Sunday, June 26, 2016

Paradise Lost

I am feeling the need for some grief work.

Rambo - the body of a Rott, but the brain of a happy Black Lab

It was only three years ago.  We finished our term of teaching.  We packed our bags to go back to the States for our ‘home assignment’ of visiting our donors and friends, of reporting on what the previous two years had been for our ministries.  We lined up people to stay in our home while we were gone, made sure our dogs were taken care of.

Our Cottage - How things looked after I first arrived in July 2008.

Our house was rather shambolic and small, but it was home.  The glory of the place was the garden.  Building on the efforts of the families who had lived there before, I had made our garden into a little paradise.  Beds with beautiful flowering shrubs and succulents, forty or more hibiscus of different colors and sizes, beautiful ferns in huge pots.  But the wonder of my garden (or the garden whose stewardship had passed to me) was the trees.  There was the huge mugumo tree on which we hung our swing.  I put a bird feeder underneath it and was in constant awe of the ever changing variety of birds that passed through.  We had a patio just outside our door, facing the mugumo tree, on which we put a table with a shading umbrella and chairs.  I would sit at that table and pretend to read, but really I was looking at the birds, at the flowers, at the huge poinsettia trees.  A blue (Sykes) monkey would sometime pass through the stand of huge trees that lined the fence by the main road.  And when the Tree Tomato fruits were ripe he would come and sit in the top of the little tree and help himself while my two dogs Cinnamon and Omega nearly went wild underneath.

What one does in the garden.

There were other huge trees over past the tin shed that served as my carport.  One of them, my favorite, towered at least 120 feet and its bark was covered by thousands and thousands of sharp, Hershey kiss-shaped and sized thorns. These thorns meant business as I discovered one day when I tripped and fell backwards onto one of the thorn-covered radiating roots and sliced my forearm up nicely.  One of the fantastic things about this tree was the colony of weaverbirds that lived in its top-most branches.  Always garrulous, always busy, their bright yellow feathers always made a splash at my bird feeder when they decided to visit, which was regularly.

The Hershey Kisses Tree trunk

Up close!
There, in the back right, the Hershey Kisses Tree in it's glory

My garden had a grassy lawn where children could run barefoot and where we could play boules.  We had parties where we ate out under the stars, under the stretching branches of the mugumo tree.  Our best friends would come join us for a pot-luck Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners to die for, and we also tried to make sure that colleagues or students who didn’t have a place to go could come and feel at home and celebrate with us.  Such good, good memories.

Christmas dinner!  Kids outside, grownups inside. Everybody happy!

There was sadness in my garden, too.  Rambo, the part-black lab and mostly Rottweiler that I inherited from the previous occupants, was not just in charge of our security, he became my friend.  But as is often the case with big dogs, he developed an increasingly debilitating case of hip and elbow dysplasia, until I knew and he knew that he just couldn’t get up and do it anymore.  With a lot of grief, I called the local vet, who came and put Rambo down.  I would say in my arms, but Rambo was a giant of a dog.  And his head lay in my lap as he breathed his last.  I buried Rambo in my garden.

Rambo  love.

The aforementioned Cinnamon and Omega were the dogs I got to replace Rambo, as we needed to have dogs as a security deterrent.  I got these two dogs from the local animal shelter intending to get only one.  But they were in a pen together and it turns out they were litter mates. Their previous owner had to leave the country and return home unexpectedly, so they found themselves at the shelter.  I really liked them and they came home with me.  Turns out they were rather eccentric.  I took to calling them Thing 1 and Thing 2.  They decided that our huge garden was not big enough, so they took to working their way through the wire fencing along the road and having a nightly jaunt to who knows where.  Every time I patched a hole, another appeared somewhere else along the one hundred meters of fence.  After a while, I gave up and decided not to notice.  It was one Thanksgiving when we were all abustle getting things ready for our midafternoon feast that I noticed the dogs were unusually excited.  So I walked through the garden to discover what all their fuss was about.  Turns out they had dispatched a huge bush rat and were about as proud as they could be.  Had I left it there, I’m sure they would have dragged the thing up during our festivities to impress the guests.  I made sure the bush rat had a more private ceremony and burial.

