Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pushing with Lewis

Our last evening in Kenya, as we were sharing a meal together in the Conway's backyard, Stephen asked each of us to share a "snapshot" from the trip. A mental image or short mental video clip that will forever be ingrained in our memories. Everyone else on the team had powerful images of pain and suffering and hope and joy to share with the group, and I was a bit embarrassed that my most vivid snapshot was so mundane. As we were traveling back from our visit to the game park in Nakuru, the matatu I was riding in ran off the road a bit and got stuck in a ditch. Our driver, John, couldn't quite back us out of the ditch, so I got out of the matatu and pushed as hard as I could on the front bumper to see if it might help a bit. The matatu still didn't budge. After I had a go at it, Lewis Perry climbed out of the front passenger seat to give me a hand. Now, Lewis Perry is a very big man. I have been told that he once won the world championship in wrestling at the deaf Olympics. I am reminded of his bigness as I type this on the airplane back to Texas with Lewis in the seat next to me. Let's just say we're pretty snugly. So, Lewis planted his feet in front of the stuck matatu to give me a hand. And as Lewis and I both started pushing, I was absolutely amazed at the raw power that was being exerted on the front of that matatu. Slowly and steadily the matatu began to back out of the ditch and find sure footing again on the dirt road.

Now, I readily acknowledge the fact that I was only responsible for about 5% of that matatu-moving power and that the rest of it was all Lewis, but the event was awe-inspiring none the less. And there is a significant amount of personal gratification that comes from playing even a small role in something great. And I think that sums up our Kenya trip for me.

God is working powerfully in Kenya; his Church is hitting hard in those places where evil and suffering are the greatest. And I'm not talking about our own mission efforts in Kenya, although they are playing a significant role in the work of the Kingdom there. But the Lord's Church in Kenya is not sitting idly by letting darkness have its way. Rather, "out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty wells up in rich generosity." As you may have seen on the news last year, inter-tribal conflict in Kenya is not a relic of ancient times but an all-too-present motivator of hatred and bigotry and violence. The racism isn't even masked by attempts at political correctness, rather the average Kenyan finds no shame in publicly disparaging a rival tribe and placing the blame for the woes of the nation on some particular ethic group.

Yet out of the smoking rubble of inter-tribal conflict the Church emerges in green shoots of hope and peace and reconciliation. There are powerful stories of Kenyan Christians hiding and protecting members of different tribes during "the clashes" when doing so could have cost them their lives. There are other stories of the Church making a special effort to avoid the situation in Acts 6 by making sure that the widows of a different tribe are cared for and provided for. And there is another remarkable story of selflessness and generosity we witnessed personally.

On our way to Eldoret we stopped to visit a long-time Kenyan friend of Stephen's. His name is Christopher Otsieno. Chris lives on a one-acre plot deep in the bush of a region called Busia in a house made of mud. We had to drive through a narrow path cut in a cornfield to get to his home, and when we arrived there we were greeted by a wild chorus of screaming and dancing Kenyans. I hesitate to use the word, but I can really best describe the scene as savage, and I would be lying if I told you that at first I wasn't just a little bit afraid. After the wild and extravagant greeting, Chris welcomed us into his home lit by kerosene lamps, and his children came forward one at a time in the eerie flicker to entertain us with poems and songs and amazing performances on a single-string instrument. He then sat before us a feast of ugali and rice and chicken that we had no hope of finishing even if there had been 70 in our group instead of seven. And throughout this extravagant welcome that verse from 2 Corinthians kept playing in my mind: "out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity."

We learned later that the dancing mob of about 60 that greeted us when we arrived were the orphans and widows that Chris is personally caring for in his home. This Christian man who has almost nothing is awe-inspiringly faithful in sharing what little he does have with those less fortunate, and the story of the widow's mites nagged at me terribly. I have never before seen such total and selfless devotion to the Lord's work. The Body of Christ in Kenya is alive and well, faithful and strong. God is working powerfully and visibly in His Church here, and there is so much potential for others of us in the Kingdom to join Him in His work.

Chris already receives some monetary support from Christians in America to help him better care for the orphans and widows. In fact, the mud house we slept in that night was built for $600 with funds from a Christian in Midland, Texas. That same man provided funds for sewing machines for the widows to help them earn an income and be more self-sufficient. And after one of the girls Chris cares for was raped on her long walk to the river to draw water, a group of Christians from New Jersey provided funds to build a water well on Chris's property.

