Having an Agenda

“What is your agenda for Ethiopia this time?” a friend asked me. “Or do you have an agenda?”

I laughed. As my dad would have said, boy-howdy, do I have an agenda! Several agendas, in fact. A friend has invited me to think about how to be more strategic and organized in the work in Ethiopia that keeps coming my way. That will be one of my agendas.

In my suitcase, as I fly out of Portland, I’m carrying a bag of dried apples. I’m taking them

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

to Maji to show the agriculturalist, Ato Markos, who coordinates the Maji apple orchard what a dried apple looks and tastes like. The 1000 apple trees he’s planted aren’t yet bearing more than he can sell locally, but they will! I need to talk with his leadership team about their marketing plan. And if the grid does get to Maji, might they start a fruit-drying endeavor? Why truck the water in the apples all the way, 500 miles, to Addis Ababa?

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic.

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic. Photo by Maureen Evans

Another major goal for my time in Maji is to get a solar unit installed on the town’s clinic. This came as a request from church leaders, and took me over a year to organize. The clinic is delivering up to thirty babies a month. Night deliveries take place in the dark—the electric grid hasn’t reached Maji yet—and the midwife and nurse sometimes have to hold flashlights in their teeth to have hands free. A simple solar unit will allow for night lighting and charging cell phones. I’ve found a solar supplier in Addis Ababa and he is sending the unit and an installer with me in the vehicle I’ve rented for the trip.

While in Maji, I will also meet with the

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government.

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government. Photo by Maureen Evans

translation team for the Dizi language, the language of the people of Maji. Dizi has been reduced to written form—that’s the technical term for developing a writing system that covers all the sounds of the language. Now the New Testament translation is almost finished. The translation team is meeting with expert linguists in Addis Ababa several times a year to check for consistency (is the same word in Hebrew, Greek or English translated by the same word in Dizi, for example). They are also holding community checking events, reading passages and listening to discussions to see whether the intended meaning of the translation is what was actually communicated.

Try reading Dizi!

Try reading Dizi! Photo by Maureen Evans

I don’t know the Dizi language, but I’ve been supporting the translation team for several years. I  meet with them and listen (in Amharic) as they talk about their progress, frustrations and concerns. I’ll take a report back to donors, and go over the budget for next year’s work. This trip I’ll start to ask questions about a literacy program. We don’t think about this, having so many centuries of written language of our own—but once there is an alphabet and written materials, the next problem is that no one knows how to read!

And then, speaking of literacy, when I get back to Addis I’ll meet with people who helped Janie and me last January as we began creating stories and art for early-reader books for Ethiopian children. Again, we have such a thriving publishing industry in the US, it’s hard to imagine that almost no books are published in Ethiopia, and there is nothing at all for beginning readers. They drill their 241-letter alphabet, and then start the sink-or-swim process of reading text books.

Children, parents, teachers and librarians in Ethiopia and the US have created the

We'd love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties!

We’d love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties! Photo by Jeri Candor

beginnings of about twenty simple, illustrated stories appropriate to Ethiopian culture. Now we’re looking for help in the translation and design stage. (We haven’t even addressed production yet!) The enthusiasm, the creativity, the goodwill of volunteers is keeping us going in spite of the steep learning curve for this cutting-edge cross-cultural effort.

In Addis Ababa I’ll be following up with young artists and writers to move from the inspiration stage to the revision stage of creating art. I’ll be looking for someone who has design skills and knows Amharic. I’ll meet with some people who have tried their hands at translation—that’s a creative endeavor as well, because our subject-verb sentences trot along using words like building blocks, each in its own place, but Amharic encrusts the verb with not only prefixes and suffixes, but infixes! We wouldn’t know an infix if we heard one!

So that’s my agenda! I’m writing on the plane to Minneapolis, the first of three legs of my journey. I’ve been crazy-busy getting ready for all this. Now wish me well! My jet lag, the possibilities of picking up intestinal bugs, and political unrest in parts of Ethiopia may be greater problems than the inherent challenges of the work. But that’s the way it always is. Our contexts are part of the work.

I’m grateful for the opportunities I have for creativity, spiritual and relational growth as I do this work that keeps coming to me from God. Thanks to all of you who have contributed encouragement, prayer and resource to be my partners!

Beginning at the End

I traveled the coast by bus and by foot--"Shank's pony". Wonderful, grant-supported bus system, $20 RT from Portland to Tillamook!

I traveled the coast by bus and by foot–“Shank’s pony”. Wonderful, grant-supported bus system, $20 RT from Portland to Tillamook!

I’m home from my long hike on the Oregon Coast Trail. In my three weeks away, I went from the northern tip of Oregon, near Astoria, to the small town of Yachats, almost halfway down the coast. I took the bus around some bays that would have forced me onto on the narrow shoulder of Highway 101 for miles and miles, and even so, walked about 165 miles.

