Saturday, December 27, 2008

Noeli Nziza

On Christmas morning, I called a local restaurant to see if they were open for the holiday. We had just arrived back from some travel and didn’t have any food in the house. Our inclination was to be a bit concerned. In the States, you’d be fortunate to find most anything open on Christmas Day, and the places that are open will usually be staffed by resentful, non-tenured employees. So, we decided to call first, so as to ascertain both the status of the restaurant and, potentially, the demeanor of those with the good fortune of answering the phones at 10am on Christmas Day.

“Hotel Ubuntu. Bonjour.”

“Bonjour. Est-ce que vous ette… um… Je voudrais… er… sigh. I was just calling to see if you were open.”

“Oui, oui, monsieur. We are open.”

Now, I can only describe the tone of voice with which my query was answered. It wasn’t cheery or helpful, nor was it mean or resentful. The tone carried with it an underlying message.

It said, “Why on earth wouldn’t we be open?!?”

Which brings me to the heart of my (somewhat tardy) posting for this, my first Christmas away from the candy canes, commercials, and cold fronts of Indiana. Growing up, I had a constant sense of anticipation for Christmas morning. My siblings and I once snuck downstairs in the wee hours of the morning just to see the presents under the tree. We fell asleep in the glow of my mother’s spectacular annual arboreal creation, restless with excitement for the daylight and the sound of ripping paper. As I got older and older, I slept later and later, but I always had a sense that Christmas was coming, and just in case I would forget, the stores and TV ads made sure to remind me.

But here, in Burundi, my observation has been that Christmas looks quite a bit different than in the States. Walk around the city like Karri and I did on the 25th and the shops will be open, the vendors will be out, a lot of people will be working. Maybe they can’t afford to close; maybe they’re just used to working on holidays. And there are loads of holidays in Bujumbura, holidays for Christians, holidays for Muslims, holidays celebrating military victories, holidays commemorating political assassinations. Christmas falls right in line with the rest of them, maybe with a bit of a shot in the arm for commerce in light of some extra gift giving. But the celebration isn’t broadcast in neon lights like back west. Burundians will go to church (if they’re Christian) on Christmas Eve and possibly Christmas morning. They’ll have a meal with their family, exchange some gifts, and that’ll be it. The big celebration, so I was told by one Burundian friend, is New Years, which I am really excited to see.

Now, I questioned why, in a country that is predominantly Christian, the celebration of the birth of the King of Kings is regarded as a second class citizen to the purchasing of a new calendar. But perhaps the truth of the matter is that the celebration just doesn’t look like what I’m used to. And what am I used to? I’m used to noise. I’m used to motion-activated pine trees that gyrate and sing “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” I’m used to a constant barrage of commercials that insist that what I’ve purchased for my loved ones is sub-par compared to this lovely set of steak knives. I’m used to the sound of the masses squeezed together at the doors of Wal-mart, planning the most efficient circuit around the store, only to be squeezed together all over again at the checkout lines. I’m used to all that noise, leading up to an evening spent with my fellow believers, lighting a candle and singing what carol? That’s right, kids. “Silent Night.”

Karri and I went through an advent reading schedule this year. We spent the month leading up to Christmas reading Scripture each day, psalms of joy, prophecies of hope, promises of peace, and celebrations of love. Advent, which means “arrival,” has been celebrated for centuries in the church as a way to prepare our hearts for the coming Messiah, and by joining in that tradition, we connected our hearts with the hearts of the people Jesus was born into. These were people who were desperate. They were brokenhearted. They needed hope, joy, and peace because they had none. And their prayers were the lines we occasionally sing this time of year.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lowly exile here
Until the son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

I was invited to speak at a Burundian friend’s house church two weeks ago. Karri and I sat in the living room of a woman whose husband worked on another continent to support their four children. My friend pointed to two girls who desperately wanted Bibles but couldn’t afford them. And then I met Sandrene. Sandrene is a widow, and the mother of five children, and is HIV positive. She looked at us with tears welling in her eyes and told us she had been asking God who was going to take care of her children when she dies. And she felt God say to her, “You children will not be abandoned, because I am their Father.” I opened the Bible to Luke 3 and read to this small group of believers, “Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people. For unto you in the City of David, a Savior has been born, and He is Christ, the Lord.” And I told them that their hearts and the hearts of those people who cried out for Emmanuel in Israel two thousand years ago are one and the same. Christmas means that hope has come for the hopeless, joy for those filled with sorrow, peace for the embattled, fearful, and broken. And I saw Sandrene close her watering eyes and nod.

Christmas has been more real to me here than ever before. Now, I desperately miss my family and I miss the snow and I miss the candles and “Silent Night.” And I don’t want this to come across as a rebuke of Christmas in America. It’s easy to say “Well, Christmas is just too commercial. We need to get back to the true meaning.” Normally, all that conversation prompts is a nice, hearty helping of guilt along with your Christmas turkey. But this year, I got to share Christmas with a people who are looking for hope all the time. I got to look at the birth of the King through the eyes of Sandrene, and without all the noise, my ears were clear enough to hear her crying out for Emmanuel, God with us. And in each of our countries, cities, neighborhoods, families, there are Sandrenes. There are people who need hope, joy, and peace. Maybe if we lifted our voices like the angels before, declaring the birth of a Savior for all people above the din of the other noises, they’d be filled with wonder like the shepherds long ago.

So Merry Christmas, Joyeaux Noel, and Noeli Nziza to you and yours. May you be filled with hope, joy, peace, and love as the Messiah enters your world, and may you be the heralds of good news of great joy to the Sandrenes all around you.

