My Heart is Full

How lucky I am.

My life is not perfect and neither I am. But I’m enjoying a sense of fullness, happiness, and peace. I’m not worried about it ending, but at some fleeting moment it will. It will lessen and restore, lessen and restore, to varying heights and depths, similar to how this feeling came into existence and to how it distinguishes itself from feelings past.

I’m back in the USA for two months. I came to visit the congregations and synods who support my life and work in Madagascar. I’ve kept a decent pace, sleeping in ten different places over the last 26 days, as I preach and present along the way, sharing a bit of myself, my journey and my work.

I find a lot of satisfaction in my current work, it’s a mix of working with enthusiastic young adults who remind you that there is much hope and promise in this world, and a challenge of learning a new culture and how to navigate my own position and power in a place that doesn’t necessarily see and understand my call to ministry the same way I do.

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My life and my work is really far away, and it’s the kind of far away that can leave you feeling forgotten and alien to your home land and home people from time to time. So I came home with a certain hope about fortifying some of my relationships. It’s a little tricky to intensify them from the other side of world, but maybe a little fortification might build my spirit and give me substance for the forgotten times to come.

And that’s what I’ve been doing in and around the work of preaching and presenting… reconnecting, fortifying, even a little establishing…

Our presence is important! It’s tough to sustain just about any relationship without it; physical, emotional, mental, spiritual presence, our whole person presence. I joked at one congregation about how they finally know who the crazy lady is that they pray for every week and now, I finally know some of the beautiful people who pray for me.

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I really like the life of newness and adventure, of reaching beyond what I thought I could do and finding myself in places I could never have imagined, doing things and saying things that most people don’t have the opportunity to do and say.

But I can really only live this life of newness and adventure, flexibility and imagination because of the people I have known and who know me. I can only live this life through a fairly high degree of trust, faith and support. And that trust, faith and support comes through a wonderful web of relationships both in the USA and around the world.

This time of travel is also an incredible opportunity for digestion and discernment. I been exposed to so much in life and over the last two years specifically. I have been shaped, encouraged and even wounded in ways that only come to clarity when the opportunity to talk and be presents itself.

This has been able to happen in so many ways with so many people over these last days. I am encouraged by so much, not blinded with peppy optimism but instead steadied by honest thoughtful conversation and reflection about life as it is, as it shouldn’t be and as we might make it.

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My heart is full, thanks be to God.

 

The dust is real

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Exhale.

Remember that you are dust

Deep breath and exhale.

and to dust you shall return.

Truth. Gravity. Promise.

We are but dust and when the time comes we will all return … to dust.
Today I do miss the ritual of Ash Wednesday. The imposition of ashes. The marking of a cross on parishioners foreheads as we speak the words, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Marking the same cross that was drawn on them at baptism. The cross of Christ, the seal of Christ, that forever marks you and forever holds you as a child of God.

The emotion that comes with this ritual can be ponderous; for you will be with some of these parishioners when they do return to dust. You also pray its a bit preposterous when marking children so full of life that dust is only something they leave in their wake.

You are marked with the cross of Christ and to dust you shall return … Deep breath and exhale.

Ash Wednesday and the Imposition of Ashes start the communal entry into a time of reflection, a time of dying to our old selves, a time of repentance and cleansing. A time finally where it’s ok to be sad and to recognize and deal with the struggles and issues of life; for great is life but not all of life is great.

I’m missing this and I’m feeling the separation and the distance.

However Church traditions and communities vary, and though the altar and stoles will be purple on Sunday, no ashes today.

Still today the ashes feel real, as the dust came upon a family member early this morning. My Mother’s cousin. I knew she’d been quite ill and suffering the past couple months but to me she was too young, and seeing her last August when I was home didn’t leave any imagination that this would be the news of today or really any day soon.

But Andrea you have returned to dust. This is true, we are all dust and when the time is such we will all return to dust. We know this with heavy hearts and with profound sorrow and we sit in darkness for a time as we wrestle with our loss.

