A paradigm of joy and sorrow

Hello friends and family. Please accept my sincerest apologies for  my lack of recent articles.  Several factors prevented me from getting timely updates posted, but I am committed to overcoming these challenges and posting more regularly from here on out. As it stands, I have a few unpublished articles that I’ll be posting in succession over the next couple of weeks. Where they may seem slightly outdated in this age of instant news at your fingertips, I think they still offer insight into our lives as missionaries and I hope you will enjoy them.

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Talai gets her hair done at Dreamland, a South Sudanese orphanage that relocated to Rhino Refugee Camp in Uganda because of the civil war.

So without further adieu, allow me to start with my most recent post: The Christian life: a paradigm of joy and sorrow.

To follow Jesus’ example is to know both joy and sorrow intimately in great manifestations and often simultaneously. The same Good Shepherd that rejoiced greatly over finding His lost sheep was also a “man of sorrows” who grieved over his beloved yet rebellious people and who sweat drops of blood. In other words, He “for the joy set before Him, endured the cross,” (Hebrews 12:2). I believe that most Christians who are walking sincerely in their faith carry these two things – joy and sorrow – both as nearly constant companions. Many Christians wrestle quietly behind closed doors with the challenges in their lives while struggling to reconcile the abundant joy that the Bible speaks about being available to all the saints in any and all circumstances. I do believe that we have done ourselves a disservice by insisting on a paradigm that completely segregates joy, peace and happiness from sorrow, sadness and grief. Indeed I believe that we, as image bearers of God, are capable and designed to experience these complex emotions in unison.

Over the past several years, Sal and I have worked increasingly with people who have suffered severe trauma. These experiences have prompted me to a studious examination of this theme. Allow me to share a recent story and example of where I have personally confronted it.

Here in Arua, Uganda, there is a group of children who regularly gather at my back fence. They range in age from newborns carried on an older sisters’ back to mid teenage

years, but most are between two and ten. We talk and laugh, they teach me phrases in Lugbara and fall into hysterics as I slaughter their language.

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Talai plays with a group of local children who gathered at our back fence.

We play various games like Simon Says or toss a balloon back and forth. In fact, I am rarely able to go out my backdoor without small ones calling to me and/or gathering at the fence. At times I have lamented my lack of privacy, but that frustration quickly dissipates when confronted by the contagious joy beaming from a plethora of beautiful brown faces.

One day I gave them a couple of balloons to share. You would have thought that I had just handed them tickets to Disney World. They tossed them back and forth to each other and squealed delightedly as they dove to stop them from falling to the ground. The smallest thing: a sticker, a balloon, a pencil – things that many Western children would scarcely think about – are great treasures to these children. They “thank you” profusely and smile ear to ear.  It is so easy and so lovely to revel in their delight.

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A bonfire with other girls from the base in our backyard

Three of the girls who come regularly share the name Queen and the youngest is around two years old. She is a beautiful girl with big brown eyes and a smile that would make a grumpy old troll laugh. She always appears to be enjoying some grand joke that no one else knows anything about. We have fun passing flowers back and forth and our favorite game involves her drawing near to me and then trying to jump away before I can tickle her. Her visits have caused much joy and laughter in my life, but about two weeks ago her mother died.

I knew someone in our neighborhood had passed away because the funeral occurred behind our house and continued for five days straight. In Uganda, funerals are grand to-do’s. Night and day groups of people broke out in sporadic communal wailing, some of it quite gut-wrenching. Several times I startled awake in the middle of the night because their wailing had entered my mind causing me eerie dreams. Many, many of the villagers came to pay their respects. People camped out, sang, prayed, cried and sang some more. In general, Ugandans are very vocal and expressive and all of this was intermittent with what Linguists call “non word interjections.”

Before I knew who had died I observed the whole thing with a sort of anthropological curiosity. Even though tradition determined much about the funeral, I wondered if week-long funerals were developed, at least in part, to meet a need to fully grieve and move on in a culture that has known too much death. I have often considered that many cultures seem to have a much healthier grieving process than my own homeland where most people don’t understand grief and are clueless to help others who have suffered loss.

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The funeral gathering behind our home

During the funeral I had very few visitors, but a few days after it’s conclusion my young friends returned to the back gate. I inquired about the events and they told me that Little Queen’s mother had slipped while mopping, apparently hit her head on the way down and died. Life is tough enough on girls in this land where arranged marriages and domestic abuse are the norm, and now Little Queen faced a future with all it’s challenges without a mother. I was told that she was being sent away to be raised by her older sister; it’s unlikely I’ll see her again. And just like that, a young child that I had grown attached to was orphaned, out of my reach and out of my life.

