the beautiful game

Keeping watch.


 the beautiful game

 
We’re home again in the Central African Republic for at least a smallish while. In January, as conflict roiled and brewed around town, we packed up and left Zemio in a controlled evacuation. (PS To all the good pilots of AIM AIR: thank you for risking planes and personal safety to retrieve folks like us. Our lives can’t possibly be worth your own, and yet you come for us.)

CAR is wracked with instability, but our village has been something of a haven, sheltering refugees and providing medical care to a wide swath of the country. People hitchhike their way to Zemio to attend clinics and pick up antiretrovirals for scores of folks living with HIV/AIDS. Camps housing displaced Congolese, Sudanese, and Mbororo families sprawl back into the scrub brush and jungle. And all the while, peacekeeping troops roll through town in their pale armored tanks, waving at us as the earth trembles beneath them.

Zemio owns a specific kind of beauty, hard earned and irrepressible. I grew up in island skin beneath a Pacific sky, blazed through autumns in the Midwest, ran the ancient folds of Kenya’s Rift Valley. I didn’t expect to find CAR beautiful. But if peace ever claims this place, you need to come long enough to see the sun rise and fall over red earth, fanning palms, thatched roofs, and smoke, and all of it turning to gold.

 
zemio

 
My language helper, bless her overworked soul, calls me her child. Tells me she is my mother. And who even takes you in like that, in just a few months’ time? I’ve learned not an impressive lot of Sango, because it turns out that bush life takes ages, especially for the moms. Washing clothes is an early morning production in itself. Sifting bugs from flour, lighting and coaxing and cooking over fires as sweat pearls and rolls from my temples–all of it moves with a slowness older than time. I fight with dust motes and insects in wars where I’m outnumbered nine trillion to one. We work through another round of homeschooling, and then on days without team meetings, my language helper meanders over at a time that may or may not be close to two o’clock. Lacking a bridge language, we stagger through an hour of stilted Sango, where she says things at me and I try to guess what they mean. It’s at least entertaining.

Word on the street is that US and Ugandan forces will vacate the country come April 25th. Their absence creates a power vacuum, and vacuums anywhere, but especially here, tend to get filled lickety-split with maybe not the most noble cast of characters. As such, it appears that our weeks here are numbered, and we press hard to redeem the time.

My mantra these days is Engage! But to be honest, I don’t know how to Engage! when the breadth of my conversational skills involves asking the Mbororo if their children/cows/homes are well, and saying that I pray God keeps and protects them. While in Kenya, as we sought God’s leading, He pulled a few certain and unexpected threads of thought to the foreground. One of them was summed up by a friend who sat across my borrowed living room and looked me in the eyeballs and said, “Prayer is enough.”

 mbororo kiddos

 
Sometimes it feels like so much weaksauce, to be here but focused on praying. And sometimes it feels like everything, like unleashing the weight of God’s sovereignty and fire and purpose for this place. At the end of the day this is His work for the sake of His Name, so come, Lord Jesus.

And so I pray as we walk paths that curl back through the Mbororo camp, pray over a humid room of Zande believers, pray as we weave along dirt roads on motorcycles, pray in the crush of the market. Make Your redemption known and Your Name famous, even here, God. Even now.

Friends, if you’re willing, would you keep watch with us? Some hours are hard, where we’re scraping the bottom of our souls’ reserves, and for once I think I might understand that encounter Luke records between Jesus and Simon Peter. “Simon, Simon,” Jesus says. “Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22.31-32). These are days of sifting, and I wonder if there’s any of me left, anything worth keeping. Pray that our faith may not fail. Pray that the Zande will come alive to the gospel. Pray that the Mbororo will find their lives, their very selves in Christ.

May His light shine in the darkness, and may the darkness not overcome it.

camping in africa

The fine print.

zem2

 

We haven’t yet arrived in our new village, and already I have my excuses.

Exhibit A: But I’m an introvert.

Guys, this is a thing. Running with the extraverts in a mission context feels a lot like running with the Kenyans in last October’s Marathon. It requires of me more effort, more oxygen, more rivers of sweat streaming into my eyeballs, and still I’m bringing up the rear. I am good at being introverty. I’m good at deep thinking and at reading your mind and intentions with freakish accuracy.

I am distinctly not good at People I Vaguely Recognize peering into my windows and popping into my house for a three hour chat and staying for the dinner I haven’t even started to cook because hello, three hour chat.

This makes me nervous and itchy, and it hasn’t even happened yet.

