Wednesday, December 28, 2011


I am off-center.  For the last three days, I have gone to a local chapel to kneel before God just to try to find my way back.  At home, I can’t pray, can’t concentrate on Scripture, and can’t locate the stillness.  Plastic inflatable nativity scenes and snowmen, unwrapped do-it-yourself crafts, and new books seem to be crowding in.  I want to be present and engaged, but am unfocused and distracted.  I have checked Facebook, Twitter, texts and email more often in the last five days than maybe ever.  And, there are fewer posts on each than normal.  I have watched movies that remind me of a different time in my life.  I am looking for something, searching desperately.  

I wonder if I’m not the only one going through this kind of disconnectedness.   I wonder if you too have wandered around Facebook in the last few days, updating your photos, reviewing the timeline feature, reading the “info” about your high school friends.  I wonder if you have looked around at the new stuff you have and somehow feel less whole than when you didn’t have that stuff just days ago.  There is such restlessness of soul it is hard to even put into words.  Something is reaching out, but missing, like trying to grab the next monkey bar with sweaty hands.  I am with family and friends, at home, with home-cooked turkey.  Why are things just slightly off?  Isn’t this the time when I should be most connected and grounded, most fulfilled?

Has something suddenly, yet imperceptibly, disappeared…or surfaced…or shifted?  Where is the center?  Where has it gone?  

Maybe I was never on-center to begin with.  Maybe much of my work, my ministry, my life is really about the affection, affirmation and acceptance I seek from other people.  So, when I am not experiencing any of these, I am discombobulated and aimless because what normally keeps me afloat and seemingly on target is missing.  

Henri Nouwen said: “When you experience a great need for human affection, you have to ask yourself whether the circumstances surrounding you and the people you are with are truly where God wants you to be. . . If you feel a great loneliness and a deep longing for human contact, you have to be extremely discerning.  Ask yourself whether this situation is truly God-given.  Because where God wants you to be, God holds you safe and gives you peace, even when there is pain. . . .

Every time you do something that comes from your needs for acceptance, affirmation, or affection, and every time you do something that makes these needs grow, you know that you are not with God.  These needs will never be satisfied; they will only increase when you yield to them.  But every time you do something for the glory of God, you will know God’s peace in your heart an find rest there.” (Keep Living Where God Is, The Inner Voice of  Love, Henri Nouwen)

I have not, over the last number of days, felt safe or at peace.  I have felt so far away from God.  I think my center, much of the time, in my everyday work/ministry/living life, is me. And so when there is no work, ministry, or normal living, I feel off-center because the center is off.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Dark Side Of Christmas

"Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again.  Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind.  If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant's child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.  And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.

For those who believe in God, it means, this birth, that God himself is never safe from us, and maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence.  He comes in such a way that we can always turn him down, as we could crack the baby's skull like an eggshell or nail him up when he gets too big for that.  God  comes to us in the hungry people we do not have to feed, comes to us in the lonely people we do not have to comfort, comes to us in all the desperate human need of people everywhere that we are always free to turn our backs upon.  It means that God puts himself at our mercy not only in the sense of the suffering that we can cause him by our blindness and coldness and cruelty, but the suffering we can cause him simply by suffering ourselves." 

--from The Face in the Sky, Frederick Buechner

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Favorite Anniversary

I am not a big birthday or anniversary fan.  No reason, I just never really got into them that much.  But today's anniversary is something different altogether.  December 20, 2008 was the date I committed my life to Christ.  So, today marks my three-year anniversary knowing, loving, walking with, and living for him.  As I read these words yesterday morning in Zephaniah 3:17, they struck me as the most appropriate description in so many ways of my experience over the last three years.

“The Lord your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with

I will spend the day thanking God not only for finding me in the first place amidst lots of wreckage and ruin, but for lifting me out, delighting in me (in me!), quieting my soul with his love, and rejoicing over me.  Living with and for Christ is not a series of do’s and don’t’s.  It’s not a life of rules and regulations.  It is more like dancing on the water with your arms lifted high and your mouth open in laughter under the sun.   

Monday, December 12, 2011

Come And See What The Lord Has Done!