And when we are ready to hear it and to understand it, our Lent will pass and Easter will come upon us and we will be able to believe in and claim the promise that was made to us in those ashes and at your baptism when across your forehead the cross of Christ was made and the words spoken were something like, “Andrea, Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

And with that promise may we find peace.

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What could be

The road into Betoiky at times looks more like a motor cross course than the national road that it is. But so goes life in Madagascar, things are how they are and you find a way to work with them, through them or you can stand still, defeated by your own sense of what “should be.”

Of the many lessons Madagascar has been trying to teach me, (I’m still a rather stubborn one.) the desire and reasonableness to focus on what is and what could be and less often on what should be is one of them.

I travel around this country a ton. (On average I travel no less than 2 weeks a month.) I see a great variety of landscape and almost as much diversity on the wealth and poverty scale, which unfortunately is much much more populated on the poverty end.

Interactive map on wealth and poverty in the world

But that’s not what Malagasy people want you to remember about Madagascar, Malagasy people want you to remember their love and hospitality not their poverty. And if you come to visit us here someone might just tell you those very words.

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I’ve just returned from a trip to Betoiky and Bezaha. I accompanied a group from the USA, all Bishops, Pastors and members of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) as they traveled to see their sister synods here in Madagascar. The contingent of 12 arrived together and traveled out in 4 different groups. I went with one group to an area of Madagascar I had not previously been. A less developed part, that would require us to fly to Toliara and drive another 5 – 6 hours on a road that made me temporarily thankful for a dry rainy season. (Though a good rain while we where there did make our return trip a bit more interesting.)

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The company of my American colleagues was at times reassuring and unsettling. Reassuring in my call as pastor and my faith in Jesus Christ. Unsettling in the striking difference between the life I come from and my life now, or at least how I think of the differences between these two that is unsettling. I, by no means have become Malagasy, but some Malagasy life and understanding has seeped in. Some of my understandings and personal defenses about the challenges and hardships here have had no choice but to develop in a particular way as I witness these challenges and hardships regularly.

In the part of the USA I know, we flatten hierarchies all the time, they still exist in places but not like many places here where everyone seems to understand exactly where they stand in the hierarchy. I found myself dumbfounded in one situation in particular during this trip. The US Bishop I was traveling with, willingly and decidedly took the far back seat of the SUV. The far back seat is what some might think of as for children, but the most honored guest of our contingent took it.

My brain imploded a little when he did, I knew not one of our hosts would understand it and would be troubled by it. And yes, our driver, the Malagasy Synod President (the Bishop’s equivalent in Madagascar) and the President’s wife were all very concerned and each had something to say about it. But the US Bishop stood by his assurance that his seat selection was definitely intentional. We made the trip onward, upending one Malagasy understanding of what “should be.” And I sat there trying to rationalize the cultural dichotomy in my own head and convince myself that the US Bishop did ultimately take the space to have a little space (which can often be a premium in Madagascar.)

I am also thankful for the reassurances I received: intentional or not, confirmations of call and faith are essential. Here in Madagascar, I am a bit of a unicorn. A female Lutheran pastor. That combination of words doesn’t easily exist here, as I’m the only one at this moment that combination defines. I find the Malagasy church here welcoming but not always knowing what to do with me. The desire to be hospitable, to recognize pastors and to have a relationship with the ELCA sometimes get complicated in the light of tradition and cultural understandings. These past two years have given me time and space to understand and appreciate some of this tension and complication. To some in Madagascar, I don’t make sense, I get that. But I make sense to my colleagues back home and I thank them for even the simplest of decisions…like when to robe and when not to robe. We all need to make sense at least some of the time.

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My time in Madagascar will continue to make its mark on my heart and my spirit, it will continue to challenge me to stand firmly on my own two feet, it will continue to widen my understanding of the world and it will continue to define all that could be for the continued work of this lone unicorn.

I’m thankful for the partners and friends I find on the journey.

