Sleepless in Burundi

Disclaimer: I make no assurances, real or implied, that this blog post will make any sense whatsoever. I'm going on my 49th hour without sleep. Do I really need to say more?

I'm writing this from the restaurant at the hotel. The restaurant is outside, next to a small pool. That sounds a whole lot nicer than it is, trust me. I don't know how good the food will be, but the myriad mosquitoes seem to be dining quite well.

This is the first time we've stayed in this hotel. Usually, we stay at the hotel Dorado. Dorado is quite nice comparatively speaking. Last year, however, they tried to up the price of my (reserved) room by 25%. I talked them down to merely $10 more per night, but that was still about $150 more than I counted on. So this year we're staying in a less expensive hotel. The good news is that my original room had a dysfunctional air conditioner, so they moved me to another room which actually had a place to hang up your clothes. Nice!

Neither Martin or I slept on the plane. We squirmed like worms in hot ashes for the sixteen hours it took to arrive at Addis Ababa. It was a little more comfortable flying to Bujumbura via Nairobi. We took little cat naps on that flight. The alarm clock for our slumbers was the plane slamming down on the runway in Nairobi. We hit so hard some of the oxygen masks popped out of the overhead compartments. I've never seen that before. Same scene, different country when we arrived in Bujumbura.

Joseph, in contrast, slept the sleep of the innocent on the way to Addis Ababa. As a result, he is currently wide awake, viewing all this as the wonderful camping trip that it is. Martin and I are bleary-eyed and are currently plotting our revenge. Perhaps when we've had more sleep we'll be more charitable. We'll see.

Tomorrow I begin teaching. I plan to review what we learned last year and then complete the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. On our way from the airport, we stopped by the church and some of the brothers came out to greet us. What a joyous time. For those few moments the weariness left me and I was refreshed. I trust that same energy will return tomorrow after tonight's sleep.

Please remember to pray for us. Ministry always needs prayer, but ministry in Africa is unique in so many ways. Your prayers accomplish more than you can possibly imagine.

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They Burned a Car on Thursday

With any luck (as Calvin would say), this will be my last post from Africa. The bags are packed, we've settled the bill, and we're sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Dorado waiting for Alain (Flory's assistant) to arrive and take us to the airport.

I will be posting more videos and pictures from Africa in the coming days to be sure. I've tried over and over again to upload a couple of videos and some pictures using the hotel internet, but the power rarely stays on for the hours it takes to compensate for the glacially slow upload speeds.

Last night we said goodbye to Flory. We discussed next year, made a few plans, talked and laughed. He watched us play To Court the King, but we couldn't coax him to play. He did lay hands on my dice, but it didn't help. Liz was the big winner last night.

As we sipped our Coke Lights and relaxed, I discovered why we never left Bujumbura. We had been scheduled to travel 60 km south to a small church in the country on Friday. The trip, however, had been canceled at the last minute. When we asked Flory about it, he stated that most of the church would be working in the fields. So the visit was postponed until Sunday. I was to preach during the worship service, and we would all be visiting with members from the church. But on Saturday, Flory informed me that we would be staying in Bujumbura instead of traveling south. He didn't really say why, but now I know, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

The last presidential election results were contested by certain elements in Burundi. Evidently only one candidate was on the ballot. I don't pretend to know the intricacies of Burundian politics. But I know enough of Central Africa in general to not be surprised that there are rebel forces in the country very unhappy with the voting in general and the results in particular.

Evidently, and here's where it gets a little fuzzy, the president was traveling to the south last Thursday. At least the President did somethingsomewhere that made the news. To show their displeasure with the election results, the rebels hijacked two cars and burned them—one on Thursday and one of Friday. This act of civil disobedience occured on the same road we would have been traveling. When Flory was informed of the rebel activity Tursday night, he canceled our Friday trip. He didn't want us anywhere near such a potentially dangerous area. As it turns out, this was a wise decision. We would have been traveling that road when the rebels decided to strike. It very easily could have been us.

This is just another example of God's providential care over us. Certainly I'm grateful to Flory for being careful regarding our welfare. But in reality it was God in his mercy who provided a protector for us, a member of his body to watch out for the weaker members—in this case, Bonnie, Liz and me.

As we sit in the lobby and wait for our ride to the airport, I am at ease. While any number of things can go horribly wrong between here and home, I can rest in the knowledge of God's providential care for us.