Africa, Days 6 and 7

I still do not know why God asked me to go to Kazungula, a border point between Zambia and Botswana, and share the love and message of Christ with truck drivers there.  I know only that he did and I went in obedience.  The result was an awesome display of God’s faithfulness, goodness, grace, and desire to seek after those who are lost.  What our small team (me, Chris, Martha, Mary, Enala, and Howard) saw in Kazungula on December 9 and 10, 2011 is not like anything we have ever seen before, or may ever see again.

We talked to about 90 truck drivers in our two days in Kazungula. When we arrived the first day, 62 trucks were lined up to cross the border (one at a time on the single working ferry) and most wait 5-6 days for their turn.  

At first glance, there appears to be nothing there that is familiar except the sun above and the earth underfoot.  And the sun is so hot, sweat runs down your back just standing still.  The earth is so dusty, you are covered with grime and dirt within the first few minutes.  Exhaust fumes from the starting up and slight movement of the trucks in line fill the air.  Empty water bottles, wrappers, and cans litter the ground. Children anywhere from 5 to 17, boys and girls, walk up and down the line of trucks by themselves selling eggs, fish, CDs and DVDs.  Flies swarm.  There are no bathrooms and there is no water.  Women and girls go truck to truck offering themselves for money.  The truck beds are loaded with copper, hydroxide, tobacco, and other things.  Men gather on the side of the road cooking nshima and chicken that they have bought in the market.  Many have been drinking beer since the early morning because it is the only way to face 5 days in line in this place.  Truck drivers are one of the primary carriers of HIV and AIDS.  Sixty-five percent of the population of Zambia has HIV or AIDS.  

When you see Kazungula, you may be tempted to believe God has left it, or perhaps was never there.  Each truck driver faces unbelievable loneliness and boredom.  They are away from their wives and families, sometimes for up to a year at a time.  Each confronts overpowering temptation.  Most of them doubt God could ever want them.  Most of them believe they have fallen too short and too often.  Most of them question if God is even present in their world.  They seem to have concluded that they, either by choices made or circumstances, are beyond God’s reach and unable to be saved.      

But, you see, no place and no man (or woman) is beyond God’s reach, not even in Kazungula.  No one has made too many bad choices or finds themselves in circumstances that cannot be redeemed by God.  I, and the members of the team (all from Zambia), had been praying for weeks that God would go before us and prepare the hearts of the truck drivers we would meet for the love we had for them.  When we arrived at the border, we prayed again, together, and broke off into teams of two.  Our mission was simple: approach the drivers, introduce ourselves, and ask them about themselves – where they were going, where they had come from, what were their struggles – and then tell them we were there to let them know that there are people in the world who care about them and a good God who loves them.  

It did not take long to know that God had indeed gone before us.  In just minutes, we found not the eyes of dangerous, untouchables, but the eyes of Jesus.  The first day, 28 truck drivers committed their lives to Christ.  We gave each of them New Testaments and bright-colored bracelets that said “God loves me,” “Saved,” “I love Jesus,” “Forgiven,” “John 3:16”, or the one they all wanted most: “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do).  Word of our presence spread quickly; we stood out, after all.  And, if you looked around Kazungula on December 9, you saw many men wearing their bracelets, prompting further conversation no doubt.  Suddenly, it was like light had entered Kazungula.  We listened to their stories: how painful it is to wait for days to cross the border; how the heat makes sleep nearly impossible; how much they long to be home with their families; how they cannot attend church because they are always moving from one place to another; how they have failed God in so many ways; how they feel incapable of resisting sexual temptation.  One man, who was a Christian already, told me he was so relieved to see us because it reminded him of God’s presence.  

Our second day in Kazungula was similar.  Twelve more drivers gave their lives to Christ and dozens of seeds were planted, which we trust God will germinate and grow in his own time.  On our way back to Livingstone, which is where we stayed, both days, we could not find words to explain what we had experienced.  So, all we could do was to sing loudly with clapping hands and smiling faces: “Come and see, oh!  Come and see!  Come and see, oh!  Come and see!  Come and see what the Lord has done!  Come and see what the Lord has done!”  None of us on our team could have done what we did in our own power.  Only God could have and did accomplish the reconciliation of 40 individual souls to himself through Christ.  And with each one, all of heaven celebrated.  (Luke 15:7)   

There is, of course, still no bridge that connects Zambia and Botswana at Kazungula, but because God used us to demonstrate the sufficiency of his grace, his far-reaching and overflowing love, and his overwhelming presence, there is infrastructure there that is stronger and longer lasting than any bridge that could ever be built. 

