Beauty Eclipses the Tension

Eclipse fever cast its own eclipse over the United States this month.  It was cloudy and rainy locally, so the untimely darkness was our only indication of the phenomenon.   Listening to the recordings of people as they experienced the veiling of the sun was enough to bring tears to my eyes.  Their cries of astonishment and delight had me almost as captivated as they were on August 21.

The non-political, non-commercial (mostly), grace-filled moment offered us a brief respite from the tension that persists among us in the U.S. these days.  The tension seems to take on new forms daily, assaulting us from every direction, making us wary and suspicious.  It is relentless and self-energizing, searing us in its heat if we let it get too close for too long.  Is it any surprise, then, that our collective sense of wonder during the eclipse felt like a healing, refreshing breeze?

It reminds me of an incident from a few months ago.  Last winter a friend and I launched a discussion group called “Knock Knock.”  It was an attempt to address emotion-laden political issues with greater care than seems to be the norm in the public square.  We chose guidelines to help us speak and listen to one another with sensitivity and curiosity.  We practiced, we fumbled, we kept at it.  The participants who came timidly at first gained confidence, delighted at the chance to engage in meaningful dialogue that is safe, thoughtful, open.

Our final gathering before the summer hiatus had us listening to a local politician, offering him the opportunity to tell his story beyond issues and votes.  The habit must be hard to break, because the discussion got a little heated.  I realized that I was unprepared for this problem.  How to intervene within the spirit of our principles?

April 2017 rainbowSuddenly someone pointed across the table and blurted, “Look!  A rainbow!”  The wine bar where we gather is entirely made of windows, so there it was, vivid and delicate.  We watched it grow and recede, glow and fade until the colors disappeared.  We oohed and aahed, laughing together at this unexpected gift.

As we returned to our seats, our smiles morphed from awe to merriment, collectively realizing how the rainbow had broken the tension in the room.

We cannot control the skies, nor each other.  We are disappointed often, clouds darkening both our personal and collective horizons.  But once in a while, beauty breaks in to surprise us, unite us, and heal us, if only for a moment.

About “The Gate”

My thoughts on Marie Howe’s poem “The Gate”

“I had no idea that the gate I would step through

to finally enter this world

would be the space my brother’s body made.”

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September 2016

I feel sometimes as though the gate I step through to see the world is my mother’s smile.  I feel my lips forming her smile and feel my eyes turning into hers, twinkling with a secret knowing.  Other times I find myself crying her tears.  Feeling the pain of loneliness that seems as though she is weeping along with me, in me.  Looking long at someone’s suffering that no one around me notices, allowing the ache to permeate my protective shell and give space to tears.

But her smile.  Winsome, hard-won, given.  It healed me, gave me such hope.  Told me that everything will be all right, for her, for me, for the yet-unborn who will inherit the ghost of a smile that opens a space in the world for them to walk through.

 

Snatches

 

This month I enjoyed hiking with friends in the Rocky Mountains near Estes Park.  As hiking “veterans,” sometimes we devise ways to entertain ourselves on the long hikes back to the trail head.  For example, once we challenged each other to name movies or books beginning with every letter of the alphabet.

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Enjoying the easy hike to Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

During one hike this year, we overheard some young women talking about mathematics as they passed us on the trail.  At least I think it was mathematics.  The language was above my head!  It occurred to me that it would be fun to create fictitious snatches of conversation that would turn other hikers’ heads.  We laughed as we came up with some provocative statements:

“I was so relieved they didn’t look in the trunk!”

“Roadkill doesn’t taste that bad if you use enough seasonings.”

“We got the head buried, but then we didn’t know what to do with the body.”

“I told him, if you’re going to shoot me, shoot me!”

(You can see the direction our ideas were taking.)

It was fun to imagine the comments that hikers would make after passing us on the trail.  It was pretty entertaining.

This is what passes for “extreme” sports in my set.

We only managed to use one “snatch” on other hikers without laughing and giving away the game.  I saw some hikers approaching and said, “…so what do I do after you’ve won the lottery and bought the house, gone on all the trips you can think of?  I’m not sure what to do next.”

We form impressions of people based on brief interactions, careless remarks, or a comment on Facebook or Twitter.  Those impressions may or may not be accurate.  I can’t count the number of times I have had to alter my opinion of someone because I got to know them better.

I got to thinking about “snatches” in our lives, slices of our speech or behavior that people witness without knowing us otherwise.  Interactions with cashiers or waiters or strangers on a neighboring campsite.  What kind of impressions do we make?

