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July 2008

Finally, Objectivity: A Review of Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life, by Colin Duriez

fs As an admirer of Francis Schaeffer, one of the saddest things I have witnessed during the last few years is the attempts by both his own son and by other detractors to impugn his integrity or, at least, to redefine him as something he was not.  Reading son Frank Schaeffer’s memoir, both father and mother are portrayed negatively, Francis as a reclusive, depressed, sometimes suicidal man and Edith as a perfectionist nut.  Well, perhaps the title says it all --- “Crazy for God.”  This book by biographer Colin Duriez, Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life, should set the record straight. 

Colin Duriez is sympathetic toward the Schaeffers and deeply appreciative of the time he studied under Francis, yet at the same time he is engaged in writing an authentic and carefully researched biography, of telling “true Truth” (to use Schaeffer’s nomenclature) about this extraordinary pastor, author, apologist, and founder of L’Abri, a worldwide ministry to seekers of truth.  While noting Frank Schaeffer’s very subjective memoir, and even quoting from it on occasion, he acknowledges that it added little to what he already knew (little, that is, that can be documented, that actually squares with reality).  What he takes issue with is Frank’s contention that his father kept up a “facade of conviction” in his latter years, something he says is not borne out by the evidence.  And that’s about all we hear of the strange memoir until near the end of the book where, in a footnote, Duriez cannot seem to restrain his feelings, noting that “he [Frank] is at times in error over fact or interpretation . . . in his unashamedly subjective and at times bizarre memoir.”  That’s a restrained critique by a historian. 

But enough of what the book is not.  What it is is the best biographical treatment of the man and his mission that has ever been written --- scholarly, without being pedantic or lifeless; sufficiently nuanced, without chasing every thread of the man’s life and work; sympathetic, and yet not avoiding the truth about the man’s weaknesses and struggles.  If you want to feel what animated Francis and Edith Schaeffer, to be caught up in the emotion of what they felt, read Edith’s Tapestry and L’Abri.  (Set aside sufficient time for their combined 906 pages, however!)  But this is the biography for most to read, as it is concise and yet comprehensive enough not to miss any important detail of their story.

In eight chapters and a total of 208 pages, Duriez covers Schaeffer from birth in 1912 until death in 1984 from cancer.  Along the way he speaks of his conversion, his years as a pastor, his involvement with the separatist movement and subsequent divergence from it, the L’Abri years, and the latter years of films and more political involvement.  What emerges is a portrait of a man who, like any Christian, matured in faith and whose understanding of scripture and culture developed.  And yet, looking at Francis Schaeffer’s whole life, there no sense that he was a wholly different person in 1975 than in 1955.  What comes across is his integrity and consistency.  And while Duriez acknowledges Schaeffer’s occasional anger or impatience, and even his depression, none of this does anything to damage his reputation.  They endear him to us, demonstrating his humanity and his honesty (as these failings and struggles were acknowledged by him to those who knew him).

For most who are familiar with the Schaeffers and who have, perhaps, read Tapestry and L’Abri, much of what is written here will be familiar and unsurprising.  What Duriez’s succinct book does, however, is provide a kind of condensation for those much longer stories.  I found myself drawn back into memories of some details contained in those books that were not included here, a very helpful effect.  But the book is more than a revised Tapestry.  It also contains excerpts of fresh interviews with the daughters of Francis and Edith Schaeffer: Priscilla, Susan, and Debbie.  Once again, there are no surprises, and yet it is helpful to hear their memories and to hear the respect they had for their parents.  Then are many other interviews as well, with L’Abri workers like Os Guinness and Dick and Marti Keyes, and perhaps going back farther than any other, with Hurvey and Dorothy Woodson (who actually had a L’Abri in Italy in the late 1950s).  Dorothy said that “When Mr. Schaeffer would talk to you, there was nothing else in the world that was going on.  He was totally focused on you and what you were talking about. . . .”  Great comment.  And that’s how it goes.  Real insights are given into the character of the man.  Much is there to emulate.

