Notes From Congo – Part II

Something that surprises me each time I return from an exotic place like Central Africa, is how dire people assume everything is there. They say things like “Wow, is that safe?” or “What a tremendous sacrifice you are making.”

Ahem. Ladies and gentlemen. CNN is lying to you, because frankly cold showers and spam pasta in the Republic of Congo are kind of awesome, and at times our recent field service there felt exactly like this weird statue in Nice, France.

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Yes, there are oversized, naked, ugly things happening in Congo and I don’t want to minimize that, but occasionally you can sneak in behind those things, sit on a fish and flip your hair. In other words, there is an abundance of hilarity, joy, irony and fun to be found even in hard situations, and that, I like to think, is the way of things in the Kingdom of God.

See Jesus didn’t promise us happy, he promised us full, which is different. And sometimes you’re walking back from the river when you accidentally recreate the Beatles Abbey Road album cover, and it’s funny and every bit as important as all the sad stuff.IMG_4206

So since I care about you guys, you need to know about this Nutella substitute. It’s sold in pretty much every tin shack shop lining the main drag in Impfondo, Congo. IMG_4621

Though it’s fairly expensive, it comes in mini size and hefty three-gallon lick tubs, which I felt spoke to its obvious popularity among locals. But I discovered, the post-purchase hard way, that this sticky brown crap in the little yellow tubs tastes exactly like Vaseline and dirt. So it’s lucky I only bought four. Everyone I forced to eat it agrees, it is a unique chocolate taste.

My digestive system and I have an agreement these days though, so I don’t mind befriending guys like this on the street and eating whatever that is in the middle, liberally covered with salt and MSG and wrapped in newspaper.IMG_3362 I ate it with gusto and so did my pal Ryan, even though there’s a good chance it’s made of a relative of these three, who were waiting in line for their turn to become BBQ.

IMG_3363Or it could have been made out this crocodile, after his ride in a crowded minvan. Actually, the crocodile was never inside the minivan, silly, he went on the roof for safety. But he totally could have gone inside because his mouth was tied shut with string.

Incidentally, crocodile does taste like chicken, chewy, fishy chicken.

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But enough about food, let’s talk about sweating.

Impfondo lies just north of the equator, on the Ouibangi river and is nearly swallowed by jungle. So, as you might imagine, working outside 9-10 hours a day there creates a remarkably moist personal environment. Even better, when you sweat like this, every drop of saturated fat you’ve ever consumed leaks from your pores. The medical terminology for this is “The Crisco Sweats.”

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The validity of this claim is still under review by Hospital staff, and there are more than a few naysayers, including Mama Sarah, the nurse in the red scrubs below. But what could she possibly know, she spends her days cleaning and bandaging the feet of local men afflicted with leprosy. Nonetheless, she stopped by to weigh in on the sweating question.

“Nope, sorry guys. Your fat is not coming out your pores.”

Dang.

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Do you see what we are doing in these pictures? We’re off loading gravel from Jupiter the Unimog – a beastly diesel Mercedes personnel carrier that blew a tire 100 feet from where we actually needed the gravel. Of course a Unimog not loaded to the top with gravel weighs two million pounds, so jacking it up to change the tire, even if there was a spare, which there wasn’t, is kind of a cruel joke. So this is what happened next.

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Back and forth, two million times.

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An exercise like this can really help you grasp how far you are from acting anything like Jesus.

Me: “Wow. It totally figures that Jupiter died 100 feet from where we need the gravel.”

Stefan: “I know isn’t it amazing it died ONLY 100 feet from where we need the gravel?”

Me: “Um yah. That’s what I meant. Excuse me, I’ll be over here, praying for myself.”

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I think sometimes when my life is boring it’s because I’ve neutered all the struggle right out of it. Approximately 100% of all tasks in Impfondo, require some form of struggle, sacrifice, endurance and/or sweat, not to mention a mess of other sweaty people nearby. And that, my friends, is what made evenings like this, swimming in the river under the full moon, indescribably beautiful.

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Notes From a Big White Ship.

DestinFew times in my life do I ever recall sweating like I was in this picture. Part of the reason is, I was standing in a two-room orphanage in the Republic of Congo with about 20 people and no fans.

The other part was Destin, the little boy I’m holding. He clung to me so tightly, for so long in that sweltering room, that we began melting together like a s’more.

Destin wore me out, but each time I shuffled him around trying to rest my arms, little worry lines grew on his forehead. He clutched my shoulders and whimpered as though his tiny protest, might prevent the inevitable.