For the truck drivers in Kazungula, I pray:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.

If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness;
therefore you are feared.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
And in his word I put my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

O Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.  

(Psalm 130)


Thursday, December 8, 2011

White Butterflies

Africa, Day 5 (yesterday)

Some things on the 12-hour drive from Ndola to Livingstone:

a brown dog hit on the road by a van;
a little white dog surrounding the brown dog in mourning;
fresh mangoes;
yoked oxen (my yoke is easy and my burden is light);
6-8 police stops and two border stops;
1 police stop in which we are cited for not having a fire extinguisher;
the police officer who says: we have nothing like forgiveness here;
stop in small town to buy a fire extinguisher;
a debate about whether people in a field were weeding or planting maize;
discussion of our favorite person in the Bible other than Jesus (Nehemiah, Jeremiah, David, Philip, Paul (2));
watermelons, tomatoes, fruits, pots;
open land green land;
irrigation systems;
fluffy, majestic clouds;
a Subway sandwich shop;
the trampoline at The Fig Tree Restaurant;
Chips Ahoy and Ritz Bits;
using the 1000 Kwacha (20 cents) bathroom with no door;
fresh air blowing through the van;
sharing stories of our encounters with Christ;
cold Coke;
an overturned truck;
prayers for protection and expressing thanks;
and white butterflies going ahead of us all the way.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Marching in the House of God

Africa, Day 3, Ndola, Zambia

I think the days here are longer, or perhaps it just seems that way because of the expansive life, song, and beauty in every moment.    

Last year, we went to New Hope Christian Centre, a ministry that cares for, feeds and educates orphans and vulnerable children, many of whom have HIV themselves.  I loved these children and I wanted to give them something, but I hadn't brought anything with me.  Instead, they gave me the most amazing gift -- they sang I Love You Jesus Deep Down in My Heart in the most angelic, beautiful voices.  That song, sung by those sweet voices has stayed with me for the last 14 months.  I have heard their voices resonating inside me and when I tell Jesus I love him, I often do so through that song.  This year, I wanted to give them a gift in return for what they gave me.  So, before I left the US, I ordered a hundred colorful bracelets that say I Love You Jesus, or God Loves Me, or WWJD.  I brought them with me to hand out.  Today was delivery day!  

I slid a bracelet on each child's arm (there were about 45 of them) touching their hands and arms, looking them in the eyes and telling them, "God loves you;" "Jesus loves you."  Some whispered "thank you."  Others smiled.  Still others just stared at me with curiosity.  But they sang a song again: We are marching in the house of God.  They marched around their little one-room schoolhouse, dancing, singing and laughing.  I have not experienced the house of God in this way before, but let's just say you may see me marching around at church very soon.  

"Jesus called the children to him and said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."  (Luke 18:16-17)

Guess I'll have to go back and bring another gift . . .

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Walk in Love

Africa, Day 1

It is 2:48 a.m. I have been awake for 25 minutes now, tossing and turning.  My body thinks it should be up doing instead of down resting.  I am simultaneously cold and hot.  Bug noises rise and fall outside and I remember Michigan summers with my bedroom window cracked open to the warm air.  My heart and mind can’t quite hold the fullness of the day that has passed, every moment of it overflowing with life.  After the very long plane journey, I arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa at 7:30 a.m.  I said goodbye to my seatmate Bruce, a white Zimbabwean who now lives in Calgary, Canada, and with whom I shared 12 hours in the sky running from London to South Africa.

Straight from the airport, I went with my pastor friend Edgar to the home of a man named Mike.  Two little dogs greeted us and the rich earthiness of the summer air nearly took my breath away.  At home, the warmth of this sun will be veiled for months.  Mike and his wife run a ministry called Dumpsite.  Each Saturday morning, they make a bowl of meat, rice, and vegetables for, on average, 200 people who live on a large landfill, collecting, sorting, and then selling garbage scraps and recyclables.  They also make two large tubs of juice.  Edgar and I helped load the bowls of food into a van along with the juice and black plastic bags filled with shoes and clothes.

