Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Hope in the Slums: Finding God in Namuwongo

Sometimes it’s hard for me to locate the goodness of God in poverty.

A project with a Ugandan friend of mine, completing her counseling internship, had trailed me into the slums after her. In some ways the dry season made it more tolerable than I’d anticipated. The unnaturally-colored, stagnant water clotted with trash would soon rise bearing cholera, typhoid, and worse.

My heart and my senses were constantly scuffed to a raw alertness. The ten women our project was seeking to assist earned about 1500 shillings per day; about 50 cents. We ducked in their darkened huts, my rudimentary Luganda tripping over my tongue like my tennis shoes over the jutting paths outside.

Unquestionably the most searing moments were those with a large-eyed family of five a neighbor had recommended we check on. Flies circled a large raised, crusted scab on the head of one of the children, reportedly because her alcoholic father always beats her on the head in the same spot. The weeping mother, whom one of our group checked into a government hospital the next day, was emaciated and hacking from tuberculosis.

But the infant scared me the most: a year-and-a-half old, but about the weight of my boys at three months. Remembering my husband’s marvel at Jesus touching lepers and outcast, I reached through the burble of Luganda around us and lifted her frame to my chest, shoving aside concerns of TB. It felt like carrying bones. The next day the hospital would diagnose her pneumonia and obvious malnutrition. Her breaths were so shallow and rapid, I also had to stuff down my fear she would die in my arms. She only fell asleep.

Yet in a day of so many contrasts—my painfully white skin, for one, as I just hoped I wouldn’t cause more harm parading into these sacred spaces—perhaps it was only fitting that I would view such hope. That afternoon ten women gathered beneath a tin roof. They crowded around a teacher we'd found of a beautiful and unique form of basket weaving from local materials. I found myself grateful for her quiet, gentle tones, easy on these struggling women’s ears. I listened as my friend counseled them toward diligence, excellence, and careful savings.

At the risk of getting too sentimental on you here—it was as if not just a basket, but hope, too, were slowly being pieced together as the women leaned around it.

My brain is still detangling what I saw last week, recalled repeatedly in the continued tasks of our basket project and our machinations to help the starving family. Part of me doesn’t want to forget the knobs of the girl’s spine, or her naked ribs beneath my hands. Sometimes I think we are asked to mourn with God over the great loss in this world.

It's relatively easy to thank God around my satisfied stomach, with my loving husband and educated children. But I looked for the goodness of God there in the slums of Namuwongo, somewhere among the kilometer-long landfill with huts perching atop, or the alarming swarms of children with jerrycans around contaminated water sources.

And this is what I know: I saw God in hope.

I saw Him in the clean bathrooms constructed and maintained by Hope for Children, and the mothers relieved because nearly 150 students are sponsored there. I saw Him in the man recycling plastic bottles plucked from the refuse, forming paving stones. I witnessed Him in Maama Violet, our group’s leader, who trudges those 10-12 miles near daily, vigilantly monitoring her charges and, like that day, occasionally tucking new ones beneath her brown wings. And when I am tempted to question God about that battered family, I remember He heard their prayers, bringing not only this group of social workers, but also police to her door that night on her behalf.

Rather than evidence God plugs His hears, Namuwongo felt stocked with reminders that He listens intently and responds ardently, despite circumstances or the choices of ourselves or others that plunge us into darkness. Sometimes, His hope is delivered by human hands, or in meaningful work, or in another relieved recipient of daily bread. I have seen over and over that He is indeed the defender of the poor: God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish (Psalm 9:18).

As much as God is evident in my neighborhood, He is just as fiercely present in Namuwongo.