Playing with Omega under the Mugumo tree.

When I sat reading under the big canvas umbrella, I would watch as the tiny iridescent sunbirds went from hibiscus flower to hibiscus flower, sipping nectar.  Bee eaters would zing about.  Male Flycatchers, with their ruffled plumage, were constantly trying to impress their would-be mates.  And on special days, there would be a glorious red-winged turaco in the tops of the trees.  In the Hershey Kisses tree, a Kite and her mate built their nest and for five years returned again and again to raise a new brood.

Hibiscus flower just waiting for another Sunbird.

When we left in June of 2013, I assumed we would be back as usual in September.  I had no idea that as I walked through the garden and said goodbye to the dogs on the way to the taxi waiting to take us to the airport, that my stewardship was over.  I would never call this little paradise home again.

With family enjoying breakfast in the garden in 2012.

Meanwhile back in the US, it became increasingly apparent that our time in Kenya was over.  Even worse, it became increasingly apparent that my marriage had died.  Because we left all of our things in Kenya waiting for us to return, we had to make a difficult trip back to Karen in February of 2014 to break up our old home and sell off our things and make an end to what had been our life there.  That was really hard.  Because I was staying someplace else, I never made it back to our former home, except a rushed trip to make sure the things that needed to be sold were out of the house.  I noticed with gratitude that Alfred the gardener had managed to keep things going in my absence.

My garden in bloom.  Poinsettias in the background.

Since those sad days, I have managed to return to Kenya.  It feels strange to be here alone.  As an Orthodox Christian, I would not be welcome to teach at my former school or to live at my old cottage with its astonishing garden.  So I’m living in a different place.  And my busy schedule has meant that I have not had many opportunities to return to the campus that I called home for six years.  I have heard that the school administration is experiencing a financial crisis.  And then I heard that our former neighbors who lived in other sections of the house where we lived, were ordered to leave because the school was selling the property in order to raise money.

The glorious mugumo tree (aka Strangler Fig), which is actually many trees
growing around a long gone host.

This past Thursday I was tired of the challenge of running through the neighboring slums and decided I would go back to Karen, back to the campus where I had lived and worked, and run one of the routes I used to take when that was home.  I parked at near my old driveway and ran seven therapeutic miles through the surrounding neighborhoods.  I got back from my run, and I decided to visit my house and my garden and see what had happened.  It has been less than 2 ½ years since I was there, but I couldn’t recognize the place.  Our driveway and our gate were gone.  In its place was an ugly cinder block wall built much too close around the old house.  And the house itself was being gutted and rebuilt.  But the garden, my garden, is gone.  The beds have been obliterated, with only a few overgrown succulents to suggest that anything beautiful and cared for had ever been there.  The hibiscus were gone.  The poinsettias were gone.  There is a naked, bleeding gash all the way to the fence where all those towering trees had been.  I looked in vain for the Hershey Kisses tree.  And then I saw the huge piles of cut up logs, and then the huge stump, and the vast emptiness of sky where the kites had nested and the weaverbirds chattered.  Only the mugumo tree remained, but in the midst of the desolation it looked shell-shocked and exhausted. The place was unrecognizable.  There were two large standing pots of uncared-for ferns standing forgotten under the mugumo tree, bearing mute witness that something else, something better, something beautiful had been here before.  But it’s gone now.  A paradise that lives only in my memory.  I grieve that others will not ever share the quiet joy I had in that place.  But I am grateful that I could take care of it for a time.

Sisel in my garden.