Mike explained that when we arrived at the dump, he would preach the gospel and then everyone would gather in groups of ten.  Then, we would give each group a palate of food bowls, a black plastic bag, and a cup of juice.  Distributing the food, drink and clothes this way creates community and accountability, preventing line-jumping, pushing to the front.

We followed Mike and his team in their van to the dumpsite where people had already started to gather.  Mostly women and little children.  They gathered in a semi-circle around the van the massive dump looming large in the background.

Mike shouts praises to God and those gathered echo his praises.  He passes out a single sheet of paper to each person, which includes the text from Ecclesiastes 3:1-14, part of which promises that “God has made everything beautiful for its own time.  He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”  (v. 11)  This was quite a promise to contemplate among a crowd suffering from deep, abiding hunger, deathly sickness, chronic foot and belly pain.  God has made everything beautiful for its own time.  Has made.  Everything.  Beautiful.  I can’t help but wonder how any of this is beautiful, this aching hunger, this living amongst garbage, and this lack of access to clean water and basic sanitation.  I can only agree that I cannot see the whole scope of God’s work and it must not be time yet.  Mike tells the group that if any among them has AIDS, God loves them. If any among them has HIV, God loves them.  He tells them that though their pain and suffering is so great now, God has planted eternity in their heart and through belief in Christ, eternal, everlasting beauty is on the way.

After preaching his message and praying, Mike asks the people to disperse into groups and we hand out the food, drink and clothing.  After this is done, a line forms and Edgar explains that those in line had prayer requests for Mike.  Mike listens to each one, types each prayer into his mobile device, and then lays his hands on the shoulders, on the feet, on the stomach, on the eyes depending on the request.  He asks God to heal, to provide, to protect.  For some, he thanks God for answered prayer.  Mike will forward these prayer requests to a team and he and the team will pray for each person all week.  Next week, he will come and do this again. 

Next, we travel to the other side of the dump where hundreds of people have set up “homes” among the garbage.

Mike has brought us here, where he will distribute fresh vegetables and heavy-duty nails in an effort to keep the homes standing.  As we walk through this village, scraps of garbage, colorful plastic bottles and caps, and animal bones litter the ground.  We walk a winding path looking for residents to tell them we are here with nails and food.  Faces begin to appear in doorways and people come out to see us.  We shake hands and exchange names and greetings.  Their hands are warm and dry in mine.  They call out Mike’s name from afar, smiling broadly when they see he has come.  He touches them and asks them about their families.  One man approaches Mike and explains that he needs to see a doctor, pulling down his shirt over the shoulder revealing large red sores that he says cover his chest and back.  He has AIDS and it is eating him from the inside out.  The man looks at me and says he needs a doctor.  Another man staggers behind us, talking nonsense, younger men holding him up as he walks.  Mike says this man will die in a few days.   

“Many of them are drunk and have HIV and AIDS.  We cannot judge them.  We don’t know how it is to live here,” Mike says as we walk back to the van.  “I only can love them.”  By now, there are dozens following us to get the vegetables and nails.  As we walk, Mike shows me homes that have collapsed and not been built again.  “The person who lived here probably died and they just leave the home like this.”  There are two well-built structures that Mike raised money to have built for two elderly men so that they can live the remainder of their lives with protection from the rain and some amount of dignity.  I say my goodbyes to Mike and ask what will happen with the man who needs to see the doctor.  Without hesitation, he says “I will take him now.”  And suddenly I see the beauty.

Before I left home, my 11-year old daughter handed me a stack of letters she wrote for me to read while I am away, one for every other day.  When I return to my lodging after the visit to the dumpsite, I read today’s letter, in which she instructs me to read 2 John 6: “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.  As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.”  This passage allows me to piece the day together and see how we can and so often do walk through life, and love only on the side, only when the opportunity to love finds us or arrests our movement.  But, in Mike, I see that to walk in love is a whole other thing.  It is to go where love is needed and provide it.  Where this need and this provision collide, there is the beautiful.