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Unresolved – some thoughts today

I am not sharing any new news when I say that I am not an overly frequent blogger or Facebook poster, either for myself or for the page that I manage for my work, YAGM Madagascar.

Over the past 2 weeks I posted twice, see what I mean? And the posts are the same for my work and my personal, as I shared the work posts to my personal page. One posted on Thanksgiving showed a fun picture of the current group of volunteers as the backdrop to a typical (and a bit gluttonous) American Thanksgiving feast and the second post was on the current near famine in Southern Madagascar. No idea if this contrast was glaring to anyone else, but its had my thoughts and attention…

I have a pretty crazy job, some would look at me as so lucky, others brave and still others as if I have lost my mind. And truth be told, depending on the day I would agree with all of these assessments. My life in Madagascar holds few similarities to my life back in the US, whether that life was Stockton, St. Paul, Clear Lake, Phoenix or Detroit. The consistent pieces are that I eat and I sleep, I find life and work both energizing and completely baffling. I work more than I should, I find it difficult to stay interested in a workout routine. I occasionally laugh really hard and I’ve know tears of sorrow.

I live in an apartment in the middle of the city of Antananarivo in a neighborhood called Ampasamadinka. (Yes it took me a few months to say it correctly.) I look out my front windows to a busy stone street. There’s a gym and an alley across the way, there is a stand at the alley selling phone credit and snacks. People walk by up and down the street all day, going to who knows where, some selling flowers or apples or baskets. Every couple weeks there is a band of boys probably 4 – 10 years of age that play music for money, there are tourists and beggars and residents and neighbors. And too many cars, small buses, scooters and trucks moving past each other with a lack of respect for adequate space and for the quality of air we all breath.

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If I look out the back windows, relative peace. Many buildings built too close together housing too many people in the heart of the city. From my vantage point up the hill, I don’t see many people but only hear the sounds of living and life … the wind, guitar and drum class, some kids playing, church bells on Sunday morning, christmas concert practice from the elementary school, the occasional midnight party and barking dogs.

And you might be thinking, well Kirsten this all sounds quite normal and pieces of it are kinda nice, and you’d be right, it is, at least for me. I have enough food, security, finance, critical support (health insurance, a flight home if ever necessary, support, connections) and I have a job and the dignity that comes with it. And so do many of my neighbors in Ampasamadinka and beyond, there is a section of people supporting the many fancy restaurants and boutiques around here. But they are only one part of this story and quite frankly they are the easier part to tell.

They are who I run into when I am craving a leafy salad, or have finally convinced myself swimming is a good and healthy thing. Today, I went to the pool for a good swim at a fancy hotel, because that is where the pool is. Out of curiosity, I often come into the hotel and walk through the lobby on my way out, you never know who or what you might see. Today it was a handsome crew from Corsair, other days its special security for distinguished guests or a market place set up for clothes shopping, but whatever it is, its always things and people from a world that doesn’t belong or necessarily even know or acknowledge the famine in the south of this country or even in the neighbors in and around where the hotel sits and where I live.

Coming out the shiny glass revolving door today I was caught by the dichotomy of what was inside and outside the hotel gates, I see it every time I go, but somedays it speaks more loudly.

I walked out the guarded entry onto the busy thoroughfare which encircles Lake Anosy. The sidewalk exists there but not without large holes and exposed sewage, people line the streets selling honey, fruit, batteries, scarfs, belts, used books, newspapers, cookware, really anything you can imagine. Across the street you can look at the lake and the Antananarivo hollywood style sign in the distance. There is a large crowd gathered around a betting game, kids playing and trash along the waters edge, further down the street sparks literally fly as welders work on ironware while we all walk by dodging sparks on one side and cars on the other. Dogs scavenge for food while people hopefully search for useful discarded items in a dumpster so rank that I start walking faster. Soon I ascend a steep and long stone staircase where more sellers sell their wares and where a waterway runs open next to it without guardrail or warning. At the top of the stairs I am back on a street with cars parked on both sides forcing the walkway into the street, cars zip by as I continue to ascend, I pass a new restaurant and an art gallery. I turn the corner and pass a phone credit booth, the Indian restaurant, the day spa, and the Cuban restaurant that looks like a gathering center for prostitutes and their clients in the evening hours and I turn again down my street to pass a banana seller, a chalk lined hop scotch, some small children begging, the driving school, the Japanese language school and the convenience store next to my apartment where I usually end up at some point on the weekend and finally to my apartment where the smily and warm Sampson who guards my building through the day, listens to me tell him about my adventures with my childlike Malagasy.

