Seasons of Life


Maybe one of the wisest things ever said by the wisest man who ever lived was this: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) I guess if you wanted to paraphrase this in a more modern bumper-sticker-ish vernacular, you could say, “Seasons happen.” Of course this simple reality is loaded with impact and import for our lives. One thing it points to is that everything changes. And it does. And it will, whether we like it or not. Everything that is physical or temporal in nature…changes! If you want proof of that, just look in the mirror or take a walk in a cemetery.

I’m not someone who always rolls with change especially well. Changes in government? Wow, we could use a few of those! Hurry please! But often change impacts us in the more trivial areas of life, areas that really don’t matter at all. I get a little grumpy when, for some reason, manufacturers decide that they need to change the packaging on my toothpaste or shampoo after thirty years. It makes it hard to find, and I think it just doesn’t look right in the cabinet or taste the same. (I don’t recommend tasting the shampoo.) They don’t care what I think. They never ask. They just change away. I work as a pastor for a church. Of course, change never causes any problems in churches…

But as hard as change is to accept sometimes, can you imagine how difficult and dreadfully monotonous life would be if things never really did change? The late great author C.S. Lewis wrote in his delightful Chronicles of Narnia series that one of the earmarks of a land controlled by the force of Evil was that it was a place where “…it was always winter, but never Christmas.” In other words, he suggested, the changing of seasons and events like Christmas that break up the dull/white/icy/drab/harsh monotony of winter—are a huge blessing. Lewis was citing Christmas as the great interjection of light and life and warmth into a world gripped by the gray of winter. But imagine the same truth related to other seasons. What if it was always summer, but never the Fourth of July? What if it was always fall, but never Thanksgiving? What if it was always spring, but never Easter? You get my point? All of those seasons are made special—and in fact desirable—primarily because the days shift and march from one event toward another, things and times we have learned to look forward to, even for which we have a longing. We call them holidays (from what used to be called Holy Days) in that they stand apart and usually give us pause and a reason to do something a little different from the daily flow.

I love the seasons, and I love living somewhere that we actually have them! The old wag around here is that if you don’t like the weather…just wait! Sometimes we’ve been known to experience all four seasons in one afternoon! I lived for, well, a season—about 12 of them actually—in Houston, Texas. One of the oddities about Houston was that being so far south, in a mild winter, there might not even be a freeze. That meant that trees didn’t lose their leaves all on one day in October like they do in Amarillo, and potted plants could grow to gargantuan proportions. For a West Texas boy, very much accustomed to the stark bleak and white of winter, that was strange. And you should have seen those webbed-footed Houstonites scramble if the temperature neared the extreme of, say, 40 degrees. (I remember well one of the three winters I lived there; it actually snowed an inch one day. They shut down the entire city!) I’m so glad I live in Amarillo again. It’s home. And I love the seasons here; I love that we’re moving into fall, which is my favorite. May it be long and glorious!

There is a point to my rambling, I hope. And that is that seasons, and the changes they bring with them, are very good things—even hope-filled things. To give example, I buried a good man last Monday. There are so many things I could say about Don Stark. He lived through 300 seasons, some 75 years, 40 of them spent in our church. And all through them one of the earmarks that described his life was that he was as faithful as the changing of seasons. In a time when so few men are the men God wants men to be, he stood out in his dependability and genuineness, season in and season out. And even as things changed around him in sequence and circumstance, he remained constant. Or did he? Maybe the secret of his success in life was that he learned to roll with the changes but at the same time didn’t change in the things that mattered most. Yes. That’s it. When the season of cancer came into his life a few years back, it changed a lot of things in his life circumstantially—but it didn’t change anything substantively. We learned from Don a lot about living well through a season such as this. I believe one thing that maybe helped him run the race so faithfully was the greater truth than cancer doesn’t last forever. Even though most kinds of cancer will eventually prove fatal—ultimately incurable—still, there is a well-known and readily available cure for death. Ever since Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave, death has been curable. Reversible. Don knew that. And it kept him running the race.

I’m in a current season of life (God has given me 226 seasons, so far) that is the busiest and most demanding through which I’ve ever lived. Sadly, it has been true for several years now that the pace of life seems to be picking up, right along with the number of appointments and endless lists of “necessary things” that have to be done to keep a church healthy and moving and growing. Don’t misunderstand. I love what I do and hope God lets me do it until my last breath. But the burdens of the realities of my life during recent seasons have been terribly demanding, almost suffocating sometimes. Always winter, but never Christmas it would seem—not that it’s bad or only filled with bad things. Just that it’s so crazy busy that one day flashes into the next seemingly without much hope that it will ever be different. Days, weeks, months—just begin to be about a rodeo-ish hanging-on so as not to get thrown or gored by the monster to which we’re saddled. I know what I need. I need a Sabbath. God invented the Sabbath to be a weekly season of rest and refocus. I know what I need. Physician, heal thyself!

Wrapping this up, I guess what I would say to you, dear reader, is to cherish the seasons because they do have a limit. You may get 300, or more. You may not get any more. Every one of them matters! And I would say that if you are in a particularly challenging or difficult or perhaps just demanding season of life—maybe you’re unemployed or caring for grandchildren in a role you never imagined, or maybe you’re sick and fighting a health battle, or perhaps the skirmish is relational or spiritual in nature, or you’re caring for aging parents, or even riding the bull named “success”—well, whatever the nature of the battle, keep repeating to yourself four words: It’s Only a Season. It’s Only a Season. It’s Only a Season. It is, you know. It won’t last forever. And there are things to be learned and seen and discovered in every season, both good ones and hard ones. And maybe the one other truth you simply must remember is that the God of all seasons—this God who never changes, and who is ever-faithful—is walking with you through this one toward the next. You are never forgotten, never abandoned, never alone.

Everything’s Going to Be OK….


I saw something that got my attention in the eastern sky last evening. Something rare. Something unexpected. It was a rainbow. Now I know that rainbows are a fairly common occurrence; a scientist would tell you, perhaps, that they are the result of the refraction of light through droplets of water vapor in the air, the result of a prism effect that in essence splits the light into different colors and wavelengths which then become visible in the distance.  And they would be right. That’s how and why they happen, partly.  Around these parts we consider them miraculous because, it takes rain to make rainbows. I cannot thank God loudly or long enough for all the rain he’s sent so far this year; there was another inch yesterday morning, and then about 6:30 last night the sky darkened a bit and the heavens opened again for a short burst of blessing.  It was over fast. But it didn’t leave without leaving also one lasting benefit—a well-defined half-rainbow in the northeastern sky, beautifully framed amidst the brownish-gray clouds, remnants of the tiny storm that had blown through moments before.  Like I said, one reason rainbows are noteworthy is because rain is pretty noteworthy in the Panhandle of Texas. But there’s another reason, as well.

If you’ve read your Bible at all, you probably remember the story of the flood in Genesis, and that after the flood God makes a promise that he will never again destroy all life on earth with a flood.  The conditions of the covenant are repeated a few times there in Genesis 9, specifically, that the rainbow is an “everlasting covenant” between God and all living creatures.  Interestingly enough, it is a one-sided covenant that appears only to depend on God and his promise to “never again” wipe out creation with a flood.  Living where we do, that God will keep that particular promise has never been a worry of mine.  It would take a flood of Noahnine proportions to wet the dirt for more than a few days! And if he should get really ticked-off, even without a flood, there are plenty of other ways he could wipe the disease off the planet: a tornado, a hailstorm, a wildfire, closing all the coffee shops, no donuts at church, etc. Natural disasters, you know?

