27 November 2014

A Special Birth on Thanksgiving Day - Thursday, November 25, 2004

My mud hut

A 10-year old story from my archives on this, another Thanksgiving

“The man or woman who is ready for God and His work is the one who carries off the prize when the summons comes. Readiness for God means that we are ready to do the tiniest little thing or the great big thing, it makes no difference. We have no choice in what we want to do; whatever God’s program may be, we are there, ready.

Are you prepared to abandon entirely and let go? Abandon means to refuse the luxury of asking any questions. When you do get through to abandonment to God, you will be the most surprised and delighted creature on earth.”  
-          Oswald Chambers

When I arrived for another stay at my mud hut, I was as happy to see Charles and the boys again as they were to see me. The language barrier prevents me from communicating too well with the boys but as I pedaled onto the compound, their huge grins spoke volumes. Charles’ wife had been bed-ridden for much of her pregnancy; I hadn’t even laid eyes on her before this trip to Matunda. When I met Agnes, I liked her immediately.

A few days later, when I left to return to Nairobi, she said, “Now Deb, who is going to be with me when this baby comes? It should come any day now. This pregnancy has had me ill the entire time. I fear giving birth alone.” I reassured her she’d be just fine.

Secretly, I wished I could be with her when that moment came. Almost three weeks later - on November 21st - I saw Margaret. Just back from Matunda, she responded negatively when I asked, “Is there a baby yet?” I was surprised, but held out hope that maybe I could share in the event after all. I was to travel to Matunda the following day.

After spending the night in Eldoret, I purchased paint and food items at Matunda market, and headed on my way. Cycling the last few hundred meters in the rain, I wondered if I’d find a new baby on the compound.

Jeremiah, a young pastor friend from Nairobi arrived, as he and I had previously arranged. We visited over peanut butter and jam sandwiches, carrots, and chai. Before he left - and at their request - he prayed for Charles and Agnes and especially for the baby. Agnes was quite concerned, confident it was two weeks overdue.

As I gave Jeremiah a push towards Matunda, the sun had just set in the western sky. Just above the eastern horizon, a full moon rose. All around us, for an entire 360 degrees, the sky was absolutely stunning with pink clouds. What a sight!

Tony, Pope, Jim, and Adu

The next day, I loaned Charles my bike and gave them 200/= for a boda boda  (bicycle taxi) so they could go to a clinic to see about the baby. That evening, Charles and Agnes reported that the nurse at the clinic had concurred - the baby should come any time.

It rained heavy for two hours at night. At midnight, I awoke to voices. Rousing myself out of bed, and peeking out the window, I saw Charles and Agnes praying and singing.

Realizing it was time, I threw on my sweatshirt and joined them. Throughout the night, Agnes laid on a gunnysack on the cold crumbling cement floor, leaning against an old rolled-up foam mattress. She was indeed in labor. Mary John, a neighbor who lives just down the hill, was also present. At their request I retrieved a razor blade from my house. Charles woke the boys and got them settled in the other tiny house on the compound. As he did so, Agnes laughed, “If they hear my groans and noises, they’ll mimic me for a week!”

Throughout the next few hours, and in between the incessant rain showers, I brought my lantern and small tin lamp, as well as my flask of leftover chai for Agnes. Charles tried to light maize cobs. They weren’t dry enough from the recent harvest; the ensuing smoke made it difficult for Agnes to breathe. He opened the windows to let the smoke out but the cool night air made Agnes cold. I brought my jiko (small cooker) and charcoal; eventually the house warmed. 

In between contractions we engaged in lively conversation. We told stories, we laughed. During their narrations, every ten minutes or so, Agnes would disengage in the conversation and endure a contraction. They told us of her difficult pregnancy that had caused her much pain and suffering. She was in and out of clinics and the hospital and very weak and bed-ridden for most of the pregnancy.  

Charles added, “You know - God’s ways are not human’s ways. Sister Deb, it was God that sent you to be our friend. People can say one thing, but God has higher ways. God is power.” Charles, only educated to fifth grade, talks in broken and halting English. All the same, I find him quite eloquent.

Circumcision revelers (across the river in the Mawe Tatu area) serenaded us through the night. It continued to rain off and on. When we grew tired and the conversation waned,  Agnes pleaded, “Charles, tell us more stories to entertain us.”

Crickets counted the passing minutes. My back grew stiff and sore from sitting on a bench. Mary sat on a small box on the floor. In between doing whatever needed to be done, Charles laid down on the mattress on the floor.