Hungry for the Word

The conference ended yesterday. For three days I preached on the simple Gospel—what salvation by grace apart from works really means, and what it doesn't mean. I felt called to address this subject, in part at least, because of the terrible sermon I heard last year. I guess what surprised me was the lack of outraged denial when the woman stated "You must work for your salvation!" 

So this year I started with the plan of salvation. I laid out the fact that we're sinners, that we deserve death, that Jesus took the penalty that we deserve, and that faith in his finished work was all that was required to be saved. To be candid, I didn't see much of a response in the faces of the congregation.

The second night we went to Luke 24 and the road to Emmaus. Why must the Christ suffer and then enter into his glory? Staying in the OT, I showed how we are all sinners, how the shedding of blood was necessary to take away sins, and how the predicted resurrection showed that God was completely satisfied with Christ's sacrifice on the cross. When I finished, the local pastor stood and (presumably) gave an invitation. One shabbily dressed man came forward and knelt before the platform. Several of the local pastors prayed with him. I don't know the whole story of this man except that he wasn't a regular at the church. But I trust God touched his life through the preaching of his Word.

Last night I preached on John 3. I asked (and answered) three questions: What is the New Birth? Who needs the New Birth? How do I get the New Birth? and then another, Do you have the New Birth? In all the years I've been preaching in Africa, I've never seen a congregation more attentive. The sermon usually takes a secondary role to the worship. Let's face it, singing and dancing are more fun than sitting still and listening. But not last night! After the service ended, Bonnie, Liz, and I were mobbed by the crowd. To use Liz's phrase, we were rock stars! People pushed and shoved to maneuver into position to have their picture taken with us. It was quite an experience.

Today I'm going back to the church to continue to teach the pastors. I learned yesterday that one of the men traveled seven days on foot in order to receive the teaching being offered. That's quite humbling and fills me with a overweaning sense of responsibility.

Of course, I have to admit learning that truth brought to mind an unwelcome comparison. In my church in Michigan, there was little tolerance for preaching that extended past 30 minutes. An Elder's wife once confronted me about not giving the Gospel the previous Sunday morning. I protested that I did give a clear Gospel message at the end of the sermon. Her response? She sniffed, "Well, I stop listening after 9:30!" I don't know if it was God or the Devil or my own sinfulness that brought that to mind, but I confess the contrast was striking. 

AMAT VICTORIA CURAM and the Providence of God

Total Depravity is a theological term used to describe the fallenness of man. Simply defined it states that every part of every person has been corrupted by sin. It doesn't mean that every person is as bad as they could be or that every person has committed every kind of sin. Rather it states that the corruption of mankind is total in that it touches every person as well as every part of every person.

I was reminded of this again today. Today was spent relaxing and site-seeing. Working through the jet-lag is vital if we are going to be ministering every day for the rest of our stay. So our afternoon naps were more important than others might imagine. The morning, however, was spent moving about Bujumbura, seeing the sites.

Monument Rock where Stanley met Livingstone

To be completely honest, there isn't a lot to see in Bujumbura. There are few grand monuments. The spot where Stanley met Livingstone is commemorated by a rock. The shore of Lake Tanganyika is conducive to relaxation, but like the Great Lakes in the United States, the endless water of the world's second largest fresh-water lake is somewhat featureless.

I have always found people more interesting than scenery. And there is no shortage of people in Bujumbura.

The three of us sat by the open window of a small coffee shop this afternoon, enjoyed our beverages and watched the people go by. Typically, all those who passed watched us as well. Getting stared at is just something you get used to in Africa. You get used to it or you are terribly uncomfortable all the time.

We chose the coffee shop as our perch, not because we were thirsty or tired, but because it was safe. Earlier in the day we were reminded how important it is to be on our guard all the time. Liz wanted to walk through the market. She didn't want to buy anything. She just wanted to experience the culture and possibly snap some interesting pictures.

When we arrived at one of the numerous markets in the capital, as expected there was a crush of people. We all struggled out of the cab with our backpacks, dodging the traffic and the bicycles and the general flow of humanity. We had no more than exited the cab and stood up straight, when Bonnie wheeled around suddenly. Liz was watching someone intently and Flory was ordering us back into the vehicle. Only after we quickly climbed back in and were moving again, did I find out what happened.