I remember very well learning the story of Noah and the flood as a child, at the feet of my parents who faithfully read us Bible stories.  I remember doing the same thing for my own children. What never dawned on me until I was a children’s pastor many years later was how frightening that story might be to a child.  I don’t remember ever being all that concerned about it when I was little, but I guess with a vivid imagination the picture of everyone on the planet except for 8 people in an ark drowning in a terrible flood might fuel some nightmares, and questions.  I don’t know why it didn’t bother me. Maybe, just perhaps, in my childlike understanding I could quite easily accept that if God had made all of humankind, it was within God’s right to “un-make them.” Maybe I lost the gruesome images in the more exciting details of the great ship, or all the animals inside, who had come two-by-two.  Maybe I was more fixated on the happy ending wrought by God’s grace than the horrible ordeal wrought by man’s sin and God’s wrath.

For whatever reason, the story didn’t scar me for life, didn’t make me fear God’s wrath, or even make me prone to worry during thunderstorms that I might be missing the boat somewhere.  But it did make me take notice of rainbows, and I never see one that I am not reminded of just one aspect of God’s grace, a promise made many thousands of years ago that his anger would not be satisfied ever again by a flood.  That reassured me somehow. And maybe it served to teach me a very important lesson that I grasped, even as a child, that God is first and foremost a God of love and mercy whose ultimate desire is reconciliation, not war; pardon instead of vengeance, rainbows and not devastating torrents.

As a parent I tried to teach my children as well as my parents did me, and we didn’t shy away from this story of wrath and grace. I will never forget once asking Jamie, my daughter, what the rainbow means. In her 5 year-old wisdom she quickly answered, “It means ‘everything’s gonna be o.k.!’”  And you know what, for a 5 year-old, that’s pretty deep theology. She was right. In spite of how “out of whack” life can get, how hard, how grueling, how difficult—God has promised us a hope that will not ultimately be disappointed. In spite of our sins and fallen-ness, through the amazing blood of Jesus Christ, we who were once “far off”—have been brought close as brothers and sisters of Jesus and sons and daughters of God. Another one-sided covenant! Perhaps the very same covenant! But that is the nature of God, and also the story of our relationship with him in spite of the fact that He could justifiably wipe us out at any moment, with cause and no explanation.

A little later in the Old Testament, in Exodus, When Moses and God have a very-up-close-and-personal meeting, not that long after Moses has seen the terrible wrath of God, and has almost had to “beg” God to stay the hand of his wrath against the Israelites—God introduces himself to Moses by name. “I am,” God says, “…the Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  (Exodus 34:6)  On the heels of anger, those are the words out of God’s own mouth that offer to Moses, and to us, the best picture of his essence.  I remember too many times to count from my childhood, when immediately after my mother whipped me (with cause, I’m afraid; see my last blog)—the very first thing she did was to embrace me in her arms and remind me that I was loved and accepted.  Not because of my evil, or corrected state. But in spite of it.  Not because I would never disobey again, but even knowing I certainly would! I got whipped ferociously, then I got loved, hard! It was her way of telling me that “everything’s gonna be o.k..” We need to hear that from time to time, even as the pain of our sinful choices or the cursed remnants of our diseased fallen nature stings and burns, as do our tears.

That, of course, is the message of Jesus on the cross. It’s another brutal, gruesome, terrifying story when you think about it. The wrath of God visited fully upon his own son so that you and I would not have to pay the penalty for our sins.  Or earn our salvation.  Another one-sided covenant.  Another very exacting picture of justice and mercy, punishment and grace. And another storm that led to another rainbow, as the Light of the world’s tears and blood were prism’d by the laser focus of first God’s wrath as it collided head-on with his love, then magnified by the Son’s sacrifice and displayed as a masterpiece of grace.

Every rainbow is worth stopping to look at, stopping to remember where rainbows really come from and what they really mean. They are testaments of God’s glory, reminders of God’s grace. And they are a pretty unmistakable message of just how much God loves us, too. He wants you to know that after the storm–even when the storm has been brutal–everything is going to be o.k.!

Remembering My Mom

As Mother’s Day approaches, pastors are always searching the horizon for what they might possibly say to their flocks that weekend. I don’t especially enjoy preaching on Mother’s Day, mainly because I’m not a mother. Oh, I had one. The best! But even though we men should appreciate and hold our own moms and the moms of our kids in a state of holy reverence—I just think it a bit audacious for a man to pretend to know or attempt to say much of anything about mothering, or how it should be done. The only area where we might possibly be qualified is if we ourselves had a fine mother, and we remember her impact in our own lives. That I did, and that I do.

My Mom and I perhaps bonded in a special way because I was the youngest, and, as she often said, “…so much like her in many ways.”mom That was not necessarily a compliment–more of a fact, really–that made her much too gifted at knowing what I was doing and even thinking about doing a lot of the time in my teenage years. She told me, more than once, that she understood what it was like to be a rebel, to flirt with danger and color outside the lines. Although I really couldn’t at the time (and barely even now) imagine or acknowledge that her teenage indiscretions could have even approached some of my own, I do remember feeling at least the comfort that she was more empathetic toward my rebel inclinations than she was judgmental or condemning. She would say, “I’ve been in this or that position myself… be very careful who you spend time with and what choices you make. Try to live your today in such a way that you don’t have to be ashamed of it or regret it tomorrow.”

I remember so well her work ethic; it was passed down so obviously from her own mother and father, formidable and noteworthy people in their own rights. I remember Mom never sitting still (another way in which we are alike). I think it helped her not completely obliterate either me or that tree out behind the church she was always pulling limbs off of to thrash me with, because, truth be known, she was probably having as hard of a time sitting through the church service as I was! So many things to do and places to be—and sitting was not getting any of them done, and thus not high on the list of priorities. She was a doer in all ways, even when it came to worshipping, serving, loving, teaching, living out her faith. Of the physical possessions I have that belonged to my mom, two that I treasure dearly are her work gloves, small and feminine and well-worn—and her power drill. Strange, I know, but those two objects sum up a lot of who she was, and her independent, can-do-anything-self-sufficient approach to life. When I pull the trigger on that small gray metal power drill, I’m instantly a six-year-old again, standing and watching her work in the garage, expertly making lamps out of driftwood.

I learned to love nature and soil through her eyes and our backyard activities; one of my earliest memories was of her letting me sow tomato seeds into little peat cups. We watered them, they sprouted, we planted, we tended, we harvested, we shared and we enjoyed, literally, the fruits of our labor. There were so many lessons in that simple exercise. I have from that time had a love for the soil and growing things; it’s a blessing and curse both—that affords me many hours in the back yard, fighting against West Texas to create a bit of Eden—and also cutting severely into what would have been my kids inheritance every time I stop at the greenhouse or garden center! To Mom the yard was therapy; for me, it is as well, a life-saving refuge. In my book $100 spent on peat moss and vermiculite and manure (and the hours to use them) beats any day $100 spent on one hour with a therapist. She and I are again alike in that we “work things out” while we’re digging in the dirt and making our few square feet of earth a little prettier. Mom was always teaching us about nature by pointing out sunsets and lightning storms and rainbows and butterflies and birds and perfect windless evenings, or smelling the joy of freshly cut grass or new aspen pads in the swamp cooler. She marveled at what most people missed, and taught me how to see that as well. I remember her reading to me, over and over again, what we called “Billy Books”—because the kid in the books was named Billy. One of them I can still quote, about nature: “Red and yellow, blue and green, orange and purple all are seen in the rainbow fair; I’m so glad God put them there.” I’m glad, too, Billy. And I still to this day stop and stare anytime a rainbow paints the sky.

Mom was extremely demonstrative in her love, believed in copious hugs/actions/words to back it up. Mom was also a huge believer in discipline, that judgment and sentencing and punishment need not hang over one’s head long. She carried, I think, on her person a half-inch wide three-foot-long leather strap. The time between judgment and the sentence being executed was about 2.5 seconds. There was no appeal! She believed a “good whipping” and a “good boy” were related ideas, and she was not bashful about proving it. She would have NOT fit in well with modern permissive ideas about sparing the rod. The best thing, though, is that while she did not shy away from administering justice—immediately following the punishment she was on her knees with open arms and forgiveness to welcome back the penitent transgressor. I learned a lot about consequences, punishment, mercy—and especially grace—from Mom. She was the picture of absolute acceptance, even when the child might be behaving unacceptably. She had no tolerance for telling lies or taking things that weren’t yours. I bore the strap (and on other occasions a fly swatter) for getting caught in a fib; one time when I purloined a piece of penny gum from Jack Bell’s candy counter, she made me go back in, confess my sins to the clerk, give back the still un-enjoyed gum, and pay for it anyway. That made an impression….