Strong, and enduring the pain and discomfort like a real trooper, Agnes got weary. “Will this baby ever come?” My phone indicated the time was 3:07am. Mary suggested we find a vehicle to take her to a clinic. Agnes confided to me she saw no need to go to a clinic. “Now, what for? Where will we find one? Anyway, I still have hope.”

Instead, a decision was reached to summon a midwife in the neighborhood. One had already refused because of the unavailability of gloves. Charles headed out to find another one. I loaned them my torch (flashlight). The contractions were now five minutes apart; Agnes pushed with each one. “This is too much work,” she asserted. Mary and I occasionally helped her walk around the house. Having admired her spirited courage all night, it was apparent to me that she was plum worn out.

An hour passed; still no baby. Agnes soldiered on; it was an agonizing wait. Roosters, in their morning ritual, announced the approaching dawn. When Charles finally came back, he informed us the second midwife had also refused to assist without gloves and without being paid in advance. Agnes was disappointed, proclaiming that was a silly reason not to help someone in need.

A few minutes later, after another couple of strong pushes with no baby, she stood up, noticeably frustrated and exhausted. Wrapping her blanket around her shoulders she announced, “I’m walking to the midwife down the hill here - even if I die at her door!”

I reminded her that the woman had declined to help earlier. “When she sees my condition, now how can she refuse?” Mary asked her how she would make it with no vehicle. “I’ll just go pole pole (slowly). This baby has delayed too long!”

Charles grabbed the torch; he and Mary assisted Agnes on each side. Knowing Agnes was exhausted - and a bit stunned by her decision - I stood transfixed in the doorway. They’d gone a mere ten steps when Agnes moaned, squatted, and let out a scream.

The next sound in the still dark night was the cry of a baby!

Immediately I scooped the crying infant off of the cold wet grass. As I warmed him in my arms, he stopped crying. Charles supported his wife; Mary ran for the lantern. “Deb, there’s still something in there,” moaned Agnes. I told her the placenta hadn’t come out yet. Getting her back into the house was awkward, as the baby and I had to walk very close to her because the umbilical cord was still attached.

She moaned again and Charles lowered her. As I simultaneously squatted down alongside her, a big squirt of blood landed on my foot. Mary placed a gunnysack underneath to catch the placenta, which quickly followed. Charles then led Agnes into the house. I followed with the baby in my arms.

Once inside, Mary fumbled around nervously trying to tie the cord. I helped as best I could by holding back his curled up legs. Having completed its 9-month task, the cord was already cold to the touch. Mary was ready to cut it when I noticed she hadn’t tied the thread nearly tight enough. Eventually she completed the task of retying it; I resumed my seat on the bench. We discussed what should be done with the afterbirth. With his jembe (hoe) Charles buried it.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the child in my arms. I had the unreservedly incredible privilege of holding him for the first full hour of his life. Content and with a full head of curly black hair, he was simply beautiful. With eyes bright and alert, he looked around at his new environment.

Agnes and I marveled at the way things had developed. I checked my phone; he’d been born at 4:30am. I informed her that he looked just like Charles. Too tired to really care, she was simply relieved it was over. 

Charles continued to praise God about the course of the last couple of days. “You know, God’s a power! His ways are not like humans. People can give advice but God’s ways are higher. God’s a miracle. Look at this baby. God is a miracle.” His eyes sparkled; he laughed with joy.

“Deb, it’s for you to name this child,” declared Agnes. “If it had been a girl she was to be called Deb. But I’m not prepared to name a boy. It seems God only wants me to have boys.”

Hesitating for a moment, I considered what name to choose. Suddenly Charles asked, “Sister, what is your father’s name? I think you must have the same character as your father. You’re so kind. I want my son to have that same character.”

“My Dad’s name is Duane. Yes, he is a very kind man.”

“Then that’s the name of this boy - Duane,” proclaimed Agnes. Regardless of never having heard of the foreign-sounding name, they accepted it immediately and practiced pronouncing it.

As we continued to muse over the child’s birth, I told them today was Thanksgiving in America. I explained it’s a day set aside to give thanks to God for all our blessings.

"Duane not only has an American name, he was born on an American holiday!"

Charles insisted that I pray and give thanks to God. As I offered thanksgiving to God for the miracle I still held in my arms, emotion flooded over me; I was barely able to hold back my tears.