I don’t think we have to pepper our conversation with the gospel message or Bible verses in every other sentence in order to offer the love of Jesus to the world.  We can be living lights of love and encouragement in myriad ways, participating in the reign of God by our generosity.  Of course we can always share the basis for our hope when the occasion arises.

We don’t have to be profound to have an impact.  Sometimes a well-timed question seems best to me:

“Huh.  I wonder how it felt to be on the receiving end…”

“How is that (attitude, story, perspective) workin’ for you?”

“So what do you think?”

I wonder whom I will meet along the “trail” today.  Happy hiking!

 

An even preachier version of this appeared in the Spencer Daily Reporter of August 4, 2017. 

Succeeding at Civility

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Here in northwest Iowa we have been conducting an experiment for the past few months.  A colleague and I started a dialogue group to create a space for gracious conversation about issues that affect everyone, so we mostly talk about politics.

Almost everybody I know felt beat up after the presidential election of 2016.  It didn’t matter whether your candidate of choice won or not.  If you got into conversations about the election, there was a good chance you got into a heated argument.

It is tough out in the public square these days.  During the presidential campaign, protesters who shouted at political rallies were escorted out the door.  But it wasn’t just in public places.  Thanksgiving dinners were ruined even after the election, with angry words spoken and turkey suddenly tasting like cardboard as anxiety rose to a fever pitch.

In the months since, the situation has not gotten better.  We could almost predict the shocking news of a recent shooting motivated by political differences.

We can do better than this.

Last year my friend Wendy and I talked about how to get people together to share their ideas, tell their stories, and listen instead of arguing.  We decided it was worth some trial and error at first.

So, we did it.  We had two pilot meetings in December.  The fact that people came in the middle of the busy Christmas season indicated how much they needed this.  They were excited to read the rules of dialogue and start practicing gracious conversation together.

We launched officially in February.  Word got around.  The local editor did a beautiful article the weekend before our launch.  New faces appeared at virtually every gathering.  People of all political stances, a wide range of ages, and vastly different backgrounds shared their views around the table.

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We had to work at listening to each other.  I had to remind people not to form arguments and bring background material.  We were there to hear each other’s stories, not debate or reach consensus or even common ground.

On the day I screwed up my courage to begin this venture, the words “Knock, knock” came to mind out of the blue.  What?  Is this a joke?  Where is this coming from?  I won’t get all mystical here, but it felt like divine inspiration.  My first reaction to the words “knock, knock” was to think, “who’s there?”

That’s it.  Who is there?  As Elizabeth Alexander asks in her poem, “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” “are we not of interest to each other?”

This is what we have been ignoring in our political debates.  Instead of getting more and more shrill in our efforts to prove we are right, we need to pause and consider the person we are talking to.  Instead of trying to convince you why you are wrong I need to ask, “Why does this matter to you?  What is at stake here for you?”  And then just listen.  Ask questions out of curiosity.

What have we got to lose if we do this?  Nothing.  We learn different perspectives.  We realize why our problems are not easily solved.  We understand that we have to live together and find a middle way because we care about each other. 

That’s what has been happening.  We have been making new friends.  We have actually been laughing together with people we can’t agree with about health care or guns or immigration policies or abortion.  We are hearing each other’s stories, and telling our own.

At our first gathering, I said, “Folks, we have to start somewhere.  I don’t know if this will succeed or not, but we have to try.”  Every head nodded emphatically.

It feels so good to be listened to.  It is exciting to realize that I can be a good listener too.  Most of all, it is a relief to find that we can do this.  We really can do this.

Because who’s there really matters.

Knock Knock is on summer hiatus.  You can see more at our Facebook page, “Knock Knock One,” and follow us for future posts.  Principles of dialogue for our group are taken from Kay Lindahl’s book: Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening.  

 

 

 

Atonement Reconsidered

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Texts:  Leviticus 16: 3, 5-11, 15-16, 20-22; Matthew 27:50-51       

“The Old Rugged Cross” is a hymn I sang at many bedsides while I was a nursing home chaplain.  It might seem like just another dusty old hymn to teenagers, but it is a beloved classic for me and for many of you who were born long before me.  The familiar refrain says, “I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it someday for a crown.”  This is a great statement of hope for us.  But why is the cross of Jesus Christ so important?  What really happened there?