This has gotten long and I could write a book, but I won’t. While having a Dad like we did was a huge factor in our views on ministry and church life and what a pastor is supposed to be and do, I suspect, at least in my case, that Mom had more to do with who I am today, how I think today, what thrills me today, what shames me today, what I worry about and what I laugh at today, who and how and what I love today, my inability to sit still today—than any other factor or person in my life. Her picture from the early 60’s is on my desk right now, one of the few things I’ve unpacked from an office relocation as of yet. I’m not sure why her picture came to the surface amidst so much flotsam in the torrent of moving items, but I’m glad it did. And I’m glad to be able to look up and see her watching over me. I like to think in some way she does that still. She’s been gone now for a long time. But she’s always here. Moms are that way. Especially my Mom….

If you still have a mom on earth, give her a call or a hug. That’s the perfect gift. Or maybe take her to Weinerschnitzel or Outback. If your mom is long gone, or recently gone, spend the time to remember and honor who she was and all she did for you and taught you. And forgive her imperfections. If you live with someone who’s a mom, let them know how much their role matters and help them bear that sacred burden. If you are a mom, and it seems such a hard and thankless job—look up and you’ll see your Father looking down with pride on you and the children he’s given you to mold further into His image. He will tell you, if you listen, “Mom…your work matters! I’m trusting YOU with life itself, and so much responsibility for what those lives become. You’re not forgotten, you’re not alone!”

Dyslexic Loyalty and the Life of Riley: A Tail That Will Give You Paws

He was the best of dogs; he was the worst of dogs… That pretty much summed up my daughter Jamie’s comments when she learned of the passing of Riley, who had been a four-legged fixture at our house for most of the last 15 years. You might say that Riley came into our lives providentially. IMG_1764 (2) In August of 2000, when Holly and I returned home from an anniversary night out, the kids had a surprise for us in the back of my truck—a cute little long-haired mixed-breed mutt with big brown eyes and Yoda-like ears that had wandered into the yard and captured the attention of my children. Their words, if I remember, were something like this: “Oh he was lost daddy; we put him in your truck so he wouldn’t get lost-er.” That’s logical, I suppose. Well, to make a long story shorter, even after our attempts to help Riley find his way back to his rightful home, a few weeks later he had made his way back into our house, and into our hearts, and that was that. He was well-behaved in the house, didn’t desecrate the floors or furniture. He was smart and loving and craved attention. He was a noble watchdog, appropriately ferocious when the mailman came walking across the porch or another dog down the front sidewalk. He was the best of dogs…

I wish that could be the end of the story. He was good in so many ways, but in other ways he was equally the worst of dogs. For one thing, he was a runner. (That’s probably how he came to be “lost” that fateful night when my kids “saved” him!) Any little crack of the door was adequate; he’d nose out and take off like a bullet straight down Everett Avenue for Bell Street. He took great delight in the chase, and was a master at avoiding capture. He was also very hairy, parts of this dog producing annually enough hair to make about four Rileys; hair “bunnies” became a part of our lives, no matter how much you vacuumed or swept. We bought rugs the color of Riley just to make it simpler. He tolerated—but hated—my grooming attempts and baths. He was a hopeless beggar at the dinner table, and guarded the kitchen counter, snapping at the feet of anyone who got too close to the roasted chicken cooling just above. He loved to roll around outdoors in things that smelled of death, then come inside, prideful and strutting in his toxicity. His breath could have killed a small child. His worst personality trait of all, though, was in his ability to be surly and just plain mean if you tried to make him move from where he was napping or take away a bone or object of his affection. He could be a dog-possessed-by-evil at these times; I once think I saw his head spin completely around when I tried to take his pig’s ear away. Bad story. Bad dog. His first and last pig’s ear. Sometimes he truly was the worst of dogs.

But most of the time—that’s why I suppose we tolerated the negatives—most of the time he was a pretty good dog. He loved me, and I loved him. By my back-of-the-envelope-calculations he and I walked over 2,500 miles, our nightly ritual after dark, come rain or shine, snow or sleet or hail or wind, ninety degrees or nine below—we walked. He’s probably a good part of the reason I am not as of yet a complete solid! He would jump up into your lap in the recliner, and snooze for hours there, or make you pet him. And he would always meet you at the door with excitement when you came home. Especially if you were carrying in a carry-out box. He just knew.

Riley got old on us, about 17 years old by our guesstimates.  He’d gone totally deaf, was about half blind; he had arthritis and bad airway problems, honking like a goose much of the nights of late. So, one sad Friday the 13th in March we made a last trip with Riley to the vet, and did that thing that it is oh-so-loving-and-oh-so-terrible all at the same time. And there were lots of tears, and I miss him still. Especially when I come home, or when it’s time for him to walk me at night. I know, theologically, that animals aren’t given eternal spirits like humans. We are the only creatures created “in His image,” and animals are meant to serve men and not the opposite. But it would also be wrong, I think, to say that animals aren’t given some kind of temporal “soul”—so to speak—a personality, a spark, an intellect, a more than merely instinctual ability to love and be loved.  Or to be evil.  And often to be both.

Just like Riley typically approached our walks at night, I’m not sure what the point of all of this is quite yet, but I expect to get there in a bit. It does feel good to write about Riley, sort of an obarktuary, I suppose. A significant life and passing should be noted. Riley taught me a lot through the years about faithfulness, about adventure, about patience and begging and persistence. rileyHe taught me—showed me—unconditional love and forced me to learn it when dealing with his schizoid ways. How can one animal be so good, so capable of love and joy, so smart—and at the very same time be so bad, so capable of snarling and snapping and illogical paranoid destructive behaviors of all forms? How indeed? God probably wonders the same thing about me. The one with the eternal soul. The one created “in His image.” The one who knows better and has been called to higher—but who still returns time and again to his lower basic instinct.  Paul said it once, “I want to do right– I have that desire. But I see another law at work inside, a law that wars within me—brings out the absolute worst in me…” I can see that law too, Paul.

Maybe, just maybe, God gave me Riley to teach me how to put up with a haywired creature, to remind me that His love for me isn’t tied to my pedigree or perfect attitude. That it isn’t because of how well-behaved, wonderful or smart I am. No. God’s favor toward me is in spite of all of my shortcomings—against all logic, all fairness—it… just… is, it’s just grace. Even though I was a stray and still know how to run. Even though I have a split personality, a sometimes selfish snarling side, even in spite of my deafness and blindness and spiritual arthritis—and that I wheeze instead of praise and often wreak sinfully of death, at times getting so much backward and upside down—still, I have a God who loves me and doesn’t think I’m a lost dog or a lost cause.  And I was blessed enough, by the same God, to have a dog for a long season that thought of me as God. Well, most of the time anyway.

Thank you, Father, for furry companions and all creatures great and small. Thank you for Riley, and all the dogs I’ve loved before who’ve loved me back unconditionally. Thank you for thinking of everything we need, before we even know we need it. Your faithfulness and loyalty is unmatched, but thankfully it is often imitated.  And that should give us paws to think… Amen!

The Light Still Shines in the Darkness

I took a walk late last night; actually it was more like an almost mid-night march around my neighborhood in the name of exercise, sort of a pre-emptive strike on what those pre-Christmas goodies are conspiring to do to my post-prime body. It was a cold, crisp night, but pretty nice truthfully. By then the traffic is done, the neighborhoods are quiet, and all the smart people who aren’t criminals or working a late shift somewhere are in bed. I like walking at night, but there’s even a bonus to it this time of year—Christmas lights!IMG_6349

You really haven’t enjoyed outdoor Christmas lighting properly until you’ve seen it from outside your car, preferably from the sidewalk across the street.  It’s just better, more beautiful that way. We do some decking-out of our out-of-doors, and thankfully a lot of our neighbors do, too.