Children are everywhere in Burundi

One of the myriad of boys that immediately surrounded us had tried to steal from Bonnie's backpack. "I felt a tug," Bonnie explained, "and so I turned around. But I know they didn't get anything because these zippers are just too hard to open." It was only then that she saw how terribly mistaken she was. The zipper that she must wrestle with before it gives way, was undone.

A quick inventory proved that nothing had been stolen. But the first item that would have been pulled from that pocket was her passport. Bonnie began to heap abuse upon her (alleged) lack of judgment. "How could I have been so stupid? I know better than that…" and so forth and so on.

I tried to tell her that God had protected us from those who would do us harm. Our judgment, whether good or bad, had nothing to do with it. While the Latin AMAT VICTORIA CURAM (victory loves preparation) is true, that truth only goes so far. No amount of preparation adequately defends against the wickedness of people in this world. Only in the overweening providence of God is protection to be found.

Tomorrow starts the first full day of ministry. I'll be teaching the pastors in the morning and Bonnie will be teaching the pastor's wives and other women from the churches. Then I will be preaching at the opening of the conference. 

Just as the only protection from evil and power for ministry originates with God our Father, so it is also true that prayer moves his hand. So thank you for praying for us. 

Day Ain't Over Yet…

OK, one of my favorite movie lines comes from "City Slickers." In response to the question, "Kill anyone today?", Curly responds, "Day ain't over yet." Put another way, the answer is "no" but there's still time. The "day ain't over yet."

I've been using this line all week as people ask, "Do you have all the money you need for your Africa trip?" Truth is, we had all the money necessary for the tickets, the shots, the medical insurance, the hotel bill, the food, etc. etc. etc. But we didn't have enough to help pay for the conference where we are going to minister. We didn't have enough to help the Central African pastors travel to the training we had scheduled. We didn't have enough to feed them. Bottom line: we didn't have enough.

One of my favorite quotes outside the Bible is attributed to G. K. Chesterton. He is reported to have said, "God is never late, but he is seldom early." (Actually as I look for verification of that quote, I come up wanting…still…it's a true statement.) I've seen the accuracy of this statement time and time again, as I've watch God provide, albeit usually at the last minute.

All this week, Bonnie and I have been queried with regard to our finaces for this trip. And all week long we have been telling those who asked, "No, we don't have the money yet, but God will provide." Truth be told, privately Bonnie has been a little concerned. She acknowledged that God would provide, but the lateness of the hour rattled her at times. When this happened, I'd always reminder her of Chesterton's statement, remind her we didn't need the money yet and say, "Day ain't over yet."

Technically, we didn't need the extra $1200 until tomorrow morning. But practically speaking, if we didn't receive it at church this morning, we didn't see how it would come in. So we arrived at church, not speaking to anyone about this need, but waiting to see what God would do.

When I arrived at church, someone pressed $100 into my palm as he shook my hand. "This is for your trip," he said with a smile. I thanked him and slipped the bill into my pocket without looking at it. "Time for that later," I thought.

When it was time for our season of community prayer, one of the Elders called Bonnie, Elizabeth and I forward so the whole church could lay hands upon us, commission us, and pray for our trip. I confess I found this time especially meaningful.

Last year I departed for Africa alone, without such a commissioning. The church I was attending had a man as the head of the missions committee that felt the need to be…shall we say…extremely hands on. Put another way, if it didn't come through him, it didn't get done without a fight. As the trip was hastily arranged, the pastor told me (with genuine sorrow) that he just couldn't call me forward and pray over me unless he was willing to endure significant trouble in the church. I was disappointed both at the lack of prayer and the state of the church, but I understood.

This year, however, the church prayed for me. Not only me, but my dear wife and daughter who are going with me. The contrast to last year was marked and I was grateful to God and our church for the change.

At any rate, after the service was over, one of the Elders gave me a check. "This is the total of what has been given including today," he said. Again, I put the check in my pocket without looking at it. I thanked him, and after visiting for a few minutes more, left the building. Only when we were in the car, did I pull out the bill and the check. I was shocked, although I shouldn't have been. We needed $1200 for our trip. The total was $1220.

Isn't that just like God? He is never late, but he is seldom early. He provided for us. He gave us exactly what we needed with just a bit to spare. As we prepare to depart tomorrow, I can't help but be reminded of his faithfulness. It builds my weak faith for the coming trip and gives me the opportunity to publicaly tell of his faithfulness. 