Let earth receive her king.

Monday, December 15, 2008

My New Diary

(copied from the opening pages of my new diary.)

I am now the proud owner of a Chinese diary, purchased in a Chinese-owned, fixed-price store on Avenue d’Uprona in Bujumbura, Burundi. I am writing in it with a pen from Fellowship Missionary Church, on Tillman Road a few hundred yards from a Wal-mart in Fort Wayne, Indiana. This pen has traveled farther than many of my friends and family.

This diary probably has some sort of typo or defect, which is why it has ended up here in East Africa. In fact, this diary came with a pen of its own, a black plastic click pen that, when clicked, extends the ball point just a millimeter beyond the shoddily-cut plastic end, rendering it nigh useless but for filling the handy leather strap where it was meant to reside. Hence the replacement pen from Tillman Road.

Burundi is the middle child of the world.

It seems that all it receives are the hand-me-downs of its older siblings to the east and west. Recycled tee shirts from your senior spring break in 1992, stationary with typing errors, electronic appliances that are nicked, defective, or simply no longer in their prime fill the markets and storefronts, and the people lay out their hard-earned, yet meager earnings to purchase these international leftovers. The disdain emanates from the older siblings as they watch their old toys trotted out and fought over.

The younger siblings here on the continent receive doting care from the new colonial powers, showering them with international aid, business connections, advocacy on the global stage, celebrity endorsement. This comes from a not-so-subtle sense of guilt that they messed something up. There was clearly an error somewhere in their history of raising these uneducated children with dark skin. Somewhere there was neglect, an abandonment, where the kids unleashed violence and atrocity on each other while mom and dad were too busy with their careers.

So they sent their youngest kids to military school, a school where their leaders become tyrants who whip them into shape at the cost of their rights and freedoms. They shower their babies with money and misplaced affection because they’ve been through so much (and there’s now a motion picture out chronicling their neglect.)

And all the while, the middle child sits, not early enough for oldest-child advantage, the recipient of the same abuse and neglect as all children, but without the endearing baby-face of the youngest that brings about pity and attention.

So here I sit, with my most-likely-flawed hand-me-down of a diary, from a Chinese store on a potholed Burundian thoroughfare. Maybe it’s not so bad to be the middle kid. You learn more quickly to learn things the hard way. You develop creativity and vision to make do with what you have. Maybe Burundi just needs to embrace their “middle-kidness” and stop trying to be the all-important eldest or the spoiled youngest. Maybe if Burundi learns to stand on its own, it will grow up just fine.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Reflection

My beautiful wife finishes her last paper this week. In a matter of days, she will be Karri DeSelm, MBA. Those three letters are the culmination of two years of life, two years that have redefined the way we see the world. We chose to move away from home, to leave jobs, to say goodbye to friends, to entrust the expansion of the Kingdom in Fort Wayne to our sisters and brothers in Christ, and pursue the cloud of smoke, the pillar of fire that we saw spinning before us.

We did this because we believe something about the world.

We believe something that has brought us the most inexplicable joy, the most severe heartbreak, the most soulful doubt, and the deepest sense of wonder that we’ve ever known in our lives.

We believe something about the world that requires faith, hope, and love from us every day when we leave our house and take the Burundian air into our lungs; an air that is laced with the dust kicked up by unshod feet, the drifting scent of exposed garbage and over-worn clothing, and the exhales of a nation who have learned to shoulder their poverty every day.

We believe something about the world that is discarded as foolishness by the skeptical unbeliever and the overly comfortable believer alike.
We believe something about the world that was proclaimed by a host of angels to a group of shepherds, who may as well have been Burundian cassava farmers, Kurdish nomads in Iraq, or homeless, abandoned men and women on the benches of Love Park in Philadelphia.

We believe something about the world that forces us to shout defiantly into the seemingly endless chasm of injustice, of systemic evil that allows Herod or President al-Bashir to wipe out entire generations, that causes doctors in Bujumbura to strike for a liveable wage while our guard’s father, brought in vain to a now-vacant hospital, lies in his bed with only over-the-counter medicines to mend his broken body.

We believe something about the world that is heartened by the words of Isaiah, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you.”

We believe something about the world that was believed by a teenage girl on a donkey with a social stigma on her head and a baby in her womb.

We believe something about the world that was difficult to believe for Jews under Caesar, difficult to believe for the innocents who hid in their homes in Rwanda, difficult to believe for the brokenhearted mothers who lost their children in the streets of West Philadelphia.

We believe something about the world that means changing the way we eat, the way we dress, the way we talk, the way we drive, the way we vote, the way we cry, the way we worship, the way we commune, the way we read, the way we dream, the way we suffer, the way we give, and the way we resist the powers of this world.

We believe something about the world that affirms the God of Genesis 1 and 2, of Job 38 and 39, of Isaiah 49 and 60, of Revelation 22.

We believe something about the world that, in this season of advent, causes us to look at all of the hurt and brokenness in the world and take up the posture of the people of God for generations – expectation.

What do we believe?

We believe He’s putting it all back together again.

And why? Why do we believe this when all the darkness in the world seems to conspire together and snuff out any possibility of hope? How can we believe this when the Caesars of the world seem titanic, when the Herods of the world seem more violent, wealthy, and unwilling to change than ever before? What news, what headline could possibly justify the complete reorientation of our lives around the singular vision of the healing of the nations when they insist on furiously raging together? Why do we believe this about the world?


Unto us, a child is born.