School lunch

Every once in a while someone will labor one of the double doors open, and in the few squeaky seconds before it latches shut she can hear a snippet of the lunch crowd aimless at the back side of the school grounds. Voices, sometimes yells, cars in the distance, other exterior doors crashing shut, the screech of a trash bin gorging on uneaten cafeteria food. There’s a whiff of French fries, the dry smell of scuffed dirt, wisps of smoke from the other end of the school, where all the cool kids and teachers are smoking under the end zone bleachers. Heat waves in, too, disturbing the stale cool of the short hallway.

Whoever has opened the door takes a glance at her and breezes on, unconcerned and uncurious. They clang through another set of interior doors, and she can hear their footsteps echo away down the bare floor of the main hallway.

The girl cross-legged alone on the wafer-thin carpet doesn’t even lift her eyes off the book in her lap.

Her rectangular, divided, green cafeteria tray cradles food mostly untouched, the fork forlorn to the side, though a wadded plastic wrapper that once held peanut butter crackers is lying across the top like a shroud. A nearly empty can of Coke presides over the tray.

All the other juniors – and seniors, and sophomores, and freshmen, and teachers, and staff – are scattered with their mini-tribes around the campus. And she knows them.

She knows the inside of the teachers’ lounge, its mimeograph table commanding one entire corner, its vending machine, its mail cubbies, the nose-wrinkling testimony of burned popcorn from the microwave, the teachers and staff in their grownup versions of cliques.

Outside, boys, lurching their way to being men, sit man-spreaded on picnic tables, girlfriends locked and leaning in on them. She has a loose idea who is paired with whom, but neither can nor wishes to follow the daily, overly dramatic musical chairs of that game.

She knows the numbing din of the cafeteria, the gaggle of girls that gathers beneath the big oak tree on the front lawn, the motley crew of bad kids that lingers around the door to the shop class, which Coke machine is most likely to eat your quarters, which sidewalks have the biggest fire ant beds.

She knows the noise, the warm sun, the rank smell at the cafeteria loading dock, the sharp splinters of the picnic tables, the bounded sets of every high school there ever was.

She also knows the price of getting inside one of those bounded sets. And is unwilling to pay it.

Besides – there are books, which have all the friends, the drama, the romance, the strivings, the agony and glory that are all in the hungry eyes of the teenagers and adults all around her.

There is the heart-soothing, soul quiet of this hallway during the lunch hour.

She leans against the hard library door – locked during lunch, tragic – and closes her eyes, mulling the novel, feeling the carbonated burn of the digesting Coke and the beginnings of a cramp in her bent left leg.

volkwagen rabbit

In the afternoon, the hot May sun of South Carolina will pour out like warm syrup through the rattling windows of the 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit. Her mother, in the passenger seat now that the reading girl can drive, will query in a fake-casual voice, “Honey is there anybody at Barnwell High School you would…date?” The girl will devote several minutes of thought to the question (she is her deliberate thinking father’s daughter) while the mother waits. “No ma’am,” she will finally say, and no more.

Right now, though, she is alone but not a whit lonely. She’s outcast by her own choosing, content enough in her own skin, aware of her world but engaged only on her own terms.

Which, right now, these noon hours, these last two years of high school, are exactly this scene.

Published in: on September 27, 2017 at 1:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Valley walkin’

“We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, forged in the fires of human passion, choking on the fumes of selfish rage” – Rich Mullins.

It seems the hardest thing about walking through the valley is holding on to what you saw on the mountaintop…or, if you’ve not been to the mountaintop yet, what you’ve been told awaits there. There’s a line in the movie “The Shack,” where God (Papa) tells Mack, “When you’re surrounded by nothing but your own pain it’s hard to see Me.” So very true.

This isn’t a novel concept, of course; through millennia people have struggled to see and remember that they are not alone when walking through the valleys.

What’s hard to me is to speak, maybe even speak with faith, the promises I think are true but can’t see for the fog right now. It’s hard to sing, hard to read Scripture (except for some Psalms maybe), hard to pray. I do those things because they’re habits, thank God, but as the hours of the day pass burdened with worry and anxiety and fear and uncertainty, I feel my heart straying, inch by foot by mile, into the Land of No Trust, the Land of Amanda Takes Charge Now. (It’s not a pleasant country, believe me. Full of potholes. And dead ends.)

My heart is like a dog on one of those retractable leashes, and I keep having to yank her back, out of the thorn bushes, away from the pile of poop on the sidewalk, back to the road that must be walked in order to reach Home.