As the night came to a close, Charles gave Mary a push home. I sat next to where Agnes lay on the floor and laid Duane by her side. I brought the tin lamp close so she could see him for the first time. “Agnes, here take a look at your son.” Together we marveled at him.

I left to head to my own house. The sun had just come up over the horizon revealing a thick fog across the valley. It was beautiful - the dawn of a new day. 

A few hours later, Charles invited me to join them for the simple lunch he’d prepared. While we ate, we reminisced and rejoiced, repeatedly praising God.

“Deb, I didn’t know I could ever have a neighbor from abroad,” stated Charles proudly with his typical big grin revealing two large dimples. “You are not only my neighbor, you’re my friend. And now this child has a name from America. There’s no other Duane in Kenya. This child is special. God is a miracle. God is power.” Turning to Isaiah 55:8, 9 in his Bible, he read aloud -

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”

If truth be told, he had quoted those verses so many times throughout the night. It seemed to be the theme of Duane’s birth. As he now read the passage directly from God’s Word, tears once again welled up in my eyes.

Indeed, God’s ways are so incredibly remarkable. What an amazing two days it’d been!

While we ate, I took advantage of the opportunity to hold Duane again. Agnes announced that I was to also choose Duane’s second name. Suspecting I may be given that honor I’d already given it some thought. I conveyed to them I thought it should be Jeremiah, after my pastor friend. In my eyes, he’d played a very pivotal role in the unfolding story. Charles and Agnes readily agreed - Duane Jeremiah. We had fun repeating it.

All afternoon, as the intermittent rain showers continued, I continued to give God the glory. What a memorable Thanksgiving this had turned out to be!

Agnes and Charles with Duane, a few weeks after his birth

current picture of Duane

As Oswald Chambers says in the opening quote -

I had been ready. I didn’t ask questions. I had simply made myself available for the tiniest little thing that needed to be done. I abandoned myself to God and to His program.

18 November 2014

Trip to Tanzania: an island, a missionary retreat, and good times with friends

During one of the afternoons of the retreat, I joined three other ladies on a fun excursion to Mbudya Island. I had a great swim, a fun stroll in the woods, and a relaxing few hours.

Thrive Ministry Missionary Retreat

These are the wonderful ladies in my small group.

The main purpose for my trip to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was to attend this fabulous retreat. There were 45 ladies in attendance, all American missionaries serving in Africa. Additionally 18 volunteers traveled from the US to serve us for the four days we were together.

The main goals of the retreat were:

  • to step down from the pedestal upon which we so often find ourselves
  • to be refreshed spiritually 
  • to experience God's lavish love
  • to be reminded of our true identity as children of God
  • to be encouraged and empowered
  • to eat lots of chocolate :)

It was such a blessing to be there and to make new friends. We were challenged and stretched by our speaker, Peg Forrest. We shared loads of laughter; had great discussions and prayer times in our small groups; ate well in the dining room; and enjoyed lots of free time.

Generous anonymous donors paid for 75% of the cost! We were blessed to have over 900 people praying for us - by name - a full month before the retreat as well as during it. The goal of Thrive Ministry is to support and encourage American missionary ladies so they can persevere in their calling.

I had asked God to give me a practical 'nugget' I could take home with me from the retreat. And, sure enough, he did! In fact, I've already implemented it with great results. He is so faithful.

As the retreat drew to an end we were commissioned with a new slant on our calling as missionaries. We were reminded that God gives us a God-shaped purpose that is unique to each one of us and that we are to use that gifting to bring him glory. As we gathered in our small groups one last time to pray for and lay hands on each other, it was intense and emotional.

You who were formed and made by me are called by my name and were created for my glory. 
Isaiah 43:7

Christina and Laurie, leaders of Thrive

A beautiful sunrise on Mbezi beach

Praise the Lord, you his servants; praise the name of the Lord. 
Let the name of the Lord be praised, both now and forevermore. 
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets, the name of the Lord is to be praised. 
The Lord is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens.
Psalm 113

I woke up early one morning and strolled down to the beach. Watching the dawn of a new day is always special and is such a reminder to me of God's faithfulness. On this occasion, an added bonus was watching a boat full of fishermen arrive at the shore with their catch after a night of working under the stars.

 Visiting friends in Dar

I sandwiched the retreat in between visits with friends that live in Dar es Salaam. I had a nice time with Robert and his family, as well as with Penny.