I recommend Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic LifeIf you think you already know him, this summary study of his character will sharpen your appreciation for him.  If you don’t know much about him, you’ll meet someone you want to know better.  And if all you’ve read is Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, remedy ignorance: get the “true Truth” here.


Warchild: The Testimony and Music of Emmanuel Jal

warchild Even if you’re not a huge fan of rap or hip-hop music, it’s likely you’ll be blown away by the music and testimony of Emmanuel Jal.  One of the lost boys of Sudan, an AK-47 wielding child soldier, Jal was rescued from horrific circumstances by aid worker Emma McCune, taken to Kenya, and after McCune died in a tragic auto accident, eventually ended up in London.  He’s a young man of extraordinary faith who feels called to tell his story in music --- rap music no less.  As he says in the album’s title track, “I believe I’ve survived for a reason/ To tell my story, to touch lives.”

The testimony he gives is captivating, yet not all of it makes for easy listening.  For example, in “Forced to Sin” he speaks of the loss of his friend Lual, and of being so hungry he was tempted to (but did not succumb to) cannibalism.  In another song, “50 Cent,” he critiques the lifestyle of the popular rap singer in language appropriate for the context but difficult to play around young children.  In “Vagina,” he likens the continent of Africa to a repeatedly raped woman --- not just by developed nations by by their own native, Big Man leaders.  Strong imagery, strong message.

But these are the raw songs.  There are also songs of pure joy and praise, of claiming the promises and protection of God in all circumstances.  One of my favorite, “Many Rivers to Cross,” is a celebration of God’s protection and of the need to persevere in the face of hardship.  “Emma McCune” is a tribute to the woman who saved his life.  “Shadow of Death” is as you might expect --- a paraphrase of Psalm 23.

It wasn’t Emma McCune who led Jal to faith.  That faith came from his mother, but he was discipled by Josephine Mumo, a woman who led a home for street kids in Nairobi.  Mumo  not only fed and housed Jal, but she took him to church where he discovered the transforming power of God’s love and music --- gospel music.

Jal has quite a platform for his testimony.  His story is told in a documentary that premiered at the 2008 Berlin International Film Festival, and an autobiography is due out later this year.  But he seems unfazed by the trappings of success, focused on his singular calling to tell the world about Sudan and Africa, to tell his story.

Read more about Emmanuel Jal here.  Buy his record, Warchild, here.  Listen and he’ll get under your skin.  [Use some discretion in playing the album around children, however.]


The Mixed Legacy of Air Conditioning

air When I picked up my daughter from camp in the Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri today, she did not complain about the lack of air conditioning and over 90 degree weather of the past two weeks.  However, after a three hour closing program in the heat, I eagerly climbed into the car, rolled up the windows, and hit the “Maximum AC” button.  The cool air flowed and I began to breathe again.  Then my daughter rolled her window down and I felt the blast of hot air circulate through the car.  I asked her if she felt OK, did she need air, and she said she was fine, that she “just needed some Missouri air.”

My daughter had gotten used to life without conditioned air, could smell the difference in the air, enjoyed the feel of natural air, even hot air.  I had a picture of her come to mind, lying in her bunk, sweating at first, the night still hot, then as her body cooled, actually getting cold under the fan, listening to cicadas, to the breeze in the trees, to raindrops on the roof, smelling that musty smell of old wood, wet clothes, and insufficiently washed campers.  I know she loved it all.  She was simply taking in a last breath of it before returning to the air conditioned world of civilization.