The perfect ending of my time alone unfolded spontaneously—a mini-family-reunion in Bend, Oregon. I left the coast by bus on Friday and, in the kind of providence that seemed to meet me all along the way, Friday was Customer Appreciation Day and we all rode free! I spent the weekend with my sons, their wives, and the two eighteen month olds, who were so dear, even as they struggled with how to share books, a stuffed monkey and a grandmother.

While in Bend I walked again on the Central Oregon canal that so comforted me as Mark was dying. The Cascades stood bare and gray—did they have so little snow last fall? I only remember them after the snow began in early winter.

The beauty of the Oregon coast is the combination of beach, rocks and forest.

The magic of the Oregon coast is in the combination of beach, rocks and forest.

I have just come back inside from days and days spent out on the beaches or on the forested headlands of the West Coast, not surrounded by what we have created but by what God created: the ocean sloshing restlessly on the edge of land; the deep forested headlands made from volcanic flows from as far away as Idaho; the moon, which started full on the first day of my walk, then went dark, and was making its way back; the sun, that warmed every day and then dropped over the far edge of the sea every evening. 

“God has such a positive personality,” I found myself thinking. Where do our difficulties, our sorrows, our cancers come from? Theologians, philosophers and myth-makers have struggled with the source of evil for millennia and all the definitive answers they develop seem to evaporate just as quickly with the turning of times and cultures.

I don’t understand tragedy. What I do know is that my spiritual practices and the divine presence I’ve experienced have given me strength to go through my grief, and they promise to return me to peace.

Walking five to fifteen miles a day with a thirty-five pound pack on my back, I had lots of time to think. School was starting up back in the Oregon towns and cities, so most of the time I had the beaches and forest trails completely to myself. I countered my tendency to obsess by singing as I walked, or by praying my contemplative prayers of releasing what I can’t control and accepting my situation just as it is, committing to wait patiently for my future to unfold.

Classic Oregon coast view, from another blogger who loves hiking. Here's the link.

Classic Oregon coast view, from another blogger who loves hiking. Here’s the link.

On some of the headland trails, the walking got so tough there was no room in my head todo anything else but tell my feet to keep going. That’s a gift walking has given me throughout this grieving and reshaping year, relief from my constant cerebral activity.

I’m home now. Tremendously grateful for my house in Portland, for the abundance of food and the ease of preparing it, for my comfortable bed, and for my community, the family and friends I can see and those I can’t see but can still communicate with. I do feel a rite of passage has taken place; I am more ready to embrace the new shape of my life. I did also realize that I have one more first-anniversary-without-Mark to face: the anniversary of his death on the 30th of this month. The literature says that these anniversaries will feel less painful as my new-normal becomes familiar. This was my third time to come home from travel to an empty house, and it felt a little easier. I take that as a good sign: peace and joy are on their way back.

Confabulation

Confabulation is my new favorite word.  I ran into this word reading about recent brain research. It’s a technical term for how people with brain damage reason, when the two sides of their brains can’t communicate, but it has a broader meaning we all participate in.  We confabulate when we make up reasons for things we can’t explain.  We do it unconsciously.  We don’t admit we’re doing it.  As the wife of a new victim of cancer, I’m a prime candidate for confabulation.

DSC_0528Two weeks ago a doctor looked down Mark’s throat with a scope and saw a bleeding tumor where his esophagus meets his stomach.  The next set of tests showed that the cancer had spread to lymph nodes as far away as his adrenal and pituitary glands.

I read everything I could find on esophageal cancer. Even the very gentle, careful booklet the oncologist gave us says, “Esophageal cancer is hard to contain with present treatments.”  The National Cancer Institute website is more businesslike: “Esophageal cancer is a treatable disease, but it is rarely curable;” and the Society for Surgeons of the Alimentary Tract, blunt:  “Esophageal carcinoma is a relatively uncommon but highly lethal malignancy . . .” The latest tests have shown, to all the doctors’ shock, that Mark’s cancer has already metastasized.

The risk factors for esophageal cancer are obesity, long years of gastric reflux, heavy drinking, smoking.  None of these describe my Calvinist, clean-living husband.  There are two other risk factors. Being male and being over age sixty-five.  Mark is sixty-two.  His only real risk factor is being a man. There has to be some explanation for him to have advanced esophageal cancer, doesn’t there?  I want to shake somebody.  Not him!  Not now!  Then my mind goes to work, concocting explanations for the inexplicable.

The reason people confabulate is that we’re puzzle-solving creatures. What else is science but the drive to observe the physical world and figure out what sense it is making?  We want life to make sense as well—we expect it to make sense—and by confabulating, we force it into some kind of sense-making when it seems not to make sense.

