from the faucet is cold and clean and abundant. 

The dry season will end in a few months. Because of climate change, it lasts longer now than it did five years ago. Less rain, fewer crops, drier land. But the rain will come, and the wells will fill again, and after seven months of parched bodies, parched mouths, parched crops, water will flow again. 

There is always hope, always possibility, always promise. The rain will come. But in the waiting, in the parched land and parched lives that stretch on and on, there is pain, there is suffering, there is death. For most people here don’t have the privilege we have; most people here cannot just buy water when their supply runs out. 

And so we must do something, those of us who come from places where water is wasted and taken for granted. People like me, who lived in Michigan, the land of lakes. We must try to imagine a thirst that is so deep and powerful and all consuming, that we are desperate, absolutely desperate, for just a sip of water. Then we must transform that thirst into a thirst for justice, into our own thirst, a desperate need for a world where there is enough for all. And through that thirst, through that need, through that desperation on behalf of our sisters and brothers, we do something. We fight. For water, for food, for justice. We shout the words of our faith, "But let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." (Amos 5:24)

Below are links to two wonderful organizations, working to make sure that justice rolls down like water. The first is our organization, CCAP Zambia, and offers an opportunity to contribute to our Protected Water Department. The second is Church World Service, and you can purchase jerry cans, wells, filters, water pumps, and other items, to bring water to those who are thirsty. Finally, you can take action on climate change, which is causing tremendous pain for the most vulnerable, thirsty people in the world. The link at the bottom of the page will lead you to a petition and an action page.

As I write these words, I am thirsty. And although our water is currently off, we have some reserved in buckets in our kitchen, and I can drink until I am satisfied. There are too many people who do not have this privilege. So, let’s work together to create the kingdom, friends. Let justice roll down like water. Amen.    

Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Synod of Zambia: Protected Water Department

Church World Service: The Gift of Water

Church World Service: Sign the petition and pledge to take action on climate change


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Cat, the Rat, the Goat, and a Hundred Chickens

So, a goat moved in next door. A very loud goat. And while it is fun to peek over the fence and see its beard and horns, it is somewhat inconvenient that the goat chooses to lament his situation very early in the morning. At some point, I am sure, we will be no longer be troubled by the noise of this particular goat, but at that time, we will probably have some deeply sad children, as the neighbors consume their cute gray friend.

However, in my office, there is another gray companion who is not so cute, and really not a friend. He appeared running around the rafters, an enormous rat a few feet above me; yesterday and today, he decided that the area right above my desk is a good place to hang out. As I pointed out our visitor to my colleague, he suggested that we get the cat. It took a little while, because the cat didn’t want to enter, but after some time, we were able to shut the cat and the rat in my office, while I waited patiently outside for the execution to take place. It didn’t.

Instead, the rat escaped into the chicken coop attached to my office, where it terrorized a hundred chickens, all of whom are waiting to be killed in the next seven days. The red truck appears, the chickens get loaded, and the number slowly dwindles. They are now fully grown, so this flock will soon disappear. In any case, after the rat ran around with the chickens, and the cat gave up in disgust, I returned to my office, and we continued our work on a grant application. This particular grant would offer funding for an income-generating project, to sustain feeding programs in five of our community schools. 

Many of you know that our family is vegetarian; Joel and I haven’t eaten meat in fifteen years, and our children have been vegetarian their whole lives. And so, the impending doom of the goat, the chickens, and even the rat should disturb me. But it doesn’t. So many things are different here, and different now. So many of my thoughts are gray and uncertain. I am delighted that the chickens are being sold and slaughtered; the income from their sale will support amazing projects in the church. And our neighbor, the goat, will provide protein for people who need it. And I am glad the rat is gone, dead or alive, so that my colleague and I can continue working on a vital grant application, to feed children who are very vulnerable.

I love the way I am challenged here, the way my assumptions and way of life are questioned by the circumstances that I live in. My theology, my world view, my issues with trust and self-confidence, my dogmatic perspectives...almost all of the truths in my life have been expanded and nuanced through daily life in a developing country, with peers who see the world in phenomenally different ways than I do.

In any case, I am not going to mourn the goat, or the chickens, or the rat (if the cat finally does her job). Instead, I am going to celebrate getting the grant application done. I am going to celebrate the young adult volunteers working in the community schools. I am going to celebrate the initial stages of translating the curriculum. I am going to celebrate the HIV/AIDS youth training. There is a lot to celebrate here, and a rat-free office is one of them, God willing.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Building Together

Take a look at what our partners are building in Zambia....



And check out the new Synod website that Joel built...