Apple pie & Persian music – Thanksgiving 2017

9 a.m. – 2 p.m.: I washed pots, pans, mixing bowls, beaters. I rinsed out the “used twice a year” crystal goblets. I swept the dining room, and set the table with a totally cheap, totally resourceful, totally appealing centerpiece: yellow pumpkin poked with plastic jewels, on a brown plaid cloth napkin, fall leaves scattered around it and multicolored popcorn kernels drizzled over it all. I cleaned the hall/guest bathroom, gathered all the children’s toys from the front of the house and flung them unceremoniously into their bedrooms, cleared off the school table, lit the scented candles in the living room and breakfast room, folded the throws on the couches.

And all the while I thought about the family of four Iranian refugees coming over for Thanksgiving dinner.20171123_152214_1511553933045_resized

Would they be intimidated? They’d spent I knew not how long in a refugee camp, under circumstances I knew absolutely nothing about except that they were dire enough they wanted to escape to “the Great Satan,” as the Iranian propaganda machine still refers to the United States.

Or for all I knew they came from wealth – an Iranian home with Persian rugs on every stone floor, marble top tables and fine china and crystal, house servants moving through quietly to maintain their peaceful home.

Either way, my American Southern brick ranch home with its “eclectic” style (that’s what my generous friends call it) would be different. Would they feel comfortable?

Would they balk at the traditional meal spread before them buffet style? Would everything look so foreign and confusing, smell so strange, that they would take a spoonful only to be polite? What could I make that might look familiar (without a trip to the grocery store)? (The tomato & mozzarella salad was probably as close as I got.)

Most of all, what would we talk about? How would we talk? Only one of them spoke marginally good English. Would it be uncomfortably quiet? Would we spend the evening trying to get Google translate to work? Would it be so awkward I’d take them home right after dinner?

So I prayed while I sliced celery and tomatoes and apples and pears. “Jesus make this evening a blessing for us and for them.”

Prayed while I chopped onions and water chestnuts and walnuts and cranberries. “Please give us things to talk about and help that one daughter have better English than I think.”

Prayed while I rolled balls of fresh mozzarella and rolled out pie dough and biscuit dough. “Help us help them feel comfortable. Let them leave feeling like they were welcomed like family.”

Prayed while I boiled bags of frozen lima beans, corn, & peas, then boiled a pound of macaroni. “Please let this smoked turkey actually taste good!” (My mother bought it from my nephew as a fund-raiser, so the meat was an unknown entity this year.)

Prayed while I squeezed lemons for fresh lemonade, and then tea bags for iced tea. “Let them feel at ease in this house, with my family, around our table.”

And before I knew it these women I barely knew, from a culture almost entirely different from mine in deep, subconscious ways, were sitting at my breakfast table.

Then the magic happened.

Phase 1: First, one of the girls offered to help me make the biscuits, and of course I said yes. Everyone needs to be needed, everyone wants to be involved, not just waited upon, and anyway I was glad for the help after five hours of solo cooking already.

So we’re at the counter whisking eggs and cream, kneading cheddar dill biscuit dough on the floured counter, getting the baking sheets prepped, using some English and a lot of gestures and body language. Her mother and sister are at the table with crayons, decorating the “coloring paper Thanksgiving tablecloth” I’d wisely spent $2 on at Wal-Mart.

We’re invoking the two basic ingredients of human fellowship: working side by side, and preparing a meal.

And then suddenly my Iranian friend’s face lights up and she says, “Persian music!”

Phase 2: Unprompted, my brother Seth had found a Persian music station on YouTube (God bless the internet, please and thank you) and was playing it on his phone. (Aside: this brother is in his element around people of other cultures.)

And just like that, the tone of the whole evening was set. The Persian music opened the door to smiles, ease, conversation, laughter. It was the blanket of comfort upon the shared meal.

Dinner with plenty of conversation and laughing (especially at our attempts at Farsi). Dessert with hot tea and coffee. Sitting around the firepit on the back deck for an hour, listening to Persian, then Afghan, then Saudi Arabian music. (Second aside: I like those genres – very cool!)