Just a few days after Thanksgiving, I was up in the attic crawl space swimming through the dust bunnies and cobwebs to get to the “Christmas Décor” section of our attic archives.  Every time I do this, I am instantly transported back to the decorating seasons of my childhood, and I am impressed with how different things were back then. Whereas the Shelburnes who live on Everett Street in 2014 have probably at least 25 different boxes of various Christmas decorations (we do love Christmastime!)—back in 1965, the Shelburnes who lived on north Goliad Street had, maybe, two boxes that lived up on a dusty shelf out in our single car garage that had never seen a car; for a six-year-old who could only remember three Christmases, that box held the stuff of wonder: colored glass ornaments, mirror-like and fragile, a shiny glass star for the top of the tree and a little plastic FullSizeRenderlight-up Santa who clutched a bubble light in his tiny red-gloved hand. I still have that Santa, by the way. Birthright goes to the eldest son, cheap plastic Santa to the youngest. Or something like that!

There were also to be found in those boxes what we called “icicles”—which takes some explaining to modern kids because you don’t see them much anymore.  They were thin, fragile, 18-inch long spaghetti-like strips of shiny aluminum foil that my mother from the depression era dutifully saved every year for re-use. And most importantly, there were lights—seven strings of lights with seven multi-colored twinkle lights in each string, the “modern” kind that would stay lit even if one bulb burned out. Those 49 twinkle lights transformed our humble $3 noble fir tree into something approaching noble, a glistening and twinkling work of art. The tree’s other accoutrements were fine, but those lights–they were the catalyst. And they also fired my imagination with the beauty and wonder of Christmas.

That was indoors. What about outdoors? Well, today we have 4 or 5 crates and boxes for those alone! But back then my parent’s sum total of outdoor Christmas regalia consisted of one string of about twelve lights. You may have seen these in museums. They were not today’s Chinese-made $2.99-for-a-hundred Hobby Lobby throw ‘em away after Christmas each year lights. IMG_6444No, these were heavy duty. Fourteen gauge red and green wires. Beefy bakelite C-9 sockets with brass inserts and rivets. And they featured these textured colored bulbs that burned bright and hot. And we had one string of just a dozen of them, just enough to drape across the small porch eave at our house, just enough to let the neighbors (and Santa, hopefully) know that Ebeneezer Scrooge did not live at 125 north Goliad. (He actually lived at 123, but that’s another story, for another day…)  Our miniscule decorations were pretty paltry by today’s standards—but I still took great pride in hanging them up and plugging them in each night, bathing the front entry of our non-descript little white brick house in the wonder of Christmas.

I still have those lights; what’s more impressive is that most of bulbs still burn, even though the wires are a bit stiff and brittle as they are approaching 75 years old. I’m pretty careful with them, and when we do plug them in we don’t let them burn for long. Still, I make it a point to sit quietly in their glow each year for at least a few moments, awash in their simple and basic warmth, a glow that also warmed my parents faces and that heralds from a time when Christmas—and life in general—was a lot more, well, simple and basic.

Christmas today is neither of those things, is it? December calendar slots have been overfilled for three weeks now; I’ve been coming and going, racing from parties here and activities there—all of them fun and festive and enjoyable obligations—but obligations, nonetheless. There has been a lot of time spent decking the halls (see above, 25 boxes worth!) both at home and at church, presents to search out and buy and wrap, special services to attend and prepare, relatives to meet and greet, cards to inscribe and mail, eggs to nog and reindeer games…and the list grows along with our waistlines and blood pressures as the season unfolds.  By the time it all gets done and 2014 becomes obsolete—unless we’ve been really stingy with our calendar slots and circumspect in our hearts—Christmas may have bloomed and faded and we may well have pretty much missed the real and most important points of what Christmas means and why that even matters. Don’t get me wrong with any of this. I love the lights, the smells, the sights, the sounds.  I love the music, the decorations, time with friends, special events.  I love buying and giving presents (as long as I don’t have to go to the mall) and I love getting gifts as much as the next guy. But I also know that Christmas can easily be about a mile wide and an inch deep—unless we remember what it’s really all about. And WHO it’s really all about.

I’m admittedly proud and pleased that my old mom and dad’s ancient and basic Christmas lights still burn. A seventy-five year-old light bulb is impressive by any standard—but that’s nothing compared to a Light that came into the world and split the darkness some 2,000 years ago.  Isaiah (9:2) foretold it, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadowlands of death, a light has dawned.” John, a gospel eyewitness, wrote about the culmination of Isaiah’s words, “In Him (Jesus) was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” (John1:4,5)

I like to think that one reason I love Christmas lights is because deep inside I know that Christmas, more than anything else, is about Light. God Himself pulled on a dingy cloak of humanity and came to get up close and personal with us—His majesty was cloaked, yes—but the Light leaked through. It pulsed above a stable in a Bethlehem sky; it illuminated the minds of shepherds and fishermen and rabbis and tax collectors and prostitutes and anyone else who would open their eyes; later, it poured out of a sealed tomb to forever change the score in cemeteries. And it is still shining brightly today!  Can you see it? Can others see it in and through you?

Jesus the Light said it: “Let your light shine brightly before others, so that they may see your good works, and then give glory to your Father in Heaven.” Now there’s our challenge for the New Year!

Merry Christmas!

Little Shepherds, Little Sheep, and a Big Message

Author’s Note:  I’m taking a break from my African posts during December. At our church we celebrate the season of Advent which encompasses the 4 Sundays before Christmas. Among other things, we light a new candle each week, which helps us realize how fast the season is moving, and also points us toward some of the significant players in the heavenly drama that unfolded that first Christmas. The third week of Advent begins Sunday, and what I will share below is a part of that message that centers around the “candle of the shepherds.”  Hope you enjoy it, and maybe even think about it a little bit! And in case I don’t get to write again before Christmas, let me say how much it means to me that I have a solid cadre of faithful readers.  Your encouragement–and really just the fact that you read my stuff–is what keeps me writing.  Merry Christmas!!

I love Christmas!  I love the lights and the music and the food and the presents and time spent with people I love. And I love the message! Whether you recognize it or not, Christmas is but one more resounding echo of the Gospel, the Good News–promised, provided and proclaimed by God himself. It’s beautiful, it’s good, and it’s all so unexpected!

Think back to the Christmas text in Luke 2: An angel of the Lord appears to these sleepy little shepherds who are out mindlessly minding their own little business. Then suddenly the night sky is ripped apart by the very Glory of the Lord, as if God for just a moment in time tore the curtain that separates heaven from earth, and that glory leaked out. And the shepherds are just terrified! This is no little fright. It’s a “fall to the ground and hide” afraid, a “change your pants” kind of afraid, a “this is it, we’re all gonna die!” afraid. They respond appropriately, as anyone would when confronted with the brilliant glory of God. You see, you can’t hide there! God’s brilliance not only shows us his incredible lightness of being, it shows and reveals all the things about us we’d just as soon hide. But in the light of God, we can’t.

These little shepherds knew, instinctively, what they were dealing with. So there was nothing to do but fall on their faces and hope the coming obliteration would be mercifully quick and painless. We lack their sense, when in our own ways we each tend to avoid or run from the unwavering light of God and his Word trying in vain to cover up the disappointing truth of who we are really. We know that truth already, of course. And so does he. But in the darkness or half-shadows, it’s easy to live with our ragged-edged realities or imagine that maybe we are somehow able to hide the worst of it, if not from ourselves at least from others.