I don’t really remember a time without air conditioning.  When we moved into a new home in 1962, when I was four, we put in central air.  Since then it has been a fixture of my life.  My wife grew up differently.  She lived in an older home with no air conditioning.  It had high ceilings, large windows, and a canopy of old oak and maple trees shading it. If on occasion it was uncomfortable in the Summer, having lived there for a while myself, there is still something I miss about it.  Part of living in that house was the sense of connection with the world outside.  With the windows open at night, we took in the noises of the neighborhood outside, both the human and non-human.  We felt the seasons change.  And if we were in a troubled season of our own, there was a comforting constancy about the sounds of traffic passing by, cicadas that always sang, birds that woke us with their morning chatter, trees that creaked in the wind, a steady rain with the sometimes gush sometimes drip of water in the downspouts.  We were a part of something greater than ourselves, something larger than the environment we had made for ourselves.

I had forgotten how much air conditioning changed our lives.  I had particularly forgotten how this technology has both positive and negative impacts on us.  A 2005 article in American Heritage Magazine lamented the mixed results brought by the widespread use of air conditioning, noting that while business productivity increased, “[p]orch culture in rural areas, and stoop and street culture in the cities, declined as Americans chose to stay indoors and watch television instead.”  Forced outside for the sake of cool air, we were more neighborly.  Even vocational life changed around seasons.  I have a friend whose father shuttered his real estate practice in June and took his family to a un-air-conditioned cottage at the beach for the Summer, enjoying cooler ocean air, slowing down.  Even I can remember when work slowed down in the Summer, even in the 1980s.  Not so, now.

Not everyone liked air conditioning, either.  Playwright Horton Foote (“Tender Mercies,” “The Trip to Bountiful”) complained in 1995 that “Every place is air conditioned.  I don’t hear the train whistles like I used to.  That haunting lonely sound.  When the cotton mills were running full-time and they had a cotton seed mill, we would have this wonderful odor permeating the house.  I find myself thinking, ‘What was that really like and why did it vanish?’”  Novelist William Faulkner refused to allow air conditioning in his steamy Oxford, Mississippi home, rejecting this modern effort to "do away with the weather." (And yet, the day after his funeral in 1962, his wife, Estelle, installed a unit.)  Because the availability of air conditioning has so affected the way our homes and public buildings are designed, we find it difficult to do without it; structures once built to cool us passively --- with large windows, high ceilings, and fans --- now often have smallish windows or windows that do not even open.  Weather becomes an abstraction for most of us, since regardless of temperature, we live and work and shop in places that are pretty much the same temperature year round.  In that, something is lost.

There’s no going back, of course.  Porch culture is unlikely to return, even though we glimpse it fleetingly in moments of widespread and lengthy power loss.  And yet just because you have a thing like air conditioning doesn’t mean you have to use it all the time.  Open a window.  Feel that hot Missouri air.  Sleep under a fan.  Listen to cicadas.  Remember that you are a part of a larger community, a larger world outside --- not for some dip into nostalgia but because you need it. . . now.


Remembering Leigh

When I was in fifth grade, there was a girl in our class named Leigh Aston.  Leigh had red hair, a large nose, and freckles.  In our estimation, she was not pretty.  Several boys in the class made fun of her every day, telling her that she had “cooties” (whatever that was), playing pranks on her, and generally making life miserable for her.  The girls ignored her.  She had no friend in our class.  And I was complicit in this injustice.  Though I did not routinely make fun of her, I avoided her and never confronted any of the ringleaders of this jeering, and I never remember actually speaking to Leigh.  After two years of this, Leigh did not come back.  I do not know what became of her.

Not a year goes by that I do not think of Leigh and regret the cruelty meted out to her by immature kids who were insensitive, who accorded her no dignity, and whose unkindness must have been a daily trauma for her.  I was troubled then by what was done to her, and yet I was a silent member of the same pack.  I showed her no kindness, only indifference.  Though Leigh on rare occasion came to tears, on no occasion do I remember her meeting unkindness with anything other than a bowed silence, or even a sweet (but hurting) smile.  For what I did I have long since repented, and while I know that God has blotted out even the memory of that sin, I cannot forget.