Sometimes it seems that this life is just one loss after another.  My family, my home, my garden, my former life – gone so fast and so completely I can’t breathe.  But that little house, that little garden, they were never actually mine.  I was just passing through, trying to do the best I could, to nurture the plants and trees and birds and animals into something pleasing.  And I think I succeeded while it was in my power to do so.  Turns out my family was never mine either.  And now the garden serves as a parable to me of all the time and energy and quiet desperation I poured into somehow making my family work.  And to my utter disorientation, it wouldn’t.  And then everything was lost.  I may wish I could go back home, but that little patch of paradise exists only in my mind now.  That home, that safe place, that family, that garden I poured my life into exists now only in my heart.  I feel, I grieve deeply the losses.  The beauty that was, that so delighted me, that I could reach out and touch and which touched me in return, has vanished, never to return.  Whatever happens from here will be different.  I understand a little better why all creation is yearning for God to bring His salvation project to completion and finally make all things new.  And somehow, along with Paul, I can only hope that all of this will work out for the good of those who love Him and who have been called according to His purpose.  But sometimes, when one is standing in the midst of all the destruction, good is hard to see.

My driveway, lined with blue fireworks flowers and several large
avocado trees the monkeys would visit in season.  I left down this driveway
in May of 2013 never to come back home again.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Kenyan Orthodox Pentecost in the Land of 'Health and Prosperity'

Yesterday was the Orthodox Feast of Pentecost.  I was asked to preach in my Nairobi parish at the conclusion of Divine Liturgy before the start of the special Pentecost Vespers service.  My words are my attempt to address our context and the situation in which we find ourselves as Orthodox Christians in Kenya.  May God cover my shortcomings and somehow bring glory to His name through us His Church.

We don’t hear Orthodox Christians talk very much about Pentecost or the Holy Spirit.  If you were here for Orthros this morning, then you heard us sing a couple of hymns.  And maybe, just maybe if you are lucky, you will hear a priest brave the briefest of homilies about this being a special feast day, about celebrating the birthday of the Church, stuff like that.  After all we have yet another service, Pentecost Vespers, after this one is over.  But to hear anyone talk about the coming of the Holy Spirit and what the Holy Spirit means for you and me today?  Good luck.

Theres good reason for this avoidance.  On the one hand we are surrounded by all this noise made all the louder by loudspeakers, made by men and women who claim to be prophets, who claim to be apostles, who claim to be bishops, who claim to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and therefore claim the power to heal, to prophesy, to speak in tongues. to speak - no, make that shout Gods Word.  And you know, people around us are so desperate for some sort of hope, for some sort of help, for some sort of divine intervention, for some sort of truth, for some sort of authority, for some sort  of assurance, that they flock to these so-called men or women of God and these so-called churches like children to the promise of candy.  And these preachers find a verse in the Scriptures that says what they need it to say and then promise their listeners that if they just have enough faith, God will work miracles in their life, too.  God wants to bless you, they say.  God wants you to be healthy, he wants you to prosper, he wants you to succeed, he wants you to be the best you you can possibly be!  And these preachers succeed in attracting a huge following.  And many of these preachers do become very rich, because they encourage their people to give offerings as a demonstration of their faith that God can bless them, too.  And who controls these offerings, but the pastor, who is suddenly seen driving a huge Toyota Landcruiser and living in a huge house, claiming all the while that God has blessed him, when in fact he is becoming rich off the offerings of the poor.   It should not surprise anyone that the most popular book sold in Kenya to Christians is by a health and prosperity preacher, the very rich American health and prosperity preacher Joel Osteen.  And if Mr. Osteen is the author Kenya’s Christians (those who read, at least) prefer to read, then God save the churches of Kenya.  You know, the Prophet Ezekiel in chapter 34 says that God is watching what these so-called apostles and prophets and bishops and shepherds – what these mega- ‘successful’ pastors are doing to His people, these false shepherds who fleece their flocks so that they themselves can grow fat and prosper.  Their day is coming, says Ezekiel; but we have to leave that for another time.