Scientists have a unique opportunity to study this drive for consistency and puzzle solving with people who lose their right and left-brain connection.  They can no longer coordinate input from the two sides their brains, so they’re left with data that seems random.  They’re driven to make that random data fit some kind of pattern.

In one study, people were shown two pictures simultaneously, one to each eye.  chickenThey were asked to choose another picture that best supplemented the first, and each eye was given a set of choices.  For example, when one eye was shown a picture of a chicken, with that hand people chose a chicken claw.  With the other eye they saw a snow scene with a car stuck in a snowdrift, and the corresponding hand chose a snow shovel.

Then they were shown the picture of the chicken and the pictures of the claw and the snow shovel and asked to explain their choices.  snow shovelThey did not “know” that they had been shown two original pictures, because the two sides of their brains could not communicate.  falconheadThey came up with explanations like, “If you had chickens, you would need a shovel like this to clean out the barn with.”

When scientists study confabulation by asking people why they suddenly did what they had been told under hypnosis to do, the same thing happens.  People don’t say, “I felt the oddest compulsion just then.”  Instead they come up with, and convince themselves of some other explanation.  We are driven to make sense.  We are so driven, that we will go to nonsense to feel that we have made sense.

I believe there is a world of the spirit, one we can’t see, touch or study with scientific instruments. Secularists call faith nothing but confabulation for the inexplicable randomness of impersonal fate, of nature, of good and evil.  How can I be sure that what I have is faith, not confabulation? I can’t, really.  That problem must be why the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews embraced the paradox.  He defined faith as, “The assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

A random tragedy has hit my life.  Grief is on its way.  For my faith to persist in the face it, I need to resist the pull of confabulation.  If I insist that Mark’s cancer “make sense,” I may fall into bitterness.  I will be tempted to take it out of the category of mystery and call it an act of God.  My faith that God is present, that God is Love, that the world is intended as a good place for humans to live, will fail.  I will make up reasons for Mark’s cancer, and they will lead me to places that will not bring me peace.

Instead I am choosing to pray—not only for the disappearance of Mark’s tumor and all its seeds, flung to far parts of his body.  I also pray for this event to further our spiritual transformation.  For peace in the middle of this storm.  For sweetness between us to prevail in the presence of pain and grief and opiates—the sweetness that has always been between us, somewhere there, even when we were angry and disappointed with each other.  For faith to hold, even in the face of things I cannot understand.  For the ability to say with the Psalmist: “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.  But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother.”  For the courage to resist confabulation and ride the wave of faith into shore.

 

The Swiss Cheese Theory of the Kingdom of God

african-american-face-of-jesus-clipart

African-American Face of Jesus

For Lent, I decided to add, not subtract.  I’m reading the four gospels in a whirlwind trip through Galilee to Jerusalem.  I don’t have time to stop and meditate over every event, command, or statement in Jesus’ ministry, but there are some  benefits to traveling fast.  I see the big picture.  I hear the themes that crop up again and again.  I get a sense of the startling–even shocking–presence of this man who kept turning everyone, even his own followers, on their heads.

I have a lot of sympathy for those followers.  In Luke, Jesus is invited to a Pharisee’s house for a meal and spends several pages blasting him and his friends.  I sure would have winced.

When the disciples couldn’t cast out a demon Jesus said, “How long do I have to put up with you?”  Ouch.

And then, after all the other strange, mysterious things he taught them (the first shall be last, die so you can live, love those who hate you–even Samaritans), who among us  wouldn’t have thought he had something other than the literal meaning in mind when he told them he would die and rise again after three days!

But what stuck with me this trip through, especially in Mark and Luke, was all the talk about the Kingdom of God.  When I was young, that was translated as the Kingdom of Heaven, and I was taught what to do to get into heaven.  But what did Jesus mean–what

Jesus the teacher

Jesus the teacher

did John the Baptist mean–the Kingdom of God is near you?  That doesn’t seem to be about heaven.

I started wondering in Mark, two weeks ago.  What is the Kingdom of God?  Last week, in Luke, the question got more insistent.  Then Sunday I hit John–in the New Living Translation, poetry of John 1 is a little easier to understand: “The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone . . . So the Word became human and made his home among us.  He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.”

Light?  Word?  The Kingdom of God?  Is near?  Is like a pearl, a mustard seed, yeast, a field with both grain and weeds?  Walking around last week, thinking about the Kingdom of God, I remembered a line from the Messiah.  It comes right in the middle of the Hallelujah Chorus, after dozens of hallelujahs that twist up and in and around each other, the choir suddenly sings in four part harmony, “The kingdom of this world . . . (can you hear the pause, those two grand chords, and the altos coming in alone, a beat ahead of the rest) . . . is become . . . (another pause, dramatic effect) the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ!”

