Friday, February 20, 2009

'Round The Table at Jim's Birthday!

Demonstrating the "No-Smile Smile"

"Glad you were born. Keep it up." - Actual SMS sent from Meg Lavery

Christy : Miriam - Happy : Chillaxed

Wendy as a pirhanna

Isaac and Wicke were asked to look happy.
Isaac went for "Soutern Belle Receives Unexpected Gift From Suitor"
Wicke chose "Oops, I swallowed some of my tobacco juice."

Allison and Meg made me promise not to use their attempt at the "No-Smile Smile."

It's my birthday.

Brad and Jo win for "Handsomest Couple,"
since the contenders were Picture 1 and the following entry.

Trina, Seth, Brandon's tongue, and Brandon

Lizzie and Amy were abandoned by their husbands.
Of course, Simon was watching the kids and James was in the States.
But it's my birthday.

Tyler. Pumped.

February So Far – Part III: The Birthday

The final installment of my recap of February involves my birthday, which fell on the tenth of this month. Those who knew the actual date of my birthday have been asking how I celebrated. Those who didn’t (or at least didn’t until they saw it on Facebook. Come on. Admit it.) probably had no idea and are now thinking, “Shoot! Can I still say happy birthday without being exposed as one of the second category?” Nope. But I won’t hold it against you… this year.

My day started off with breakfast from my lovely wife. The standard regarding birthdays in our marriage has always been less focused on gifts and more on events, with the caveat of being able to have any request granted (within reason.) I was pretty simple this year, simply wanting a good dinner with friends. Karri, as is her overachieving nature, organized a terrific dinner and a few extras through the day.

Since it was Tuesday, I spent my morning preparing for youth group. We’re working through the book of Mark, and talking about the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached. When I got to youth group, I got some shy “Happy Birthdays” and a lively debate about how old I was. The low vote was 22 and the high vote was 40. I find that Burundians tend to look much younger than they are. I thought our guard, Selius, was 19 or so, until I discovered he was married and in his mid-twenties. So being thought to be 40… questionable.

As the group assembled, more and more kids disappeared into the kitchen. They, of course, were all crowding around the birthday cake that one of the students made for me. As Karri brought it out, the overeager kids started singing “Happy Birthday” in the kitchen. Alas, as the candles were flickering rapidly, the pace of the walking didn’t quite match the pace of the singing. So after an awkward silence between the end of the song and the arrival of the cake, I extinguished the candles and surrendered my prize to the salivating horde seated around the porch.

I also received an oversized birthday card, bearing the message, “Happy Birthday, Jimmy Boy.” Inside were notes of encouragement, such as, “You’re a good teacher. Don’t get bad. Happy Birthday.” Clearly, I’m held in high esteem by these young people.

After a message on the miracles of Jesus, (You’re curious, I know.) we headed off to dinner. Ok, let’s be frank. I didn’t know the name of the restaurant, and I still don’t. When I requested it to Karri, I said, “The one with the really good enchilada that smells like cats.” That’s right. Here in Bujumbura, you take the good and the bad together. This place has some of the best food in the city. It also smells like feline urine. Such is life.

We sat at a table with twenty dear friends and shared a meal full of great stories and laughter. The couples present each told their marriage proposal tales, and two people nearly died from discreetly placed peppers in their dishes. I’ve started a tradition of writing birthday limericks for my friends here; I’m composing one right now for my friend Brandon’s birthday today, in fact. (Many happy returns, Brando.) Karri led a toast with a three-stanza birthday limerick she composed for the occasion, and naturally, rose to the challenge, simultaneously declaring her love for me and teasing me for liking comic books and having a fear of plants. (A quote taken totally out of context and mercilessly repeated by those dearest to me, by the by) Then we were off to home and bed.

Twenty-seven in Burundi. Thanks to everyone who made it memorable, even the thronging Facebook well-wishers. I wish I could have shared that table with more of you. Have a beverage appropriate to a meal we might share and lift it high, I’ll lift one here on this side of the world. Cheers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

February So Far - Part II: The Retreat

I’m in the process of fleshing out some narratives that have been mentioned in the past few posts here on the blog. Today’s installment regards the January 30th blog about my teaching/preaching schedule. I made a passing allusion to being invited to speak at the World Relief Retreat. Well, that retreat was from Tuesday, February 3rd to Friday, February 6th, and indeed, I was the main speaker for the week.

The retreat was up-country, in the considerably cooler climates of Gitega, attended by the full World Relief staff in Bujumbura, Nyanza Lac, and Gitega. All in all, around eighty people gathered at a well-hidden Catholic retreat center with a view stretching over the hills and valleys of Burundi to meet with God and talk about the Kingdom of Heaven. Our country director, Ngaira, and I got things rolling on Tuesday evening.

We focused mainly on the idea of Shalom, the Hebrew concept of peace, and its threefold meaning to the Rabbis and Jews of Jesus’ day. The Kingdom of Heaven is the reality where that Shalom is in complete unity. We spent a day on each part. On Wednesday, we looked at our Shalom with God, whether we are in right relationship with our Creator. On Thursday, we looked at our Shalom with each other, and how Scripture insists that if we say we love God and are at odds with each other, we’re liars. On Friday, we looked at Shalom with the world, and how the work we do here at World Relief is part of putting God’s good creation back together again.

It was fascinating to watch people struggle with these ideas, because, to be frank, many people here have not made the connection between their job and their calling in the Kingdom. Many people on staff here at World Relief Burundi come to work every day for a paycheck, not a vision. They work because they have to feed their families, because they need to survive, because they are always one step away from being without. But when that is their primary motivation, the bar is only as high as is required to stay employed.