I still don’t really know their refugee story, nor do I need to, nor do they owe it to me. (Third aside: I won’t be posting a photo, because they expressed “security concerns” – and this makes me by turns angry and sad. What a world.)

Here’s what I know: cooking, food, music, a warm fire, curiosity, kindness, a willingness to try other languages and other ways of thinking, adjusting my speech for someone else – all these things stew and mix and combust and settle into the best kind of hospitality you could have at any table. The magic of kindness goes such a long way.

“Your house is warm,” said my friend as we shivered in the cold car on the way back to their apartment.

Oh, I hope so. I sure hope so.


Published in: on November 24, 2017 at 8:15 pm  Leave a Comment  


One of my favorite childhood memories is the day in early fall when Dad took me and my brothers to the woods to get firewood. We didn’t have land, ourselves, but Dad, being the unofficial community pastor for our rural farming county, had no shortage of farmer friends who had offered this or that grove of trees for our use, any time we had the need.

What we did have was a plain potbelly wood stove, protruding from the fireplace in the tongue-and-groove paneled den, and providing the primary source of heat for our 2,000-square-foot home. Mom and Dad had it installed a few years after we moved to Ehrhardt, when it was still just me and one brother.

That stove heated the combination den and kitchen, and while some of its heat drifted down the long hardwood hallway and through the doorways to the four bedrooms, one bathroom, and library – it was not enough to take the chill off the “back of the house,” where the thermostat for the central heat and air unit was set at a budget-friendly 65 degrees. The upshot was our family spent most of the winter evenings together in the den, as the alternative was to more or less bundle up in a bedroom. I see the beauty in this now, of course, all that family time together, luxuriating in the warm room, sans television most years. We talked or read books or folded laundry or listened to music or traipsed around the kitchen cooking, eating, cleaning, or scavenging, in vain, for snacks.

And that stove required a lot of wood. Dad would get the fire in it going about the time it got dark, and it would burn through the evening and simmer all night, stoked one more time before the last person went to bed, and in the morning he’d shovel out the ashes, stir the coals so they’d keep just a little warm during the day, and then leave it till dark again. In the South Carolina Low Country, even the coldest winter days didn’t require a full-blown fire till late afternoon.

But when suppertime rolled around, from the built-in half-oval kitchen table, Dad would look over at that stove, turn back to his plate, and say, calmly, every night of the winter, the words that my brother Garren dreaded, silently, every night of the winter:

“Son,” a pause to take a sip of sweet tea, “git wood.”

My brother swears that was his name those four months out of the school year: “Gitwood.”

Of course, he didn’t show any resistance or attitude toward Dad. He just grimaced to himself, nodded, and grudgingly went outside after supper to “git wood” from the wall of logs installed along the walkway between the back porch and the carport. He’d haul in two large or three medium logs, lay them like an offering on the hearth, and then venture back into the dimming winter evening for a handful of smaller logs and maybe one or two pieces of kindling (fat-lighter, y’all), if Dad required it or, in later years, as Garren learned the art himself, if he discerned the need for it.

He brought the wood for the altar – I mean, stove – with some resentment (the task was his alone, it seemed, and every single night) and with some trepidation: if his selection was not the right size, or not brought in a timely enough manner, or brought with a “sorry attitude,” Dad would deliver one of his characteristic stern looks or reprimands, and the simple “git wood” task would turn from merely annoying to possibly nerve-racking.

But before all the nights of “git wood,” we had to go “git wood” the first time. Dad, myself, my brother Garren, and my brother Seth. What Mom did while we were gone those three or so hours, I didn’t know, never occurred to me to wonder. She probably enjoyed the peace and quiet of the house.

We crammed, seat belts loose, into the truck – a Ford F150 with no such thought as an extended cab – and drove out to whoever’s field Dad had determined would provide us with this year’s haul. Somehow my brother Garren always seemed to know whose property we were on, and I never did – all those fields and clumps of trees and farm roads and even small creeks all looked the same to me. Heck, except for the pines, all the trees looked the same to me. But even at a young age Garren had paid more attention than me, and knew an oak from a maple from a sweet gum.