The inevitable was, of course, me setting him down and heading back to the Big White Ship, to my big white life, where I have choices Destin can’t even imagine.

What kind of world is this? Setting those babies down, as they reached back up to us and cried, made me wonder if it was fair to pick them up in the first place. Oh Jesus help. This life is brutal.

Luckily, I’ve learned to drop to my knees when I get to thinking like that because, newsflash –  it’s not all up to me to fix.

So on the way out, we paused in the Land Rover for a second and I prayed for all the things we can’t change. And of course we prayed for them too. Lord. Families please! Hurry!

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Baby Creche is a program hosted by a Mercy Ships division called Mercy Ministries. For this program, they load up a dozen or so ship folks and head out to a state-run orphanage to hug some babies. Simple really. Humans need hugging. Especially baby humans who are abandoned on trash heaps or orphaned by AIDS.

At the orphanage, nine women, working around the clock in shifts of three, care for the children. While they do their best, they are outmatched by the need, and it’s clear by the way Destin clings, physical hunger hasn’t been his only concern. Cribs line the walls and you have to watch where you walk because the women leave babies sprawled out on the tile floor.

It’s not a bad idea, it’s cooler there.

MalikaThis is my friend Heather holding a little boy named Malchiat.

Like Destin, it’s hard to guess Malchiat’s age because he is malnourished. He was on the brink when somebody found him in the market and brought him to the orphanage. The women nursed him and Mercy Ministries put him on a special and kind of expensive diet. Malchiat is putting on weight now, frankly, because Mercy Ships is in Congo providing him a kind of expensive diet.

But the ship pulls out in June.

“What happens then?” I asked my friend KJ.

“I don’t know,” she said quietly.

So, in a big, mean world full of things we can’t change, here’s to the things we can. They need us, we need you and we all need each other. If you too would like to hug a baby on the other side of the world, we can help you do that.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27

**As ever friends, the views herein are my own, not those of Mercy Ships. 

Telling the Truth in Provence

There are only two ways to live your life,” Einstein said. “One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”

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Moonlight swim. Congo. Photo Credit: Martha Rodriguez

Last weekend, I was drinking wine in a beautiful French farmhouse chatting with two secular humanists about Jesus. Both of them believe that a historical Jesus was probably a fabrication, definitely an institutionalized myth, an opiate for the masses and certainly not the Christ.

It was jarring, especially after spending so much time recently on a big, white ship in West Africa, surrounded by some of the world’s most radical Christians.

And yet this is where I live now – sacred and secular all tangled up together, confusing the territory, demanding that I answer the question: Why bother with Jesus? Can’t one do good work without all that? I’m learning to respond in a way that loves people regardless of my opinion on their faith. Because really, who cares what I think about their faith?

But in Provence, I was on the ropes, taking a few punches, without any big, smart Christians around to defend me and why I live like I do now.  It’s one thing to hang out with people who think just like you do, it’s another to talk openly about Jesus to a couple very shrewd, uber-rational atheists.

Hello rubber. Meet road.

So, do I trust Jesus to help me speak with clarity and kindness, no matter the audience? Can I articulate what I’m doing with Mercy Ships and why? Can I talk about Jesus honestly, like he’s in the room? How do I explain, without hysteria, what he did for me to people who think he is a myth?

I don’t know. So I just told them the truth – mine.

It didn’t take long for the “Jesus is a crutch for you” comment to drop like a bomb. Considering it afresh I thought:

Jesus isn’t crutch for me. He’s a stretcher upon which I collapsed and wearily admitted that I don’t know how to quit being selfish and to do work that matters in Africa or anywhere else.  That, as it turns out, was a great place to start.

But the woman knowing what had happened to her came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her “Daughter your faith as made you well, go in peace and be healed of your disease.” Mark 5:33-34

IMG_8504So it doesn’t matter where I am now, Congo, France, Texas, if you ask, I’m just going to tell you the truth, and frankly, it’s kind of messy. Sorry. Other Christians are doing the same. Meet Glennon. Meet Shauna. Meet Sarah.

Yes, it’s terrifying to lay yourself bare for others to inspect and challenge, because they do. Yes, I hear the enemy calling me a self-aggrandizing jerk and I squirm with fear and self-doubt. But every time I simply answer the question, every time I just tell the truth, inevitably a young woman will pull me aside afterward and say:

“Thank you for saying that out loud.”

And that to me is work that matters.