Many people who work with children, both secular humanitarians and Christian missionaries, have a “don’t get attached” policy. It’s quite similar to how healthcare workers who work with the elderly tend to keep an emotional distance from their patients or how juvenile detention workers tend not to get attached to the kids in their charge. It’s a self protection mechanism; we try to prevent excessive heartbreak by not allowing ourselves to get emotionally involved in the first place. A few years ago when we first started working consistently with traumatized children, I tried taking this approach which was recommended to me by several fellow missionaries. It’s all fine and good to sing on Sunday mornings about how we want to love everyone as God loves them, but when we love we share in another’s joys and pains, and when we work with so many children who have such deep and painful wounds and who live in sometimes desperate situations, how can we share in their pain without being drowned by sorrow?

At first I served those children, who then were the street children of Argentina, as I was

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A Saturday children’s Bible study at Rhino Refugee Camp

advised and held back my love, but this did nothing but make my heart restless; I had no peace in the matter. My heart told me that in order to love these children as I loved myself – as Christ commanded- I had to love them as my own children. Still, these children were orphans and/or children of prostitutes. Sometimes their mother’s “customers” payed extra for access to the child as well. Some had been forcibly drugged, raped, beaten, abandoned and exploited in many other ways. How can someone carry that on their shoulders without becoming a depressed, pessimistic Atheist? And yet, if truly the greatest power to heal and to set free is love – pure, unadulterated, involved, intentional, selfless love – and if Love’s name is Jesus and we are to be His ambassadors, then how could I in good conscience not care for these children as if they were my own?

I began praying that God, by His supernatural strength, would help me to help these children. I was amazed by the change that God orchestrated in my heart. He enlarged my capacity to love. Suddenly I could immerse myself in their lives, empathize with their pain and pray through tears that God would change their situations, and I wasn’t consumed by grief. Surprisingly, my capacity to experience joy also enlarged. I could play, and laugh and dream and hope with these children as well and be 100% present and involved. As a mother, I know no deeper agony than watching my own children go through very real pain, and I know no greater earthly joy than to experience their pure and sincere love and affection towards me. I’m not saying that treating troubled children as your own flesh and blood is the easier route; the depths of my sorrow for them can be profoundly deep at times, but so too are the heights of my joy. However, to love at arm’s length is insincere, and whereas it may bring about some good and change, the kids can always sense it. The higher road is to love as Jesus loved: profoundly and with abandon.

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers to the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”

~Shakespeare

And so, I can’t just forget girls like Little Queen. I weep for her loss, pray for her safety and future and laugh as I remember the beautiful times that we shared. Sometimes I cry while I am laughing. I believe that is what it is like to become more like Christ in the way we experience joy and sorrow.

Not all Christians will find themselves on the international mission field working with

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A craft/science experiment day at our house for base and local kids

traumatized children. However, I believe that all Christians will experience loss and grief of their own at times and have to wrestle with how to grasp on to the perpetual joy that God has promised them. Also, all Believers are missionaries in their own spheres of influence. We’re surrounded by lost and broken souls who are hiding behind anger, pride, perfectionism, depression, apathy and a myriad of other masks. If we are to be Christ’s presence to the world, we must love the world, and if we are to love the world, we must immerse ourselves in other’s lives and pain, and if we are to take that step, we must be prepared both to grieve and to rejoice profoundly.

This post is a touch more theological than most that I write, but it’s a reflection of my heart. As always, we appreciate your support and prayers. We pray God both challenges and blesses you.  Thank you for reading.

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Surprising Priorities

fb_img_1533443090019Just over a week ago, Mila and I went to the Rhino Refugee Settlement to help with a children’s program we do in cooperation with a local church there. Because so many children show up we split them into two groups based on age. The younger kids are up to about six years old but the groups are loosely divided. Mila and I typically stay with the younger kids.

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Photo Courtesy Anthony Felix, friend and pastor in Rhino Camp

 

As a Westerner living in the twenty-first century, it really is something else to watch these kids arrive. Some of them see our vehicle driving in and run to meet us. Others peek around corners to see where those kids are running to and then join them. We always start with songs so that when still more hear us singing they  can come join in as well. Many are regulars, but there are always new faces too. We typically have 30-50 in our younger group alone. Most are dirty and unkempt with clothes ranging from once nice dresses to missing pants and shoes all together. Some, perhaps many, are orphans. The small church hosts something like 40 orphans among its members, all refugees themselves. Even in our younger group girls show up with babies on their hips and strapped to their backs. When the babies get fussy the girls pass them around in an effort to comfort and quiet them. Normally they are very protective of the babies and won’t let us adults and outsiders hold them. I have not yet seen a single parent or guardian accompany any of these children or check on them during the program or even when we run later than usual. Almost every child who comes bears a brilliant gleaming smile when they arrive.