The truck careened painfully along the rutted farm road at the edge of the field. We rode in silence, mostly, as one always did with Dad at the wheel. Why fill the air with words when the dusty aroma of a Southern fall could suffice? Finally Dad would see what he wanted, some fallen tree that might as well have called his name for all I understood the draw, and he’d park the truck, get the chainsaw out of the bed of it, and begin walking, with never a word to the three of us. It was assumed – correctly – we’d just follow.

Follow we did – only to find ourselves soon bored, looking for a marginally comfortable place to plant ourselves while Dad applied his chainsaw to the branches and then trunk of the chosen arboreal fuel. Garren and Seth entertained themselves in the woods the way only boys seemed to know how to do, with sticks and pine cones and piles of leaves; I mostly sat and watched, waiting for my favorite part.

Which came soon enough. A nod and some pointing from Dad, and we three kids jumped to the task of loading all those logs into the bed of the F150. We worked more or less assembly style, accounting for Seth, the youngest, needing to take smaller logs, and Dad, obviously, hefting the heaviest. Though I never verbalized it, each year I inevitably silently competed with Garren to see who could lift the heaviest chunks of wood for the longest time. Something within me refused to admit that he was stronger simply because he was a boy. After all, he was my junior by two and a half years, and I was not going to be outmaneuvered by my punk brother. Even though, before too many winters of this chore passed, I assuredly was.

We worked with few words and a lot of grunts and not a few cries of pain as the rough bark scratched and splinters lodged and fingers got jammed. The air was cool, and we had inevitably started later in the day than we should have, and so dusk began tiptoeing out of the edge of the woods, shadowing the field, lending just a smidgeon of urgency to our task. We knew loading this truck was only the first step.

Back home, the cab quiet now with the satisfaction of hard work and the anticipation of round two.

Once home, we set up our assembly line again, two of us in the truck bed, two on the ground, steadily building a wall of firewood, each log placed just so, a good five feet high and 10 or 12 feet long. It was a wall of provision, quite literally. A wall of sacrifice for the well-being of our family. A wall of hard work, team work, bruised fingers and aching arms and deep, almost primeval satisfaction at the handiwork now bounding the side of the walkway.

We would be warm, again, this winter, our little tribe in our cozy den with the thin dark-red carpet and the books crammed onto the built-in shelves and the yellow glow of the table lamps.


Published in: on November 15, 2017 at 2:06 am  Leave a Comment  

Why my family won’t be filling a shoebox

From the official website: “Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization. Our mission is to provide local partners around the world with shoeboxes filled with small toys, hygiene items, and school supplies as a means of reaching out to children in their own communities with the Good News of Jesus Christ. We ship these simple gifts outside the United States to children affected by war, poverty, natural disaster, famine, and disease; and to children living on Native American reservations in the U.S.”

 (Caveat: I’ve packed a shoebox before.)

The Phifers will not be participating. However outcast or party pooper that may brand us. We’re gonna send a goat and/or some chickens and/or a microloan to some people in the developing world (through World Vision), but no box of goodies.

I have so many problems with this program I don’t even know where to start. But here goes:

  1. We tell our children that Christmas is simply about the birth of Jesus, God’s greatest gift to the world.

But then we get broken-hearted at the thought that children around the world “don’t get to experience the joy of Christmas,” meaning….what, exactly? That they don’t wake up to a room full of wrapped gifts under a lit and decorated Christmas tree?

In practice, we export our real, unspoken definition of Christmas to children in 100-plus countries every December: Christmas = presents.

  1. What is the long-term sustainable difference these shoeboxes make in the lives of the children who receive them? What does a child in a refugee camp in Tanzania need? What does a child in the favelas of Rio or the slums of Nairobi or the slums of Mumbai need?

Nutritious food. Clean water. Sanitation. Vaccinations. Education. Adequate shelter. Adequate clothing. Loving family. Opportunity. Safety from the everyday predatory violence that plagues the poor worldwide.

Even the more thoughtful gifts – the clothes or shoes or hygiene items – are short-term fixes to long-term needs. We are providing aid; what’s needed is development.