I say the lines, I quote the Scripture, I check my attitude, I sing the songs, I keep going to church on Sunday, I go through the spiritual discipline motions, I ask trusted friends to pray for me. And still my heart wanders like one of those sweet but stupid sheep Jesus talked about. “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.”

It’s the living sacrifice of faith: clinging to promises, constantly urging your mind and heart to believe the Scriptures. The living sacrifice of praise is the singing and worship, raising my hands in adoration of the Father, when I really just want to prop up in bed with a bowl of popcorn and a Downton Abbey binge.








(What doesn’t help: clichés, truisms, pat answers and well-meaning but condescending pats on the head. Anybody who’s ever walked through a valley will tell you the most helpful thing is having someone walk through it with you, even sit down in the muck with you for a little while if needed.)

So press on, sweet stupid sheep heart. Hold on to that rope that goes to the top of the well you’re in. There IS Someone holding the other end, and He will lift you up and set your feet upon a rock (Psalm 40). He will set you in a spacious place (Psalm 18). He will work all this nastiness for good (Romans 8). Hold on. Hold on.

And when you can’t hold on to Him, He’ll hold on to you.

Pinky promise.

Published in: on September 14, 2017 at 1:40 am  Leave a Comment  

The burning desire

“But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” – Jeremiah 20:9

 “‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” – Matthew 25:35-36

This desire in my soul is eating me up. It pulls at the muscles in my stomach, and roils there aching to be filled. It swims through my brain, bringing words, stories, statistics, images coursing there like schools of thoughts with fins. It taps me on the shoulder every week when I sing in church on Sunday morning, sing in my room on a weeknight, sing in my car on the interstate. It washes over my spirit as surely as streams from the shower head. It shakes me by the shoulders when I read the news.

It is the call of the Almighty on this little light of mine.

And I am straining at the gate with my eagerness to say yes. Urgency is a magnet in my gut pulled toward the North of the call.

“Make a material difference in the life of someone in the shadows.”

Iv’e been restless for years, but the past six months have intensified this “holy discontent” (as author Bill Hybels calls it) to a breaking point.

I’m not circumstantially free to pursue this call full-time, but I will do what I can, where I can.

So this week I pulled myself out of all my church volunteer roles and reached out to a friend who works with a local refugee resettlement agency. I’ve been volunteering there myself, minimally, for a few months, and even the drudge work of filing papers in the office provides at least a tiny scratch for this itch.

But it’s time for more. And since my volunteer hours are limited (I’m a stay-at-homeschool Mom), they have to count.

Playing keyboard in the band at church is awesome, and needed, and a ministry. Writing for the church curriculum writing team is awesome, and needed, and a ministry. I’m good at those things, and more or less well trained for them, and thoroughly enjoy them.

But they’re done. At least for this season (and probably quite a while).

This week I start mentoring a refugee woman from the Congo (which will be interesting since she speaks very little English and I speak even less Swahili!). I’m also looking at becoming an English conversation partner with another refugee.

The adjustment to the bizarre culture that is the Southern American suburbs can be a rocky road, especially coming out of living in a refugee camp for usually 4+ years, and who knows what was seen or experienced there, much less the conditions that led to their leaving their home.

Or maybe I’ll teach a cultural orientation class to some new refugees who are clueless about how to navigate the public school system, or the bus system (especially in this mass transit unfriendly city), or Wal-Mart, or cultural issues of personal space, time orientation, hygiene, child-rearing, or how to relate to authority or elders.

I know all the appropriate clichés about blooming where you’re planted, and concentric circles of influence you can’t even see rippling out from your life, and how raising up the next generation might just be how you change the world. I get it. It’s all good. I don’t discount or downplay any of those truths.

But right now, for me, it simply isn’t enough.

I’m viscerally, palpably, gut-wrenchingly bursting to do more. It is my holy discontent, my sanctified dissatisfaction.

I can’t read Not for Sale or The Slave Next Door or When Helping Hurts or Toxic Charity and not do something active.

I can’t read the news, get outraged or heartbroken for five minutes, and then go about my comfortable suburban life as if the sale at Kohl’s is actually worth getting psyched about.

I can’t read the blogs and the magazines and the online tidbits, the letters home from missionary friends, the memes and statistics and charts, and not do something active.

I can’t be satisfied with a “slacktivist” response – hitting “like” or changing my dumb Facebook profile picture or even participating in some convenient, easy, enlightened consumerism (“Buy this $30 t-shirt to show your support for sexual assault survivors!”).

