Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Faith Experiment Update

And so, I've landed back in the United States. Still processing Africa, but still faced with dozens of life decisions I don't really feel like I'm qualified to make. I've pondered and prayed about how this Faith Experiment can continue, even outside of the incredible, life-changing experiences in Africa. But, just as I'm trying to define it myself, it continues to unfold before me.

As I've eluded to, I landed with a crash amidst a fog of transition in many aspects of my life. I'll spare you the personal details for now, but let's just way I knew my landing back in the States was not going to be fun. A brief stop in Denver was blessed with 5 days of incredible friends and family walking with me and pumping me up to face the decisions awaiting me when I returned to Santa Barbara. It was exactly what I needed to hit the ground running when I returned, instead of spending weeks or even months ignoring or prolonging the inevitable decisions. Yet another reward of following the calling my heart felt for Denver as I was preparing to leave Burundi. I am gratefully blessed for that time.

I still have no job, and having been "on vacation" for a month I returned without any real grip on my financial situation or whether I could actually afford to pay my rent in July. This is one among many huge and life-changing decisions that I'm faced with, but I landed feeling strongly that I still wasn't ready to face it and I still hadn't felt called in any particular direction relating to my career. It's amazing how, in these times, we are so prone to worry. Here on this blog I have written so many accounts of how provisions have always come in times of uncertainty. My walk in this faith journey is about exactly that - FAITH. Yet, still I worried about the job and was just about ready to accept the first offer that came my way. Then, sifting through a 30-day pile of mail on my desk at home, I opened an envelope containing a check for $1,850. It was restitution being paid to me from a fraud/theft police report I had filed 12 years ago when someone bought a computer from me with a bad check. As "luck" would have it, $1,850 just about covers exactly 1 month of my expenses. Now, read those last few sentences again and tell me this little "experiment" of mine is not still alive and well? I am speechless, enamored, and in awe of the continued promise and provision.

As with any true, scientific experiment, I started out with a question: What would my life look like if I followed the callings placed on my heart? My hypothesis, based on how I have grown to understand a loving God, was that my deepest heart's desires would be fulfilled. My biggest challenge, which had (and still has) a very large potential of contaminating the experiment, is fear. The way I've faced that challenge is two-fold: (1) I haven't ignored the fear. I've let it live and breath in real time and as a part of this journey. (2) I've brought everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, into my quiet times, my prayers, and my journaling. Those "sinful" thoughts that "you should be ashamed of" and definitely shouldn't be brought to someone as infallible as God or as holy as Jesus? Yep...ESPECIALLY those...I've brought it all into the open and dumped it in front of him.

In that complete honesty, complete authenticity, and a new ability to bring anything before God without self-judgment or fear of his judgment I have been granted this beautiful vision. I'll share it with you here via an excerpt from last week's journaling:
I picture, comically, Jesus and I standing side-by-side in waiters drudging through this mess that is currently my life. But on his face, I picture a giant, loving grin. And it is that warm, loving smile that fuels me with motivation to keep shoveling. It's that smile that brings me hope. And we laugh together - digging through the bullshit because somewhere in there he knows there is a gem. And I believe it. So we dig together and smile together and laugh together at how ridiculous the mess has become. But, together, we will clean it up. And, together, we will find that gem.

He promised me. And I believe him.
Yeah, I'm not going to lie to you, things are a little messy right now. But my focus on his promise has kept me in high (and even jovial) spirits despite everything. It is looking like my hypothesis is shaping out to be proven.

How lucky are we to have promise? What's yours?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

One Box at a Time

I know someone who once became overwhelmed by the moving boxes stacked in her new basement. After 20 years, she had moved into a newer but smaller home and finding a place for all her things seemed an impossible task. In response, she avoided it. She didn’t like the boxes, and having an unpacked basement drove her crazy. But the breadth of the project rendered the task hopeless, so she chose to ignore it. For weeks, she carried on doing her best to forget about the boxes. She tended to and spent her time upstairs, making it comfortable and making it home. You’d never guess when walking through that front door that underneath it all, just one flight of stairs below, was a messy pile of overwhelm and hopelessness.

During a visit weeks after she had moved, her sister discovered and asked about the boxes in the basement. After listening to her longing to have her home complete but the challenges that made it impossible, her sister suggested, “Instead of trying to tackle it all at once, why don’t you just commit to unpacking one box every day?”

