One hello is another goodbye

One month ago I said goodbye to another group of volunteers. In the weeks prior, those same volunteers all said goodbye to countless people in their communities who had become friends and family through the year. People who may forever live in their hearts but who most likely they will not see beyond Facebook for a long time if ever again.

This part of the year is an interesting one for me, as I too am part of that community left behind… 

I celebrate the reunions and see the joy radiating, especially from Moms and Dads re-uniting with their adult child again, and yet I confess I mourn it all a little too. 

So much focus on preparing the volunteers to leave their communities well and then shifting towards how to speak about their experiences to friends and family back home. This is my work and privilege. And the best way I know to go about it is with a bit of a stiff upper lip and waiting until everyone has gone to deal with my own emotions. 

(Full disclosure… I tried to wait. Serena you couldn’t hold the tears, could you? 😉 )

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I confess, I don’t like being left behind even knowing that I will be fine. Yet this is the work, to support and grow a group through a year in country, say goodbye and then say hello to a whole new group and start it all over again and again.

I am thankful for the consistency of my friends and colleagues here in Madagascar, though I can’t help but think of the inevitable goodbyes that will come for me too when I talk with the volunteers about theirs.

One day my parents and other family and friends will express a similar joy of my return. And I will be like the volunteers, so happy to see them and simultaneously completely broken hearted. One hello is always another goodbye…

Exhale.

For now, I await a new hello. One that will bring another year of joy, challenge, learning and hope. And one that is full of its own goodbyes.

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Life is fragile

We know it, we’ve seen it, we’ve felt it and yet it’s proof often catches us by surprise. Life is fragile. Life changes, it lives, it dies, it takes new courses, it finds new loves. Life can feel strong and powerful, deliberate and bold, but still it can never walk away from this truth; life is fragile and we are fragile in it.

I remember watching my grandfather hang wallpaper at my parents house when I was a child. He was working in the den and came to a corner inside the closet, he took a small piece of wall paper scrap to cover a gap and told me it was our secret how he’d done it. How vivid that memory is all these years and decades later that if that wallpaper ever comes down, I want that corner scrap.

Grandpa died when I was 12 years old. A proud and stubborn man who wasn’t interested in taking the adequate rest after a quadruple by-pass surgery…another heart attack would come and we would lose grandpa forever.

At his funeral, the cars where ordered for the procession to the cemetery and the casket was loaded into the hearse, I watched from inside of the car as my Mom, my Dad and my Mom’s two brothers just collapsed into each other’s devastated mutual embrace.

Life is fragile.

While pastoring a church in California, I had ample opportunities to witness the fleeting quality of life. Late night calls, unexpected passings and vanishing hope as prognosis became clear. I cried with parishioners and by myself. I questioned the universe, God and everything available to question, I felt my fragility, our fragility.

Living in Madagascar, the fragility of life comes into laser focus more often then any where else I have lived. The price of poverty and lack of development is often a lack of access and services which consequently give way to a closer relationship with death, the unknown and choices thrust upon you. I’ve watched caskets transported on top of taxi brousses and gotten choked up as I spoke words of condolence to surviving family members.

But this week that fragility hit me in a new way.

I sent a volunteer home to be with her sick father. We did so with a mix of hope and trepidation and a charge to get back to Mada as soon as it was reasonably possible. We’d cried tears of anger and frustration, tears of sadness and question. She hoped that this was an unnecessary decision to return, that he would be fine when she got back. But he wasn’t. She missed him.

I am overwhelmed by my own sadness even as it pales in comparison to the devastation of this beautiful young women and her family. I didn’t know this man, but I know his daughter and I imagine her pain.

No resource, knowledge or privilege could grant health. And life came to remind us again how fragile she is.

We can be strong and brilliant, lovely and whimsical but times come when fragility is what defines all; our space, our time and ourselves.

Take nothing for granted.

Life is fragile.

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Friends and Loves

I am coming up on my 3-year anniversary of arriving in Madagascar. March 10, 2015 I first stepped on Malagasy soil and breathed Malagasy air. Three years ago my head was spinning and my heart spent its days vacillating between pounding in my chest and slipping to the pit of my stomach. What did I say I would do? And who did I think I was? Over and over I asked as I traveled around from city to city meeting person upon person all while never knowing completely what I was doing or even where I was.

How funny to look back from a position of knowing what I couldn’t have known I didn’t.

Since the New Year I have been able to visit all nine of the volunteers at their sites. During this set of visits something shifted drastically from previous visits at many of the sites. I’ve always enjoyed visiting, I’m too social of a person not to, but the tenor and tone changed from business and colleague to collaborator and friend. Was it me? Was it them? Is it we?

I feel one of the lessons life is repeatedly trying to teach me … and maybe you have this one figured out already? … but life keeps trying to teach me that everything takes longer than you think it will… relationships, projects, travel, settling in a new home and in a new community, getting comfortable with a new job…it always takes. so. long. I fight that reality over and over, when will I just accept that time is so often the only thing that’s needed.

How can I get to know someone if I don’t spend time with them? How can I learn a new skill if I don’t give the practice enough time? How can I heal and be able to say good bye? Time, it’s always time.