I won’t forget Leigh because she is at least an annual reminder to me of the truth that all people are made in God’s image, that even the ugly, obnoxious, uncool, and misshapen are entitled to dignity, to decent treatment, not because of who they are or how they look or who they know or how cool they are, but because they are made in the image of the One who made them, the One who in human form “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2).

I won’t forget Leigh because she is a humbling reminder of my capacity for sin, of the need I have for almost daily repentance of the ungracious and cruel way I can still treat people in my thoughts and (though more subtly) in the manner in which I actually treat them.  Just yesterday, I was standing in line to renew my driver’s license, one of those experiences (like traffic court) that is a great leveler of people, something people of all backgrounds must do. I looked around and mentally sized up the people there --- those of different race, chain-smokers, construction workers, and resident aliens --- and for a moment thought myself better.  You see, I haven’t changed so much from that unkind fifth grader that I was.

I don’t remember the name of a single other kid in those classes, but I will not forget Leigh.  She is a reminder to me that God is kind though we are unkind, that God forgives and forgets.  I just hope that by God’s grace a now nearly 50 year old Leigh is a beautiful picture of grace, and that God has long since blotted out from her memory our unkindness to her.


The Challenge of Context

signs[W]hat if our preferences in amoral matters have been shaped by cultural habits that are seriously (but not obviously) out of alignment?  What if our standards of practicality, our sense of what constitutes ‘common sense,’ reflect (yet conceal) a set of distorted values deeply embedded in the matrix of everyday life?  What if the conventional assumptions about living well that are embodied in our culture’s institutions and practices are at odds with the divinely established pattern of human well-being?”  (Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio)

If you’re like me (and you are in this respect), you make countless decisions everyday and live and move in a context that you take for granted, that you only occasionally have opportunity to reflect upon.  That’s the challenge of living in the world, but not being of the world, of radically identifying with the place and people among whom you live, and yet living among them, to use scriptural words, as an “alien and stranger.”  That’s the difficulty of context, the tension we feel because we live in a particular place, among particular people, as citizens of a particular country, and yet our true Home is somewhere Other, a place to which our souls aspire but to which, for now at least, our bodies have no access.

Ken Myers has a way of asking just the right questions.  They’re questions I wish I could hold in my mind every day.  Generally, however, I live an unexamined life, making assumptions about what is practical or what is best without any conscious consideration of an objective standard.  Two things can change this.  One is a traumatic or at least serious aberration of our world --- maybe a death, maybe our own brush with mortality, or maybe simply a drought --- something to make us realize that life as we know need not and likely will not always be as it is.  Another is when we voluntarily (as in my recent trip to Uganda) or involuntarily (as in a job relocation or all-expense paid trip to Iraq) are removed from our context, becoming like exiles in a foreign land, among a foreign people.  Lifted from our familiar context, we lose the cultural reference points and are thrown back on a deeper standard, something more implicit.  For Christians, that would be Scripture --- not just the Bible itself but how that Bible has been rooted in our being, been incarnated in the habits of our mind.  We find out who we are.  Maybe we learn that for the first time.

When I was six, I was riding in the car with my mother to visit my grandmother, something I had done many times.  As we turned down a particular road near my grandmother’s house, I looked out the window and saw an African-American woman open the screen door of a small, clapboard mill house and look out.  It was 1964 and the first time in my life I remember reflecting on context, realizing that the familiar world I lived in was not like the one in which this woman and her family lived.  Nothing has been the same since then.

Nor should it be.  That tension that I feel between love of place and people and alienation from place and people is God-sanctioned, His way of reminding us that this world is not our Home, that what I assume is not necessarily what is best.  We live in context.  We love the place and people among whom we find ourselves.  Yet every day I need to ask the question “why?”  I need to consider why I do what I do.