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So much humanity in a 10 minute walk. As it is throughout this land, the rich and poor, the hungry and full, the employed and the jobless, the extravagant and the destitute, bumping up against each other all day everyday, unless you choose to stay behind the gate. But it is only a few who truly have that choice.

In my work and in the heart and faith work of my own life, I talk, think , make decisions and counsel about living with less. Many people including myself have access to much excess. How many clothes can you wear at a time? For the most simplest of examples. I do think that living intentionally with an eye to what is really needed and necessary for one’s self with an open heart to love and generosity towards friends and neighbors, strangers and refugees (of all sorts) is a good and noble pursuit and philosophy. It is certainly needed in our world of waste and consumerism but I want to look more to our neighbors, strangers and refugees without the choice to worry about excess, instead they simply struggle to get near enough and often to an enough that is inconceivable to many living in the comfortable west.

I turn my attention, and my heart breaks. The options of begging, dumpster diving, prostitution, and in the rural areas, selling off even the very meager belongings and pulling the thrones from the cactus to have something to eat … somehow this seems inconceivable, yet it is reality here and in so many places all over the world. So what do we do?

What one person thinks or does will be different than the next, that’s fair and that’s real. For some its difficult to even conceive of the reality of millions of people world wide struggling to get enough and further stretching the definition of enough to less and less everyday.

For me, I am one of those who gets angry and overwhelmed and sometimes feel defeated. I often feel guilty about the choices I can make and the access to excess that I have. But you know just because you have something doesn’t mean it has to remain yours… Money, time, food, resources, knowledge, compassion and care, many to most people have an excess in one (or more) of these to share.

Any thoughts on what you might be able to share?

Anyway, this is already the longest blog I’ve EVER posted, its not complete and nor are my thoughts or journey, so for now and today, thanks for listening and for considering and supporting this ever hopeful sojourner.

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Real Life

Not too long before I made the commitment to come to Madagascar, I hadn’t really thought about living and working here. I had a friend in Seminary that was from Madagascar and of course thought it would be fun to visit and see my friend’s homeland, but I hadn’t really thought much more about it than that.

Generally, it seems, this is the way people think about Madagascar (at least in the USA), its either the movie or lemurs or its not even on the radar. Some even ask, Is Madagascar a real place? Well, I can definitely attest to Madagascar’s realness. And I can, on soooo many levels…

We could talk about the realness and the affects of global climate change, the mining industry, deforestation, corruption, shifting governments, extreme hunger and poverty so acute that sex tourism has flourished … these are all very real and impacting the greater population in profound ways but for now and this post…

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Do you see the double rainbow? (This is actually a view out the back window of my home.) Rainbows of promise and covenant…I have seen many of these since I have been in Madagascar. They arrive after the heavy rains as the sun comes into the darkness.

“This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and all future generations.” spoke God to Noah.

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These women came to sing and pray with us (the YAGM volunteers and me) when we where on our second retreat. I was never completely sure how far they had walked to come and see us, but I knew their home wasn’t close. They came to sing and pray, they came to worship God together, because what could be more important then welcoming the stranger and worshiping God, together…

Whenever two or more of you gather in my name, I am there…

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People do what is necessary to live, people make do with what they have and find a way. People use the strength of their bodies and creative minds fully. I find people to be very resourceful here, resources are limited so the idea of one way, the right way or the only way doesn’t always make much sense. Just find A way.