On the other hand, we Orthodox tend to avoid the whole issue of the Holy Spirit because we are very much in the minority here.  Kenya, indeed all of sub-Saharan Africa, has been swamped by Pentecostal teaching.  Even the so-called mainline historic denominations in Kenya are full of people whose starting points are not John Calvin or Thomas Cranmer, but John Wimber and TD Jakes. The Health and Prosperity preachers have simply followed the logical progression of their Pentecostal context.  But the root of it all is the same, what I call Classical Pentecostalism.  Pentecostalism as a movement began in Los Angeles in the US in the early 20th century.  And the Pentecostals taught, and still teach, that there are two experiences every Christian must have.  First, everyone must be ‘born againor ‘saved,as they say, by believing in Jesus and his cross for the forgiveness of your sins and you will be given a new life in Christ.  But God wants to bless everyone with a ‘Second experience, and that is where Pentecost comes in.  God wants to give every Christian supernatural power to live the Christian life.  God wants to give the gifts of the Spirit to every believer.  And just like the first Christians experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in their daily life, so we are able to experience that same power if we receive the Holy Spirit into our life or, as they put it, are baptized in the Holy Spirit.  And the sign that one has received the Holy Spirit is that everyone receives the gift of speaking in tongues.  This is not the same gift as at Pentecost, but is what they call a prayer language.  So if you can speak in tongues, youve received the baptism of the Spirit, and if you cant, you havent.

Now this is a sermon and not one of my theology classes, so I dont have time to go step by step through the Pentecostal arguments and show where theyve gone wrong.  Let me just say that at several crucial points, they twist Scripture to justify something they believe rather than allow the Scripture to mean what it means in context.

My point in mentioning all the noise coming from the health and prosperity preachers and what the Pentecostals teach about the Holy Spirit is to say: We Orthodox have become intimidated.  We look at their huge ginormous worship palaces that attract thousands of people, like the one right next door, we watch their programs on TV, we hear all their claims, we have their praise and worship music thumping in their ears, we see their slogans on matatus, and we have no answer.  Is it any surprise that we lose our young people to churches that seem more exciting? Where you can go to church and shout and sing and dance all you want? That seem to offer such relevant and helpful programs?  Who doesn’t want to become rich, or successful, or experience healing?  Their messages are so seductive, and many of us are seduced. And what are we doing?  What do we offer in response?  Pretty much nothing.  And the silence is rather deafening.

Today of all days, when we celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, we must realize that this intimidation on our part, this apathy concerning the work of the Holy Spirit on our part, this indifference to God’s agenda on our part, doesnt need to be this way; in fact it cannot continue to be this way or, if I may be honest, we will die, as a parish.  We will just wither away into total complete irrelevance.

I have three challenges for us.  First, Sts. Anargyroi parish - reclaim your inheritance.  Dont let the Pentecostals and the Health and Prosperity heretics intimidate you.   Don’t let them steal your inheritance – your Holy Spirit from you.  What the Scriptures actually teach is so much more wonderful than what these people are trying to offer.  The Holy Spirit doesnt come to make us rich.  The Holy Spirit comes to make us Jesus.  Thats what God is doing with us, with our Church – God is transforming us and empowering us to do what Jesus would do if He was standing right here.  God is empowering us to love one another, to love our neighbor, to love even our enemies the way Jesus loved.  God is sending us his Holy Spirit to make us like Jesus, so that when people see us, they see Jesus.  Reclaim your inheritance!

The second challenge is this:  you and I really need to decide to be serious.  Many of us think that attending Liturgy on Sunday is what being an Orthodox Christian is about.  But Jesus hasnt set up some religion for you to participate in.  Being an hour late for Liturgy and still thinking you’ve done your religious duty by showing up simply demonstrates that you have no idea what real, New Testament, Church Fathers, Christianity is all about.  Jesus is calling you by name to be His disciple, His follower, to stop the way you are unseriously living your life, and instead to deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow him.  It means quit fooling yourself that your lackadaisical way of coming to church is enough.  It means learning more about the Lord and His agenda by studying the Scriptures.  It means joining with others and finding ways to express the love of Christ through the different ministries of the Church.  It means instead of waiting for the Church to give you another handout, you start giving sacrificially to support the ministry of this place.  There are as many ideas of what we can do as there are people in this place.  But nothing will happen, either in your heart or in anyone else’s or in this place, unless you decided to be serious.  Unless you decide to take Jesus seriously.