In the midweek Lenten worship gatherings at the church I am serving this spring, we are taking a closer look at the event on Golgotha—that “hill far away”—that is the focus of the Christian faith.  Although we might be tempted to avert our eyes from the terrible suffering of Jesus, we will not look away this time.  We need to know what we mean when we say that he died for our sins.

Although it is our most beloved religious icon, the Roman cross could be considered the most unreligious of all objects.  It was meant as a deterrent to the people of Israel.  Anyone who dared to threaten the iron rule of the Romans through crime or rebellion was seized and tortured to death on that gruesome invention.  The crosses bearing criminals were posted along the road, their bodies rotting away, exposed to carnivorous birds.  It was an effective warning to passersby: do not do what these fools did, or you’ll meet the same fate.

How did we go from an instrument of torture and death to singing “Jesus paid it all,” to using the cross as a decorative shape for our walls and purses and blue jeans?  I hope we can explore its meaning and conclude that the use of this symbol deserves more thoughtful treatment.

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The cross I chose for this piece is a stained-glass window, a depiction of the story of Jesus’ death.  It shows that the cross is more than a symbol.  It is a story that defines us as God’s people.  And our stories are somehow gathered into the story that shape represents.

The cross is at the very center of our faith.  Jesus didn’t come to earth merely to sweet talk us into being good.  There are plenty of wise teachers who can do that, and they have their followers.  Jesus came to address the sin that enslaves us and kills us.  There was no convincing us of our need for this.  And so Jesus put himself in the path of sin’s deadly force to render it impotent, unable to kill us in the end.  He took the punishment to satisfy the judgment our sins place us under.

The Scriptures declare this function of Jesus’ death on a cross:

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.”  (1 Peter 3:18a)

“[John] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’”  (John 1:29)

“Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17)

“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 3:22b-25a)

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

The idea of Jesus taking on the punishment we deserve is called atonement.  Atonement is a meaningful word.  It means that the guilty one has received a just punishment for their wrong.  An embezzler spends time in jail and also has to pay back the money that was stolen.  A murderer is given the death penalty, in some states; and in others, she lives imprisoned with her shame for the rest of her life.

The atonement is Jesus paying the penalty for our sin.  In Old Testament terms, Jesus is the ultimate, perfect sacrifice for our sin, so that the sacrifices described in Leviticus are no longer required.

“The wages of sin is death,” Paul tells us. (Romans 6:23) Somebody has to pay.  It seems to be a component of a civilized society.  If we don’t punish people for doing wrong, we will fall into anarchy, won’t we?

I wonder.  How much is our sense of just punishment dictated by an innate compulsion for vengeance?  Revenge takes root at an early age. Take a toddler’s toy, and he will hit you or bite you.  We punish children for taking vengeance, but he impulse remains in us.  Take my daughter’s life and the first thing I’ll want to do is to hunt you down and kill you.  Somebody has to pay.  We don’t always act on those feelings, but our sense of justice demands punishment.

In the passage from Leviticus that we read today, we find that there were not only sacrifices to be made for the sin of the people; there was also a scapegoat.  It is an interesting concept.  My understanding is that it was a provision for the sins the people didn’t like to admit, the sin we can’t bear to acknowledge because either it seems harmless, or it feels too shameful to name.  Those sins are supposedly assigned to a goat that is driven away, out of sight.  The people can go about their business again…except that, when the wind is in just the right direction, there is that faint sound of a goat bleating out there in the dark.  The guilt won’t go away that easily.

Jesus became our sacrifice for the sin we admit to, and the scapegoat for the sin we would rather gloss over or hide. Sin comes so naturally to us that we don’t recognize its shape nor its impact.  It was perfectly described in Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve disobeyed God by trying to put themselves at the center in place of God.  “The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man.”[1]

The atonement is about sin, plain and simple.  Now one of the problems that we can have with this is that it seems to imply a God who is cold, almost a Scrooge-like character who is watching every penny, so to speak.  A God who stands ready to lower the hammer when we do wrong.  Well, at least the good news is that Jesus bore that punishment for us.

Yet it still leaves us with a God who is to be appeased more than anything.  Take care of business, make sure you go to heaven when you die, but is that record-keeper a God you really want to know?  The Scriptures show us a God who is determined to care for us, and wants us to care for one another.  Those sacrifices that God commanded in Leviticus made us realize the gravity of our sin, but they couldn’t soften our hearts toward God.