With that approach, suddenly 15 hours broke into small chunks of 30 minutes. Suddenly “it will never get done” turned into “I think I can have it done in a month”. With a shifted perspective, hope for what once seemed impossible was restored.

I would guess that it’s this holistic, overwhelming, start-to-finish perspective on issues such as social injustice, capitalistic greed, the environment, and poverty that manifests the apathy shared worldwide when it comes to advocating and acting for change. How could I possibly do anything that would impact the enormity of these problems? We surrender to having no hope of shifting our conditions, so we resort to ignoring them. We focus our energies on tidying up the surface, and do our very best to avoid and even forget about our messy piles of overwhelm and hopelessness underneath.

For the Batwa, education has been a near hopeless feat. The villages are far from any school and definitely not on any bus route. Families can’t afford to buy the required uniforms and, if they happen to get their hands on one, its usually shared by all their children so they take turns going to school; rotating days throughout the week. And, even if uniforms and books and supplies are provided, there is no place in the home to keep them dry during a rain. To date, only 4 Batwa have received their undergraduate degrees and currently there are only 2 students in University.

But, on my last night in Bujumbura, we celebrated with 40 Batwa students who had been hand-picked to attend high school and live together in Bujumbura. Here, they are not faced with the educational challenges experienced in the village. Books and uniforms are paid for, getting to and from school is no problem, they are fed three times each day, and their bodies, clothes and books remain dry in their middle class home during the rain. As we celebrated the end of their first year in the home and their preparation to return to their villages until the fall, the significance and importance of these students became clearly evident to me. These 40 students have restored hope for the oppression and poverty of the Batwa. I saw the future of these beautiful people being shaped before my very eyes.

Last year, a small group of people met and immediately built friendships with the Batwa. They felt compassion for them, and through the eyes of Jesus they saw a hope that perhaps the Batwa had given up long ago. They could have left that village overwhelmed by the extent of the poverty and their lack of resources to change it. They could have learned about the 500 students that local advocates were trying to raise support for and seen financial impossibility. They could have so easily just walked away in hopelessness, committing only to lifting them up in their prayers and having faith that God would somehow release the Batwa .

But, instead, they committed to supporting and sending 40 students to school. Overwhelm turned into action. One box was unpacked.

I am in awe that just a small handful would have such a profound impact. Today, they take off their ties and nice slacks and head back into their villages. They go back to sleeping on the dirt floor of their small huts with leaky roofs. They return to their previous diet of three meals week (instead of per day). But, they return empowered. They return to share what they’ve learned, to encourage and empower others, and to bring the hope of the student house to their families and communities. They return to share the restored hope of the impossible.

Soon after the student project developed, the same group began to dream and build the project at Matara. During the first week of June, thirty Batwa families moved to Matara and began planning their community and preparing to cultivate a land where there is finally hope for an abundance of crops.. They are clearing the land and building strong and permanent homes with roofs that will keep them dry. For the first time in history, they have land that is theirs, and are free from fear that the government will move the village.

One more box. Just these 30 families will experience the improvement now, but they will take what they learn in building their community and share it with other villages. They will pay it forward, empowering others to learn and create change. Having witnessed this beginning, I see the grand display of dominos that are just beginning to tumble and will turn into something beautiful.

With a shifted perspective, hope for what once seemed impossible is being restored…one box at a time.

Some of the students lined up in the driveway of their home.

Showing off gifts received from their prayer partners in Texas.

A special moment between a Batwa student and his prayer partner. There's a great story about this photo, ask me about it.

Clearing land in Matara.

Friday, July 3, 2009

One Day Left

For almost two weeks these pages have laid dormant. So much swirling around in my head, and so much making into my personal journal entries...what to share with the public world? What could I say that could compete with the welcoming song of Bubanza, the dance of Mukike, and the fire at Matara? I haven't picked up my camera since the COF group flew home to Texas - what could I possibly have to share?

And now I come to the sobering realization that (at the mercy of Kenya Airways), I will be ascending above Bujumbura on my own journey home in less than 36 hours. The experience is nearing an end.

I want so badly to report back with some sort of closure to my adventure. I want to be able to tell you this is why God called me to Africa and this is what I'm going to be doing with it when I get home. This was my epiphany - now watch as I roll off into the sunset of absolute understanding and knowledge of my life's direction and live happily ever after...the end.