It’s not enough to pray, though I pray every day for the issues that burn me and I 100% acknowledge and believe in the supernatural power of prayer to change the world.

I’m desperate to do more.

I’m dreaming of a life that materially, visibly, truly blesses somebody besides me and mine (and the people like me). Somebody most of the world chooses not to see: the refugee, the immigrant, the bonded, the enslaved, the neglected, the marginalized, the set-aside, the sidelined, those without a voice in the cold halls of power.

I’m also keenly aware this isn’t ultimately about me. This is my Father’s world, beginning to end, glory to agony, and I’m a bit player he’s especially fond of (you know, like everybody else). This is about his will, his dreams, his burning desire to bring those in the shadows into the glorious light of his Kingdom. I just get to play a role.

The Coach is putting me in.

It is the call of the Almighty upon me; it is a fire in my bones: “Make a material difference in the life of someone in the shadows.”

Published in: on August 20, 2017 at 6:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

Leopard at the Door

Leopard at the Door, by Jennifer McVeigh

A Review

Reading a novel of eastern Africa is different after you’ve been to eastern Africa. Of course that’s obvious, but that doesn’t mean it was any less startling to me, these lines:

“…The smell of a city whose people live life outdoors under hot sun” – and I can smell it, too, the cooking fires of Rwanda.

“…This other side of Kenya: a raw physicality that has no shame in the inevitability of pain.” Yes. No whitewashing of life’s harshness like the too-feel-good culture of America.

I can see this, too: “Two Africans are dragging branches across the lawn, building fires in the pits that sit beyond the veranda. From the window I can see the last of the sun’s light, reflecting like flames on the surface of the dam. A line of white birds flutters over the golden waters.” I can see those flames, those pits, that sun and those birds.

Leopard at the Door is the story of 18-year-old Rachel, who returns home to Africa after six years of exiled in an English boarding school following the sudden death of her mother. It’s 1950. Rachel’s father has a new woman in her mother’s place. Kenya is in its genesis days of the fight for independence from England. The lines between whites and Africans, master and servant, ally and enemy, are drawn ever clearer and often in blood, while Rachel is grieving, confused, harassed, and, inconveniently, falling in love.

McVeigh’s descriptions of the land and culture are transporting; her pace of alternate action and setting are impeccable; her characters are for the most part believable and complex; and the story is well grounded in historical fact and research. Above all – as is needed for any story to work – Young Rachel drew me into her world from the first page, and I was breathless to reach the last page.

A very good read. Highly recommend.leopard at the door




Notable passages:

“I haven’t been in the presence of someone like this before. It is as though all the people I have known up until now have been like toy soldiers with their feet set apart on a lead base, and he is real; in movement; on a course that I am compelled to follow.

“‘Authority is not a substitute for truth.’” – p. 101

“‘It wouldn’t suit him for a minute to admit that it might be a political movement, the inevitable economic hangover of British rule in Kenya, land hunger, a rootless proletariat, and a government build on discrimination. We have seen these things the world over and there are still men who look at the fight against injustice and call it savagery.’” – p. 153

How timely. Or, as the cliché goes, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

“‘Men have legitimate voices, even if they are not sanctioned by your press.’” – p. 230

“Sara [is] peeling an apple with a small knife, so that the skin separates in one long curl…She is still working the little knife. There is something unlikable in her determination to peel the whole apple without breaking the curling strip of shiny green skin.” – p. 238 (Okay, that’s just sharp use of symbolism.)

“‘There is a Kikuyu proverb,’ Michael says. ‘Njita murume. When you knock someone about – if you ask him to call you God, he will do so; but the truth is still that you are not God.’” – p. 302



Published in: on August 2, 2017 at 3:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Post-trip ponderings on Rwanda

I had suspected I’d call Daniel from the Kigali airport to tell him to pack the bags and bring the kids, I wasn’t coming home from Rwanda.

Well, it wasn’t quite like that – after all, there’s no bed and bathroom like your own, so I was ready to be in my own now-too-huge house. And I don’t even know if the Lord is calling me to go back to Rwanda with the team next year – too soon to say.

And it’s not so much that I miss Rwanda, though the weather is infinitely preferable to here (it’s not for no reason Columbia’s nickname is “the armpit of South Carolina”). The country is beautiful, with lovely green rolling hills and banana and coffee trees everywhere you turn. I have heard they have quite a tourist attraction in mountain gorillas, too, but at 700 American dollars per person that wasn’t exactly on our agenda.

