Thursday, April 17, 2014

Sometimes there are just no words...

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day we will gather in our churches in honor of the Last Supper as Jesus begins his final walk to death.  Today my heart breaks once again for the people of South Sudan after reading the latest news from there. It breaks for my "Ladies of Renk" when I hear they were attacked last night and many of my friend's coworkers fled during the night.

While I cannot comprehend Jesus, knowingly walking towards the cross and willingly facing the brutality that will meet him there and along the way, I also cannot comprehend the  words of this report.  Sometimes there are just no words.  There are no words to comprehend Jesus thoughts as he went through his torture and there are no words to comprehend the brutality and torture dealt to innocent victims that is described below.  All I can do is pray for sanity to reign in the midst of this insanity and for God to reach down his mighty hand and wrap these innocent people in His loving arms...

Dear Peace-loving Friends,

Today I received two e-mails reflecting the current conflict situation in South Sudan.  While I have not confirmed either, I have no reason to doubt either.  It distresses me to convey these reports to you. 

The first came from a friend who reported that in Bor the UN compound was attacked by SPLA resulting in the death of perhaps 100 of those taking refuge there and many UN troops.  Many more were wounded.  I do not have additional details. 

The second report was of an attack by rebel forces on Bentiu which, although it lacks numbers, is horribly specific in the description of the abuse, particularly of women.  A portion of that is reproduced below:

"Reich Marchar’s militia has seized Bentiu. These evil men stormed the city, wildly firing machine guns, randomly killing civilians and government leaders. Then they mobilized themselves to storm the churches and clinics, where they knew people would be weak and not able to run or were hiding for safety and prayer. The militia dragged pregnant women from their beds and cut out their babies, and then cut up the babies. They raped the women of Bentiu in mass, and then raped them with sticks to tear out their uterus. They killed many people praying in our churches. Many of the government officials were killed, and the rest fled. Bentiu has fallen into the hands of Reich Machar."

This illustrates that the people continue to be the victims and that the attacks have become barbaric slaughter in Bentiu and attacking defenseless refugees in Bor.  This is ethnic warfare at its worst and reflects the urgency of our effort to join together to stop the conflict. 

SAAF is seeking to help organize a coalition of South Sudanese groups in diaspora to try to positively impact the situation and end the conflict.

Pray that sanity will return and that God will protect the innocent. 

In Christ's service,

The Journey of the Heart Continues - God's Promises

My heart continues to break for the people of South Sudan and all that they are suffering.  My heart longs to be there with them. Yet, I still know that I am not supposed to be.  My readings for the past few days have centered on trusting God with your future. It is easy to read the words and much harder to put into action.

"Jesus Calling" for today...sometimes my blessings come in mysterious ways through pain and trouble. At such times you can only know my goodness only through your trust in Me....

 It is hard to reconcile that with all that is going on in South Sudan and the rest of the word as we read the headlines and see the pictures of suffering people flash before our eyes.  It is hard to reconcile that God's blessings can come through all the suffering and pain.

And as I sit here in the peace and security of my little house in the US, safe and protected from the fears and hardships of the world beyond our borders I sometimes have a hard time with that. And, yet, as I look back through my memories I have proof of God's promises - there are blessings in the midst of all the hardships.  We sometimes just have to look hard to find them.

I see the faces of the group of children in the churchyard on one of my last days in Akobo, running and playing with an abandon our children seldom know. They stopped their playing to make a video of a worship song where they thanked God for their blessings as their tiny arms and legs and the red tint of their hair and their distended bellies told their stories of not enough food to eat and the malnutrition that is haunting them and the families that love them.

Each time I see a picture of a line of refugees heading for safety with all they can carry, or hundled in the bush, I see the fear on their face. When I see the pictures of those massacred in their hospital beds, places they went with hope for healing, it is hard to see God's blessings.  I have to have faith that God is there with each of them. I know he was comforting those in their deaths, and welcoming them home. I know he has the survivors wrapped in the protection of his arms.

It is harder still to look at the soldiers, armed and proud of what they have done and to know what they have done has brought so much pain, suffering, fear and death in this land I love so much.  It takes all the faith I can muster to believe that God is there also. It takes all the faith I can muster to trust Him. It takes all the faith I can muster to believe His words At such times you can only know my goodness only through your trust in Me....

I see the children playing a game of soccer on the streets of Addis between the sewage pipes that they call home during the road construction. I am reminded of the story I wrote of how God provides for them in the food that is tossed out by the local merchants.

I am taken to the day of the lady holding her lifeless baby on the streets as strangers walked by and tossed the coins they could spare on the tattered blanket she sat on so she would have money to bury him.