David the psalmist said as much when he gave voice to God’s dreams for us.  We read it just last week, on Ash Wednesday.

“For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”  (Psalm 51:16-17)

God wants our hearts to be broken over our sin, not because it makes a mark on our record, but because God’s heart is broken over it.  Sin hurts us, hurts other people, and so it hurts God.  The atonement is directed not toward a wrathful, divine punisher, but toward the outcome of our sin, because that is the focus of God’s wrath.  God is righteously angry when greed leaves whole tribes of people dying of hunger, when perversion and entitlement enslaves young girls and exploits them.  War, abuse, pornography.  We want a God who is angry about these horrible manifestations of our sin.

And it is our sin.  See, the cross is not so much an antidote to your bad habits as it is God’s response to a world gone wrong.  Our bad habits are the seeds of the greater sin, make no mistake.  It is our participation in the world’s darkness that Jesus addresses on the cross.  That is worth his suffering, and it must be dealt with.  Otherwise we would continue to think that we are in charge, that we know what is best.  In our narrow, self-centered, warped version of what makes sense for the world, we will keep hurting and killing one another.

It is possible that the sacrifices required in the generations of God’s people that began with the escape from Egypt were a step in a process.  Were they meant to show us that sacrifices cannot ultimately bring us to God?  That our innate desire for revenge is not the last word on God’s righteousness?  Because punishment is an endless cycle, never effectively dealing with the sin that keeps enslaving us and killing everything in its path.

Why does the cross matter?  What difference does it make to you this afternoon, when you watch the basketball game on TV, or tomorrow when you go to school or work?  I’m glad you asked.  You don’t have to live under a cloud of shame, because God took the anguish of sin’s shame and removed its power by forgiving us.  Because Jesus died on the cross, you don’t have to spend your life striving for respect or significance.  Jesus considered you worth rescuing from the clutches and deadliness of sin.  The cross matters because the evil in this world might be horrifying, massive, and deadly, but it cannot ultimately kill all those God has claimed as his own on the cross of Jesus.

But this is only one aspect of what was accomplished on the cross of Jesus.  There is a lot more to think about, rich colors and layers of meaning that give us every reason to cherish that “old rugged cross.”  But even as I strive to point out the beauty and profound meanings of the cross, we cannot really break it down into tidy theological points.  In the end, all we can do is come to the cross with nothing to say for ourselves.  We simply gaze at our suffering Savior on his cross, and know that this brutal, mysterious piece of history is the source of our life, our faith, our hope.  Thanks be to God.

[1] Stott, John.  “Naked Pride” in Bread and Wine, 2003.  (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House), p. 217.

Praying Through the Neighborhood

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Please come with me on a tour of the neighborhood in Sebenikoro, a suburb and poor cousin of Bamako, the capital of Mali.  We will be tagging along with my friend Maly “Bibi” Sangho, director of the Ase Mali Orphanage.  I arise while it is still dark to meet with her for prayer.  She greets me at my bedroom door and asks me whether I slept well.  When I reply in the affirmative, she tells me that there is someone in the house this morning who did not sleep so well.

Alima is in the living room.  I met her yesterday at the home of her mother, who died suddenly that very morning.  Dozens of women gathered to sit with  Alima in her grief, while a few feet away, the kitchen crew stirred huge pots of rice and beans over the fires in the open air kitchen.  I joined Alima and her friends in a crowded room while they quietly chatted in Bambara, a language unfamiliar to me except for the frequent word of assent and empathy I have picked out: Ah-wo.  As Bibi’s friend and a bona fide pastor—the female version is unheard of here—I was asked to pray for the family of Bintu, Alima’s late mother.  I pray slowly not because that is my habit, but because I am praying carefully in French.  After the “Amen” and the response of “Amina” by those present, we sit a while in companionship and shared grief.

Later, when Alima escorted us away from the gathering, she confided in Bibi that this is the third of three crises in her life.  The first was related to her small soap factory.  Alima manufactures soap from good quality materials but charges a minimal fee so that poor families can afford it.  She has enabled a few young women to start their own soap-making operations.  She was the guarantor for one of them in taking out a large loan for materials.  The young woman did not handle the supplies properly, so they were ruined.  Now Alima is in debt to the bank, with no means to pay it back.