Nope, what I miss is the friends I made.20170626_170229

And this seems like a mature thing. There are lovely places all over the world; I’ve been to more than my fair share of them. There are interesting cultures and fascinating wildlife all over the world, too. Rwanda is not the only country with a genocide in its history, nor is it the only country to rise from ashes into beauty. Rwanda is unique in the sense every country is unique. There are things about it that speak to both the evil and the good in every human heart, in every culture, in every society.

So it’s not that I fell in love with Rwanda, though I loved being there.

I fell in love with my new friends. Unlike nation states, cultures, societies, systems, and even geography, people are eternal. It’s the people I keep thinking of when I’m singing to Jesus, unloading my dishwasher, watching my children swim at the pool, drinking Diet Coke, brushing my teeth with water from the tap, sitting by the Congaree River, talking with my friends. I’m thinking of Joseph, and Jacques, and Nimi, and Wellars, and Vestine, and Bosco, and Father Emmanuel, and Manu, and the weathered faces and dancing bodies and broken, eager eyes of the women coffee farmers at Kivu.

John, missions pastor extraordinaire, practically wagging his finger in our faces: “We are going to build relationships. Whatever else we do or don’t do, accomplish or utterly fail at, our goal is always relationship. Expectations are our enemy, flexibility is our friend, and relationship is our goal. Because Jesus brought us into relationship.”

So I guess it was a successful mission trip. I know it was for me, because I have friendships now with Rwandans. I have served them in ways they’ve requested and need; they have served me in ways I could not have foreseen. I taught English writing to some high school students; the teachers and administrators taught me about compassion, hard work, humility, and Rwandan culture. Our team provided a good job for a week to our translators, but Joseph, Jacques, Eric, and Nimi taught us about perseverance, compassion, and how to love Rwandans and be loved by them. Rwandans taught me that community is priceless, that forgiveness is incalculably powerful, that patient work bestows dignity, that interdependence is rich.

Invaluable lessons all.

And you know what? This is what lasts. The transatlantic flight that feels interminable will actually end. The systems of nation states – politics, economics, even culture – they’ll all end, too. Geography, climate, plant and animal life? The earth itself will be reborn, remade.

But Joseph and I are eternal. Manu and Nimi and John are eternal. Scott and Genia and Jacques are eternal. The friendships among us, because we are brothers and sisters in Jesus, those will last forever.

Beyond the borders even of time.

Hallelujah. I might be learning something.20170625_093943

Published in: on July 10, 2017 at 1:31 am  Leave a Comment  

Pre-trip ponderings on Rwanda

“Mrs. Carolyn, can I maybe have that poster?” I gestured at the poster-size map of Africa, each country stamped with the number of Southern Baptist missionaries serving Jesus there.

I’d been eyeing that poster for a couple of weeks at my church’s weekly girls’ missions education class. The church I attended was small & rural & I was almost always the only girl in my class. Heck, I was likely the only girl there on Wednesday night for missions education at all.

So I knew the chances of my getting to take that poster home were pretty good. I left the church and marched proudly home (all the way across the street) with it tucked under one scrawny bare arm, my Prize.

The poster went on the wall of my room. (Confession: it was bordered on one side by magazine cutouts of Duran Duran, on the other by equally cringe-worthy cutouts of George Michael. Can I help it was the 80s??)

And every night, for the better part of two years, I gazed at that map, took in the borders, the exotic-sounding names, the numbers…and prayed. God bless the missionaries. God bless their work. (In those days Southern Baptists still included good stuff like hospitals & schools & orphanages & seminaries.) God bless the people they’re ministering to.

Now, 31 years later, in a small and temporary way, Jesus is sending me as an answer to my prayers.

When I imagine landing in Kigali, Rwanda, walking off the jet way or onto the tarmac, I visualize my heart. It collapses face first on the African ground. It lies there weeping. It is stunned.

Because this journey has been 31 years in the traveling.political-map-of-Rwanda

From 8th grade to middle-age.

From naïve idealism to…well, plain old unvarnished idealism.

I go because I love helping others in the name of Jesus. I go hoping I will serve in the manner of Jesus. I go not as a savior or a superior or an inferior or an expert or even as a leader. I go as a student, holding out the few things I know to some teachers in a remote, electricity-free school, and saying to them, “Would you like to hear a native English speaker? Can we talk? Can we teach one another?”

I go already weeping at every thought of being there. I suspect Rwanda will utterly ruin me – in every good way. I suspect I’ll come back weeping even more.