Yet, there is so much more to be done. It is painfully obvious that a one-acre plot of land and a few mud huts is insufficient to meet the needs of the 50 orphans and 10 widows, so Chris's friend Paul is planning to also move to the area to give Chris a hand. The current plan is for Paul to buy a half-acre plot near Chris, but our missionary, Keith Gafner, (who has a close relationship with Chris and Paul) has encouraged them to think bigger. There is a 10-acre plot of land just down the road that they could purchase for about $12,000, and just a few thousand dollars more (at $600 per hut) could properly house them all. There are good schools nearby for the children to attend and plenty of potential for vocational training in agriculture or tailoring or whatever else God's people choose to provide. There is even the potential here to rescue some of the orphans on the streets of Nairobi and give them the opportunity to exchange their urban life of glue bottles and hopelessness for a chance to get a loving Christian home, a proper education, and agricultural training in the countryside of Busia.

Chris told us that our team of seven were the first white people to ever set foot on his small plot of land in Kenya, but I am confident that we won't be the last. The Church is America is waiting to exhale. I see it in the youth, and I see it in the Christian literature, and I see it in the lives of my brothers and sisters in my own congregation. Christ's call to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked and heal the sick is starting to resonate within the Kingdom of God. And James' admonition to look after the orphans and widows in their distress is falling on listening ears. The Church in America is ready to breathe out the blessings of God on a hurting world and to reveal the fullness of the power of God in a miraculous display of sacrificial service and generosity and love.

After Peter's famous confession that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, Jesus said that on this rock He would build his Church and that the gates of Hell would not overcome it. According to Christ, it is the forces of evil that are to be cowering behind the gates. The Church is tired of waiting behind the safe walls of our church buildings, defending against the waves of attacks by the Evil One. Rather, the Church, the Body of Christ, is ready to storm the gates of Hell, to hit the beast hard where he claims the most tragic victories.

If you feel like your faith is weak and stagnant and you need to feel and to see the power of God working in the world, find a place where God is already working mightily and join him in His work. Playing a small role alongside a great power is extremely gratifying. Lewis taught me that.

Lord, bless your Church with strength and courage to heal the suffering of this world in Your name, to reveal your power to a cynical generation in a miraculous display of selfless love, and to storm the gates of Hell. Amen.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sunburned at Church

Sunburned at Church

You're just not supposed to get sunburned at church, or at least I thought you weren't. But if we were to make a list of weird things that happened at church Sunday, the sunburn would be one of the least significant.

Our team of five, Gayla, Whitney, Mitchell, Zach, and me, left around 9:00 from the rehabilitation center in Eldoret that was housing us. We crammed into Keith Gafner's car with his young daughters, Kirsten and Ruthie, and headed to the place of the church meeting, leaving plenty of time to get there by 10:00am (when church was supposed to start).

The churches here around Eldoret are small and plentiful, so once a month a cluster of about five churches will get together on Sunday morning for a combined worship service. This particular Sunday was a cluster meeting. It wasn't actually the originally scheduled date for the cluster meeting, though. The churches decided to hold their cluster meeting on a different Sunday so that everyone would have the chance to greet the visiting wazungu.

Wazungu is the Swahili word for "white people", and mzungu is the Swahili word for one white person. We hear "wazungu! wazungu!" everywhere we go here, particularly from the children we pass on the sides of the road. They point and yell and get all excited just because they see a matatu (van) full of white people pass by them. Everywhere we go people want to greet the wazungu. All the attention we get here has started to become tiresome. We would really just like to show up at church or at gatherings and just blend in with the crowd, experiencing events as the locals experience them, but our skin forbids it. The children, in particular, are just downright giddy about wazungu. One little Kenyan boy came to sit next to me at church, and he would slowly move his hand over close to mine and gently brush my hand with his. When I offered him my hand for closer inspection, I was suddenly surrounded by a dozen Kenyan boys and girls pawing at my skin. "Come quick everyone! It's a wazungu petting zoo!" I didn't mind; it was kind of fun. But we did make a bit of a scene in the middle of church. Nobody said anything about it, but if someone had told the kids to leave me alone I would have said as loudly and self-righteously as I could "Suffer the little children come unto me and hinder them not, For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these!" Well, ok, maybe I wouldn't have really said that. It is possible to go a bit too far with WWJD.