Crisis number two came through a traffic accident.  Alima’s brother-in-law is a driver of a cambion, one of the large trucks that pass between cities in western Africa.  Another man rides along as the “little driver,” fielding phone calls and communicating with suppliers, customers, etc.  Trucking is treacherous in Mali for two reasons that I could see.  The roads are riddled with huge, deep potholes in some long stretches.  Those potholes might have something to do with the lack of weight limits resulting in damage to roads as well as top-heavy trucks overturning.

Alima’s brother-in-law and his partner were in an accident which killed the little driver (the partner).  The main driver was found responsible and thrown in jail.  So Alima’s sister and her children are left without support, not to mention the father in the family.

So, Bibi encouraged Alima to visit us for prayer, and she didn’t waste time in coming.  We sat with Alima for about an hour, and I prayed for her.  He situation seems impossible, but we called on God who loves and provides for us.  We cried together.  The two friends chatted quietly, Bibi assuring Alima that God can handle anything.  She knows what she is talking about, having developed this orphanage from nothing, purely by the grace of God.  Ah-wo.

The sun was shining by the time we said farewell to Alima and saw her on her way in a taxi.  Bibi then invited me to go with her to deliver a piece of equipment to a neighbor. An old but functional wheelchair for Bibi’s use when she has trouble with balance was replaced with a better one.  So we wheeled this one through the bumpy streets and around the corner, to the home of Saran.  This old woman is blind and lame, living in a single room next to several neighbors who rent their own small spaces and share the same courtyard.

Bibi went past the other doors to peer into Saran’s room, a cheerful voice ringing out from the darkness.  The neighbors gathered to help put Saran in her new conveyance, clapping with joy at this surprise for their friend.  I prayed for the smiling old woman, and everyone gathered expressed their thanks.  It seems that the neighbors take it upon themselves to care for their old friend, so they naturally shared her joy at her good fortune.

We were all smiles, too, as we left the little courtyard and its inhabitants.  We greeted mostly children and teenagers on the dusty street, each of them polite in the exchange of “Ca va?” and “ca va bien.”

We stopped next at the home of one of Bibi’s best friends, Molobaly  It is her mother’s home actually, and there were several women in the courtyard preparing lamb, onions, and rice for a baby shower this afternoon.  Molobaly’s brother and his wife have a new baby girl.  We sat in the courtyard with Molobaly and her mother Kumba, an outgoing, cheerful woman who has worked hard to raise three well-trained children.  I was seated next to Molobaly and was asked to pray for her situation.  She has been divorced for ten years, and her children are grown.  Her daughters are going to college.  She is lonely and wants to have a stable, happy life with a new husband, but that is hard to do at her age since all the good men are taken, as Bibi explained.

I prayed for Molobaly to find a husband who will love and support her, but also to know the love and support of God who sees her and understands.  Bibi’s tears flowed freely as she interpreted the prayer for her friend.  Molobaly raised her head after the “Amen,” drawing her hands over her face, and declaring that she feels much better.  She offers many thanks, and walks with us partway down the street before turning back to help with the party preparations.

We head for home, but as we pass by a small shop, Bibi senses that we should turn in and visit the proprietor Nakorian.  We are led through the tidy store to the back, and into a lovely courtyard and impressive house with steps leading up to a veranda.  We are ushered into a large living room, where we are greeted by her husband, an elderly, smiling gentleman.  We have no more than settled near him, on a sectional that could seat twenty people with ease, when two little granddaughters grab our hands and insist on taking us to see something.  Their grandmother does not shoo them away, but instead encourages us to follow them.

We are led to a back bedroom to find a beautiful, tiny baby girl sleeping on the bed as her mother works nearby.  I am asked to pray for little Vivienne, so I gladly gather her in my arms and ask God for health, a happy life, and faith for this tiny child.  Her sisters are delighted with her, and Vivienne’s mother and grandmother are grateful too.  At this point Bibi informs Nakorian that I am a pastor.  Her reaction is typically incredulous: a woman pastor?  She asks me then to pray for her husband, who is a devout Christian man even though she has remained a Muslim.  So, we make our way back to where Alexander is perched daily, his books and implements neatly lined up next to him.  He peers at me through thick glasses and smiles.  He is pleased to learn that I am a Christian pastor, and happy to have me pray for his health and long life.

Meanwhile I keep returning to Nakorian’s face.  She has such kind eyes and a broad, warm smile.  She reminds me of my father’s cousin’s wife Eunice for some reason.  I tell her that she has an American “twin,” and explain that Eunice means goodness.  Ah-wo.  This seems fitting, since Nakorian seems to have a good heart too.  I am rewarded with another lovely smile.