But that’s okay. All the Lord does is good.

Tomorrow morning, Lord willing, I get on a plane in the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

And yes, “Africa” by Toto is on my phone. (Did I mention I’m a child of the 80s? Don’t be jealous.)

Published in: on June 15, 2017 at 9:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Brookwood Road

Brookwood Road: Memories of a home

by Scott VaughanBrookwood Road

a review

Norman Rockwell, meet Jerry Clower.

The three Wilcox brothers of Brookwood Road are an utterly delightful fusion of these two: the innocent Americana of a Rockwell painting with the homespun Southern humor of Jerry Clower.

As a still life, they embody all the earnestness, patriotism, and full-on WASP/Pleasantville aspects of a Rockwell illustration. It’s no stretch to picture 8-year-old Frank, the oldest brother, dropping his bicycle on the grass next to the steps of the country store, a deck of baseball cards sticking out of his back jeans pocket, clean haircut, the face of a young man on a mission for his mother.

As a video, however, the Wilcox brothers are full of as much mischief as Clower’s Ledbetter boys ever were. It’s no stretch to imagine them whispering huddled behind the bushes at their grandmother’s house, passing ammunition (an industrial water hose) from one muddy hand to another as they lie in ambush for the mean boys from down the dirt road. I half expected to hear that Mississippi twang: “Knock ’im out, John!!!”

Utterly. Delightful.

Reading Brookwood Road is like the catching up that happens at a wedding or funeral, after all the guests have left and all the family is sitting around with ties loosened and heels off and the leftovers long left on the kitchen counter. It’s comfortable, familiar, funny, poignant, filled with both laughter and easy silence.

Brookwood Road chronicles the early years of the Wilcox brothers (Frank, Jack, and Wayne) when they and their parents lived next to the hog farm owned by their grandfather. It’s full of family, school, church, pigs & other pets, and all the adventures and misadventures you’d expect of three young boys on a farm in the rural South in the 1960s. There’s a raccoon, a tree house, a wall of dirty calendars, a secret hideout, revival services, a funeral, bullies, chiggers, tallywackers (really, Scott??), and lots and lots of baseball: baseball games, baseball cards, baseball equipment, baseball players, baseball statistics, and baseball fantasies. Naturally.

It’s not a page-turner full of eloquent profundities and drama. But it’s a warm and heartwarming, funny, entertaining, beautiful story of a childhood rooted in honest love and laughter. If you need a reminder that life is good and Jesus is love, read it; you won’t be disappointed.

Published in: on May 20, 2017 at 4:00 am  Leave a Comment  

The Addams Family Mortuary experience

I’d previously lived in Asheville for nearly two years and so was familiar with the street where this mortuary and crematory were located: a narrow road along the unkempt banks of the Swannanoa River, one of those side alleys locals use to circumnavigate the hordes of tourists on Broadway Street. Under an appropriately glowering late September sky, Mom and I pulled up to a nondescript, white, concrete-block building that looked more like the meat processing plant from my hometown than any funerary facility I’d ever encountered. Where were the white Corinthian columns, the sturdy red brick, the perfectly-clipped shrubbery, the discreet covered drive-through on the side of the building, the men in suits and solemn faces? Why did I feel like I was entering the Twilight Zone as we walked to the heavy unmarked door with the steel kick-guard?

Holding my breath, I opened the door to a small room with a low ceiling and coffin samples lying hither and yon like so many piles of stained lumber. There were indentations in the cheap sheetrock walls, and a couple of curtains draped suspiciously over doorways that looked like they led to Madame Rue’s Palm Reading station. At one end was a window cut-out with a counter, complete with sliding glass window, like the sign-in station at a medical clinic.

There was no one there.

Mom and I looked at each other but said nothing, as if commentary might jolt the creepy-weird factor to an unbearable level. Better to pretend everything’s normal.

At last a young man with 7 o’clock shadow and not-quite-ironed khakis appeared, and after a mildly awkward conversation about who we were and when our appointment was (no standard expression of condolences included), ushered us into a conference room where the director would join us shortly. He motioned us to two sturdy office armchairs, managed a surprisingly agreeable smile, and left.

Mom and I were still committed to the little game of pretend. If we just kept mum, the Twilight Zone might go away. As if the passing of Dad a mere 18 hours ago weren’t surreal enough.

After several minutes a door on the other side opened – there was enough warren of rooms to make M.C. Escher’s head swim – and a tall, suited figure strode in.