I see people using their bodies to do the work that might instead be done by machine or mechanism; but if that is not something you have, you use what you do have, your body and all it’s strength. As I see bodies and minds stretched so, it makes me think about what it means to leave all that you have within you on earth, to be able to look back at the end of life and be able to think, I didn’t take anything with me, I’m used up, I left the gifts God gave me and all that I am on earth. I didn’t waste a thing…

The view from here…

I got an apartment. And over the past few days I’ve actually begun to move in. I have a mattress on the floor, a desk with no chair and a coffee table, this is bliss after basically living out of a suitcase since I left my call in Stockton, California on February 22. Nearly 7 months… it’s time. It’s past time.

A combination of many things to do and trying to find a place in the area I wanted to be in made this a slow process but I pray a good one with a good decision.

My front windows look out onto the street, a busy stone street with never ending traffic Monday – Friday…my back windows offer a much different perspective…

The City of Antananarivo, or “Tana,” where I live is large and loud. There are a lot of people packed into the many hills and valleys that compromise the city. I can only see a small section of the city from my back window, but I can see the city. I can hear the dogs bark and the cocks’ crow. I can feel the unusually cool breeze. I can see a section of humanity or at least I can see where a section of humanity lives.

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There’s a small wood dwelling where the smallest residents seem to be making a game of going in and out, there’s a home with an attached bird dwelling, there’s laundry waving in the breeze and infrequent people walking on the one path I can see. There’s a beautiful red metal roof, a church steeple, a few satellite dishes and a particularly pink wall.

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But from my view I think most of the life contained in these dwellings is hidden, hidden by perspective, by unknowing and by the physical position of my home on the hill.

It’s a great privilege to live in a land other than your home. It’s a privilege to see new things, to be welcomed and to be shown great hospitality. It’s even a privilege to be stared at with the quizzical eye. It’s a privilege to see so many different ways to exist in the world, some enlightening, some challenging and some disheartening and even disturbing. This privilege brings a kind of stirring and knowledge that cannot be easily dismissed…nor should it be.

The view from here … is working on me.

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Life’s a beach …

…or maybe better, there is plenty of life at the beach. The beach in Toamasina that is…

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I had a great visit to Toamasina a few days ago. It’s the major port of Madagascar and it’s on the eastern side of the island. Life moves at a decent pace in this port city…but the beach, as everywhere seems to have its own rhythm. It sits with its back to the life of the city and gazes out at what might be beyond. It walks with a carefree cadence and capitalizes on the beauty, and the breezy easiness of the salt air… well maybe for those who come to relax or to clear their head anyway…

The beach and the ocean that it borders is a source of food and tradition and life.

We (my awesome new friend Sthela and I) took a break from our many meetings and came to the beach. We watched the rain clouds come in and let lose their water, we found refuge under a beach umbrella and we watched through the rain and it’s subsiding….

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We saw at first a single man pulling and pulling a never ending rope. When I first saw him, I thought, “oh this will be fun I wonder what he caught?”… And he pulled and pulled and walked to the edge of the sand and back to the edge of the water pulling and pulling, “what amazing fish did he catch, maybe a shark??” Pulling, pulling.

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Then some other groups of 2 and 3 showed up, pulling and pulling… maybe they were working with this first man? But they pulled and pulled and crossed his path and met up with others. Still the first man pulled and pulled that never ending rope…

Finally to the left of us another group would appear. Pulling with perfect rhythm, pulling in perfect form, pulling the opposite side of the net as the first man, pulling, pulling. How long was that rope, how far did that net go out into the ocean and away from our comfortable chairs underneath our breezy umbrella?

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The net began to emerge and was pulled onto the beach; the bounty of fish was collected in a small pail. The harvesters were satisfied with their collection.

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The rope is recoiled.

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And out to the ocean of food again and again.

Through the hours and the days, through the months and the years. Pulling and pulling, perfectly formed together, obeying an understood rhythm, collecting the fish in a small pail again and again.

One could learn a thing or two about simplicity, cooperation and enough … from Madagascar.

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