Again we head for home, but we are not finished yet.  A half block away is a family where there are two of the sponsored children who go to the orphanage for food and care every day.  Another sad story: there we find little Isa, a baby boy born on Christmas Day.  His name is the equivalent of Jesus, but I am told this is a coincidence.  Isa’s mother died in a moto accident, leaving her bereaved husband and young daughters behind.  Isa is named after her father, the baby’s grandfather.  Again I get to hold a new baby and pray for a good life for him.  The father’s name is Malamine.  His previous job of repairing televisions is no longer relevant, so they are struggling with his unemployment.  I encourage him to choose strength over bitterness every day.  He seems kind and smart, and I think he understands well what that means, having already made this choice many times.  Ah-wo.

Finally we return to the orphanage where we check on the children and staff.  Bibi has to correct one of the matrons who has allowed a few children to run too freely in the neighborhood.  She also instructs one of the men on staff to get pictures of several children for their sponsors in the U.S.

It has been four hours of hearing stories and praying.  Bibi says that she didn’t plan to stop at all of those houses, but once we began praying, she wanted to keep going.  She knows her neighbors and their stories.

I am humbled by the privilege of praying for these people.  It is a small thing for me, but it is big for them.  They are deeply grateful.  I remind each one that God loves them, and God sees their needs.

What are the stories in my own neighborhood, among my acquaintances?  Who is suffering silently behind each door on my street?  Will I have the courage and compassion to ask them about their stories, and to pray for them?  It is a simple enough task.  It is simple, but it is big.  Ah-wo.

Flying Kites in Sebenikoro

Need ideas for the lectionary (RCL) text this week?  Go to “Menu” and “Lectionary Sermons” for my weekly posting.  

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A child flies a kite made from discarded plastic bags.  Toddlers stretch their arms toward me, their eyes begging for me to pick them up.  A never-ending drum beat advertises a wedding celebration a few houses away.  Scores of people gather in a neighboring house for the six-month-anniversary prayer gathering to remember the deceased, the women cooking huge pots of rice and beans over charcoal fires.  Barefoot boys play soccer in what looks like a deserted lot strewn with half-buried rocks.  The traffic consists of donkey carts, women carrying oversize bundles on their heads, and students chattering or driving motos as they pass by on their way to the vocational school next door.

It is mid-afternoon, and these are my experiences on the first day of my return visit to Ase Mali Orphanage in Bamako, Mali.  It is situated in Sebenikoro, one of the poorer quartiers on the outskirts of the capital city.  I have come to see my friend Bibi, who runs this orphanage through prayer and donations, without public funding.

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Ase Mali Orphanage, Bamako, Mali

There is a church in Iowa that has taken the orphanage on as their project, securing sponsors for 140 children and raising funds for specific needs in addition to that.  They have poured their hearts into this work, and they have been generous at every turn.  Their second annual delegation left a few days ago.

It is a tricky relationship.  While there are kite-flying and soccer playing children, people who work and study and mourn and celebrate on every continent, the cultures in Iowa and Mali differ with one another in significant ways.  Communication falters predictably.  Accountability and methods must be ironed out.  Patience is critical on both sides.

My relationship with the orphanage is simple: I am a friend and supporter of the director, period.  By contrast, the congregation has jumped in with both feet, and they are learning as they go. Victories are photographed and enumerated in grateful prayers to God.  Mistakes and misunderstandings are painful.  This is the messiness of cross-cultural ministry. What the project will look like in five years will be interesting to see.  For now, God’s provision and guidance are unmistakable.

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But Bibi was here, loving and feeding the children before anyone noticed.  Slowly, people
with financial means in France, Britain, and other countries found their way to a project tucked far behind the street-side, ramshackle stalls of a city and country struggling to survive.  They have opened their hearts and their wallets to feed and care for the children here.  The work will go on, thanks to Bibi, thanks to God who is showing her and her supporting friends in Europe, Iowa, and Africa how to nurture these petits who are oblivious to their nation’s place on the global GDP charts.

Like the child who picks up a plastic bag and sees material for a kite, Bibi and her friends make a life for these little ones out of what they have at hand.  God has multiplied their efforts.  It is working.

Meanwhile, the goats range over the garbage in the street, apathetic to the wedding or funeral observances, or growing children, or dreams of soccer stardom.

Tomorrow, if the wind is right, I expect to see that kite again.