  1. Then there’s the amount of money American Christians spend on Operation Christmas Child each year. We’re talking 150,000+ volunteers for an untold accumulation of hours, packing 9.1 million shoeboxes (plus a $9 shipping donation per box).

This is money that could build wells, clinics, schools. Pay the salaries of national doctors and nurses and teachers for years. Pay local construction workers to build locally-suitable, sustainable, safe housing. Pay for microloans to the thousands of people who would seize the dignity and opportunity of working to provide for their families. Fund hundreds, probably thousands, of multi-year child sponsorships through worthy organizations that actually do community development year-round.

And, even more long-term and systemic – money enough to sustainably speak to the apathy and corruption of those in power, to change systems of education, public justice, law enforcement, political structures. Money to change the rules of the horrid games of violence and oppression that are the root of so much of the poverty these children endure.

But no. We’d rather spend our collective millions on “fun” toys that, like most of those we get our own children, will break tomorrow.

  1. When a child in the developing world receives a box of Christmas presents from America, think about the unintended messages. To the children: “We want you to experience the joy of Christmas – so here are some material things. And a tract. Also, your parents, your family, your community cannot provide for you the way we in the States can.”

To the parents: “Don’t worry; we’ve got your kids covered. We know you don’t have the means to provide a joyful Christmas, so we’ll take care of it.”

The result? The kids see the Minority World (what we call “First World”), again, as the rich savior bearing material gifts, and their own families and communities as inadequate. The adults are robbed of the dignity of caring for their children, and of the respect of their children.

  1. Then there’s the cost to local economies: local toy makers and toy sellers (who don’t have a lot of business to begin with)…local clothing vendors or seamstresses….local vendors of hygiene items (the kind that are actually familiar to and used by locals).

And while “free” is great for the individual children, it deals a blow to local businesses – who, by and large, are small business owners striving to make a sustainable living, maybe even the parents and aunts and uncles and school teachers of these children.

So why do we do it?

  1. It’s easy. Easy charity, easy missions, easy “discipleship.” We’ll pray for the kid our box is going to, because we’re sincere. But still, filling a shoebox mostly comes down to shopping. Which Americans are great at.
  2. It’s cheap. For $30-40 we can “send Christmas” to a child in poverty.
  3. It makes us feel good. Our hearts ache at the thought of poor children around the world not “having Christmas,” and we want to do something, and this fits the bill. For one hour of shopping and $30-40 of expense, we can make a “life-changing” difference in the life of one child on the other side of the world. Bonus: our children see generosity and they get so excited to be part of it, and all the warm fuzzies….well, they’re great.
  4. We’ve bought into the myth of consumerism as activism – the idea that buying things, consuming more, is a sufficient and effective means of affecting change in the world. (See pink pizza boxes during breast cancer awareness month…Ethos bottled water…Toms shoes…etc.)

Some other options I’d like to propose:

  1. Invest in long-term programs focused on community development: World Vision, Compassion International, Heifer International, International Justice Mission. And by “invest,” I mean, “invest.” Where our treasure is, there ours heart will be also.
  2. Be generous to the boots on the ground. If you know missionaries – be generous. If you know Jesus-loving people doing humanitarian work, social justice work, etc. – be generous, with your encouragement and your money. Especially encourage those who live in these developing nations incarnationally sharing the gift of the Good News – most especially, national believers.
  3. Do good locally. Let’s help the public school teachers. And the community leaders. And the local organizations that make a sustainable difference in the lives of the poor where we live.

Man oh man, I get the desire involved in Operation Christmas Child: the desire to improve the lot of poor children around the world, to bring moments of fun to them, to share the Good News of Jesus, to expand the horizons and interests of ourselves and especially our children.

But good intentions are only a good start; genuine care requires putting the receiver’s needs before the giver’s emotions.

Let’s serve the materially poor children of the world wisely. Let’s meet real, felt needs. Let’s take the Good News of Jesus to them, unencumbered by our cultural props. Let’s make sure what we do is what’s actually needed, actually holistic, actually long-term & sustainable after the Americans have left and the dust from their Land Rovers has settled.


Published in: on November 10, 2017 at 8:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

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