Friday, June 3, 2016

With African Eyes

It was one of those weeks when the phrase from the Morton salt box from my childhood had to occasionally be batted from my mind: When it rains, it pours.
It started on the way to the airport, where my husband would fly to Kenya for two weeks. (Perhaps you’re already seeing the writing on the wall with me.) That was when neither of our ATM cards were working; problematic in a nation nearly entirely functioning on cash. Of course, it wasn’t until paying for my parking that I realized I didn’t even have the eighty cents to make it out of the parking lot. (“Kids! Start looking under all the car mats! In the cupholders!” We were still about forty cents shy.)
The next day (thankfully not spending the night in the car park) was the day my son was hit on his bike by the motorcycle. Liberally sprinkle in some hormones (that would be mine), mix vigorously with three rowdy boys without a father to wrestle them to the ground, marinate in intermittent water and power…and it was a recipe for one of those weeks where a momma resorts to Lamaze breathing. Of course that would happen this week.
But part of the beauty, honestly, was living last week in Africa.
kids+in+africa+at+schoolIt’s hard to complain about being 35 years old and having to bum gas money from a friend, when I have a car—and a cash source, once we get that pesky card issue straightened out. (About .8% of Uganda owns a vehicle.) It’s hard to be disgruntled about kid-wrangling on my own when a) my husband is serving God doing something he’s incredible at, and b) Uganda is flooded with single moms who have no rescuer scheduled for arrival in a week and a half. It’s hard to make too much of a deal at being without electricity, considering only 15% of the country is wired for it. It’s hard to make too much of my son walking away from his accident with an injured arm, in light of the roughly five deaths per day from motorbikes in the capital city alone, or the 40% of taxi-related trauma cases at the main hospital.
Author Kristen Welch writes in Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World, “Nothing makes us more grateful than perspective. Nothing. I think it’s the key to loosening the chains of entitlement in our culture.”
Welch tells of her daughter begging for a new toy she longed for. Everybody has one, Mom.
I have so much respect for Kristen’s reply:
“Well, do you think Ephantus [one of the children we’ve sponsored for years from Ethiopia] has one?”
She thought quietly. “No, his house isn’t even as big as my room.”…
“Honey…If we are going to compare ourselves to those who have more, we must also compare ourselves to those who have less.”
Clearly the goal isn’t to compare ourselves with one another anyway, but rather to cast a wide, truthful net as we search for what’s ideal. As more than one person has tearfully told me as they prepare to go back to the West, I don’t want to forget. If roughly 80% of the world is in poverty, it is indeed the majority world.
See, Africa has marked me.
It has not altered me in a way that most people who see me will ever witness, though the difference is almost bodily. It’s as if I’d had eye surgery, and the world would never look the same, or as if I carried constantly a sensation in my right hand. And its mark is indelible, now, on my decisions; my perspective. (I’ve wondered if Jesus tells us to invite the lame and the blind to our parties partly to give us just that.)
I wrote in this post that looking back, sometimes I tend to shove some events into the category of “I want to forget” instead of training my eyes to find God in all that happened. As C.S. Lewis pens in The Magician’s Nephew,
What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.
A quote I once read from novelist Elizabeth Berg does remind me, The person with the bleeding finger doesn’t hurt less for the person next to him with the bleeding arm. And there’s still value (spirituality included) to be had in my honesty that last week was discouraging; angering; painful. I’m not seeking to encourage anyone to gloss over what hurts; dishonesty doesn’t set us free. But perspective, and gratitude…?
Last week, they just might have set me free.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

God's Leash

A few Sunday afternoons ago, while on his bicycle, my eleven-year-old was hit by a motorcycle.
While he was applying his brakes, sliding on rust-colored mud into the intersection, I was at home, deciding I would take a Sunday nap. I’d barely closed my eyes when one of my children called my name. This happens quite frequently, as one might imagine, and my husband has lightly chided me on contributing to our children’s entitlement with my jumpiness to their needs. So I waited to see if they’d come get me. I don’t remember what finally tipped me off that this was not the typical, “She won’t share the biiiike!”
I didn’t expect the stranger at the gate, or my weeping son, clutching his shoulder, a small tear in the new shirt his grandma had brought over from the U.S. The sight of his mangled front tire unsettled me; somehow torqued metal seems to accentuate the gravity of an accident, alluding that our limping bodies don’t tell the whole story.
The congregated neighbors at the intersection made me jittery; past experiences cause me to associate African mobs at accidents with trouble. I waved and shouted my thanks, my stomach clutching further in my cultural bewilderment in these situations, then ducked into the safety of my compound to tend to my son.
I wish that I was one of those people who is a rock when crisis descends upon them. Though at times I have been this person—in this particular instance, already flustered by other preceding circumstances, I was a bit unhinged. A thousand thoughts collided. What kind of mother was I? My husband was in Kenya…should I take my son for X-rays? Was I foolish not to? I didn’t have access to cash since my ATM card wasn’t working… What if it had been just half a second later, or one foot further?
I prayed together with the kids, my voice throaty and breaking as I held my son in the cool of the hall. The verse clanging in my mind:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.