“Dear Jesus,” I thought to myself. “We’re at the Addams Family Mortuary.”

He was at least six feet tall (yes, six feet), dressed in a suit that J.R. Ewing would have worn in his startup years, complete with a bolo tie. His dark hair was slick and greying in inconvenient patterns, and combed over to one side as though anticipating the eventual thinning. I glanced around the room expecting to see a half-drunk tumbler of Scotch on a shelf somewhere.

Surely this wasn’t happening. Surely this man was not in charge of the disposal of my father’s earthly body.

In my head I could hear the harpsichord and the snap-snapping of fingers.

Things improved as we discussed the details of Dad’s cremation with the director, who turned out to be a nice man, if a bit lacking in the social graces you’d expect from a mortuary and crematory director. Apparently that certification doesn’t require any coursework in funerary courtliness.

Exhibit A: “Does your husband have a pacemaker or anything similar?”

Mom: “No, nothing.”

Uncle Fester/Director: “Okay that’s good.” Pause. “I have to ask because we don’t want anything unexpected to explode, you know.”

Me, in my head: “You did NOT just say that.” Then, also to myself: “You mean there are some things you EXPECT to explode? What the –?” I glanced at the walls to see if there were any framed things that looked like a degree…a diploma…a certification….a license…Lord help us, anything that indicated some reliable external source had vouched for this outfit.

Exhibit B: “Now, did you want to look at an urn to select?”
Mom: “No, no, we don’t want the…we don’t want anything.” Pause as she collected herself a little to say the next words, hand to her heart in the most heartbreaking earnestness: “I have everything I need right here.”

Even Uncle Fester/Director felt the weight of the moment, the depth and tenderness and pain of it, and simply nodded, said nothing. I was torn between relief and my own momentary fighting of tears.

But it couldn’t possibly last, that tender moment. “Well not everybody wants the remains, I understand that.”

I cringed. Had no one told Mr. Bolo Tie not to refer to the dearly departed as “the remains,” like the potluck leftovers? It got better:

“Now, my wife and me, we got our urns all selected. They up on top of the TV stand, lined up.” He gestured as he explained. “You got her dad here, then the cat here, then a urn for her, then one for me. Yep, all lined up and ready. Everybody gets a turn. ‘Course, it’s kind of a pain, having to move all those containers every time we dust.”

We couldn’t help it. Mom and I glanced at each other. The snap-snapping fingers of the Addams Family theme song notched up a decibel in my head.

“Just out of curiosity,” Mom asked a few minutes later, as Uncle Fester/Director continued filling out his paperwork, “what do you do with the ashes?”

“Oh, well, once we have a few of them – you know, several families who ask us to handle everything and they don’t take the ashes, like you all – we have a place up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we’ve gotten permission from the Parkway people, and that’s where we scatter them. It’s a real pretty place.”

This was a definite improvement, Mom and I agreed. Mom and Dad had always enjoyed drives on that scenic parkway, and in the last year that Dad had been at the nursing home the parkway was their standard excursion. Just a 30-minute drive, out of the nursing home, was a lift to both of their spirits.

Except Mom seemed to get into the creep-o mood of this place and launched into an entertaining tale of some friend of a friend of a friend who took a helicopter ride over the Charleston Harbor to scatter someone’s ashes, and ended up with ash blown into their face thanks to the chopper and ocean winds. We all laughed, because it was a funny story, but also because it was just a relief to laugh. Also it felt better than crying.

Finally we escaped. I mean, left. The snap-snapping fingers in my head stopped, I let out the breath I’d apparently been holding the whole time we were there, Mom and I never really talked about Uncle Fester/Director (too much else to do, as anyone who’s planned a memorial service can tell you), and my wonderful dear Dad – well, his earthly remains are now no doubt scattered into the soil and roots and moss and exquisitely complex and rich compost of the Blue Ridge Parkway, while his soul is, finally, Fully Free.

Published in: on May 2, 2017 at 2:08 am  Leave a Comment  

A Thousand Hills to Heaven

A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, hope, and a restaurant in Rwanda

by Josh Ruxin1000 hills to heaven

a book review

Word to the wise: don’t read books about Rwanda before bed. (It only took me two reads to realize this.) Even if the book isn’t “about” the genocide of 1994, it’s still “about” the genocide. That is, most unfortunately, as much the defining event of modern-day Rwanda as 9/11 is for contemporary America.