Our own response is an autonomic echo from Eden, when Adam and Eve chose the Devil’s lie over a perfect relationship with God. They had been warned, and they deserved to die. When God shows up he finds that they are trying both to hide and cover themselves with fig leaves and excuses that are equally flimsy.  For the first time ever, they are afraid of God. But instead of obliterating them and starting over with better stock, God cuts them off from the relationship they’d previously enjoyed with him, and casts them out of Eden. And for the first time in their lives they inhabit the inhibited perspective of outsiders, no longer welcome in paradise.  As God explains the resonating consequences of their choice and spells out the punishment, he tells the serpent—the Devil—“I will make enemies of you and the woman and between both of your offspring. He will crush your head, bruising his heel in the process.” This Gospel fore-shadow all the way back in Genesis looks all the way to the cross, to the time when Jesus would inflict an ultimately fatal blow upon Satan, but not without injury to himself.

At the cross, which is just a skip from Christmas, the sin of Adam was paid for and the excommunication undone. Through the cross we descendants of Adam are no longer outcasts, no longer cut off from the presence of God. Although our human nature, courtesy of Adam, makes us inclined to hide and cower and cover up the nakedness of our flaws in a kind of vain insincerity—the message of Christmas, and the cross, is that we don’t have to be afraid of getting what we deserve, and that in fact, punishment is not God’s objective.

So the message to the little shepherds is really still God’s big message to us: “Don’t be afraid!” And here’s why—“I bring you good news that will be of great joy to all the people—today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Don’t miss the message! “Your Deliverer has come!” God says. “You’re about to be rescued! No more living in the dirt east of Eden. No more barriers between you and God. No more need to live or walk in the darkness; you don’t have to hide in shame, and you don’t have to be afraid anymore!”

Even though we are very much like these little shepherds of Luke 2 and their little sheep as well—even though we are little and timid and prone to wander and get lost; even though we need lots of attention and we reek of the fallen-ness of humanity, rightfully made outsiders due to the stench of sin—still the angel army choir shouts their song to us: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men and women on whom his favor rests.”  The message is good news…a message of favor instead of fear. When the shepherds received it, they “…let loose, praising and glorifying God.” When we receive it, shouldn’t we do that, too?


Giving Thanks for the “Haves” and “Have Nots”…

Nothing moves as fast as the last six weeks of the year; the final “42” get sucked into the vortex of holiday activities, and perhaps, like the sun that seems to move faster at sunset, these last days of the year pick up speed before they’re sucked beneath the horizon of 2013, never to be seen again in their past form. There is something manic–and something very special at the same time–about the holiday season. And we can miss what is most relevant if we fail to consider some big picture issues, and indeed if we fail to pause at a few junctures along the way and take time to consider the same.

I’ve been blogging exclusively about Africa ever since returning from my travels in July.  Those of you who’ve only started following this blog in recent months may not know that before I went to Africa, I never wrote about Africa. In fact, truth be told, the “ink” of my writer’s pen had just about run dry in the first half of the year; due to schedules and stresses and the fact that good writing is hard work and takes time–there wasn’t much going on from my end. Then God detoured my agenda with a trip to Africa. What I experienced there caught my attention and gave me something to write about again, and that has been good. I realize today with some sadness that I’m running low on the notes I took during the trip, and my travelogue of that journey must certainly be nearing a logical end. I still have a few more installments; after that, well, I’ll pray that God will continue to fuel my passion and pen, and that I’ll be able to refocus a bit on the big picture that shows God’s abundant grace, given so freely to real people–real messes–like me. Every single day, if we pay attention, proves that God cares much more than he should for people who have it together much less than we should. But I’ll also be eager to continue finding ways to show how God’s grace is very much with the people of places like Africa and that indeed if he cares about them, then so must we.

All of this musing as the year runs low on days brings me to ask, how should my experiences this year color my perceptions of Thanksgiving and Christmas? Let’s tackle the Thanksgiving angle today.  My perspective on Thanksgiving, as it pretty much always has been, is primarily that of a child who never missed a meal, never lacked for clothing or shelter or love. My gratitude has never been hard to find because, in part, neither have my blessings. I’m a free citizen (at least for now) of what still is a country in which almost everyone in the world wishes they lived. I was raised on and have come to understand my spiritual blessings in Christ.  I have a great job with great people to partner with me in a great effort. I have a great family, all of whom are doing well and are healthy. My children (I love them dearly!) have all left the nest and only come back for welcome visits that have a beginning and end. My only debts are mortgage-related and manageable with an end in sight. I have a little retirement fund and a little savings and am even able through God’s blessings to give away a little more of it every year. I had great parents who, although they never had much materially, had the riches that only come to those who know true gratitude for what they have, and whose God never once let them down when it came to providing for their needs and beyond.  What I’m trying to say is I’m blessed and I know it.

But then this summer I was reminded anew of the fact that most of the people in the world have few or perhaps none of the things I’ve listed above. This was not an “awakening” awareness, as I’ve seen poverty and hunger before. I’ve been to impoverished Caribbean islands, I’ve been to rural Russia, I’ve been to Mexico every summer for the past 16 years. I’ve been to slums in Amarillo and I’ve waded through the sea of “humanity in need” that lines up at our Family Service Center 4 times a week. I’m not naïve about need and want. But there are times when God makes it personal–and Kenya made it personal. My time in Kenya gave names and faces to people who are just struggling to survive. And since I am now personally/financially/spiritually invested in these people–I see them in a different way. And I have had to come to terms with some confusion about blessing and provision.

As one of the world’s tiny minority–one of  “the haves”–I live everyday and take for granted hundreds of blessings I don’t see and that most of the people in the world (the “have-nots”) couldn’t imagine. By almost every standard, in comparison with the vast majority of the world’s seven billion people–I’m rich. Africa pictures 2013 557But I’d be wrong if I only see them as poor, or paint them as poor. Because even though these people I’ve met may well have almost nothing to call their own and struggle every day just to find food and water–the ones who know Jesus Christ stand right alongside me as equal heirs in the kingdom. We are both made rich through the gift of Jesus. We both once were impoverished orphans and now we eat every day at the King’s table, with a seat of our own. Neither of us should be there, but we are.  The distinction of “haves” and “have-nots” does not exist at this table. We become simply, all of us, the sons and daughters of the King.  And being that, we lack for nothing. Our Daddy is the King, after all.

So this Thanksgiving finds me so aware of my material blessings, and more aware than ever of what Jesus said about “those who have been given much.” But my experiences of the year have made me mostly aware that real blessing is not primarily of the material kind. The people of Kenya I met in churches there are some of the most “blessings-aware” people I’ve ever met. They see themselves as rich, in spite of their needs. And that is because they are. They live every day in a close-quarters kind of provision from God’s hand to their mouths…and that makes them much more able even than am I to sing and praise and thank God for what he’s done for them. They depend on him alone, with no confusion about their part in the equation. That makes them rich indeed, a people whose understanding of God’s ability to provide is far more than only academic.

From my side, it serves to make me aware of how responsible I am. While America may seem to be the “bulls-eye” of God’s blessings–and He certainly has given us much–on spiritual terms the impoverished multitudes of Kenya are equally blessed, God having met their most basic need through his son Jesus. Maybe in their material deprivation, almost certainly, they are “more blessed” than we are–because they can see it better. And they sense the hand of God on very personal terms.  From this point on I will never again refer to America as “the most blessed nation”–although in many material senses I could make that argument. I choose to see America, including myself as a proud and thankful American, as “the most gifted nation”  on Earth. For we have been given so much; and that makes us the most obligated nation on Earth. With the great gifts of God come great responsibilities, not the least of which is to find ways to share some of what we have with those around the community and world who “have not.” And we must find more and more ways to do it with more and more unselfishness and less and less tendency to think anything is “ours to have” in any role beyond that of stewards who’ve been gifted much so that we can share much.

I am so thankful for the bounty of God’s blessings; I can count thousands!  But I’m especially thankful this season to have been given new eyes to see how God is blessing his people all over the world; when I become a part of that blessing, the cycle is complete, and my thanksgiving becomes a lot more than just a word.