Anyway, so everyone wanted to get to greet the wazungu. But greeting someone in Kenya in Kenya is very different than greeting someone in America. Waving or saying "Jambo" doesn't cut it. A greeting consists of at least a handshake, and usually a meal and chai (tea with milk). So as soon as we arrived at the church site, a small mud building with a tin roof, we were ushered down a grassy path to the home of Ezekiel, an elder in the church here. We toured his home and garden and sat in his small living room with a television powered by a solar panel on the roof. As we were talking together, I started to think, "We're going to be late for church. We should probably get over there." But about that time they brought out the hot cocoa. So, we sat around and drank hot cocoa for a while while the worshippers continue to gather and wait for us just down the path. Eventually, Ezekiel said that we needed to get to church, so we left his home, walked down the path, and found about 100 people waiting patiently under a big burlap tarp set up on the lawn near the church building.

Church got started when it got started (which was about an hour late), and it ended when it was over and not a minute sooner. In fact it was almost dark by the time we got back to Keith's place that evening. We spent the entire day at church. Something that took quite a bit of time is that at the end of the worship service we were supposed to shake all of their hands, all 100 of them. But not only did we shake all of their hands, they all shook each other's hands, too. 100 people each shaking hands with 99 other people. The mathematician in me wondered how many total handshakes there were that day, so I asked Ruthie Gafner to try to figure it out. She wasn't able to do it; after all she's only in third grade, but I stepped her through the derivation of the formula anyway. I won't tell you the answer. I'll just leave it as an exercise for the reader, but it's a lot.

Something else that took a while is that, after everything was over, all the elders of the church gave lengthy speeches about how grateful they were to have us visitors among them today. Then they gave each member of our team a gift. After they finished with the speeches and the gifts, I (as the oldest male in the group) was supposed to give a similar lengthy speech thanking them for their hospitality. Grace told me later that I botched it; apparently my speech wasn't nearly long enough and I was supposed to be more grave and not make any jokes. So, if we are never invited back to that church again, let the record show that it was all because of my own cultural ineptness.

I'm sure everyone on our team took away something different from the service. Each of us were stretched in our own ways, but most of my stretching came as a result of having to preach the sermon that morning. Keith Gafner had emailed me right before we left Abilene and asked me if I would be willing to preach at the church in Eldoret on 21 June. I had never preached a full sermon before, particularly before a congregation that was so culturally different than me, so it was very frightening to think about. But, once again, Reepicheep just wouldn't shut up about it, so I told Keith that I would do it. (See the post "A sermon for the deaf" if you are confused about who Reepicheep is.)

During most of the flight to Kenya, I journaled about my anxieties over the sermon. It was a very lengthy journal entry and maybe I'll post it someday. At the very least I wanted to pick Keith's brain about a sermon topic that would be relevant to the people of Eldoret, but Keith was explicitly unhelpful. Keith told me that the Spirit would let me know what I should preach about. So, I took Keith's advice and waited for inspiration. Unfortunately, the Spirit was taking His happy time, and at 6:00am Sunday morning I still didn't know what I was going to preach about. I guess that shouldn't surprise me too much, Jesus never had very good things to say about planning ahead and instead advocated trusting God to supply what we need for each day. But at about 7:00am it all started coming to me, so I jotted some sermon notes on a scrap of paper and didn't even worry about the sermon the rest of the morning. And by the time I was called up to preach at about 1:00pm, I wasn't even nervous. Having to wait for the Swahili translator to interpret every sentence is really a blessing. It helps to slow the pace of the sermon, giving time to collect your thoughts and say exactly what you want to say.

I finished the sermon with a prayer and went to sit down, but Keith caught me on the way to my seat and told me that I had forgotten to offer an invitation. Oops. I guess that's really important here. Unfortunately, I had never given an invitation before. In fact I suddenly realized I had never even paid much attention to the thousands of invitations that I had seen preachers offer in my life. Somehow my mind just kind of filters the invitation down to "Time to pull out your song book." I thought about telling Keith that the Spirit didn't tell me to offer an invitation, but self-righteous smart alecs are the worst sort of Christian, so I went back up to the podium and did the best Baptist alter call that I could muster. And whadda-ya-know 21 people came forward plus a bunch of children.

Then I was totally lost. I felt like I was supposed to do something preacher-like with the people who came forward but I didn't have a clue what that was. Eventually I just did what came naturally which was to greet each of them with a handshake, look into their eyes, and say "God bless you". At this point Keith came forward to support my sermon, which I greatly appreciated.