Here is what I know. When God responds to Job, He speaks of the boundaries He sets for the sea. I imagine Him setting that great blade of His palm in the cradle of land just before a beach. In my mind, the waters roll up to it and immediately relinquish their strength.
He prescribes the seasons for the snow. Everything, from the wind to the gestation months of a deer, He says, He has placed boundaries on with His hand.
All of this power—and pain, I see with Job, and suffering—are on His leash. His hand says, You stop here.
I see this in His promise to Abraham—that Abraham’s descendants will return to the Promised Land after 400 years; because the Amorites’ sin “is not yet complete.” (This theme cycles through prophecy of the end times of Earth.) I see it in His cryptic statement to Peter, that Satan has asked to sift Peter like wheat. I see it in Job, when Satan must present His ideas to God—who of course has already hijacked them for His own purposes.
My problem always seems to be with the length of said leash. Why not prevent the evil and pain entirely? Why not, say, prevent my son’s tears and my heartache altogether?

Today, as I ran jogged jog/walked to a podcast, I appreciated Tim Keller’s illustration of a baby wailing in the delivery room. The child is thinking, I was fine. I was warm. I was safe. I was happy and fed. And now you’re slapping me and blood is everywhere and I am upside down. But from outside the infant’s perspective, all of this is for the child’s well-being. All medical professionals are focused on the baby, to bring it from infancy to maturity and thriving. All of this, child, is for your well-being and good and flourishing.
After the tenor of Sunday’s chaos had muted to a dull throb, I held my tween son. Immediately after his accident, he had helped the woman who’d fallen off the taxi. I was proud of him. There as we talked, I felt a twinge of what I’d asked for with my son: connection, and that I would continue to have his heart as he developed into a man in this funky handful of years before us.
I thanked God that today, His leash stopped with an arm treatable with pain medication; with a wonky bike wheel that now sits round and again well-used in my driveway. That after making the rounds, I’d connected further with my neighbors and the honorable driver who brought my son and his bike home rather than running off. That my son was alive and teary and warm beside me. That today, His leash unfurled to a place I could understand—but and was deeply good even when I didn’t have that luxury.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
Psalm 16
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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Waiting for rain

I have been waiting.

The dust, fine and red, coats the plants lining our roads. Sweat beads on my upper lip. Last night as my children lay awake in bed, I stuck my head in and reminded them to keep guzzling plenty of water, after a friend of theirs landed in the clinic for dehydration. Cooking in the warm afternoons in my kitchen, with my hair twisted off my neck, I’ve been praying, coaxing the weather. C’mon, rainy season.

waiting for rain

I suppose it parallels my parched insides the last few weeks. So many tasks to which I put my hand seemed to droop, languishing and limp. The cost-benefit ratio of my parenting, my career, and a handful of relationships seemed tilting precariously in the wrong direction. It’s funny how failure stirs up silty questions that had lain quiet in the soul.

What am I doing here? Why am I doing this? Does any of what I do matter?

A friend this past week had mentioned how, when we trust God in the dark, it’s amazing how so many things begin to happen.

Honestly? I was thinking, what about the times when you trust big, and nothing big happens? What about when everything feels sluggish, fruitless, and cracked?