Lastly, ask God to fill you with His Holy Spirit.  But dont do this if you dont know what you are doing, if you arent serious about being a follower of Jesus.  Because this is spiritual dynamite.  And its a prayer that God loves to answer.  Because just like at Pentecost, the Lord has given us a call to be his disciples, a charge to be His presence – the presence of Jesus – right here in this place, and a mission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.  And who is equal to any of this?  Thats why God sends us His Holy Spirit.  God wants to empower you, and me, and all of us, to be His People, to be the Followers of Jesus He is calling us to be, to be the presence of Jesus in this place, to take the gospel to our neighbor and our community and to everyone who has never heard or understood.  The Holy Spirit is the gift of God that makes this happen, in your life, in my life, in our church right here.  And the Holy Spirit has come to give each one of us the spiritual gifts and the spiritual power to make it happen

So whos voice have you been listening to right now.  Is it just that American preacher that we have to struggle so to understand his accent?  Or could it be that the Holy Spirit has been speaking to your heart, opening your eyes, helping you understand what God really wants to do in your life and in this place?  So, Reclaim your inheritance. Get serious about your relationship with Jesus.  Be filled with the Holy Spirit.  And, by the way, Happy Pentecost!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Bildad the Shuhite: When the Truth Isn’t the Truth

William Blake - Satan Smiting Job with Sores

Bildad the Shuhite was one of Job’s friends.  And when he heard about what had happened to Job and his family, Bildad came as part of a group, to sit with Job in his grief and sickness, to comfort him in his loss.

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamanthite.  They met together to go and console and comfort him.  Then they saw him from a distance they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads.  They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.  (Job 2:11-13)

Jean Fouquot - Job Visited By His Friends

Bildad the Shuhite was obviously very smart.  Unlike so many, he knew his theology.  He was a keen observer of the way things are and the way things are supposed to be.  Very articulate, he used words to great effect and power.  Direct and to the point, he could have been a prosecuting attorney in another age.  He pushes his ideas and his perspective because he knows that he is right.  And so Bildad the Shuhite looked at Job, what had happened to him, looked at him sitting on his woe-is-me dunghill, listened to Job whinge, and he knew, Bildad knew that Job was just not being honest with himself.  And so Bildad joined with his friends Eliphaz and Zophar in an effort to help Job come to his senses.

Helen Seigl - Job and His Friends

As soon as Job finishes his response to Eliphaz, Bildad doesn’t waste any time; rather, he accuses Job of dissembling, of speaking about things he knows nothing about.  It's pretty obvious that Bildad hasn’t really listened to what Job was trying to express in his pain – Bildad doesn’t need to.  Job’s problem is simply that he is wrong, and that his nattering on is simply self-justification.  Bildad goes straight for the underlying principle in order to wrest the initiative away from Job and put the discussion back on its proper track:  
‘Does God pervert justice, or the Almighty pervert the right?’ (Job 8:3)  
Job has been implying that God has wrongly laid him low, and Bildad wants to put an immediate stop to that kind of talk.  You can tell that he is a bit annoyed with Job because he goes straight for the jugular, and without any apologies:  ‘Job!  Everyone knows that people get what they deserve!: ‘If your children [all of them killed in that terrible house collapse] sinned against Him, he delivered them into the power of their transgressions.’ And then he says, unlike them, Job, ‘If you will seek God and make supplication to the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, then surely he will rouse himself for you and restore you to your rightful place.  Though your beginning was small, your latter days will be very great.’ (Job 8:4-7)  So Bildad’s answer is that Job just needs to repent.  Bildad’s words sound good on first reading, but they are actually an insult, and on several levels.  Job if you will just turn to God, God will rescue him and bless you, if you are pure and upright!  And of course the not so subtle implication is that Job, for all his protestations, MUST be less than pure and upright, otherwise God, WHO IS JUST, would never, ever have allowed any of this to happen!