Supporting a sermon is very important in this culture. When a visitor presents a sermon, the congregation is hesitant about trusting his message until someone else they know and trust backs that sermon up with a similar sermon of his own. Stephen Greek did the same thing for me when I presented my sermon for the deaf at Siriat. The people here know and trust Keith, so I was very happy for him to follow me up. After Keith was finished, I led a prayer for those who had come forward in a language they didn't understand. (For some reason, they don't interpret prayers.) And this time, when I walked back to my seat, no one called me back again. Keith told me later that they don't usually have that many people come forward; they just wanted the mzungu preacher to pray for them. But it was a stretching experience for me, all the same, not only to preach the sermon but be able to interact with those worshippers who had responded to it.

Something I haven't yet mentioned is that all of the praying for those who came forward and blessing them individually happened directly under the mid-day sun. We had been worshipping outside under the shade of a big burlap tarp, because the 5 church cluster was too large to fit in the small mud church building on the site. My big, ridiculously floppy hat had been protecting me from the sun the past two weeks, but you just can't pray with your hat on, and by the time I sat back down under the tarp again my bald head was fairly well toasted. I guess I could have worn sunblock to church, but who thinks of putting sunblock on the top of their head before going to church?

After the worship service was over we split up into our Bible classes, and Keith had told me that I was supposed to teach the men's class in addition to preaching. We men went into the mud church building while the ladies stayed outside under the tarp to be taught by Gayla Herrington. The inside of the church building was speckled with an eerie pattern of circles of sunlight piercing through the holes in the tin roof, and the men sat in a circle of plastic chairs on the mud floor of the structure. I knew which lesson I wanted to teach; Mr. Circle. Mr. Circle is my absolute favorite lesson to teach, but everyone I know has already heard it, so I don't get to teach it much. It involves drawing an analogy between these flat paper figures who live in a flat world and our own limitations in seeing and knowing God as he truly is. Keith strongly suggested that I not teach the lesson, because he thought it was too complicated to survive the translation into Swahili, but I was pretty sure I could simplify it enough to at least get the main points across. It turned out that the class seemed to follow the lesson very well, even answering some very difficult questions, and we had meaningful discussion of some pretty complex theological concepts even across the language barrier.

Then, just out of the blue, one of the men in class asked me a question that was only weakly related to the lesson, but that was obviously weighing heavily on his heart. He asked me why there is so much evil and suffering in the world if God is so infinitely powerful as I had been teaching.

I have no idea what lay in this man's past. I don't know what tragedies he has suffered or what evil he has seen, but my guess is that it has been great. The inter-tribal clashes that occurred following last year's election are still fresh in the minds of the Kenyan people. The clashes produced stories of both indescribable evil and awe-inspiring courage and selflessness. And I had even touched upon these stories in my sermon earlier in the day. Whatever this man had been through or whatever he had suffered, he was unsure how God fit into the picture. And who could blame him? The existence of evil begs for a perpetrator, and an omnipotent God is an obvious first suspect. Whatever suffering this man has endured in his life, he must have cried out to God for deliverance and met only silence. It is the most natural question in the world to ask.

What would you have said to him? I'm fairly happy with the answer I gave him, but I'll leave this as an exercise for the reader.

Some theologies are forged in ivory towers; others are forged on the dirt floors of mud church buildings. I think a good rule of thumb, though, as I continue to ponder the problem of pain is to make sure that any theological explanations for the existence of evil I propose from the comfort of my home in Abilene, Texas can be stated clearly and without wincing to the face of this particular Kenyan brother.

Lord, guard me from the temptation to meet you in worship as a critic, continually evaluating the motives and practices of my fellow worshippers. Guard me also from the temptation to meet you in worship as a tourist, seeking only a cross-cultural experience. But give me the wisdom to worship you sincerely at all times and in all places and to offer my life completely to you as a sacrifice of praise. Amen.

Yeah, I know. That was ridiculously long. Sorry about that. But writing succinctly hard, and I'm kind of running out of steam here at the end of our trip. In fact, as I write this we are waiting in the terminal at the Nairobi airport preparing to board our flight to London. All in all, it was a very fruitful trip, but I'm very ready to see my wife and daughters again.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tips for Travelers to Kenya

Don't lean your head out of the window of a moving matatu (a 10-passenger van), especially if you value your hat.

When staying at a guest house, don't try to go for a walk in the middle of the night, unless you don't mind being chased by vicious guard dogs.

Don't offer a granola bar to the policeman at a police stop.