Of Outcasts, Idiots, Beggars, Freaks—and Other Assorted Lepers…

Our last adventure found us circled under a sparse shade tree trying to escape the hot desert sun of Turkana, where a roast-beast-feast had been prepared for the honored visitors—us! I covered all of that well in my last post, but I didn’t have space or time then to say much about what was one of the most significant events of that day, and perhaps the whole trip.

When we first drove up to the new well-site at Nadabal, there was a great deal of activity already there. It’s always interesting to take in with your own eyes the first real experience of something you’ve only seen in pictures or heard about second hand. And there was so much here to see: Africa pictures 2013 565a literal stream of water, overflow from the well, running a hundred feet or so away in the sand to where it disappeared into the thirsty mouth of the desert; animals of all kinds who had come to drink from that stream; people, as many as 50 at times, circled around the well while some pumped and some caught the precious liquid in old yellow recycled corn oil containers. As I framed the mental pictures of all of these things, one small boy kept finding himself in the corner or background. I have no idea at this time who he is, or who he belongs to; he is just there. (As I look back at my hundreds of photographs of these same images, it is amazing how many times I find his little face!) Africa pictures 2013 557It is obvious that he’s malnourished. In his tiny hands he holds a cup with a handle—his water cup—and a small yellow plastic pail for food. They are both empty, but he knows he has come to a place where they can be filled.

As the day progresses, I see hundreds of other children. But there are a couple of them who catch my notice again and again. One is obviously older than the rest; he is tall and lanky, with tattered clothing and a vacant stare. Another, this one a girl, appears normal at first glance but walks with a strange gait. With closer examination I see that one of her feet is severely deformed, a club foot that “shovels” into the sand with each step. It doesn’t seem to slow her down much. Three children among so many, three children that for whatever reason today seem to be everywhere I am.

It is as we are just finishing the feast that my friend Francis (who helps direct relief operations for CRF in Kenya) comes over to where I am sitting. With him is a little girl; it is the same girl I’ve mentioned above. He explains that she is an orphan. Within about ten seconds I am a sponsor of a CRF child in Kenya! Communication is tough here, as the Turkanans speak their own dialect and the children haven’t learned the British English that comes with school-learning. There are almost no schools here. Yet. As best I can, I try to communicate that I will from now on make sure she is cared for. I’m not sure she understands what I’m planning to do for her, or what this will mean. She will come to understand it soon, I hope.  Very shortly after she has run off to play with the other children, Francis comes up with another child, a tall and lanky one, bigger than the rest, with a vacant stare. He is, of course, the same child I noticed earlier. This is a sneak attack, and within about another ten seconds I am the proud sponsor of a second child in Kenya. Let me introduce these new members of my family:

elkatElkatorot Ekamals is 10. When his parents found out that he was mentally challenged, they abandoned him.  He now lives with an elderly grandmother who has no means of support, along with 10 other people in a tiny grass hut smaller than your toolshed in the parched desert of Turkana. He doesn’t know it, of course, but he’s special. He is “officially” the first child sponsored through CRF in this region. He is the first of a wave that is coming.

Chrotine Akatapan is 5; her parents died of AIDS or were killed in tribal violence. ChrotNo one really knows for sure. Her only means of support is an older brother. She lives in a grass hut with 7 other people. She suffers from a serious foot deformity. She attends a new school that has one teacher and one blackboard. She has the distinction of being the second child sponsored through CRF in this region.

emanEmmanuel Lokolonyoi is 4; his family moved away and left him to starve because he suffers from mental and visual impairments. He moves from house to house wherever he can find shelter; he is never without his cup and bowl, and never without a concern for water and food. Emmanuel is the third child I sponsor through CRF.  (Although his number officially makes him the 89th child sponsored here, that’s only because I sent a picture and it took a while to find him!) I credit Emmanuel, whose name means “God with us”, for sparking the desire of my heart that our church family become significant sponsors and ongoing partners in this region where we have drilled four wells. We are just getting started!

I know these three pretty well; I’ve met them, I’ve seen them with my own eyes and touched them with my own hands. These are the orphans I sponsor in Turkana.  They are three of the hundred we support as a church; they are but three of the 2.5 million in Kenya, and three of the 50 million orphans in Africa. But these three are substantively different now than they were a few months ago, because someone who can make a difference knows their names and someone for whom God has provided much—has been moved to share that provision. I’ve had quite a few conversations with God about “why these three?”  It seems so obvious that I was supposed to see them. They are by no means the prettiest or happiest or smartest of the kids. There was nothing winsome about them at all. In many cases, in many places, these three kids would be, respectively, the village freak, the village idiot, the village beggar. They are but three incarnations of the so many kinds of lepers society loves to shun. To ignore. To marginalize. But now they have a place at the table. That makes me glad. And it reminds me of a bigger story.

Without getting too preachy here, let me remind you that the Gospel itself is a message of help for the helpless–for those who indeed cannot help themselves. For we are all, on our own, at our self-made spiritual bests, the freaks and idiots and beggars—at best—of the village. In our sin we are paupers, in our sin-deformed selves we are damaged goods, in our sin-confusion we are twisted and dim in our understanding. But then Christ, sent by the Father right into our damaged and dangerous world, has rescued us. And he has audaciously called us his brothers and sisters, the adopted sons and daughters of God. It’s a hard reality for us to fully grasp, that the King would so love and so choose the pauper children of earth to be his own. But he did and does. Maybe that’s why they call it good news.

Sunday in Nadabal, 30 June, 2013: Baptisms and Dinner on the Ground

After going on and on like a faucet with a broken handle, I finally tapered off in my last blog with the dismissal of the crowd of 300 heading to the baptism; after worshiping there in the hot desert for close to three hours, surrounded by warm little bodies ever-encroaching on my personal space, I was quite ready for a change of scenery. Call me a spiritual pygmy if you want, but in my book, three hours of church is about two hours too long!  The congregation disperses slowly, heading off all in the same general direction.  They know where they are going, although I couldn’t have directed them. They seem to have done this before.  Africa pictures 2013 771It is desert as far as you can see in all directions, a bland palette of sandy sameness. We four white guys load up into the truck and begin our drive toward the place of baptism. I’m wondering as we drive west, where can it be?  Where in this desert can you find a collection of any kind of water suitable for a baptism?  It is desert, much like what you’d expect, hot dusty and dry, but with surprisingly large trees dotting the landscape with leather leaves and branches covered with two-inch long needle sharp spines.  I ask Francis what they are called: he waits a moment, and then with perfect comedic timing he answers, “Thorn trees.”   There are also smaller shrub-like plants, and tufts of very tough clumpgrass, mostly dead. Here and there are clustered termite mounds, rising 15 or more feet into cathedral–like spires of insect devotion.  We motor through the desert making up our own road as we go, and then suddenly the landscape changes, a literal shift of the color of the sand as if the great Artist opened a new tube of brown that didn’t quite match the previous. The sand further darkens as we near the river and almost instantaneously we find ourselves in palm groves, and the humidity quadruples. We get as close as we can drive, then hike a quarter mile or so on to the river’s edge, through a tropical jungle somehow finding itself unexpectedly in the middle of desert.

Aided by modern horsepower, we have gotten there long before those walking, and I wonder out loud why people struggling to find water don’t live near the river. Three answers are quickly given: One, this river floods drastically in the rainy season when the far-off mountains empty their load in terrifying torrents; but, second, a month or two from now it will be as parched and dry as a West Texas river. Good reasons. The third answer is more telling: typhoid is in the water. It seems a cruel joke, almost, that a people dying for a drink can just as easily die from a drink. It is so in many places around our globe. I heard the announcer on TV just last night saying that 25,000 children die around the world every single day because they have no clean water.  My heart is saddened by that statistic, then alternately gladdened by the fact that now, due to the generosity of believers from the church I serve with in Amarillo, thousands more do have clean water, and less of them will die. Water is life.