Gerhard Seghers - Job with Wife and Friends
Bildad then launches on a long stream of beautiful poetry to remind Job of THE TRUTH and demonstrate to Job just how right he, Bildad, is:

For inquire now of bygone generations, and consider what their ancestors have found;
For we are but of yesterday, and we know nothing, for our days on earth are but a shadow.
Will they not teach you and tell you and utter words out of their understanding?
‘Can papyrus grow where there is no marsh? Can reeds flourish where there is no water?
While yet in flower and not cut down, they wither before any other plant.
Such are the paths of all who forget God; the hope of the godless shall perish. 
Their confidence is gossamer, a spider’s house their trust.
If one leans against its house, it will not stand; if one lays hold of it, it will not endure.
The wicked thrive before the sun, and their shoots spread over the garden.
Their roots twine around the stoneheap; they live among the rocks.
If they are destroyed from their place, then it will deny them, saying, ‘I have never seen you.’
See, these are their happy ways, and out of the earth still others will spring. (Job 8:8-19)

William Blake - Job's Comforters

Bildad cannot resist a barb of warning amongst all the beauty and truth – the hopes of those who forget God are like reeds that wither for lack of water.  And Bildad is pretty certain that Job is none other than that man who has forgotten God.  And as he sums up his argument, this is why Bildad can say:

‘See, God will not reject a blameless person nor take the hand of evil doers’ [but Job it is rather obvious that God has rejected and abandoned you!].  He will yet fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouts of joy.  Those who hate you will be clothed with shame and the tents of the wicked will be no more.’ (Job 8:20-22)

Leonaert Bramer - The Trials of Job

From the standpoint of the Old Testament, Bildad sounds rather conventional in his theology.   And from the standpoint of much popular African theology, Bildad is saying what just about everyone around here would expect him to say. God blesses the upright and the good, and God judges the sinful and those who have done wrong.  Moreover, God’s judgement or blessing should be expected in the here and now (there was very little in terms of any understanding of an afterlife where wrongs might be addressed and goodness rewarded and final justice done.  And so there was some urgency to see God do right in the land of the living).  Bildad cannot fathom that all of these terrible things have happened to Job without cause.  Nor can many of us.  The author of Job, of course, has let us in on the real story of what is going on behind the scenes, so to speak, a part of the story to which Job never gains access.  Knowing the why behind Job’s suffering (though it raises its own set of vexing issues) at least puts Bildad and his companions in the bright lights of opposing God:  They claimed to know what God was doing, but in actuality they were making things up in their head.  They claimed to know the truth about Job and the reason he is suffering, but they were exposed as being blind.  They thought they were the solution; instead they were shown to be part of the problem.  They claimed to be right, and they marshalled all their theology in support of it, but for all their intelligence, experience and skill at arguing, they were exposed as frauds, not knowing what they were talking about.

Unknown Flemish Artist - Scenes from the Life of Job

These sorts of contentions are not unheard of today.  And the Bildads of today often carry the field.  Indeed, there is truth in many of the arguments that Bildad and his colleagues are making against Job.  And certainly in the day, they made powerful arguments in support of the truth as just about everybody understood it.  But just because one thinks one knows something, and just because one can win a debate, and just because one has lined up one’s counselors and friends on one’s side and just because one’s acquaintances fall in line and support everything one says against another, and just because one is right in one’s eyes and can marshal so much truth in support of one’s position, it doesn’t mean that one is right, and it certainly doesn’t give on the right to rubbish and abuse the other.  Wrong said and wrong done in the name of right is still wrong.  Just ask Bildad the Shuhite.