Be courteous to first time visitors to Kenya by not sending them outside the Nairobi airport all by themselves.

Don't tip the Nairobi airport help until after they have finished wheeling all your luggage out.

Don't eat with your left hand; that's the hand people wipe with.

On a related note, always keep toilet paper handy.

If you shake one child's hand, expect to shake 150 more.

If you take one child's picture, expect to take 150 more.

Never leave your bag or room key in the matatu, unless you don't mind Vernon disappearing with them for several hours.

If you value your life, never run off with Gayla's bag or room key.

A matatu bouncing along on what's left of the Kenyan roads makes a lousy place to try to put in your contact lenses.

Every choo (outhouse) is special and unique. Take pictures of all of them.

If your team-mates make a mess while using the choo, don't take pictures of it.

If you have to get out and buy some things in a crowded marketplace and leave your team-mates locked in a hot matatu, fearing for their lives, at least try to make it quick.

When sleeping in a mud hut it is wise to always remember to close the door; it helps keep the chickens off your sleeping room-mates.

Before you leave for Kenya, see if you can genetically-engineer a rooster with a snooze button.

Don't let it hurt your feelings when your white face makes the babies cry.

Don't be surprised when little children try to rub the "whiteness" off your skin.

If you shake hands with dozens of children who live on trash heaps, remember to wash your hands before eating rotisserie chicken with your fingers.

If you feel the matatu rocking back and forth at a petrol station, rest assured that it is just the station attendant jumping on the bumper to try to get more fuel into the tank.

If you visit a grocery store, stay on your toes at the check-out counter or someone will nudge right in front of you in line.

If someone offers to sell you a mysterious plant on the streets of Nairobi, just say "no".

When shopping for souvenirs, make sure you pay with exact change, otherwise you may be "strongly encouraged" to take your change in the form of additional merchandise.

There's always room for one more person in the matatu.

It is polite to hoot the hooter as you pass pedestrians on the road.

When driving, yield to any vehicle that could crush you, because they are certainly not going to be yielding to you.

Always drive on the left hand side of the road in Kenya, unless, of course, you prefer to drive on the right; then just watch out. Actually, why don't you just watch out all the time.

When riding in a matatu, don't let out a scream if it looks like you are about to have a head-on collision with a petrol tanker. Your voice might start getting hoarse after about 15 minutes of traveling.

And remember, whatever else you think you have to do in Kenya, the most important things are to touch the children, encourage the Church, give generously, practice seeing the world from a different point of view, stop to appreciate the beauty of God's Creation, and take pictures of all the choos.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

For my friend, Sam McReynolds

I came to visit you today, Sam. Visiting a loved one who has passed away is always a solemn occasion. The very act of showing our respect for the dead invariably also serves to remind us of our own mortality. It calls us to re-evaluate our lives and our priorities in light of that fact we only live a short time on this earth and that every moment is sacred and precious. A memorial serves to honor the life of the one who has passed on and at the same time bring us face to face with the sobering reality of our own death.

But I wanted to let you know, Sam, that your memorial is broken. It just flat doesn't work. When I came to visit you today at the plot of land in Kenya that bears your name, I completely missed any confrontation with my own mortality. Rather, your memorial teems with life and joy and love and hope. I saw no cut flowers on your grave today, only the spilled finger paints of giggling children. And I thought I might try respectfully humming a few bars of "Abide with Me" but it was all drowned out by the din of several dozen little Kenyan voices singing "Father Abraham". And any attempt to maintain an atmosphere of quiet reverence kind of went out the window with that crazy kick ball game. Search as I might there just isn't any death in this place, only laughing, singing, dancing, playing, joyful, beautiful teeming life.

And not only did I miss any confrontation with my own mortality today, but I missed yours as well. Death is always supposed to get the last word in, at least until our Lord returns to call us home, but I saw you today reaching up from the grave to continue your ministry of love and compassion. The Prince of this World has the children of Kenya beneath his boot, lavishing pain and suffering and hopelessness upon them. I remember you, Sam, as a gentle and quiet spirit, but as I saw the joy on the faces of those children today, I could swear I caught a glimpse of a strong arm swinging hard from the grave to catch that Cosmic Loser square in the jaw.

I saw Isaac Newton's memorial at Westminster Abbey once. He's got nothing on you, Sam. Your memorial is a beautiful, living monument to life and joy and hope. I like to think that your gentle and kind spirit will somehow be watching over the children at Sam's Place as they live and learn and grow in wisdom and discipleship, and I hope that you will be blessed by them as much as they will continually be blessed by you.