Having Everything, Possessing Nothing

moneybag "The way to deeper knowledge of God is through the lonely valleys of soul poverty and abnegation of all things. The blessed ones who possess the kingdom are they who have repudiated every external thing and have rooted from their hearts all sense of possessing."  (A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God)

A.W. Tozer, who penned The Pursuit of God in 1948 while on a train between Chicago and Texas, knew little of the materialism and consumerism of this century, and yet he was able to speak words such as these that are so relevant and yet strangely unearthly now.  What does he mean to repudiate every external thing, to root out every sense of possessing?  How exactly do we do that when we live in a culture and in a time of abundance?  That’s what I mean when I say his words sound “unearthly” --- it’s as if he’s speaking to us from another planet.  Our way of thinking, habits, and even theology at times so situate us in the tide of consumerism that it’s difficult to even get our head above water to see where the tide is carrying us.

Clearly Tozer did not repudiate “every external thing” if it meant not living in a house, not having furniture, not having books, and not buying a train ticket.  He possessed things.  It’s likely he even possessed things which went beyond the barest necessities.  So what did he mean?

What he didn’t mean was the embrace of some sort of asceticism, the practice of some sort of rigorous self-denial, extreme abstinence or austerity.  In such a focus non-possession of things becomes a worshipped possession in and of itself, a form of idolatry.  Besides, ascetics are no fun.

He also wasn’t simply exhorting the rich, though they face a special temptation to possess things.  Street people who carry all their belongings on their back or in a shopping basket may still possess and hoard.  There are rich and poor misers, the only difference being that one has more to be miserly about.

Tozer was on to something different, something the title of his book makes explicit:  Life is about the pursuit of God, not the pursuit of things.  The latter is a different book, one you’ll find littering the self-help and financial sections of the local bookstore and, unfortunately, even the shelves of some Christian bookstores, its message cloaked in religiosity.  So how do we repudiate external things and root out our possessive bent?  By focusing on pursuing God, not on either the acquiring and keeping or, conversely, on the giving up of external things.  I have some practical advice which I have sometimes followed and often violated:

  • Hold, don’t clutch.  I once heard a pastor say that we must live life openhanded.  Things come our way at times, and other times they don’t.  Regardless, when I find myself becoming protective of a possession, am worrying about it, or are unwilling to share it, I need to question what I am pursuing.
  • Don’t buy on impulse.  Whenever I buy on impulse, I’m generally giving in to emotion, often because I think or am persuaded that what I buy will make me happier, make my life easier, or will keep me up to date.  It’s easier to see the lie of that emotional pull with some distance.
  • Give on impulse.  Though most of my giving is prayerfully considered, sometimes I hear of an immediate need and realize that I need to give. . . right then!  Give as the Spirit leads, habitually and prayerfully, and sometimes impulsively.  It helps root out that sense of possessing and makes you free.
  • Focus on God.  When I pursue God, I realize the riches I have:  eternal life, a meaningful existence, the fruit of the spirit, and the beauty of family, friendship, and creation.  Everything in the world tells me I need something else to make me happy.  I don’t.  I can’t escape that lie, but its voice is muted by regularly denying it.
  • Be aware of the poor, but enjoy what God gives.  You can’t alleviate world hunger or poverty, no matter what you do.  You can, however, be aware of needs at home and in the world at large and respond to a need at a specific place or to a specific person.  What you have, enjoy.  If you don’t enjoy it, give it away.

And that’s about enough for now.  If I could do these things, I might go far toward what Tozer suggests.  I need to realize that I have everything I need and truly want, and yet possess nothing. I’m working on making my aim true.


A Review: “Bread and Roses, Too,” by Katherine Paterson

bread Sometimes it’s helpful to read something geared to a different age level as a means of simply enjoying and not analyzing a story, as well as of a way of seeing the world from a different perspective.  In that respect, you cannot go wrong with Katherine Paterson’s 2006 historical novel, Bread and Roses, TooPaterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia (also made into a movie by Walden Media), is adept in writing about or from the perspective of tweens or young teens, serving up stories that speak to their longings for friendship, family, and meaning --- and this book does not disappoint.