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Our lesson was on the power of praying together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We sang songs a capella style and danced, played games and had object lessons, read a Bible story and did crafts. Overall it’s very similar in format to most US Sunday school programs. I love sitting amidst the kids on the tarp that we spread on the ground. It is very amusing to be considered something exotic simply because your skin is white. The kids will scoot up close to you and inevitably one of them will try to sneak a touch to your arm or hair. I always poke them back and then offer my arms and hands to touch. While the idea that letting a child run their fingers through your hair or down your arm brings them joy is a bit bizarre, you learn to laugh and roll with it.

 

Whereas the children are generally well-behaved, on this particular day our group was very routy, as all children can sometimes be. Perhaps it was the weather, who knows? We kept relative order until we started getting close to the end. During the freedom of craft time, however, chaos broke out. Multiple little girls started crying for no apparent reason. Some allowed themselves to be comforted; others did not. Meanwhile a group of boys had physically started fighting over a boxcar that someone had brought. The program is held in a wall-less structure and the kids had scattered. We settled conflicts, comforted as many as would allow it and rounded the kids back onto the tarp to say our closing prayer. I was impressed with the gal that runs the program and the church volunteers. Personally, I would have probably dismissed the kids as we had seemingly lost their interest, but they insisted on rounding them up and re-establishing some order so we could pray with and for them before ending the program. And they did. When they asked for prayer requests the only response was muffled whining and arguments, distracted giggles and shuffling noises.

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Photo Courtesy Anthony Felix, friend and pastor in Rhino Camp

 

Then the most amazing thing happened. One little boy got up on his knees, raised his hand high and called out, “Books! Can we ask God for books?” This got everyone’s attention. The entire group, which had looked to be completely distracted only a moment prior, all shot their hands up and in one accord echoed, “Books! Yes please ask God for books! Books! Books!” Then they all clasped their hands, closed their eyes, bowed their heads and prayed with all their hearts that God would send them books. That may have been the most sincere prayer I have ever witnessed.

 

As I surveyed the praying kids, I was suddenly struck to the core. These children are resilient, beautiful and full of life, but the signs of trauma are everywhere. They will break into hopeless whining moans, like those of a baby who has been left too long to cry, without provocation. Arguments quickly turn violent. During this last trip one boy in particular caught my attention because others nearby were pointing and laughing at him. He was holding tight to a dead mouse, stroking it over and over like a pet hamster. These are kids who have survived the African bush, who have lost parents and loved ones. They live without running water, electricity or clean sanitation. Some lack clothes and shoes. Others have died from preventable and curable diseases. These are kids who’ve literally lost everything, been through hell, and when told they can ask God for anything at all, they ask for books.

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Photo Courtesy Anthony Felix, friend and pastor in Rhino Camp

 

I was undone. It took an enormous amount of self-possession to stop up the tears that welled in my eyes and suppress sobs that I felt forming in my gut. Most of the time, crying over things like this is not helpful in the moment. I don’t know how other missionaries and humanitarian workers handle it, but I try to stay focused on the moment in front of me. That moment, however, was probably the closest I’ve ever come to loosing it in front of children who were not my own.

 

As some of you may have already heard, we have recently started working to reopen a small community library in Arua. We have plans to run various programs through it for children, youth and adults. We had recently been tossing around the idea of starting a mobile library to the refugee camp. Practically speaking it requires a bit of logistics and we’ve been balancing the pro’s and con’s and praying for confirmation. When Mila and I returned home that afternoon I sat down with Sal and said, “Honey, I think we’ve got our confirmation.”

 

I shared with Sal what had happened and he agreed; God wanted us to be the vessels through which He answered these young children’s prayers. So, we have been diligently organizing the necessary logistics of starting a mobile library in the refugee camp. These kiddos who prayed so fervently for books will be the firsts to receive books. I can’t describe how anxious and excited I am to get some books into their hands.  This coming Saturday we are meeting with a gentleman who lives in the camp to talk to him about checking up on the kids who receive library books. He will help us to learn who these kids are and where they live, help keep track of the books, teach the kids how to treat them and encourage parents and guardians to read with their children.

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It is a library program, but it is also a door for discipleship, community development and transformation. Please be in prayer for this project. There are several start-up expenses as well as those involved for maintenance associated with the mobile library. We are trusting God to meet these financial needs and invite you to partner with us in these efforts. If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation to support this project, please click on our “donate” tab above. After choosing your donation amount it will allow you to make a note on the confirmation page. Just note that you want your donation to go towards the library project and we’ll make sure it is handled accordingly.

 

Thank you so much for your continued interest and support. It breaks one’s heart to see the need that is in the refugee camps, especially among the children. However, by God’s grace and power, we can make a positive difference here and now and for eternity. God bless you.

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Photo Courtesy Anthony Felix, friend and pastor in Rhino Camp

*Note: I’m afraid I didn’t take any pictures from this particular trip to the refugee camp, so all pictures are from other visits, but many of the children are the same ones as were there.