It’s hot and now very humid, the intense near-equatorial sun bearing down from straight overhead. Africa pictures 2013 721We scout about the river a bit, and then I look for shade. After about 45 minutes we hear the sound of distant drumbeats, an apropos soundtrack in the African jungle; it announces the impending arrival of the hundred and a half who have made a three mile walk in the searing sun to witness baptisms. Maybe a hundred more emerge upstream and stand in the river, close enough to watch the miracle of water soon to come. I’m envious of their cooler position, but afraid enough from stories I’ve heard recently about water-borne parasites that I don’t care or dare to join them. DSC01391Two African pastors step down into the water, the “shore” quickly becoming extremely full; then one by one the candidates filter through the crowd and step into the swirling river; they submit to burial, each then rising to walk in newness of life. They are all sizes, shapes, sexes and ages. I see teenagers, I see grandmothers, I see a man who is the goat dealer in town; he strikes me a bit as a flim-flam man with a quick smile and the ability to make a quicker shilling. Perhaps he is getting baptized because it will be good for business? Or maybe, I hope, it is because this captivating Jesus has won his heart. It worked that way for Zacchaeus.  He comes up smiling.

This ceremony moves slowly like everything else in Africa, and those of us in the riverbank gallery are wilting in the sweltering heat and oppressive humidity.  We sit for a bit in a tiny shade under a banana tree, but there are so many spiders we soon opt for standing. Africa pictures 2013 724After a bit I withdraw to another shady area, and find out too late that I am in fact in the nursery, complete with babies that have been laid on the ground asleep. Before long there is a lot of nursing going on in the nursery, which is strange to us, but no one seems to care much at all that a couple of white guys are standing there.  Surreal.

As the 30 baptisms wind down, another post-baptismal service commences closer to the water and Travis and I are called from our shade to say a word then have a prayer.  I assign the word to Travis, who handles it expertly, and I lead the prayer–a rather soggy one since I have long ago by now sweated through my shirt. The last time I was this damp inside my clothes was preaching a funeral one July in Hope, Arkansas! We slowly dismiss and begin the drive back to the Nadabal community. As we were leaving earlier I had noticed that some men were busy with preparations. There was a fire, a grate, a guy in native dress with a bow and arrow and spear, carrying a freshly skinned something.  I was afraid of what this might hold in store, and now sure enough we have arrived back where we spent our morning–for afternoon “dinner on the ground” at the Nadabal Church of Christ. DSC01397 We are escorted back to our now re-located chairs, the only four wooden, hand-crafted chairs in the village,  These are seats of honor, and we guests are told to sit and relax. Water is provided to wash our hands, British hospitality at its best, even in the bush; it is then we are served dinner. On the ground. Literally.

Roasted pieces of goat meat–ribs, shanks, shoulders–and parts I don’t recognize–are laid before us on a piece of clean cardboard, a leftover box that ironically bears the title “Feeding the World” relief program. The meat—a king’s meal—is dropped there, and we are given an overly-large very sharp knife and a handful of salt is placed on the cardboard near the meat. I love a barbecue as much as the next guy; I cook meat all the time over charcoal. But I don’t usually kill it, skin it, slice it with a DSC01399spear, and cook it the same day.  I hunt my meat at Wal-Mart or United! We’re a long way from the USDA, and I wonder if this will kill us, but there is no way to refuse such elegant hospitality. We eat, and I am delighted to find it is extremely hot; it tastes wonderful. We each eat a respectable amount, then our bones and leavings are quickly carried to a group of men who re-gnaw them, and eat every little piece of fat and gristle we could not chew. Even the dog gets a bone, which surprises me. Guess he’s a Christian, too.  It humbles me that we are the only people eating at this point; meat will certainly not be on everyone’s menu.

There seem to be no napkins or silverware in the less citified parts of Kenya, hands and fingers being the main utensils. So after the meal water is once again poured over our hands; the next course is Chi–Kenyan tea–which is a mixture of tea, water, sugar and milk.  I love it!  Of course, this tea is made from well-water, and we have been told that drinking anything but bottled water will kill us. But courtesy prevails again as we toast our uncertain fate and throwing caution to the wind we drink the chi from little tin cups. It is boiling hot, which reassures me. And it is good. Our simple but extravagant feast has come to a close as it nears 4:00. Just when I am sipping the last of my tea, DSC01407Francis Bii brings around a little girl who is an orphan. I have seen her several times today already; she is deformed, suffering from a serious club foot and some hand deformity. Her name is Chrotine. Another child is brought around, Elkatarot. He has mental challenges, and no home. He needs a sponsor. So does Chrotine. They need someone who will pay $35 a month to see that they are housed, fed, clothed, schooled, remembered, loved, and taught about Jesus. It seems a lot to get all of those things for only $35 a month. In about 15 heartbeats, I am their sponsor, and they all of a sudden have “a place at the table.” I wonder if they can possibly understand what has just happened; I try to tell them through an interpreter that I will be making sure they are cared for, that I will be praying for them. I now have children in Africa, the very first of a hundred our church will sponsor by the time Christmas rolls around. I’ll write more about them another time!

As I try to fit all of this day’s images and impressions in my small brain, it dawns on me   that we are so different, me and these Kenyans who live in a dauntingly extreme wilderness 12,000 miles away from my doorstep. Our lives are as different as fire and water. They have their rituals, I have mine. They have their language, I have mine. We have different worries, different hopes. We dress differently and pass the hours of our days with so little in common. I live in 2013 and they live, mostly, in 1812. Yet in the midst of all the diversity and disparity, there is one ritual of this day that we share completely. Baptism. And this simple, mysterious act breaks down all the barriers we see; they are now one with each other and with me in Jesus Christ. We are now family, having each been adopted. We are church and community. We sing to the same Jesus, we are loved by the same Father, we are inspired and indwelled by the same Holy Spirit. Our God knows no lines drawn on maps by wars and politicians and presidents. Their Father is my Father, their King my King. And as different as we are, we are in Christ exactly the same.

How could I not have known that before? I’m sure that I did, but it makes me feel good to know it again. We drive away from Nadabal finally, to inspect more potential and existing well sites; when we return in a couple of hours, the crowd at the Nadabal community center/school/church building has dispersed into about three smaller groups, napping or sitting under various shade trees, some of the ladies working on native crafts they will sell in town to eke out a living. Africa pictures 2013 765We roll to a stop, and as the cloud of dust settles in and around our Hilux truck, fifty joyful children run over, crowding around once again to catch a close-up glimpse of the muzungus inside, One of them is mine. He’s taller than the rest, so he stands out.  I don’t see the other, but I hope I’ll get to come back some day and see them again. If not, I’ll see them in heaven. The worship there, with a thousand tongues, and countless thousand thousands of people from all nations–but now one, under one King–may even sound a lot like the church singing and praying under the tree at Nadabal. I can hardly wait!

Second Sunday in Africa, 30 June, 2013: Life at Nadabal

The fact that it can even be Sunday morning seems strange, as days blend into a cacophonous fabric woven haphazardly while running from here to there all over eastern Kenya. As a pastor back home, my life is pretty much governed by Sundays; you’re never very far away from another one, and every single one represents a mountain of its own to climb.  Here in Africa time takes on a completely different rhythm, and that, coupled with jet lag and 8 lost time zones, I couldn’t have told you mid-week even what day it was.  But since Friday and Saturday always flow in an unchanging sequence—then Sunday it must be, and indeed, Sunday it is! We are in the Turkana region now, far northern Kenya, after catching a prop plane yesterday at an airport near the equator. Africa pictures 2013 525We took off against the backdrop of a thunderous blackening sky that I personally wouldn’t have chosen when flying in a prop-plane! Nobody asked for my vote.