I love seeing whimsical Baobab trees :)

A rare view of Mount Meru's peak, in Arusha

12 November 2014

Dietrich Bonhoffer - a few profound quotes on living in community

The writings of Dietrich Bonhoffer (1906-1945) on Christianity's role in the secular world have become widely influential, and his book, The Cost of Discipleship, is considered a modern classic.

Bonhoffer was a German Lutheran pastor, a theologian, and an anti-Nazi dissident.

The following collection of quotes are from his book, Life Together; The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community.

I find each of the quotes to be quite profound. I hope you'll take a few minutes to read them and digest their truths slowly.

“I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.”

“Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work. 'The kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared.' (Martin Luther)"

“If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all. ... How can I possibly serve another person in unfeigned humility if I seriously regard his sinfulness as worse than my own?” 

“There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God. It is little wonder that we are no longer capable of the greatest service of listening that God has committed to us, that of hearing our brother's confession, if we refuse to give ear to our brother on lesser subjects... The ministry of listening has been committed to us by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work we should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”

“The first service one owes to others in a community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for others is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to ‘offer’ something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service…Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either.” 
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I especially love the last two on listening to others. 

Please leave me a comment and let me know which one you like the best.

05 November 2014

An Open Letter to Missionaries, by Cindy Brandt

Cindy Brandt, author of this piece

[This is a concern I often ponder. I like how Cindy expresses it and wanted to share it with all of you.]

I like to tell people I’m a missionary convert, because I wear this genesis of my faith journey proudly, like a badge of honor. I heard the story of Jesus from your lips, sang the songs of worship in your language, and prayed for the concerns in your heart. You taught me how to be Christian.

I didn’t know then what I know now - that there was an overlap of how you do faith and how you do American.

I learned you don’t practice your faith in a vacuum, but that it is couched in the context of your unique American culture and history. Inevitably, you transferred some of your culture when you communicated your faith to me. I understand this now, but sometimes I don’t think you do.

Sometimes I feel you take for granted the immense power and influence your country and culture has on the rest of the world. Your military presence holds a solid threat in international conflict; your economic policies reverberate throughout the world; your pop culture is consumed in our theaters, on our computers, and in our earbuds. When you speak, we listen, because your voice is strong, your resources are abundant, your presence is loud. Perhaps this is why you sometimes miss the softer cries of our hearts.

And this is the cry of our hearts: to tell the story of Jesus from our own lips, 
to worship God in our own language, and to pray the concerns of our own hearts.

Sometimes the way you tell the story of Jesus is decidedly American. You tell us we must own individual faith and live this faith as autonomous nuclear family units when most of us struggle to grasp the concept of such radical individualism. You say we must express our love to each other in your language, and yet you miss the many other ways we express love to our own people. Sometimes the things you say God cares the most about are a result of your own culture wars: climate change, freedom of speech, abortion.

I know it is terribly arduous work to work cross-culturally. I live that tension in my own marriage and life. I know it is much easier to retreat into the worldview that makes the most sense to us. But the stakes are high when you are proclaiming a gospel that transcends culture and yet can only be delivered via culture.

You humble me so much with your sacrificial love. You leave behind your family, your support systems, your familiar ways of life, in order to enter into our lives. You care for our poor, sick, and needy like very few other groups of people are willing to do. I am thankful and inspired. But the highest cost you pay is not giving up the creature comforts of a higher standard of living. The highest cost you pay will be holding the value system that carries your faith loosely. This is hard, because your faith is why you came. Yet the best hope for this transfer of faith to take root in our own culture is if you’re willing to let us do the slow labor of cultivating our own faith. This means you will need to allow us to make mistakes without judgment. Please remember the history of your own faith is not without blemish. Let us make our own mistakes and learn without the anxieties you bring from your context.

In return, we hope we can bless you with our own stories. Let us show you how to be Christian in ways you have never imagined before. Let us show you how big is God’s grace that covers all of our multitude of mistakes. Let us grow together as equal brothers and sisters in Christ and spur each other on towards greater love and good deeds.

Perhaps you are right: bigger is better. But let’s grow the family of Christ, not by expanding the presence of one expression of Christianity, but by adding on a diversity of stories in which we speak of God. The people you reach are like butterflies emerging from their cocoons; you don’t always know the colors of her wings but rest assured she is beautiful, and she is ready to fly.

A Grateful Missionary Convert

Cindy Brandt blogs at cindywords.com and serves on the board of One Day's Wages, an organization fighting extreme global poverty. 

She studied Bible/Theology at Wheaton College and holds a Masters of Arts in Theology from Fuller Seminary.