Perhaps part of my withered outlook were the weeks I’d been away from the class I teach--I love!--at the refugee center. I’ve been prepping to do something new—something that wasn’t a slam dunk, but more of a venture; a sizeable, gulp-worthy leap. I was moving away from what worked, leaving that in the care of other teachers. I was opting for something that could either produce exciting results—life-changing ones in my students, I hoped—but that could also wilt in my hand. The stakes felt high.

Normally, I’m not beyond attempting items in the “are you loco?” category. But now, I wasn’t sure if I could stomach more mediocre, questionable results.

Yesterday, in faith of the rainy season—which in truth, has occasionally tarried until April (April!)—my ten-year-old and I transplanted a purple, spiky, unidentified shrub. He is anxious to use his new gardening tools, but cannot plant all his little seeds (“Jalapenos, Mom!”) until the season arrives. So he gleefully dumped black soil in the gaping mouth of the pot; gently nestled the plant in place; watered. I love the metaphor in these grubby, earthy actions: I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.

It wasn’t lost on me. No matter how carefully my son tends his garden, no matter how he prepares, growth is ultimately out of his hands. Out of mine.

And two friends reminded me gently, What if we redefine success to mean “faithfulness”? Sure, God wants us to get excited about results, too. He’s designed purpose for us. But don’t forget the “fruit” in His eyes starts long before what we see.

This morning, I stirred in the early hours to a rushing sound outside of my flung-open windows; a deep rumbling had brought at least one child to bring pillows and blankets to the floor around our bed. And yes! The sunrise was grayed by pouring rain, sluicing down the sidewalk. I pulled the sheets taut around my shoulders.

And today, grinning and bubbling over, I addressed my new class. Somewhere, amidst the raised hands and laughter, I thought, I can’t believe I get to do this job. I felt the term’s potential ripening in my hands, sweet and red.

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul…Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame. 

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The stories He writes

It’s strange being back here, in this place.

I can still see the Nile directly out the window, though my husband and I actually stayed in the banda next door that night. They still leave in triplicate the same brand of packaged soap in the bathroom. I remember how the Nile had stretched before us in the morning, pink sunlight pooling on its surface while men fished from canoes hollowed from logs. On the banks, monkeys leapt like kamikazes from limb to limb. The scene is the same four years later. I remember crying, weeping, actually, from this very porch that night after dark under a spangled sky. I had been so very excited; so very afraid.
I was wondering if God was asking us to come to Africa.

Tonight I stood on the same small peninsula to which I’d walked with my husband. But on this night, our group from the refugee center sang worship songs, and I bumbled along when it was in languages I couldn’t even identify. There was something wholesome and good about hearing praise authored in their own language, spilling from someone’s heart like that. We sat on woven mats and talked about the love of God, about the lies we believe about it, about the stories He writes in our lives. And—looking how far he’s brought my family and me—I marveled.

Moving to Africa, as much as I was flabbergasted that the dream would come true, also crumpled me with fear inside. Even more than my fear of the harrowing traffic (which, let’s face it, still holds its own little flame of terror in my heart): my fear that God would take the life of one of my children.
My trepidation was enough that six months after we moved here, when my son fainted as we measured muffin ingredients for breakfast, I screamed and woke the entire house. I actually remember thinking, Is this it? Is this when God takes one of my kids?

Four years later, we have weathered malaria, weird tropical illnesses, a terrorist threat, and troubles closer to home. But even listing them out now honestly feels a little lame. Something about living around people in poverty, or working with refugees who packed only a suitcase and shattering losses to cross the border, makes you realize you are most certainly not the hero here. (He’s much bigger.)
Nevertheless—there is nothing like God writing your family’s story. Somehow four years later, with this place holding very little fear and so much promise and beauty, I comprehend Jesus’ words more than ever:  “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). I get how it’s fuel for the soul. I know well how it sustains and comforts and invigorates in unthinkable triumphs and unspeakable pain.

