small friends

Our eyes are on You.

After everything that went down in the Central African Republic, what I remember are the mangoes. On the southwest tail of town, dozens of trees flanked the dirt roads of the old mission station, their leafy canopies jeweled with swollen fruit. Between kids wielding bamboo poles, and the pull of gravity, so much golden pulp speckled the ground that the dirt clumped sticky and fragrant.


stillgreen

Angle up several miles through town, though, and you’d reach the stubborn trees at our house. Here a few bold mangoes had just begun to blush; the rest were still fists of milky green, holding on for dear life.

But it was Good Friday, and I had irrational dreams of cobbler. Surely we could find a few mangoes soft enough to simmer up and sugar into something bright and homey. I sent the kids out with the longest stick we could find and instructions to swing at anything even thinking about pink.

Forty minutes later they trudged in, half-embarrassed, depositing a handful of fruit both heroic and deeply unripe. “Sorry, Mom,” they said. “This is what we could find.”

I was considering my options, which looked like Make Something Else, when two small faces peered through our screen door. “Ala yeke njoni?” I called, stepping out into a morning glazed with heat. A pair of neighbor boys grinned back at me. They pushed a wide metal bowl into my arms, holding mangoes the color of sun. I felt my heart expand to fill my ribs.


small friends


This was our entire existence in Zemio: our neighbors saving our skin on a daily rotation with their competence and generosity. This is how you build a cooking fire. This is how to press palm nuts into oil. This is where to buy eggs, chicory coffee, a bar of laundry soap. It chokes me to think of their tireless loop of kindness, the ways they kept us functional and fed.

We’ve been gone from CAR since mid-April, chased out by burgeoning violence. When we’d told our friend Simon we were leaving, his gaze had grown serious.

“It is good,” he said, nodding slowly. “You are not safe here. I will be happy again when I know you are not in danger.” And then he cried.

These days I search the news for any word out of CAR, and the headlines trickle in scant but grim. “Surging Violence Forces 88,000 to Flee.” “Thousands in Desperate Need of Humanitarian Assistance as Violence Escalates.” How much war can a nation absorb, I wonder. How many decades of hunger and running for their lives can folks take before the light bleeds from their eyes?

I’m not sure what God’s doing, and it’s okay. It’s not my job to know. I’m not sure why, for example, after months of delays tacked on to years of waiting, our time on the ground was so volatile and short. Our friend Hassan was planning to come to our house for Easter. We were evacuated the day before—the day before!—and I still want to wring my hands in fresh despair.


mbororo ladies


Our teammate Adam said it best, something like, “I know God will redeem some Mbororo and Chadian Arabs, and there will be people from every tribe and tongue in heaven. It’s just that after you get to know them, you want it to be these specific Mbororo and Chadians.” You want it to be your friends.

In the second book of Chronicles, chapter twenty, King Jehoshaphat gets hit with a startling report: an immense army is marching against Judah, and pretty much you should panic. But J.Phat doesn’t. Also things he doesn’t do: muster his own army in response, flee for the hills, or rail at God for rewarding obedience with war. Instead, he gathers his people to fast and seek the Lord, closing his petition to God with this: “We have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on You” (2 Chron 20.12, NIV).

This bit of Scripture emerged as one of the themes of our time in Zemio. One of our leaders, Steve, shared this passage with our team in the thatched shade of his outdoor hut. As he spoke, our minds tried the verse on for size. It fit.

From start to unexpected finish, our months in CAR were a tangle of unknowns. When is it valuable to stay and maybe die? When is it pointless and foolish? We knew we’d endanger our neighbors by staying, but did that justify jumping ship? We rarely knew what to do, but we watched God like our whole lives depended on Him.


football at the mbororo camp


In the end, when our small plane roared to the sky—grief puncturing our lungs till we’d never breathe properly again—God whispered the rest of the story. In 2 Chronicles, after King Jehoshaphat ends his prayer, a prophet stands. “This is what the Lord says to you,” the prophet tells the assembly. “‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s’” (2 Chron 20.15). And I know it’s true, that this was never our battle, that we needn’t be cut down by sorrow. This is God’s mission of redemption, carried out with skies of wisdom and mercy. The war for the hearts of our friends belongs to Him.

Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in Him (Psalm 62.5, NLT). And even now, Lord—our eyes are on You.

amelenge awali ti Mbororo

Therefore I will wait for Him.

amelenge awali ti Mbororo


The first time we moved I was too young to know anything but the slope of my mother’s collarbone, the way my dad’s laugh jumped under my palms, how my whirling dervish of an older brother–barely more than a baby himself–would pause mid-destruction to pat my nose, then bolt for adventure again. This was the whole of my knowing: mother, father, brother; the skin of my cocooned existence diaphanous but strong.

The second time I was something like eight and we moved two blocks down the street. From a townhouse complex where I’d once gotten chicken pox and a baby brother in the span of a week, to a house as yellow as summer. We had paper trees. A swing. A dog named Casper who bounded through the cane fields framing our walk to school.

At seventeen I left for college 4500 miles east, and I’d fly back home but never again to stay. South Bend had inhospitable weather: snowstorms in April, humidity that undid your will to blink in July. Todd and I married and moved to a little farm town with a maple syrup festival and jelly beans as big as your thumbs. At Christmas, they stuck an evergreen smack-dab in the middle of main street. It was quaint and maddening and enchanting.


mango season


We moved from an apartment to another yellow house with a happy, peeling porch, then to Michigan (a borrowed double wide, then the bungalow with polished hardwood, a claw-foot tub, a garden with thyme and peppermint), then back to Indiana again (rental, then the brick ranch with warm neighbors and candy-pink peonies). From there we trekked to Kenya and on to CAR, so in sum: fifteen houses, eight towns, five time zones, three countries.

These are the places where my kids leaped from couch to pillow to blanket in order to avoid the lava floor, where they wiggled molars loose and promptly lost faith in the world’s most unreliable tooth fairy. These coordinates know each iteration of me and my family for the past four decades, and here we are, in the thick of moving again.

I’ve never felt so keen a loss as I do right now.

To be fair, I’ve fallen hard for every place and people we’ve called home. It’s just that this time around, I’ve barely begun to learn them. This time I haven’t had a proper go at it. This time we left in a way that gutted us.


[football at the field behind our house]
[football on the pitch behind our house]



In Sango, I can say: my little chair is here, behind the house. I can say: this morning I drank coffee, washed clothes, carried firewood, baked mango bread. I can say: I will give you a cup of water to drink?

I don’t know how to say: I see how life keeps handing you more to carry–bricks, cassava, water, children. Fear. Grief. You are a faithful and kind mama. I think we would have become great friends, the kind that keep a light for each other in the dark.

From the start, none of this CAR business has gone how I’ve planned–and I had such clever plans, y’know? :) But mercifully, God has His own, better plans, and He only asks us to come along. To be still. To worship in the unknown and the waiting.

Yet this I call to mind
And therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
For his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion;
Therefore I will wait for Him.’
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in Him,
To the one who seeks Him;
It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

(Lamentations 3.21-26)


[flying into Arua]
[flying into Arua]



Right now we’re in Uganda, alternating between numbness and acute feeling. I need to say a few things here. A boatload of folks worked swiftly and tirelessly to extract our team and then feed and house us. Four pilots dropped everything, including any regard for their own safety, to fly from Loki, Nairobi, and Arua to come get us. Their wives and children let them go. And then there’s all of you, who pray even before we know to ask; and God, whose mercies are new.

Thank you, all of you.

Please, pray that Zemio will know the weight of God’s glory. Pray that He will accomplish His purposes for the Zande and the Mbororo of CAR. In the core of my being, I’m convinced their story is far from over.

And in all things, may God be lifted high.

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.