 
In any test of spiritual gifts, I pretty much flunk Hospitality. And still I’m convinced that doors flung wide open are integral to loving my neighbor just like I love me. It is hard, and I stink at it, and also it’s super important so sign me up already.

 

zem3

 

Caveat #2: Languages are tricksy, slippery little guys.

I heard/read a story once about a man who sang joyfully (but not so melodiously) to the Lord, and his most desperate wish was to have a voice that matched the fervor of his joy. And one day, bam, outta nowhere, God gives him this gorgeous set of pipes.

You can ask my friends; if I could hand-pick any talent/skill in the whole gifted world, it would be the art of language acquisition. And maybe someday God will zap me with this superpower, but for now it’s the daily grind of drill and painfully garbled practice. Failing is not my favorite, nor is Public Humiliation, but again: super necessary. Let’s do this thing.

 
And finally: I’m a fair-weather camper at best.

I’ve heard it said that bush-living is a bit like permanent camping, and while I’ve never had a tent that big or solar-paneled, I sort of do get the point. Buggy, with pit toilets, bucket baths, smoke in your hair—camping it is.

I like camping. I like it for the trees and the seclusion, for the wind that makes red maples shiver and sing. But also I like civilization, and going home to it at the end of the week.

I guess the thing is, God has this strange propensity to place us where we’re least qualified, where we’re flimsy and clumsy and embarrassingly needy. Moses and his stutter. Gideon quaking in his boots. I don’t fully understand (or appreciate) it, but I can see how inadequacy helps me lean into Him, how it allows me to be small and God to show up fierce and magnificent.

 
camping in africa

 

A few of my honest pals have said to me, offhand, that they’d never survive bush life. AND EVEN ME, GUYS. And even me. I was not made for jungles and snakes and even worse, people in my personal space. :) But I was made for God, and He can land this thing in His sleep.

Let it be said: if anything at all goes right about this, it will clearly be God’s doing. But what a lucky life this is to be swept up in His wild mercy to every nation, every tribe.

lunch

His.

githeri

 

It’s 4:46am on a Friday, and I’m aching for a miracle.

We’re in the featureless swath of borderland, that thistled zone between life stages: no longer fully part of life in Kenya, but not yet arrived in the Central African Republic. I’m glad for this pause, and the gift of dipping into ministry here one more time, but in the same breath we’re itching to push roots into the loam of our new village.

Two mornings ago, Lauren and I went for a walk through the trees. The cardinal law of exercise in rural Africa is Thou Shalt Never Run Alone, Especially if Thou is Female, but I’ve been taking Toby, the exuberant yellow lab we’re dog-sitting. (He came with the house, and I’d plum forgotten I was a dog person until I glimpsed his waggy-tailed smile.) Toby is maybe not good for calling for help from the cell phone I never carry anyway, but he has teeth, and so I think I’m coming out ahead.

 

rift valley

 
Usually Toby and I run together as the sky gathers color, but on this particular day I convinced Lauren to come for a walk. And right before we left the safety and dust of the road for the forest path, a German Shepherd joined our trio. Toby didn’t bat an eye, so I assumed they were friends, and besides, if you’d watched this other dog walk for a while you’d know he’s a bit on in dog years.

“I am going to call him Elder Dave,” Lauren said as we picked our way over tree roots and gullies. Senior citizenship aside, he cast a hulking presence, and with Toby up front and Elder Dave at back, I’d never felt safer in my life. We passed a few questionable characters on the path, and who knows what manner of wildlife observed our crossing from the trees, but those dogs were on us like glue.

 

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you,
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1b-3a).


 
I wonder about the sense of it all, of taking kids to a place wrecked by conflict and great suffering. And I don’t read passages like this one in Isaiah and think God is promising certain deliverance from harm. I mostly just read two things: He will be with us, and we are His.

We had the best super-fast Home Assignment. So many sweet, brief connections—some online, some up close—with people we love. So many chances to bear witness to God’s unrelenting faithfulness in Africa. Without question, I wish it’d been longer by years and that we could have seen every last one of you; but even as we were relieved and filled being home in the States, He was pulling our hearts back to His work and His people in Africa.

 

sokoni

 

At one point during furlough, my dad mentioned that I’d long ago said the safest place to be is exactly where God wants us. But what I remembered was telling my mom that it’s not a bad way to die. We all give our lives for something, and so then, why not this?