Still, A Thousand Hills to Heaven is the most genocide-light book I’ve read yet about this east central African nation, in preparation for my mission trip there in June. (Other reads: Broken Memory and Left to Tell: Finding God in the Midst of the Rwandan Holocaust.) The title is a double entendre – Rwanda’s geography has earned it the nickname “land of a thousand hills,” and Heaven is the name of the restaurant this author and his wife operate in the capital city of Kigali.

It’s a steady, interesting, heartwarming, heartbreaking, insightful, educational read. Josh Ruxin is an accomplished, successful veteran of the development world; his wife Alissa is a wellness expert and coach; both are foodies who’ve managed to birth and maintain a Michelin-star restaurant in a landlocked African capital.

In telling the story of this restaurant, A Thousand Hills to Heaven dishes out plates full of wise and insightful nuggets about aid, development, horror, heroism, healing, and hope. Even when I thought I might put it down and not pick it back up again, I found myself returning to the book like I open newsletters from friends on the mission field.

Some of the nuggets:

  • Josh’s “five finger rules of development”:
    • Rule one (the thumb): people who are starving cannot be asked to do more than eat. Translation: do the hunger relief first, then pursue development.
    • Rule two (the pointer finger): demand high standards where they improve performance and upgrade the institutions that serve people and help them have better lives.
      • “To see poor sanitation in a newborn nursery and to say, ‘Well, we’re not in the U.S., after all, and this is their way,’ is soft bigotry of the worst sort….We should not demand that developing nations find their own Louis Pasteurs and Jonas Salks. Our first charitable instinct should be to share what we know from our own history, and we should share it with confident determination, pushing aside unhealthy and cruel traditions where we find them….To equate [female genital mutilation] with our own culture’s male circumcision…is a failure of critical thinking and true helpfulness.” (p. 123)
      • “The most important reason to demand high performance standards in development work is that you should be able to leave someday…If you give out too many things for free, it is hard to make people feel industrious and entrepreneurial.” (p. 124)
    • Rule three (the middle finger – yes that one): you can’t do successful, sustainable development in hopelessly corrupt countries.
    • Rule four (the ring/wedding finger): we (the developing agencies, etc.) are not here as a lifelong commitment, not married to our programs.
      • “We should ultimately never be the essential party, even though we do have leadership responsibilities at the beginning. The better NGOs would nurture Rwandans to lead their efforts, and they would find ways to make the improvements sustainable, then they would leave.” (p. 174)
    • Rule five (the pinky finger): trust the market as the biggest player, even if the power of the market looks small now.
      • “Never be afraid of the profit model, as it can carry the heaviest load of long-term development. Profit brings sustainability, not to mention dignity.” (p. 202)
    • “Don’t start anything that won’t be sustainable after you leave – and do leave: that is the rule. There were no signs [on our health centers] announcing ‘Brought to you by foreign donors.’ When foreigners stay too long, they become a reason for people to doubt their own abilities. When foreigners come with unsustainable projects, they are often doing it for their own pleasure or as an excuse for fundraising and salaries, not for love.” (p. 175)
    • “Rwandans have a funny relationship with God, which they convey through a story anyone can tell you: ‘God worked very hard for six days creating the heavens and the earth. But on the seventh day, he needed a break, so he picked Rwanda as the place to take a much-needed sleep. God sleeps in Rwanda, then keeps busy at work everywhere else.” (p. 169) The negative takeaway from this is that God only shows up in Rwanda to take a nap, so you can’t count on Him to hear you there. The positive is that Rwanda is so cool and beautiful that naturally God comes here, when he’s not punching the clock, to rest.
    • “Rwanda may have its share of bureaucracy, but it is not a kleptocracy. It’s a place where a good program doesn’t die the death of a thousand bribes, a thousand misallocations, a thousand brothers-in-law who must have a piece of every pie.” (p. 156)
    • “If your town ran out of food, would you want someone from another nation handing out the food, or would you want your longtime neighbor to hand it to you?” (Take that, Operation Christmas Child!) “That way, your dignity would be intact. Your children would see neighbors doing something together to feed their families – they would not see their parents looking like helpless victims.” (p. 109)

And two last quotes, one for laughs:

“There is such a thing, by the way, as an Africanized vehicle. Land Rovers and Land Cruisers and a few other makes come to Africa with big running boards, safari-style cargo racks atop, tougher and higher suspensions, supplemental fuel tanks, and, most visibly, snorkel pipes that come from the engine, up alongside the passenger side of the window. That pipe allows the engine to keep going in waist-deep water, and it allows the engine to stay cleaner, gulping its air a few feet higher up from the surface of the roads, which are often traveled in fast, close, dusty caravans. I think the main reason you see such vehicles, however, is that they look very cool, and many of the charities operating them want badass vehicles pictured in their brochures and websites. Our vehicles were picked up on the cheap, however – no sexy snorkels.” (p. 96)