The story is based on real events surrounding a 1912 strike by mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, mostly immigrants recruited by textile mill owners from poverty-stricken areas of Europe, lured by promises of wealth in America.  Rosa, one of the main characters, finds herself in the midst of the unfolding events surrounding the strike, worried that her mother and sister will become involved, conflicted about their involvement.  Enter Jake, street-wise son of an alcoholic father, who meets Rosa while scrounging in the garbage near her home.  The destinies of these two unlikely acquaintances become intertwined when Rosa is sent to a small village in Vermont while the strike heats up.

While the book deals with harsh realities like exploitation of workers, death, and bigotry, the story Paterson tells is moral one.  The poor overcome the rich.  Love conquers a hardened heart.  People care for others.  Strangers show kindness.  Paterson presents children in peril and, while not removing the peril, always surrounds them with those who care, with hope.

I recommend the book for tweens and young teens.  It might not titillate the imagination like Harry Potter, but in many ways it goes much farther in that it’s rooted in reality and, therefore, more true to the life of the reader.  Oh, Jake frequently uses a mild profanity, “Hells Bells” (which is not commended but condemned by Rosa) and there is the mention of a killing and violence against strikers without, however, any graphic details.  These two cautions aside, the book is a good read for youth. . . and for this adult.


Mr.Buechner’s Golden Pen: A Review of “The Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany”

y There was a time that I fancied that, in my best moments, my writing was a bit like that of Frederick Buechner.  Though I can detect a touch of his cadence in my prose, Buechner is, however, masterful at turning a phrase, knocking off essays, poetry, sermons, and fiction with what appears to be effortless literacy.  Find him remembering, and he is at his best.  He and perhaps Annie Dillard are head and shoulders above others when it comes to memoir, to reconstructing the places, people, and events clouded over by time.

In The Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany, his latest book, his gift truly shows.  A slender volume collecting essays, remembrances, and poetry, Buechner woos us with his attention to detail, his generosity of spirit, and a recordation of what amounts to a very interesting life.  Somewhat apologetically, he explains that for several years he has found himself able to write sentences and paragraphs but, now eighty, has been unable to manage a book.  Thus, miscellany.  In this case Buechner’s table scraps are a feast for his fans and maybe a few others as well.

Mostly, but not solely, these are essays and poems remembering family, teachers, and friends.  In “Our Last Drive Together” he recounts the last time he drove his mother, then aged, to her home, as well as her last breath.  “Johnny” is about his brother-in-law, a man who was an invalid but always treated with honor nonetheless, as if he was the man of the house, a man with a radiant smile who spent most of his life working wooden puzzles.  In other essays he remembers presidents he met, albeit briefly (“Presidents I Have Known”), as well as his post-WWII journey to Europe where he wrote his second and least successful book, The Seasons’ Difference (“Wunderjahr”), as well as presents an endearing portrait of his teachers at his Lawrenceville boarding school, men who became like fathers to him (“Fathers and Teachers”).

But it’s not just family and teachers he remembers.  In “The Laughter Barrel” he recalls spending time with Maya Angelou, an African-American poet who told him that, “given the chance, we could be real friends."  Or in “Gertrude Conover Remembers” he has the misguided if refreshingly candid theosophist recounting her past lives in detail or addressing the unusual relationship she and her husband Harold enjoyed.  In his generosity, Buechner just lets her rattle on, and it makes for entertaining reading.  Finally, Buechner turns to poetry, writing poems about various family members such as his great-grandfather Adam Kuhn, who missed an opportunity to partner with a man named Woolworth, or Aunt Doozie’s tumultuous trip to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, or finally, the “Lawrenceville Fiftieth Reunion,” which closes the poem and book with good words: “Remember Love?  For starters try/ Remembering back.  God bless them all.  Goodbye.”