The God who sends an extra dog on a walk and shows up in a flaming furnace could absolutely pluck us out of any war or horror. He could. But even if He doesn’t, right? Even if He doesn’t, we will do His bidding with joy (I hope) and a good amount of trembling. He will be with us, and we can’t stop being His.

 

dorm boys

Mine.

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[Our dorm. Just look at my boys.]

 

A few weeks back during dorm meeting, one of the guys posed this scenario: What if terrorists threaten to kill your family if you admit you’re Christians. Is it okay to lie to save the people you love? [Keep in mind that this wasn’t purely hypothetical. A couple months after we got here, this scenario unfolded at a nearby mall to the tune of 67 deaths; some of our RVA students were there.]

After the meeting was over, my fifteen-year-old crossed the room with his lanky teenage walk, all angles and limbs. “Sorry Mom,” he said, “but if that happens you’re probably going to have to die.”

“There are things worth dying for,” I agreed. It was one of my more bizarre Proud Mom Moments.

I suppose we all have our own peculiar brand of theology, the self-soothing theories that comfort our hearts in our more desolate hours. Maybe we’ve convinced ourselves that God protects us—and especially the smallish people who tag along with us from continent to violent continent—when the whole reason we’re even here is out of plain obedience to Him.

 
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And you know, sometimes He does. Sometimes it’s all Hebrews 11, with folks routing armies and quenching fires and shutting the jaws of lions and leaping back to life. But if you finish out that paragraph, it swings us round the worst kind of U-turn: all of a sudden these guys are being sawed in two and living in holes in the ground.

So here’s the thing. At times I field questions about the wisdom of our impending move to a country gutted by civil conflict and the occasional roaming militia. And hey, fair enough. On the one hand, our particular village is small and poor and happily located on the way to nowhere, so by all of our human reckonings, it’s pretty safe.

But also. There are things worth dying for. In this very minute, folks in Asia and North Africa are surrendering their lives with trepidation and resolve because they’re steely-sure that Jesus is worth it. If we live, fabulous. If we suffer, it’s maybe not my favorite plan, but so be it. If we die, Jesus is worth it. The lives of the Mbororo: worth it. Bringing the gospel to the least-reached: worth it.

 


 

My girl Shannan’s first book will hit a shelf near you this fall, and you’ve got to read it. It comes straight out of the brain and heart of someone so clear-sighted and generous and funny, but also I’m a little bit scared of it. Because if anything I know of Shannan is true, her book is liable to break me to smithereens, till down looks like up and I’m rock-bottom desperate for Jesus.

In the opening chapter of Falling Free (which I got to preview because I am the luckiest), she writes: “We so often say we believe that there is no safer place than the center of God’s will, but we refuse to believe it would ever lead us to places of brokenness or danger” (p 16). And a bit earlier, “We could simply go, as though (God) meant it each of the hundreds of times he says throughout the Bible to go, as in literally, move your feet, guys” (p 9).

I’m not anti-safety, but I am pro-the-least-of-these, and they tend to be found in places that aren’t exactly safe. Christie Purifoy puts it this way, “But Jesus never promised safety; He promised abundance. The abundant life is a wide-awake life, and it is anything but safe.”

 
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How does this life of abundance shake out? It looks like trekking out to wherever it is He says to go, living skin-to-skin with neighbors He points out are mine, and dying in precisely the minute and place and manner that best proclaim the immense worth of Jesus.

One of my all-time favorite students here recently asked me if we heard an audible voice (hopefully belonging to God) telling us to move to Africa. I had to say no, sadly. If we had, though, I suspect He would’ve told us pretty much what Shannan said. Guys. Move your feet already.

Speaking of moving, would you pray for us please? We’ve never stared down so tall a mountain of Things To Do, not even when initially moving out this way, and also we keep hacking our lungs out. It is not pleasant, but about 80% of the campus is sick, so at least we’re in good company. :)

 
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And speaking of prayer, one more story. We have friends back home in the islands who’ve stuck by my family since I was a wee slip of a lass (ie hanabata days, for my Hawaii peeps) and my dad started serving at Mililani Missionary Church. I was six months old.

Some of my best memories circle around those Sundays in the 70s and 80s: donuts and the tang of orange juice, a hundred winding stairs, rows of plastic chairs on linoleum, chlorinated baptisms in the rec center pool. My dad was MMC’s senior pastor for about 25 years, until a stroke shunted him into an early, medical retirement. He still serves there in a voluntary capacity.

So our friends. A few days ago my mom mentioned, offhand, that Mr and Mrs Nitta have prayed for my dad and my mom and my brothers and me every single day since my dad became their pastor. Every single day for the past almost-forty years.