Not always a quantity of time, but definitely a quality of time.

Something awoken in me not that long ago about this and my own need to continue to lean in. To press forward. To give love and friendship, to trust and stay open for the most positive and promising of outcomes … in my work, my life and in my relationships.

Not stepping away from the hard stuff or the difficulties of life either but leaning in to all. of. it.

And not blindly, or naively, but boldly and confidently and taking moments as particular and precious. Regarding them as specific and real, not judging or qualifying them. Just taking them for what they are, with and from the beautiful people who share them with me.

And maybe this is just an over flow of positive energy and recent conversations, but I’ll take it and I’ll keep moving with it.

Maybe you’ll take it and move with me too…

Moments of friends and love these past couple months.

Some Daze

Some days will spin you in circles, let you fly free and then tie you in knots. Sunday was one of those days…

I went to Betafo, a small town west of Antsirabe, Madagascar. Here the first Lutheran worship was held in Madagascar 150 years ago. Rightfully we were there with more people than I could count to celebrate the 150 years of Lutheranism in Madagascar and 500 years of the Lutheran Reformation. (This weekend would have happened in October, but the plague got in the way…)

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It was quite the event. Church people from all over Madagascar, numerous choirs, government officials, some military and a few missionaries came to witness and to celebrate the endurance and hopefulness of the faith.

I have to admit to being a little overcome, maybe even a little star-struck when the murmurs rose as Marc Ravalomanana (the ousted former President of Madagascar) descended the center stairs. He waved to the crowd on the left and on the right, possibly a bit much for a church service entrance but then I wasn’t the only one making sure they got a picture.

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He took his sit and then as if on cue, the Presidential helicopter flew over head to deliver the President of Madagascar, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, his entrance only different because of his close body guards, I couldn’t resist and got a picture of him as well…

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Oh the separation of … never mind…

With the two most important and distinguished guests present the service began…confession and forgiveness, scripture, hymns, homily, offering and choirs all leading up to announcements and introductions.

The ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) along with NMS (Norwegian Mission Society) and Dan Mission (Danish Mission) form the trilogy of what is referred to here as “traditional partners” to the FLM (Malagasy Lutheran Church). The Norwegians have been here 150 years, the Americans about 130 years and the Danes joined more recently. It was our time to stand up and be recognized. There is always a speech given by one of the partners, the Norwegians took the task. I just had to stand there and smile.

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While we were still standing the Norwegian Official sang an old Norwegian hymn to the crowd. An interesting but endearing choice. From my vantage point I could see many with the look that says ‘what exactly is going on here?’ And then Marc Ravalomanana, seemingly just as surprised as many others, took out his cell phone to get not just one but two videos of the song while he sat their smiling. And then it was over, or so I thought… I turned around and there was President (of the country!) Hery Rajaonarimampianina standing with his hand extended to me, with a clear “Thank you.”

Where am I and how did I get here?

Later that night I went to dinner with a friend. We walked to a restaurant not far away. I told her about how my predecessors had introduced me to the place and how they had always made sure to take their leftovers and give them to some of the homeless street kids as they returned to Lovasoa (where I always stay.) I confessed that I had made it a bit of a habit to do the same. So when the meal was done we gathered leftovers and took to the road to return home. It unfortunately didn’t take long to spot a couple kids huddled up against a store front. I asked if they wanted the food. It was a girl no more than 8 years old with a second smaller child resting on her lap. I gave them the food and proceeded to tell them what was in the container. “Thank you, thank you madam.” The child was no more than 8 sitting on the street protecting another smaller child at night…maybe you can imagine the sense of the unimaginable, the sorrow, the injustice. This is life for these kids. I walked away in a deflated daze.

Not 50 meters further continuing down the road. A young man grabbed my arm, not violently but surely and suggestively. I spun around quite quickly to release my arm from his grasp and very loudly said, no! To which, he just laughed.

Some days will spin you in circles, let you fly free and then tie you in knots.

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I’m not sure which part of the day I will remember the most, but I can say the range of reality – power and powerlessness, celebration and distress, faith and defeat, hope and injustice – came to show itself in awkward and vivid dichotomy.

Lord of hope, God of Grace and Spirit of Peace, come to dwell with your people. Protect, guide and enlighten us. Make us to see reality as it is, help us to embrace your truth and give us courage to stay awake. Amen.

Not everyone is sick

I woke up today with a couple things on my mind this morning. Which is pretty normal when you’re living in a place that’s main news story is the Plague.

It’s certainly not good that the Plague is so active but it’s also not as scary or as threatening as some of the statistics and news stories might have you believe. There are areas where there are more cases and it is a bad situation for those areas and those people affected; but that’s not everywhere and that is not everyone’s reality, it’s certainly not mine. (Nor any of the volunteers that I work with.)

Plague is a super scary word. It conjures up images and ideas of medieval times and apocalypse. But even as the number of total cases rises to 805 this week, it’s not always obvious here and it’s not changing everything and for some, it’s not changing anything.