Still father back in the recesses of my memory are the elders I met in Ethiopia who though they had no family left to provide for them were taken in by neighbors in their village and provided with food and a shelter at night. While this may seem unimaginable to us and our thousands of choices of retirement options offering advancing stages of care, it is a miracle for them in a land that has no care for the elderly and once again a living image of God's blessings in the midst of hardship and troubles.

It is in these hard times that I feel my faith stretch and grow. It is in these hard times that we, each of us, has to reach out and grab on to that hand of faith that reaches out to each of us and to find comfort in His words, .sometimes my blessings come in mysterious ways through pain and trouble.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hope is Never Dead

The Journey
25 December 2013
Hope is Never Dead 

When I have no words to speak, they sometimes come pouring out through my fingers on the keyboard or grasping a pencil and whatever piece of paper I can find.

The headlines are horrible this week.  I read each one with a sadness in my heart as new tales unfold about the conflicts in South Sudan.  Each one brings to mind the face of friends I have left behind, memories of events that I look back on and a heart full of prayers for all the people of South Sudan.  This has made for one of the hardest Christmases ever.

I feel like I am two people each one looking at the world through different eyes.  One person is trying hard to find joy and celebrate with family and friends in the traditional “American” style.  The other is looking back on the people I have left behind, praying for them, wondering where they are and if they are safe or even still alive.  

The last emails I read before I left the house yesterday afternoon were stories of trucks full of bodies rolling through the streets of one town.  Some were left behind because they belonged to the wrong group.  Left alone in death.  Left alone in yards until women could come out of the house and cover them with sheets.  There was a story of soldiers entering homes looking for members of one group of people, gunning down innocent women and children, just because they didn’t belong to the “right” group. 

There were stories of people gathered in our partner church’s compound, the one where I was supposed to be living if I had gone in October.  They have water but no food.  These are people I know and love, people I have worked with.  People I walked the streets with and laughed and played and talked with on my last visit there.  People who are waiting for the fighting that is drawing closer to them.

It is hard to look out with “American” eyes and celebrate the joy this season usually brings when my heart is breaking for the people of South Sudan.  It is hard for people to understand as they hugged me in greetings and told me how grateful they are that I am not there, that I don’t feel their same sense of gratitude.

I know I am the one who said I couldn’t go back.  I know that I am the one who said I didn’t understand why.  But even as my head understands that somewhere in all the confusion of that decision, God was playing his part in my protection,  in provision for Michael and the rest of the PCUSA staff that didn’t have to worry about my safety or my evacuation, my heart longs to be on the first plane back.  My heart longs to go and hold God’s people in my arms.  If I thought they would let me back in I would be on the next plane back.  That is what my heart says.  My head knows that will not happen for a while, maybe years, if civil war does break out or the fighting continues.  I know it sounds so very selfish to say, but now I see why I couldn’t find the sense of call that would have made it right for me to return.  But maybe I needed this fighting to rekindle my sense of serving there.  I know the time is not now, but I know, deep in my heart that one day I will return.  One day I will go back and hold my people in my arms, and when I do, God will be with me.

Last night I needed church.  I needed  to be there surrounded by people I know and love.  Even as I was late leaving a family gathering and knew I wouldn’t make it on time, my car drove there and I walked in the door just as the service was about to begin.  God in his mercy provided green lights from one side of town to the other to make sure I arrived in time.

As the procession marched the center aisle of the church, I was brought back to the memories of my only Christmas in Akobo.  As the procession passed within a sanctuary filled with song, ribbons waving through the air in proclamation of the coming Christ child, I was reminded of the Christmas Eve procession through Akobo as the church members gathered and began the march through the town proclaiming the coming Christ “baby” filled with song and banners waving high.  What a joyous celebration that was.
How different is the marching in South Sudan this year.  Instead of voices raised in song and praise marching throughout the town, they are hushed and quiet.  The marching is a different kind this year, the sounds of military boots pounding the streets and roads in either protection or potential attach as hundreds of thousands hide in fear instead of their normal bold proclamations.  The sounds of marching as people gather all they can carry and try to make it to places of safety and sanctuary.                           

I have lain in the dark, not daring to move, as I listened to the sounds of boots marching down my road at night, and the sounds of mortars shooting in the distance.  I have shared a room filled with women as the “boots” marched outside our window one night and heard their muffled sobs and felt their fear, and wondered what memories, beyond my comprehension, they must have been reliving as guns were fired outside our window.  I prayed for peace for them that night.  Now it seems that may not be, and as they had begun to rebuild their lives and have a bit of hope, their fears are beginning all over again.  And I continually pray for peace for them once again.

As I sat in the dimly lit sanctuary full of its opulence of silver and gold vestments, decked in trees filled with lights, I couldn’t help but think of 100,000+ people hiding alone in the dark, afraid to move, afraid of the death that waits them. 