After an hour long flight in which both propellers somehow remained attached, we landed on an airstrip that must rank among the most primitive I’ve ever seen; there are four or five old trashed jet engines piled near a rock outcropping at one end of the runway, none suggesting the ingredients of a happy story!  Once unloaded, we rolled from the airstrip  with our CRF team into the surrounding town, a dirty, dusty, small collection of people, the businesses they go to, and the businesses they run.  Lodwar is not a country village, and the stores are not tiny box huts like in the Kipkaren slum we visited on Saturday, but they are anything but modern, and I’m reminded that we are indeed a long way from home! The grocery store we must frequent for essential bottled water has no electricity when we make our first visit. In Amarillo that would shut down the store, as no registers would work and no clerk could possibly make change. But here in Lodwar, it slows nothing down and you get the feeling it happens fairly often.

Our search for lodging finds us at a church hostel on the outskirts of town because the place we intended to stay has given away our rooms. It’s nice enough, by Lodwar standards. We eat family-style with other guests, more rice and chicken-jerky; before long we head off to bed. I am tired, so I manage to sleep well even though it remains in the 90’s outside through most of the night, and about that same temp in the rooms.  A tilt-rotor would have nothing on the ceiling fan in this place, and once we overcome our fear of the sparking antiquated switch that operates it, we make good use of it. This is the desert of Kenya, and it is the Africa in our mind’s eye, the part that’s not the jungle, the hot sandy desert part where your vehicle breaks down and months later they find your bleached bones in the sand.  As the sun comes up we find ourselves hurrying around this morning because our plans are to go to church in the bush, at a village and church that were not even there 18 months ago. Not until water came to town.

This is the day Travis and I have been waiting for all week, the day to see for ourselves, with our own eyes, what water can do where there was none, and where there has been no significant rain for most of 6 years. We bump down desiccated and dusty, almost imaginary roads for about half an hour, then come to a fenced area that has been partially de-fenced by camels. That doesn’t happen where I live.  We see a crowd of people as we turn into the compound, and a smattering of round thatched huts with conical grass roofs. Relatively early on Sunday morning there is a crowd gathered out here in the seeming middle of nowhere, and soon I see why; they are clusteredAfrica pictures 2013 620 together around the only water source for miles–a CRF water well, that up until now I had only seen in pictures. Those pictures were what started it all! It is surreal to actually be here. There are 20 or so people around the well, all ages. Most of them have yellow 12 liter plastic containers that used to hold cooking oil, but now hold the stuff of life itself–water. The wells are basic, a spout on one end and a t-handled lever system for pumping; and they are efficient, powered by women and children and visiting white missionary-type  munguzus like us. I can only stand in awe as I think of the miracle this well represents here; each of us take a turn pumping as the gatherers eagerly harvest liquid life.  It turns into hard work, this pumping, but the result is spectacular: clear, clean, sparkling drinkable water, which is strangely warm. We are told that even we could safely drink it, but I am not feeling brave today.  I have a choice, you see. Africa pictures 2013 645I can buy my water. They cannot. I take about 300 pictures here of the amazing scene of something so simple, yet so precious. Water is the very gift of life. Besides the people, there are goats and cows and camels and chickens that come to drink.  Every living thing needs water.

This would be enough if it were all there was to the story. But it’s not. Not even close! With water came people. With people came a few goats, and then more.  A church was planted under a large shade tree nearby, about a year ago, and now already there is a building that holds the church on Sundays and serves as a school during the week. The church is the center of the new community, as it should be, and the Turkanan people who were previously almost unreachable nomads, and beginning to settle Africa pictures 2013 654near these wells and are turning to Christ by the hundreds each week as they get a taste of Living Water. Today they have called on several other churches that also meet under trees in the Turkanan wilderness, and come they have, scores of them.  Many of the women are dressed in traditional Turkanan tribal wear, brightly colored dresses and capes, with tall beaded stacked collars around their necks. A lot of them have babies tied behind them in sarongs, a very efficient means to tote the tots, who are always hungry and in this way conveniently close to the food source.

We mill around the water well for a while, meeting those who are drawn to draw. We pump water, we take pictures, we play with the children.  Then we are summoned to worship which arbitrarily happens when enough people arrive to start; our entourage of rare whiteAfrica pictures 2013 697 guests are given seats of honor near the center of the shade tree in the only 4 wooden chairs in the community.  (Travis doesn’t get one; he’s not so old as to garner that much honor. He looks funny seated across the way, his face looking very white surrounded by very black Turkanans). We old guys get the chairs; others are not as fortunate, and some sit on benches in the sun or on the ground. It does not seem to bother them. I suppose when you walk 5 miles to come to church, little inconveniences are little. After a good bit of Kenyan protocol, which always takes time, the pastor in charge (one of about 8 pastors in attendance today, when you count the white dudes) makes some explanations of what will happen and then we jump in. First we sing a couple of congregational hymns, with words that mean nothing to me; then we hear musical numbers by each of the three churches present. They arAfrica pictures 2013 695e amazing, melodic, rhythmic, well-choreographed. They have drums, but need only their voices besides. They sing for almost an hour, about half-way through which the crowd of beautiful ragamuffin children begins to squeeze in tighter and tighter around we enthroned white guys. Before you know it, you have one in your lap, and two on each arm of the chair. If you scoot forward in your seat, you’ll have one shortly sitting in the chair behind you.  It gets hot, with the crush of all these little  98.6 degree bodies in the 92 degree heat. I can understand their curiosity, Africa pictures 2013 707since most of them have probably never seen a white person. Some of them are dirty, and some bear the typical shapes of malnutrition. But most of them look happy, and most of them are healthy enough, thanks to the food programs of the Christian Relief Fund. After about 30 stifling minutes literally surrounded by the natives, a church leader shoos them all away, and we have back our precious American personal space. For a few minutes.

After what seems a long time, it then comes time for the honored guests to share.  We have prepared the leaders for the fact that we have other things we must see and do today–so they are planning for the service only to last two and one-half to three hours, instead of the typical all-day. I get in trouble at home when the hour runs over 10 minutes! Each of us speaks, and as my turn comes I struggle a bit to consider what I could possibly say to people who live on the same globe I do, but not in the same world. My typical repertoire of Sunday messages seems impotent, irrelevant, totally inappropriate. So I give them greetings from our Amarillo church, and I talk with them a bit about the Living Water, Jesus Christ. And I remind them how much God loves them, and how he truly is able to meet all their needs. It’s easy for me to say these words, having never known a time when he did not, and having never had to walk more than about five steps for a drink of water.. And in a way, since they are still alive, perhaps it makes sense to them.  We have a translator for our translator, another regional pastor, because the dialect of Turkana is not the same as that of our many friends in eastern Kenya. I’m speaking in three languages! Up last is Dr. Milton Jones, the man who brings the water. He is not as famous, perhaps, in Turkana as in Kisumu and Eldoret, but after an impressive introduction by Francis Bii who is the director of so many relief projects in Kenya, I’m wanting Milton’s autograph myself.  Milton takes the dirt floor under the tree, and teaches about Christ’s command that we love each other as he first loved us. Milton says it’s the hardest commandment of all; I suspect even Turkanans understand this truth.

After he finishes, we sing some more songs, then take an offering (which with all the white folk in attendance will likely be equal to ten times their annual budget) and we are told that there will be baptisms today.  It’s a big deal. And it should be. By now it’s coming up on 1:00, and after closing words we are dismissed to head to the baptismal, a river about 3 miles away. Everyone is walking. We take the truck. White guys have it easier than Turkanans, that is for sure.

This has gotten a bit long, just like the morning at church. But before I land this blog I must not miss the point.  Through the generosity of Believers a world away, water came to Nadabal. Africa pictures 2013 565And with water came people, a school, a community, a church—all to this place where there was nothing 18 months ago. Water brings life. Most importantly, water makes it possible for people to find Living Water.  I can’t help but think of God’s words in Isaiah 35: “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blosson…Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert…” I must stop now, but I’ll continue my story of this amazing day the next time, when I invite you to join us for Sunday at Nadabal–the feast.