As a writer, I carry a keen appreciation for the creative mastermind behind a rip-roaring story with a timeless moral, with perfectly tuned characters I could never dream of myself. My Kindle books are full of highlights of brilliant turns of phrase, of vocabulary and characterization I applaud. But as I sit back and look at the stories God authors, each one far surpasses the human mind. Truth is so much more astounding than fiction. No novel could ever adequately appreciate the ways God’s engineered the intricate, elaborate paths that make up us.  How He handpicks circumstances and conversations to mold lives into striking works of art our younger selves wouldn’t recognize. How he architects the world for the sake of His great name.

The African worship leader there on the peninsula did interpret one of the songs’ lyrics, Wahambanati, written in Zulu. (I think it was after she insisted that us three white ladies needed to dance out of the fullness of our hearts for God just like everyone else.)

She explained, “It means, ‘God, you have walked with us this whole way.’”

For we are His workmanship [His own master work, a work of art],
created in Christ Jesus [reborn from above—spiritually transformed, renewed, ready to be used] for good works,
which God prepared [for us] beforehand [taking paths which He set],
so that we would walk in them [living the good life which He prearranged and made ready for us].
Ephesians 2:10, Amplified Bible

Monday, December 21, 2015

Reflections on a Christmas Robbery

Christmas robberyMy husband and I, kids in tow, were maneuvering at a snail’s pace through a traffic jam in our trusty high-clearance minivan. Our speakers happily trumpeted the Christmas CD my mom had sent, and we chatted, our energy high for our Christmas shopping in the city and the Christmas party of our non-profit (which, with the barbecue and kids running around in shorts, tends to look a little more like the Fourth of July). It was sometime after “Let it Snow” that our heads all swiveled to the driver’s side, where a man was banging—hard—on the outside of our van. Never a good sign in Kampala.

And that’s when his partner whipped open my car door and swiftly grabbed my bag slouched at my feet. My casserole dish skidded across the pavement as I unbuckled without thinking, standing between the unmoving lanes and yelling something very helpful, like, “HEY!” as he and his cronies ran away with my reading device, my phone, the drivers’ licenses from both countries, and our house keys.

I make it sound lighthearted, typing to you over a week later. But really, I just started sobbing, my hands shaking–which probably frightened my children just as much as the stranger flinging open the car door.

Truthfully, the highlight of my day took place about thirty seconds after that lowlight. My eleven-year-old: “Guys, it looks like mom is really upset right now. Let’s all pray.”

You know, when he was born, all of the parenting magazines kept telling me how to keep him safe from everything: from choking, from bullies, from cyberspace. And keeping our children safe is a godly desire. But I’m also reminded that God’s “faith school” for my kids is so good, to teach them, even while they are quite young, who He is in suffering. As a friend wrote me this week, The very thing we would protect our children from experiencing may be the very thing that God wants to use in their lives now so that when they are adults, they’ll know how to respond to crisis.

That He gives, and He takes away, and we can sing Christmas carols with full hearts afterwards. That this isn’t a “when bad things happen to good people” kind of thing. From dust I came—and hell I deserve.

After the police report, after the two hours spent at the phone company, after breaking in to our own house, my emotions were as tangled and frazzled as my hair.

For one, all of my muscle to make it to the end of the year in a foreign country felt suddenly spent—a year complete with harrowing accident and move to a new neighborhood and all the little pecked-to-death-by-a-duck cultural frustrations. The sledgehammer in my heart had fallen, and the bell at “WEARY” dinged.

I felt vulnerable. Violated. Stupid. Shaken.

And still—I kept thinking, This is why He came. This is why we need Christmas. Not for some vague, nebulous, Christmas-movie “Christmas is about giving! The Christmas spirit is in our hearts!”

Because it is—but it isn’t. We needed Him because Christmas—an unselfish, give-till-it-doesn’t-make-sense, fatal rescue mission—was not in us as we mourned in lonely exile here, basting in our own junk and selfishness, as both victim and criminal.

He, too, was here to help, and people wanted to take what they could get for themselves. He was subject to far more injustice and hate than a purse-snatching. He bore so much more grief than I have, so that my treasure could be not in a purse or an iPhone, but in a place untouched by thieves and tears.