William Blake - Job and his Comforters

Turns out, Job can give as good as he gets.  The author doesn't wait till the end to show what he thinks of Bildad's (and his friends') way of interacting with Job.  Instead he has Job explain precisely what is going on:

As for you, you whitewash with lies; all of you are worthless physicians.
If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom!
Hear now my reasoning, and listen to the pleadings of my lips.
Will you speak falsely for God, and speak deceitfully for him?
Will you show partiality toward him, will you plead the case for God?
Will it be well with you when he searches you out?
Or can you deceive him, as one person deceives another?
He will surely rebuke you if in secret you show partiality.
Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you?
Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay.
(Job 13:4-12)

Of course, Bildad and his fellow 'comforters' refuse to listen.  One doesn't need to listen when one is always right.  One doesn't need to change when one is always right.  One need not repent when one is always right.  As if he wasn't already going through enough, Job has had the added misfortune of falling into the hands of a friend who was always right, a friend who can not - who will not - ever be wrong.

God have mercy on such 'friends' and save them from themselves.  And God have mercy on us and save us from those who cannot be wrong.

Friday, June 10, 2016

One of the Costs of Being a Missionary

I helped to take a missionary colleague to the airport today.  After three years here she's on her way back home.   She preceded me here at the Seminary.  She was a quiet friend to many at our parish Church.  She was a behind-the-scenes force for many of us busy about our various task at the seminary, the translation office and in the Archbishop's parlor.  And she was also the same age as one of my daughters.  But when Fr. John and I were sharing a last lunch with her at the airport Java House, and standing in line to see her through the first level of security, we knew we were letting go of a friend.  And that’s hard.

This is the third time I have said farewell to missionary friends in the past two weeks.  The other two were families that I have known since I came to Kenya from Ethiopia back in 2008, with whom we shared so much (when I was a ‘we’) and who both picked up where we left off when I returned to Kenya alone a year ago.  Such friends are rare and precious.  But such is the nature of our calling that our presence as missionaries in this place is extraordinary and fragile.  Any number of challenges may conspire to send us packing.  No reflection on our host culture, but it is always difficult for someone not from here to find their way around, much less make a life in what is to us a foreign land.  We were not born here.  Our formative experiences were often on another continent and even in another language.  Our families, our friends, our lives are all someplace else.  We are here because somehow God called us to be here.  And being here we have to learn everything new.  New languages, new cultures, new foods, new realities, new politics, new churches, new everything.  It isn’t easy.  And once the new is taken on board, then we might get to do what we’ve been trained to do, what we’ve been told to do, what we’ve been sent to do, or not.

Through all of this, I have made really good friends with people I met in Ethiopia and people I’ve met here in Kenya.  But we missionaries also all gravitate towards those who share our culture, which means who share our memories and humor and identities and language, making it easy just to be with them.  Often times that’s what our same-cultural friends in our multi-cultural world can be like - little safe-place islands in an ocean of differences.  And that’s what these friends have been for me.  And now they have moved on.  And their place here is empty.  The homes and halls that reverberated with their presence are quiet.  And those who are left behind are left with memories, and with a hole in our hearts that won’t be filled any time soon.

Saying Farewell is common to all humanity.  Even so, it seems to happen more often in university communities, at least in my experience.  And in missionary communities.  But just because it happens more often here doesn’t mean we get used to it or that saying goodbye ever becomes easy.  Maybe it does for some.  Not for me, however.