Two thousand years later we wonder, why are we still here, in a “kingdom of this world” that doesn’t look much different (ethically, morally, spiritually speaking) from the world Jesus was born into?  Where is this Kingdom of God we read about and sing about?

The Swiss Cheese Theory of the Kingdom of God

I’m working on a theory about the Kingdom of God.  I’m thinking about Swiss cheese.  Or–yes, yeast.  (I forgot the baking powder in a batch of muffins last month, and they were the consistency of hockey pucks.)  What if in the same world (the same cheese, the same dough) the Kingdom of God is permeating, wherever . . . I’m thrown back to the line about the Word living among us, “full of unfailing love and faithfulness . . .” wherever the energy released by God’s mysterious presence brings air and light into the heaviness?  Wherever we who want to follow Jesus figure out–or are inspired, literally–to enact some little bit of unfailing love and faithfulness?

African face of Jesus

African Face of Jesus

Or another simile:  maybe I’m an underground  force, like the anti-Nazi fighters in Germany and France, who helped refugees and undermined the Nazis wherever they could.  Maybe, as a follower of Jesus my job is also to live as though the Kingdom of God, the space where God is in control, is near.  To bring air and light to the embattled . . . totally inadequate to the task.  Unsure how to proceed. Trying to keep radio contact with Command Central.

I’m working on getting this mysterious Kingdom of God thing worked out so I can wake up every morning and get there.  Here-but-there.

 

I Want Something to Spill Over

Dr. Charles Kraft

Recently I heard Charles Kraft, an ex-missionary and a Fuller Seminary professor, say that Jesus didn’t heal or cast out demons or raise people from the dead with his own power, but with God’s power flowing through him. Jesus himself said that–he had power only by abiding in God and doing what God told him to do.  I thought again of his analogy of a vine and its branches bearing fruit because they’re connected (John 15).

What a mystery it is–for fleshly, in-the-world people like me to abide in Jesus.  No wonder the monks and holy mothers went into the desert to concentrate!  But I am reading a journal Henri Nowen wrote when he spent seven months in a monastery, and he found that even in a monastery it isn’t easy to abide in God.

Father Henri Nouwen

He found himself wounded when friends didn’t answer his letters.  He worried that his adoring public had forgotten him.  He felt upset when a particularly warm fellow monk was just as friendly to everyone–was he not special? But instead of stewing on these feelings, Nouwen used his time in the monastery to notice his internal life.  Was his anger hotter, his disappointment deeper, his discouragement heavier than the event required?  Then he took his reactions to God for healing.  That is more than spiritual discipline–it’s spiritual bench-pressing!

My own small discipline of contemplative prayer started around this time two years ago and  opened a connection to God that I had only longed for in my first sixty years.  Sometimes I wonder: why would God wait so long?  I don’t know why, I only pray that God will restore the years that the locusts have eaten.  Through the prophet Joel, that’s what God promised Israel, “I will give you back what you lost to the swarming locusts . . . and you will praise the Lord your God . . . then you will know that I am among my people . . . that I am the Lord your God, and there is no other.”  It’s what I want, too.

Another story to share with you–a friend, working in Indonesia, learned of a ministry of prayer that was hugely effective with the Muslim women there.  She went to her colleague and asked, “Will you teach me how to pray with people like you do?”  The other woman said no.  “You can’t pass on what you don’t have.”

This has haunted me ever since I heard the story.  What do I have to pass on?  Then she went on:  “I’ll pray with you, and what God does for you will spill over into whatever ministry you have.”

This is what changed Peter and John–what Jesus taught and showed them transformed their lives and spilled over.  When they, ex-fishermen, spoke to the Jewish Council in Acts 4, the learned men were amazed, “for they could see that they were ordinary men,” (the word for ordinary men in Greek is the root for our word idiot).  They recognized that Peter and John had been with Jesus.

Girls sing in a rural church in Ethiopia

This is how the church in remote parts of Ethiopia has grown–people set free from curses and taboos share their liberation with their neighbors.  People are healed, and everyone takes notice.  Demonic activity is banished, and the whole community is blessed.  Surely this same God is here with us in the United States in the 21st century, ready to transform us and spill over.  Maybe the ministries will look different–we don’t see evil spirits working in our lives these days.  But we  just as much need to be set free from greed, anxiety, addictions.  We need to be healed of abuse, disappointment, depression.  We are as much in need of God’s shalom as Jesus’ contemporaries, and as our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia.

I believe that if I can abide in Jesus even a fraction of the way he abided (abode??) in God, something new will happen in my life and I will have more to pass on.  That’s my journey.

Join me?  Here’s a link to Father Keating introducing centering prayer.  It’s where I started.