I don't know what's going on in your life, but if you're waiting on God, remember: "Day ain't over yet!"

Reverse Culture Shock, The Black Panthers, and Kroger

For the first time in two weeks (although it seems much longer), it's quiet. I'm sitting at home, alone, after returning from Burundi last night. Bonnie and Liz are at the store. There are no street noises, no children playing, no loud music, just blissful quiet.

Whenever I return from a missions trip overseas, I experience a certain degree of reverse culture shock. This trip, it started on the bus ride from the airport to the parking lot, where our car (and home) awaited. I don't remember who was the first to make a remark, but soon all three of us were joining in. We noticed that the windshield of the bus didn't have a hole and wasn't cracked. Another noticed that there were actual lanes on the road that people seemed to respect. The third observed the lack of motorbikes whizzing in and out of traffic and the lack of bicycle taxies and pedestrians. In the video I posted above, you'll spot all of these things in abundance. By the way, this video in no way communicates the sheer terror of a local African taxi ride. In case you're wondering, closing your eyes doesn't help much.

But the real shock came, as it always does, when we arrived home. Oh it doesn't hit at once, but sometime within the first 24 hours I realize that, while by American standards our modest home may not seem like much, but the standards of the majority of the rest of the world, we are part of the über-wealthy. Most people reading that last sentence roll their eyes and go, "Yeah, yeah, I know." But they don't know. No one knows until they experience the crushing poverty of much of the rest of the world for themselves.

But this year my reverse culture shock took a slightly different form. The first night at home, all of us were completely exhausted. We had been awake for over 40 hours with only slight cat-naps on the plane for rest. I had the most energy of the lot of us (which wasn't saying very much) so I went to the local Kroger for some frozen pizza. It was there that I thought, just for a moment, I was back in Africa.

I noticed in the store two extremely well-dressed black men in suits. That's not all that unusual in North America. What struck my eye was the other black man in urban fatigues with an army insignia on his color (O-2), bolstering a sidearm. You see this in Africa on occasion, but I confess that I've never seen it in my local Kroger before.

Now, before I tell you what happened next, you really, really need to remember that I was sleep deprived. Liz tells me regularly that I'll speak to anyone. That's true. But this is a little over the top even for me. But I was tired. I wasn't thinking straight. Seriously.

Well, in my sleep deprived brain, I associated the men in the suits with the body guard with Africa. So, being generally fearless and exhibting my usual lack of good judgment, I approached the one that looked like the leader and said, "Samahani Bwana, wewe onasema kswahili?", which being translated is, "Excuse me Sir, do you speak Swahili?" The man looked at me with surprise and said, "Excuse me?" The bodyguard looked confused and squared his shoulders to me. I don't think anyone felt threatened, which, considering the sidearm is a good thing. Still, I looked like I had just crawled out from under a rock. I felt like it too. I imagine they thought I was crazy. But…well…did I mention that I really, really tired?

In my sleep-deprived state, I was genuniely surprised by his answer and said, "Sorry sir, but usually you see an armed guard with two well-dressed men in Africa. Since I just returned from there about an hour ago, I thought you might be visitors." It was only then that I saw the patch on the guard's shirt. It had a panther's head in a circle. A black panther's head.

For the record, the man I approached was the perfect gentleman. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself. I don't remember the first name, but the last name was "X." I appologized again and wished him a pleasent day. Then I headed for the frozen pizza.

Another man saw our exchange of pleasentries and greeted me as I walked by. He was also an African American but, while he flashed me a huge grin, he was less than complimentary to the New Black Panthers he kept watching closely. I don't remember exactly what he said (I was really tired), but it was clear he knew the men involved by reputation and didn't approve. He even knew Mr. "X's" name.

When I checked out, the young man ringing up the ticket also commented on our (what was rapidly becoming famous) exchange. He didn't have much to say about the black panthers, but was amazed that a white man like myself would even talk to them, let alone initiate a conversation.

To be candid, if I realized they were New Black Panthers, I probably would have avoided them. I would have refused eye contact and walked different aisles. But, and this should be no surprise, the reality was different than the reputation.

I'm still working through what conclusions to draw from this little encounter. I confess I don't understand why someone requires an armed guard in a suburban Kroger unless it is part of a mystique they are trying to maintain. What I do know is this: I'm thankful to live in the United States, where personal armed guards are primarily for appearances, not protection.