I couldn’t help but think of my friends in Juba and Malakal and Akobo who have no food tonight as we feasted earlier in our abundance.  I couldn’t help but think of the women and children mercilessly gunned down this week as the women in my family laughed and shared stories around the table.  The children raced their planes across the floors, the tables and any flat surface they could find, and laughed with joy.  A sharp contrast from the children I played with who must be hiding from them this night, shivering in fear, that their sounds will bring more bullets reigning down on them.

As I dipped my small piece of bread into the cup of wine during communion, I didn’t find comfort as I usually do, that somewhere in the world, friends I am not with have shared the same cup and the same bread today.  All I could think is too many don’t even have this much food this night.  This was a problem before the recent fighting.  I have walked the floors of the severely malnourished portion of the hospital and seen the faces of the children too weak to even pick up their heads and held the hands of their worried mothers and families.  I can’t even fathom what this fighting will do to them.

 I was there in worship, but I wasn’t.  My head was listening, my heart was praying, when the words Fritz said grabbed my attention and brought new meaning to words I have heard my whole life …

A sword will pierce your heart said Simeon to Mary at Jesus circumcision.  That is how I felt last night.  A sword has pierced my heart and is pouring out for the people of South Sudan.

Fritz went on to say “bearing in their arms the dead bodies of hope”… and my heart cried, “How many God, are holding the bodies of their loved ones this night?  How many have lost their hope in this country they fought so hard for”?  

But I found comfort in his words “Hope is never dead…the truest purpose to which we are called…to have hope and share it with others…the sword that pierces her heart is gone and replaced by hope”.

It is my prayer that the swords that pierce the hearts of the people of South Sudan, all those who are feeling grief for leaving at a time when they feel the most needed, will have their swords replaced by hope, hope that came in the form of a small baby, born in a manger this night,  and are reminded that no matter what the trials in our lives may be,  “hope is never dead”. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Lord, Hear Our Prayer

The Journey
19 December 2013
Lord Hear our Prayer

Dec. 18, 2013: In this image released by the United Nations Mission Juba, civilians arrive at the compound of the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS), adjacent to Juba International Airport, to take refuge in Juba, South Sudan.

The journey of my physical presence in South Sudan may be over.  The journey of my heart and soul that remain behind is far from over.  Sometimes the heartbreak is more than I can bear.  The latest BBC report is about an attack on the UN Compound in Akobo.  I pray for my friends there.  There is nothing else I can do.  I am so very, very sad and feel so very, very helpless as I wonder if any of the casualties are friends I left behind.

There have been other reports this week of the fighting in Juba, Bor and other places.  For now, I understand that Malakal is safe.  I have friends in all these places, some from other countries, some are South Sudan citizens, some are our mission co-workers.  I pray for all of them.  I pray that God graces them with his protection.  I pray for our partners in service there and for those who are negotiating for peace. 
I wonder how many have fled to the bush and how many are continuing life as normal in these troubled times in South Sudan.  How I wish I was there to help them.  To walk with them and beside them.  To hold their hands, dress their wounds and address their fears with comfort and prayer.
It is times like these that I realize the answers to the “why” that I have struggled so hard with since the decision was made that I can’t return to South Sudan.  For a long time now, I have said I hear God saying, “not now.  The time will come.”  I had that conversation earlier this week when I said, once again, I believe we are there too early.  Someday, maybe in a year or two, I will go back and continue the work that I still feel God has called me to.  And when I do, I pray the people will be more ready, they will no longer be living in survival mode, they can begin to move forward.  

That is the conversation I had before I knew the extent of the fighting that has spread throughout the country this week.
For now, the ongoing fighting that has been happening this week, is a stumbling block to the progress that could be made there.  I have to remind myself that God is in control of this situation.  I have to remind myself these are people who have been fighting all the way back to the time of Ham.  They are children, grown to men now, who have never known peace and never known a way of life that doesn’t include fighting.
I was reminded yesterday in Bible Study, of the stories of the massacres of the innocents as we compared the story of Moses and the story of Jesus birth.  As I sat and listened, one ear on what was being said, and one ear bent in prayer for the people of South Sudan, I was struck by an image that I couldn’t shake from my head.  
It was an image of the destruction following the taking of innocent lives that lead to Moses being found in the basket, and taken care of until he became the man God intended him to be and raised him up as a great leader and savior of his people.  It was an image of the massacre of the innocents after Jesus birth and how he was taken to safety and protected until he grew to be the man God intended him to be and he became the great savior of us all.  
My prayer is that out of the ashes of the destruction of innocents in the crossfires of the fighting in South Sudan God is now preparing to save the life of the next great savior of the people of South Sudan.
I invite you to pray with me. Not just for the people of South Sudan, but for all people throughout the world who are suffering their own massacres of the innocents.
Lord, hear our prayer.