And this one which feels prophetic:

“When people leave here they perhaps want some sushi and Ben & Jerry’s first, but then they want to continue with meaningful endeavors. You cannot leave Africa and then expect to be satisfied in ordinary living. You will have to continue doing extraordinary things, because you know what can be done in the world, and you know what you are capable of doing, and you know that, wherever you go, many lives will depend on your willingness to exercise your privileges and skills on their behalf.” (p. 207)

Published in: on April 27, 2017 at 2:20 am  Leave a Comment  

A letter to Not Enough

Dear Not Enough,

I am done with you.

Consider this your “dear John” letter, and don’t hold your breath for any niceties. “It’s not you, it’s me”? Nope, that won’t cross my lips.

Because it is TOTALLY you.

And I am done with you.

You have stolen my Mother’s peace of mind for years – no, decades. You have dripped worry into her mind, like Chinese water torture, night upon night upon night. You have spawned countless evil offspring of fear and doubt and anxiety, and they grip her ankles like shackles. And she has fought you with a calculator held in clinched fists, fought you with her own iron will and inner strength.

And still you have stolen from her.

Not content to torment just one woman in the family, you’ve slithered into me and my sister, your kudzu tendrils of fear and worry encroaching into our plans, into our dreams, into our speech. Like weeds, you have choked our growth – we sprout hope and risk, only to wither from lack of Light.

Well no more.

It stops here, you. It stops here.

I will not fight you with a calculator. I will not fight you with my own strong will, much as that is a good gift from my father. I will not fight you with busyness, as if skittering from one task to another could keep you at bay. I will not fight you with countless hours of pipe dreaming, fantasizing about the if onlys.

In fact, this is the last conversation I ever wish to have with you at all. And no, you get no chance for rebuttal, no chance to rationalize with me or defend yourself.

I am done with you.

I know who I am, and I know Whose I am.

And let me tell you this, for the last freaking time – with the Great I Am in my corner, there is no room for you.

That’s what’s scarce – room for you, Not Enough.

Because here’s how I am fighting you: with Truth. It sets me free, and it wins. (Read the book.)

Here’s the truth I wield against you: My Jesus is always more than enough. There is no scarcity with him, and I am with him.

He is more than enough for my finances. He is more than enough for my loneliness. He is more than enough for my marriage. He is more than enough for my children and every need, every vacuum, every season of their lives. He is more than enough for my dear restless husband. He is more than enough for my little brother, for my wounded friends, for my bitter friends.

He is even more than enough for my Great Desires. In fact, he expands them in ways that make my breath come fast with anticipation, my heartbeat pulse like high tide upon rocks. Oh, yes. He gives me dreams, and he grows them like grass in an Alaska summer.

You tell me there’s never enough.

But you lie.

He tells me he is the Great I Am.

And his words – oh, the Truth of him – they ring out clarion in the night. His promises blur the pretentious finality of the bottom line, smearing those figures until all I see is an expanse of hillsides covered with my Father’s cattle.

His brilliant beauty casts your doom into the shadows, where you belong. He is bright blessed day; you are a dank cellar full of scurrying scavengers.

So I’m done with you, Not Enough. You are a liar from the father of lies.

All around me people submit to you. They build their bank accounts like the rich fool in Jesus’s parable. They hedge every bet and make every contingency plan. They play it safe even when you call them to risk.

They worry. They calculate. They fret. They press their palms into their foreheads and sigh deeply. They quiet their dreams and relegate them to the endearing but naïve realm of childhood.

And I have done it all, too. I thought there wasn’t enough – not enough money, not enough time, not enough energy, not enough intelligence or friends or connections. Most of all, I thought I wasn’t enough.

But I belong to the Great I Am, who is always more than enough.

Pack your bag of tricks, and hit the road, Jack. Take your low-grade fear – it’s just a dog who only looks big because all you show is its shadow. Take your niggling anxieties, those flitting biting insects at my ears. Take your gnawing worries and their destructive little mice teeth. Take your dirty currents of doubt.

I’m done with you.

I’m on Team Great I Am.

And he always wins.

Most assuredly not yours,


Published in: on April 5, 2017 at 12:01 am  Leave a Comment