You know those moments when your heart stands still in your chest out of sheer wonder? Yeah. That.

 


 

I don’t know how it all spins out, but I can say with certainty that left to our own devices, my brothers and I would’ve self-destructed a thousand times over in those forty years. (Or at least me–maybe I shouldn’t drag my brothers into it.) (No yeah, I should.) That I/we are functional, lucid, half-decent humans at this very moment speaks of nothing but unadulterated mercy born of wrestled-out prayer.

These people know a thing or two about what it means to love.

So do you.

And this is why I am keeping you forever. Depending on where you stand with declarations of affection, perhaps I say this far too often or not nearly enough–I sincerely, deeply, for really real, flat-out love you people. You walk steadfastly beside us, unblinking, courageous, living the gospel in ways that are at once down-to-earth and irresistible.

Please always be mine.

ol pejeta

The One Where We Talk About Home Again

twilight in the kenyan bush

 

Occasionally life rears up and swallows you whole. You wake in the early dark of January, blink approximately three times, and the sun’s slipping into middle-May.

 

Time flies when you’re having a blast. (And maybe also when you’re up to your eyebrows in All The Things.) I can’t begin to cover it, but here’s an abbreviated list of stuff that has snagged my heart this year:

1. A dormful of wild & sweet freshman boys
2. My footballers and their zest for the beautiful game
3. Near-death experiences on tall, cold mountains
4. Fabulous students (SIDENOTE: for the first time in ever, I had a student voluntarily sit himself at the Table of Loneliness so he could finish his work without distraction)
5. Our kids in the valley, in perpetual states of boisterous disarray

 

Also, copywriting + photography + design = happy place, so a ways back I volunteered to help with a website project. Come February, this turned into a full-time job, which is great except for oh wait. I already have one of those.

 

All this to say, I’m sorry for my absence on the internets. Mnisamehe, tafadhali.

 

Mt Kenya

[Mt Kenya: equal parts beautiful and terrifying.]

 

Before we moved to East Africa, I nursed an ardent and highly idealized fondness for this place. I’d been to Ethiopia twice, so this sentiment wasn’t entirely blind. Still, it might have squinted a lot and walked into the occasional wall.

 

Now that we’ve lived here a few years, my feelings have gathered substance and weight. It’s an informed love, made fiercer for the knowing. Electric skies, bitty chirping frogs, volcanic craters nestled in the seam of the Rift Valley. High-altitude mornings with purple porridge, hot and thinned with water. Kenyan belly-laughs, plus the way our friends rename us into things more easily pronounced (McAlhaney = macaroni). In the interest of full disclosure, my leanings toward this country are a clouded brew of love and exasperation, but all of it means I care.

 

As we near the brink of switching fields, I’m back to square one, this time eyeing Central Africa from a distance that makes everything gilded and luminous.

 

I understand that this is unreasonable. I know, for instance, that monkeys are maybe the most annoying creatures on legs, and yet I’m crooning over snapshots of the adorable guys that frequent the trees of our soon-to-be-village. I understand that fetching water and cooking over fires with a side of malaria is maybe my least-favorite version of Life on Earth. Still in my head it’s all Little House on the Prairie: Africa Edition.

 

zemio neighborhood

 

The thing is, while I’m not crazy for prehistoric bugs or air gone limp with humidity, I do love Jesus, and (usually) people.

 

In the words of Samuel Zwemer: “The great Pioneer Missionaries all had ‘inverted homesickness’ —this passion to call that country their home which was most in need of the Gospel. In this passion all other passions died; before this vision all other visions faded; this call drowned all other voices.”

 

Now, no one with their eyeballs on is liable to mistake me for a great Pioneer Missionary, but still I get it. I know this pull toward the least-reached, the slow burn that compels us to share the best news we’ve ever known.

 

I am head-over-heels for my current place and peeps. I am giddy with the promise of seeing ALL MY PEOPLE back in the States this summer. And bigger than anything, I’m homesick for the folks and the days soon to come. Zwemer’s right about this upside-down yearning, how it’s inexplicable and cavernous.

 

The people who know things, they say home is a complicated concept for third-culture-kids. AND ALSO ME. All these homes belong to me, own me, call to me, define me, and yet none are mine to hold.

 

cessna

 

In the end we go to places uncharted not because we’re brave, or unusual, or even crazy. (The crazy is independent of the going.) We go because God has brushed this place and people in every color of home, and the only thing that makes sense is to follow Him there.