So if you here a deep sigh coming from Kabiria Road in Kawangware in Nairobi in Kenya in East Africa tonight, just know that some of us have just said goodbye to another good friend.  And given that missions is not so much the job one does but the relationships one has, every loss is, well, a loss.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

20,840 and counting

By Claude Monet - The Japanese footbridge in his garden at Giverny, France

I woke up this morning on the 20,840th day of this journey.  I did not ask for it to begin.  At some point, I just became aware.  Aware of people taking care of me.  Aware of familiar places.  Aware of things to do.  Aware of sounds.  Aware of food and drink.  Aware of bath and splash.  Aware of hot and cold.  Aware of sick.  Aware of the floor.  Aware of the crib.  Aware of the car.  All this awareness crashing through my eyes and ears and mouth and back out again with my own noise and reaction.  So it began.  One vast experiment in communication, in relationships, in taking, in giving.  One day became the next.  I hardly noticed.  Unless there was a deadline.  Or the impossibly slow run-up to Christmas.  Or the even slower march to the end of school and the barefoot shirtless freedom of a southern boyhood summer.

By Monet - his house in Giverny

Quantifying one’s life in this way is a sobering exercise.  If I live as long as my mother (who died in 2011 shortly before her 75th birthday), then I could reach day 27,367.  If I live as long as my father (who is still living at 83), then I could see day 30,295.  But one way or another, to use the clich├ęd phrase, my days are numbered.  There are far fewer before me than behind me.  And tomorrow is not a sure thing.

By Monet - Poppy field near Giverny

Numbers don’t provide the melody of a life, nor even the harmony.  But they can count off the beat.  A straight allegro 4/4 time, or a faster 3-4 time that condenses into 1-1 time.  Then there is the more eccentric 5/4 or even 7/4, where it’s a challenge to hold all the notes together and where the act of counting becomes a near impossibility.  And even when the time is settled, the speed can adjust and readjust from a slow dirge adagio and back to a Mozartesque allegro con brio.  So the passing days can actually provide a lot in terms of the superstructure of our lives, even before we add the instrumentation and notes, for good or ill.

By Monet - Poppy field in Argenteuil
Of my more than 20,000 days, I spent 11,680 of them married, bringing forth children into the world and raising them, and attempting an ongoing partnership that came to an unwanted end.  I spent 7300 of my days as a student at various levels.  8030 days I spent as an ordained Presbyterian minister in the US, the UK and in Ethiopia and Kenya.  I have spent more than 6300 days in Africa.  I have been an Orthodox Christian for just over 2000 days, though I spent a further 5110 days badly wanting to become Orthodox before I finally made the fateful decision.  It’s been 481 days since I ran my last marathon, and it was 913 days ago that I ran my first.  It’s been 321 days since I moved back to Kenya last July19th.   Which means it’s been about 330 days since I had my last piece of blueberry pie and big mug of white coffee from my favorite Greenhouse Coffee Shop in my little home village of Crozet, VA. 

By Monet - Poppy field

I have known many, many astonishing, exceptional, amazing, kind, generous, ingenious, hilarious, eccentric, gifted, fun, devoted, exemplary, brilliant, thoughtful, patient, good individuals– people who have been good stewards of the time and opportunities and gifts they’ve been given.  And I’ve known others who have been less so.  But it is the people who have made the living of these many days and counting worthwhile.

By Monet - Poppy field

I’ve lived long enough that I’m starting to miss people who have shared so much of this journey with me but who, be it their own journey has come to an end or their own choices or mine have taken us in different direction.  I think about these people often – how much I miss them; how much I owe to them and their input and imprint in my life.  The long, painful goodbye begins.  The day is coming when no one I have known, not a single person in this circle, will be left.  I have older friends whom it seems all they do is go to funerals.

Real Poppies near Giverny (photograph)

I have regrets.  There are days that I wish never happened.  Other days I wish I could take back and do over again.  But that’s not what history does.  What’s said is said and what’s done is done.  It’s what I do next that matters.  And of all the days that have passed, and all the possible days that lay in the future, the one that matters the most, the one that carries all the possibility of change and hope and repentance and renewal and reconciliation and healing is this day right now.  Those days gone by can never be retrieved.  And those days before me may never come.  Stewardship is thus an immediate concept – what will I do now with who I am and what I have and with the possibilities, relational and otherwise, that lie before me?

What indeed?

Mssr. Monet in his garden