In the end, of course, Buechner would say that he cannot understand why anyone would want to read any of this, why anyone would be interested.  I know why.  We read these stories of people we have never met and see in them the family members, teachers, and friends who have come in and out of our lives.  We listen to Frederick Buechner’s life and hear the sound of our own.  His is a prompt to, in his words, “remembering back,” to telling our own stories if to no one else but ourselves.

I recommend The Yellow Leaves as a complement to Buechner’s trilogy of memoirs.  Reading it we know what it is to remember well and to then tell it well.


What People Said

logo21 Hey, how was your vacation?

Incredible. Difficult.

What’d you do?

We went to Uganda on a missions trip.

That’s nice.

That word “nice,” the epitome of innocuousity (I know, that’s probably not a word, but you know what I mean), should be excised from the English language. Here it likely means “that sounds awful,” or “I’m not interested in hearing about it,” or even “end of conversation because I don’t want you telling me that I should go.” I want to say our trip to Uganda was a lot of things but it wasn’t just nice, but that wouldn’t have been. . . well. . . nice.

How was your trip to Uganda?

Great.

What did you do?

Srape, paint, put in a library, feed 800 people, and play with kids. Lots of kids. We’re hoping we can start an agricultural co-op or something so that they can become more self-sufficient.

They’ll just end up taking each other’s stuff.

No, these people work really hard and really seem honest.

I’m sure they do, but if one gets ahead, that’ll change. They’re always fighting over there.

I was prepared for that kind of conversation. Paige said she was angry for three months after she first came back. And yet it’s still frustrating. I’m well aware that our Ugandan friends are sinners just like us, but I reject the hopeless kind of thinking this person exemplifies, the sense that there’s really no sense helping these people because nothing will change.

Whenever I leave for some significant period of time, and particularly when I come back from often life-changing experiences like our trip to Uganda (I’ve had two or three), I’m reminded again of several things: some people don’t know I ever left, I am not indispensable (that is, nothing fell apart while I was gone), and many people, while polite, are not really interested in hearing about your life-changing experience. Besides, Africa is far, far away and the intense feelings you have cannot easily be communicated. Actually, you may sound a little nutty. I know, because I’ve heard people like me before.

And yet others do care. In my place of work, many of my co-workers read everything on the blog and want me to show pictures and talk about my experience at lunch one day. They may even make Kaihura, Uganda a Christmas project. Then there is the African-American woman who I talked with who, only a minute into the conversation, had tears in her eyes and told me she had always wanted to go to Africa. We can only testify and tell our stories and let God do the rest. He has to open hearts.

The most surprising reaction? That’s easy. Wednesday I’m negotiating a settlement with an attorney, normally a give-and-take process, and surprisingly he accepts my price right away, saying “I’m not going to argue with anyone who’s been in Uganda for two weeks doing what you did.” Now that’s miraculous and undeserved. (And right then I knew I should have started with a higher price!)

I don’t have to convince anyone. I don’t need to change the world. We’re all of us storytellers, that’s all, and we can’t help ourselves. It doesn’t matter so much what they said. It matters what we say. Just tell the truth and someone might just surprise you.


Coming Home to Joy (Notes from Kaihura)

logo21 [I wrote these recollections of our recent mission trip to Uganda while on the long plane trip coming home. They are by no means all I have to say about the wonderful people of Kaihura, but they begin to tell about what it is like there, and what it is like to leave. Please continue to read the Embrace Uganda blog to hear more.]

When I walked down the loading bridge to the plane in Entebbe, a blast of cold air hit me. Air conditioning. Settling into my seat, I realized that I had suddenly crossed over, from a mostly pre-modern world to a very modern world. It made me sad.

I am still trying to hold in my mind specific images of Kaihura, particularly the faces of our friends. Saturday morning they met us at Faith’s home, the orphan children from Home Again and the children from the Dorcas Vocational School, as well as pastors and adults who had welcomed and assisted us, and we walked the quarter mile down dirt roads to the tiny business district of Kaihura, the children insisting on carrying our luggage.