This is a serious situation but it is not an all encompassing one for everyone. There is much of the island untouched by the plague. We pray that remains the case.

We also pray that the circumstances which help a disease like this spread – poverty, lack of sanitation, insufficient healthcare – begin to improve and bring wholeness, health, sufficiency, trust, faith and peace to Madagascar now and in the days, weeks, and months to come.

We are thankful for the international resources that have arrived on the island, they are needed and they will help fight the disease.

I write this as a reassurance for friends and family back home who may be wondering or scared for me and the volunteers with whom I work. We are fine, we are healthy, we are prepared, we have access to all the things we need to insure that. The problem here is that there are a whole lot of people in this country that can not say the same, something I will likely comment on more at another time.

For now, I’ll leave you with some visual proof of things unchanged…these are all out my front window today. And I’ll add a video to my Facebook page for more of today…a whole 53 seconds of it!

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Love and Peace to you from Madagascar!

And remember, this is a curable disease. I have the prophylaxis medication on hand to keep me healthy, in the highly unlikely time I might ever need it. (and so do the volunteers)

Prayers for the Journey

an invitation to be still and to breathe…

…we all did, at least for awhile.

We sat and laid around the common room after our devotion time; quiet, still and listening. I imagine some to their own breath, others to the thoughts of excitement or stress swirling around in their heads, maybe some thinking of home or being anywhere other then where we were and the rest of us listened to the music gently filling the room like a welcome guest…

So much happens during these times of orientation, chances to truly breathe and be still seem to either evaporate or get pushed aside, but not tonight, an invitation to be still and to breathe. And we all accepted, at least for awhile…

I sat there, closed my eyes and enjoyed the stillness. I prayed as the instrumental song of a hymn allowed me to fill in the silent words. I prayed as a gentle tear fell from my eye. I prayed as another familiar song passed and turned into one I’d only heard a couple times before…

“Give us bread for the journey, give us bread” sang the song…

Oh God, please do give us bread for this journey. These 10 beautiful young women, willing and ready to be here and to serve you. And me this solitary leader. Lord, sustain us. Grow us. Help us to understand that we are and that we have enough. Allow us to strive, to be and know, allow us to be lost, to wonder, to question, and to not know. Oh God, please give us bread for the journey, give us bread.

“Guide our way as we travel, guide our way” …

Lord, be our guide, be our light. Surround us, be our protection and strength, show us all we need to see and maybe a little more. Show us beauty, show us love, guide us when pain, grief, disbelief and challenge come. Lord, guide our way as we travel, guide our way.

“Make us one with each other, make us one”…

Who is the other, Lord? Help us to know them; the other in our group of volunteers, the other in our new communities, the other back home, the other that we pass by and barely see. Lord, help us to see each other. Lord, it feels like you are working to make us one. And please still, make us one with each other, make us one.

Another year, another group, another me. Lord, thank you for this time and space. Thank you for the privilege of this prayer and this journey.

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If you are curious about the song, It’s Bread for the Journey by Bret Hesla and Larry Dittberner, you can find it on ITunes and maybe somewhere else.

So Much Noise

I loved being back in the USA, but I found myself tired by the rhetoric of politics, division, excess and power. There were times that the idea of getting back to Madagascar sounded really nice, and really quiet. And it’s not that the volume of noise is so low in Mada, in fact where I live can get very noisy with all the cars driving on stone streets in the middle of wall to wall stone and cement buildings that simply reverberate the sound…but there is a different kind of quiet here…

At times I experienced so much noise in the US, even moments of mild shock – culture shock maybe, maybe not – driving around super shiny glass buildings with screaming billboards, hot tempered drivers and the excess of choice around every. single. product. or decision to make. I found multiple pockets of Disney Land and I didn’t once go to southern California.

And yes all of the USA is not alike, its just too big for that. And I saw that too. Great divisions between those who have and those who do not. I saw it not for the first time but with a different lens, maybe a Madagascar inspired lens, maybe just an I’ve-been-away-for-awhile lens.

One of the gifts and benefits of living in another land for an extended period of time is that your eyes, head and heart get a chance to readjust, they get a chance (if you will allow it) to not only see and consider but to wallow in a different existence; to begin to understand a perspective uninformed by what you have understood as standard or correct. In another land you might find… you can put your passport unprotected on a bank counter to claim your place in line… you can go shop at the open air market to find vegetables and party decorations through a combination of a broken second language and gestures… you can depend on new local friends to explain what you still find unexplainable… you can show up at a class or an event and be ok just being. there. alone. but open to others… you can walk around your neighborhood and your city and notice immense suffering and you can decide how you will respond today and then decide again tomorrow and the next day and the next….

Things look new and different in a foreign land. But you know, after seeing and feeling enough of another land sometimes it’s your own land that can feel a little foreign and if not foreign at least very different than how you saw it and thought of it before you left. And this isn’t about loving or not loving your homeland, it’s about seeing things for what they are, imperfect, even broken yet beautiful, scarred, damaged and healing, seeking and digging in, and so many other seemingly contradictory realities and characteristics.

p.s. just some pics of noiseless places and spaces I found at home.

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