But the "ah-ha" moments I've had have not been this profound. They've been moments of humility, and moments of simple joy. I can't share with you a grand epiphany, but I can share the gifts and clarity I've received in an effort to stay constant in faith.

1. God brought me to Africa to take a Trip to Texas
As a California resident, my political views tend to align left along with most in my environment. I mention this, not to engage in political debate, but to as a frame of reference for how you might guess I felt when I heard I was going to be photographing a group from Texas during a celebration of the Batwa of Burundi. Based on nothing more than my assumptions of a theology and political ideology I associated with Texas, I made a judgment.

But, by the loving grace of God, this group received me as part of their team. In the abundance and warmness of their presence and my openness to welcome and receive them, friendships sprouted. It wasn't until after they left that I realized we never discussed our personal theologies or political views. Whether or not their spiritual journey looked the same as mine or whether they would accept or reject my current philosophy never became an issue. Even now I'm not sure why it would even matter...seems silly even to bring it up!

So, I experienced a new kind of friendship, not only with the Batwa, but with the Texans as well. We were friends because we practiced love, respect, and acceptance together. We were friends beause we shared an adventure and new experience. We were friends because our specific theologogy or ideology wasn't part of the conscious decision to accept eachother exactly as we came. We didn't become friends because we talked about Jesus, we became friends in the spirit of Jesus.

2. My Life is Small
During a trip through the country, our group stopped for one night in Gitega and one night in Ngozi. At both locations, we stayed at the nicest hotels in town. But, the rooms were 1/2 star by American standards at best. There was no running water and, when finally fixed, hot water was a pipedream. The floors were dirty and the linens were worn. There were bugs on the floor and the towels were dirty. Many, including me, murmured among ourselves a longing for home.

But, I began to wonder, a longing for what? For crisp linens and modern drapes? For remodeled bathrooms and fancy soaps? Okay, maybe running water and no bugs seems like it isn't too much to ask...but for most of Burundi it is. Both hotels were situated in a compound bordered by tall walls and barbed wire to deter theft and violence. And, outside those tall walls, were small homes with conditions clearly much worse than the hotel. I watched from my second floor room as a neighbor child cooked dinner in his backyard. No, it wasn't a barbeque, it was their kitchen. From the open door to the house, I saw only dirt floors. This little boy, I thought to myself, will likely never know a hot shower.

In Bubanza and Mukike, roofs leak in the rain. It's possible gifts of blankets or pillows might be sold for food. Their priorities are (1) food and (2) shelter. These aren't even on my priority list, they are involuntary basics - like a breath or a heartbeat - of my blessed American culture.

Later, my friend Teri said something beautiful to compare the time the Batwa spent at the fancy hotel in Bujumbura with our stays in Gitega and Ngozi, "The Batwa got to learn how to live with running water and we got to learn how to live without it."

3. Love and Grace Above all Else
While my personal religion and ideology continues to undergo some dissection and routine maintenance, the concepts of love, grace and acceptance continue to stand strong. In coming to understand Jesus as Love - and I mean a love that is abundant and omnipresent for all...for all - I'm learning that there really is no discrimination. Not for the poor, and not for the rich. Not for the Evangelical, and not for the aetheist. So, out of this, I desire to be a place of freedom for others; where they are safe to believe whatever they will because I understand it is not my duty to "fix" them or change their mind. It doesn't mean not talking about or sharing in my journey, it just means being careful to frame it as an absolute. It doesn't mean I won't disagree (I am human afterall), it just means not allowing one aspect of a person's belief system frame a judgement in my mind about their character.

I am free to sway like coral in the swell of his abundant presence and grace, soaking in a love that rises above knowledge or discovery of any absolute truth.

And I am free to come home to you with more questions and fewer answers than I left with. Of course, life must go on. I have many decisions to make as I enter in a new chapter and season of my life. But, by that grace, I am less concerned with making "good" decisions or "bad" decisions. I am less concerned with having complete confidence and control over the grand master plan that is my life.

My Aunt Linda paints a picture of Jesus' love like a meandering river on which we are all floating. We may watch as certain things go by - moments of joy, sucess, decision, worry, bad choices - but these are all things just floating with us. None of them can disrupt the constant flow of that river...of Jesus' love.

So, as I come home to you, I am conscious of my inntertube.