Our bus came. We boarded. As we looked out the window of the bus, our Ugandan friends were weeping. My friend Sam, a gifted 18 year-old young man, was standing in the back, wiping tears from behind his sunglasses. Joanne, with whom I played many games at Home Again, was her usual placid self, but tears were in her eyes. Daniel did not cry but stood right in front looking at me. He wrote me a letter, and drew a picture of flowers for me, but at 15 was too concerned at becoming emotional to deliver it himself. Stephen, who has broken his arm, was looking on. I pointed to each of them and waved, wanting them to know that I was saying good bye to them as individuals, that I would miss them, that there were no little people in Kaihura. When you look out and see 400 kids looking intently at you, it’s sometimes overwhelming to realize that each one is made in God’s image, that each one is a soul in need of redemption, that each one has dreams and troubles of their own.

Behind me I hear the uncharacteristic sobbing of my 13-year old daughter Anna. In front of me, my 16-year old son Stephen was crying. And so was I. Not only because I would miss them but because unlike us they could not leave behind the relentless hardship of life, a life they lived, however, with faith, hope, and love. But then as sad as it was to say goodbye to them, just as sad were those faces of the countless other adults and many children of the community who stood outside their homes and shops and alongside dirt streets and the main road and sadly watched us leave, most of whom I had not been able to get to know, leaving them to substandard, often unaffordable health care, poor education (despite the dedication of some teachers), and with neither running water nor electricity. We were leaving.

During the course of the two weeks, Stephen and I interviewed all 25 teenagers that went on the trip, in addition to some others. These kids raised their own support and often more in order to come. Some were curious. Some felt called by God. None were prepared for the overwhelming love they experienced and the work God did in them and through them in a relatively short time --- exposing self-centeredness, teaching them how to worship freely, and meeting their need for phileo love, the deep love of authentic friendship that the children and adults here gave to them. They also grew in their love for one another --- helping, loving, and sharing with each other. Practically all of them wanted to stay. Several of them cried at the mention of leaving or when they began to talk of how being there had affected them.

We adults have said many goodbyes. We forget what it is to be a teenager, where goodbyes seem for a time to be the end of life as we know it and we cannot imagine a world without whatever it is we leave behind. We have also had mountaintop experiences only to return to the mundane plain of life. We know that life will go on, that we will return to the familiar patterns of life on the other side. We say we have perspective. And yet we too easily guard our emotions, steeling ourselves against disappointment. Maybe deep down we are tainted by a cultural cynicism. And yet what these young people give us is a sense of the intensity of experience because they are less guarded, more engaged emotionally, and more in touch with the present moment. Can you remember that time in your life? It’s worth trying to remember, worth letting go of talk of perspective and letting the intensity of the moment, whether of sadness or happiness, wash over you. Then you will go on, but you will not be the same.

I don’t want to be the same. Perspective tells me that I live in a different world than my Ugandan friends, and yet my heart tells me we are the same. I find myself already adapting my conversation and attitudes to the world I live in, and yet I feel a bit estranged. I am home, and yet ill at ease, aware that something is amiss. Something is. To use scriptural words, being an “alien and stranger” on the earth takes on new meaning. I’m feeling alienated. It feels strange. And yet it feels better. I have a better sense that this world is not my home, that my citizenship is not here.

I don’t want to be the same. I don’t want to forget. I plan on surrounding myself with pictures of my Ugandan friends, visible reminders of faith, hope, and love, and talking about what I heard, saw, and learned. If I can remember the faces of my friends standing on that roadside in Kaihura, I can change. God can do a work in me too. We may have had tears, but God promises that “those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy,” shall “come home with shouts of joy” (Ps. 126:5-6). I’m not happy about leaving. I’m not completely happy about being home. But there is joy knowing that God is at work in Kaihura. . . and in me.