This is only a pinprick of suffering. But still, it was as if His hand rested on my slightly-slumped shoulder this morning when I happened on C.S. Lewis’ words from The Magician’s Nephew. Somehow it reminds me that “faith school” though it may be, God’s pain in the midst of my pain is real: that I am not merely a project to be sanctified, but a child who is loved after a crime.
“But please, please–won’t you–can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?’

Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.

‘My son, my son,’ said Aslan. ‘I know. Grief is great.”

And so I find that this Christmas is yet again painting in vivid strokes that God is with us, wrapping our injured flesh around him, breathing our air and walking our sod.* Thank God for Christmas.

*Lyrics from Welcome to Our World, by Chris Rice.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving memos from a bunch of refugees

refugees 1

Author’s note: This post, originally appearing on my other blog, is not at all intended to be a political statement regarding the recent controversy over refugees (see this article for a Christian point of view on the tension between security and compassion). It’s simply a memo to myself as I look at Thanksgiving this year, in light of what I’ve learned from the crazy-fun group of refugees I teach on a weekly basis here in Uganda.

Sometimes I’m as much a student of them as they are of me, as they sprawl in their chairs there in the sticky heat or the lazy afternoon sun.

Sometimes when they stand next to me, I have nothing to do but laugh out loud at the picture we must make: me with my German build and American clothing, my skin that best stay out of the sun after fifteen minutes, sky-colored eyes—and them, some even built like ebony marionettes, towering above me at six feet-two or –four, their toothy ivory grins and an arm around my shoulder, their tribal language to a friend resounding like African drums.

Author’s note: This post is not at all intended to be a political statement regarding the recent controversy over refugees (see this article for a Christian point of view on the tension between security and compassion). It’s simply a memo to myself as I look at Thanksgiving this year, in light of what I’ve learned from the crazy-fun group of refugees I teach on a weekly basis here in Uganda.
Sometimes I’m as much a student of them as they are of me, as they sprawl in their chairs there in the sticky heat or the lazy afternoon sun.

And so I think of them this year, even as I look online for the best recipes for our feast with friends. Thanksgiving is a bit of a personal journal on the year for me. It seems like a good occasion to contemplate the year stretching behind me: What has God done? How do I remember Him being faithful? What must I be vigilant not to miss?

So my friends who have fled here from all over East Africa have reminded me, just from their own stories, the journal of their own lives. Don’t forget. Count every single one of your blessings.

Count, they would tell me, your ability to speak fluid English—the doors it opens for you, the jobs it gets, the ease it provides you in so many places around the world.

Teacher, count that you have been born in a time of relative peace in your country, not war. That justice is often done when you go to the police or in your courts; that people do not have to take the law into their own hands. Justice in your country also means most of your friends and/or relatives are still living; thriving, even.

And that because of all this, you have received an education—and not just any education. You went to a school that has books and lunch and can make photocopies and has less than thirty students per class!

Count that your basic education means you know basic first aid, means you have a certain degree of reasoning and logic skills. That you have a mass of essential knowledge that, even finding yourself in a place of sudden poverty (the developing-world kind), would not leave you there for long.
You can be thankful, Teacher, that your life expectancy is beyond 49.[1] That in your country, if someone steals, they keep both of their hands.[2]

My friend, count that your home has a floor, that you have a car and know how to drive it, that you have been to a dentist in your lifetime. Remember you can easily find doctors who know what they are doing; the money to pay them and not draw it from something else you need, like your child’s school fees.

Thank God, Teacher, that you got to choose your husband! And he is a good man, with a job, who has never laid an angry hand on you. That you got to choose your job. That you have driven on smooth, safe roads. That you don’t worry much about your children dying; that malaria is no longer in your country, or typhoid, or cholera, or ebola. You have clean water—in your own house, right from your own tap!

You might think these are simple things, Teacher. But to me, they are not. Thank your God for these things on Thursday. They are sweet things, Teacher. So sweet.

[1] This is life expectancy in the Congo. South Sudan is 54; Somalia is 55.
[2] See Sharia law.