So, for example, the staff is asked to perform self-evaluations occasionally, to assess strengths and areas of improvement. Most of the time, the staff members will give themselves perfect scores, with no areas of improvement. This isn’t because they’re arrogant; it’s because they are afraid that if they admit deficiency, they’ll lose their jobs. They often refuse to admit mistakes or ask for clarity on assignments that they don’t understand, because they believe it will cost them their job. Their concern isn’t primarily executing their job well for the glory of the Father, it’s keeping a steady stream of income.

I wonder how often this is true about us in the States, as well. We do our work, even if it doesn’t square with our citizenship in the Kingdom. We many times work not for the benefit and healing of the world, but for the paycheck, the status, the security. Maybe our work is even going against Kingdom values, promoting greed or deception or consumerism, and we just haven’t connected Sunday to Monday. When you connect what you believe on Sunday to what you do on Monday, things start to take on new meaning.

This also has profound effects on unity in the staff here. These people, in impoverished mindsets, desperate for job stability, hungry for influence in a culture that exalts authority, haunted by tribal divisions that still exist but are rarely acknowledged, can become extremely vindictive, bitter, even out-and-out aggressive toward one another. Despite being professing Christians, World Relief is plagued by slander and gossip, aggressive power-plays, and even threats between staff members. Some play on governmental ties to tilt the scales to their advantage. Some spread rumors to undermine their coworkers. Then they sit together in devotions and praise a God who insisted the world will know His followers by their love for one another. And because, in Burundi, you don’t address conflict face-to-face, all this goes unmentioned for weeks, months, years.

So when we talked about Shalom with each other, those ideas were pushing against some serious wounds in that room. When we talked about how your work is restoring the Shalom of the world, we were asking people to seek first the Kingdom, and let God worry about the rest. And all of that works together to heal our Shalom with the Creator, Lover, and King. I’m not arrogant enough to think that everything changed from four days. But I believe the Kingdom is like a mustard seed. It’s like yeast working through dough. I can trust in that.

I was honored to share with this community. But my favorite part of the week was when the community responded and asked questions. People were really wrestling with the ramifications of the scriptures we were working with, and I was so thrilled to see new ideas start to seep into the fabric of this community. And it wasn’t only the well-educated and important who were asking the questions. The guards, the ladies who clean the office and bring tea, the drivers, the people at the bottom of the World Relief totem pole were asking questions to the white, western male who had been put in a position of authority. That simple fact was an incredible breaking-down of societal delineations in Burundi, a breaking-down that I think is right in line with the upside-down Kingdom we work to bring.

I’m now greeted by “Shalom” whenever I walk into the office, and I can only hope that is because Shalom is starting to become a reality there.

Tomorrow: Part III: The Birthday!

February So Far - Part I: The Big Question

So let’s be honest with each other. I owe you all a few explanations. If you read the blog regularly, there have been some promises and allusions I’ve made which deserve fulfillment and exposition. And because things have been moving so quickly these days, I’ve been letting them stay where they were, as sentences in previous posts. But now is the time! Charles Mingus is yelling in my ear, and I feel the gravity of the blogosphere tugging! Let the updates begin!

In January, we asked you all to pray with us about when exactly we should conclude our stay here in Bujumbura. We were struggling to make the numbers work financially, and we were hearing more and more stories from home about lost jobs, lost savings, lost hopes. We didn’t want to take on unnecessary debt, and yet we also didn’t want to miss on opportunities God might yet have for us here. We considered coming home at the end of February and asked you to pray with us for a week.

Firstly, thanks to all of you who did pray. Your encouragement and support was an enormous blessing. We heard God through you.

Now, obviously, we haven’t made clear the result of that week of prayer and searching. I’m still receiving emails and questions that want to know when we’re coming home. Well, I’m happy to tell you that we are staying through the end of April, as originally intended. This came as a result of several things.

One, we were hearing a consistent theme from many of your encouraging emails. You were affirming to us that there would be right reasons and wrong reasons to leave, and fear would be a wrong reason. You believed in us and in the God who clothes the lilies. We were lifted by those words.

Two, we were praying that God would give us peace about things at home, and He did. We completely believe that, even as God is going to supply our needs, He is going to supply yours. We stand with you in your difficulties, friends and family, and we entrust you to the hands of the Father and His body here on earth. We know the Fellowship community is showing amazing unity and brotherhood in these dark times, and if you’re not a part of a faith community, live in Fort Wayne, and have need, go see what God is doing there!

Three, we were praying that God would establish the work of our hands for these coming months. In the days as we were praying, new opportunities for ministry appeared for me in music and preaching. New affirmation came for Karri in her work at Turame. God seemed and seems to be pouring us out on this community. Indeed, it seems it has taken these first four months to prepare us for the work we will be involved in for the final four months.

Four, we were praying for clarity about how to spiritually, emotionally, and practically address the issue of financial support. We received an overwhelming vote of support and confidence from World Relief HQ and our volunteer coordinators, Lorelei and Caroline. (Massive thanks to both of you!) They made it clear that financial support should be the last reason for us to end our time here. We received new support from many of you, and we are sorry for our tardiness in sending personalized thank you messages to you, but they are coming! All in all, we still welcome any support you all have to offer, and we are completely confident that, as God clearly still has work for us here, we will find manna on the ground each morning.

So, we will return to the States at the end of April. Even now, God is preparing new things for us to look forward to upon our return to the States. We’re in conversations with people who have exciting possibilities to consider for both Karri and I. Since we know that each life is a story, and any good story has to carry a little bit of suspense, we’re still working through exactly what the next season is going to look like. J.J. Abrams tells us that any episode with a big exposition has to bring a new question into the story, so we’ll just leave the narrative there for today. We’ll be in Buja until April 30th, and then on into the future.

Where the future is, what it will hold, and for how long is still in pre-

Tomorrow: Part II: The Retreat