Lord, may your precious child, Sam McReynolds, rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Giants

June 14, 2009
Rongo, Kenya

O God, your presence here, in this place, is so perfectly clear. I could walk outside into the night and look up at the stars and the mountains you have made and hear your voice and feel your presence in your Creation. But I don't even have to. Your presence is already so abundantly clear in the people sitting right here beside me. I see your holy presence shining in all of your children to some degree in as much as they reflect your glory, but right now, here with particular people, I feel completely awash in your Light.

Some of your children here with me are so completely filled with your Spirit that You almost visibly stream out of their pores. Your Spirit flows across the table when they eat with us and drenches the seats when they travel with us. Your Spirit bathes their activity in peace when they work and hems their words with love and gentleness when they speak. You have filled them so full of your joy that it bubbles over contagiously to all who interact with them, and you have stuffed their hearts so full of your peace that it just spills over in continual waterfalls quenching any flames of anxiety or inter-personal tension. Their souls are polished mirrors that reflect your love, your patience, your gentleness and kindness, blessing everyone they meet with light from Your face.

I know that it is not in your nature to force yourself upon your children, but to lovingly coax us into a deeper relationship with you. O, but who could resist you, Lord, when Your aroma is so sweet and Your face is so alluring? Where is your subtlety I have known so well? You are a shameless lover, pursuing your children passionately and relentlessly. Who could possibly refuse you, Lord, when you reveal your glory so clearly and so openly in the lives of your faithful servants?

I know that a relationship with you is not built in a day or in a single moment of transformation, but in a lifetime of listening to your voice and serving you obediently, bringing our desires before you in times of need and wrestling with you in times of anguish and confusion, feeding upon you as our spiritual food and relying upon you for the nourishment of our souls.

I see you working powerfully in the lives of your younger children as well, but these particular children of yours in which your Spirit glows so evidently now are not babies in the faith, but are the product of a lifetime of spiritual growth and gradual transformation. I assume that, unlike our bodies, the growth of our souls is not constrained by physiological limitations but continues to grow unbounded as we live with you daily and drink of your Word and grow in our faith. And I have a hunch that if you were to suddenly peal back the thin veil that hides the spiritual realm from our physical senses (so that we could see the world as you see it, as it truly is) then we would see these men walking the earth like giants, your light emanating from their bodies in all directions, piercing the darkness and showering the earth around them with your love, your joy, your peace, your patience, your kindness, your goodness, your faithfulness, your gentleness and self-control.

I thank you, Lord, for giving me the opportunity to live and work so closely with them, to learn from them, to see you shining so clearly in their lives, to bask in your reflected light, and to be be an imitator of them as they are imitators of You.

Thank you, Lord, for Jerry Drennan.
Thank you, Lord, for Stephen Greek.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

A sermon for the deaf

Saturday, June 13, 2009
Kenyan Deaf Prayer and Learning
Siriat, Kenya

When I left Abilene a week ago, I didn't plan on preaching to a large group of deaf Christians in Kenyan Sign Language (KSL); it just kind of happened. Stephen Greek told me yesterday, after we had already spent a few hours at this conference for deaf Kenyan Christians, that I had four options:

  1. I could continue working behind the scenes as I had been doing.
  2. I could participate in a skit with him.
  3. I could preach one of the conference sessions in English with Stephen translating into KSL.
  4. I could preach one of the conference sessions in KSL by myself.

I was really leaning toward option 1. It was my job to make sure that all the conference attendees got registered as they showed up at the conference, and that was no easy task since they were all deaf, so it's not like I was feeling useless here. But my adventurous side thought it would be a good experience to do the skit with Steve, and I had resolved that that is what I would do.

But Reepicheep would have nothing of it. Reepicheep (the very honorable talking mouse from the Chronicles of Narnia) is sort of my own personification of the virtue of courage, and he just wouldn't shut up about option 4. And I finally realized that the mouse was right. The only reason I wasn't considering the preaching options was due to my own fear of failure and embarrassment, and that sounds a whole lot like cowardice, the brave mouse pointedly reminded me.

So, with a squeaky little voice admonishing from one shoulder and the Spirit of God gently urging from the other, I told Stephen that I would preach a sermon in KSL. Apparently Stephen wasn't as conflicted about the whole thing as I was because he told me that he had assumed that's what I would decide and he had already written me into the schedule for 3:15 the next day.

So, then the challenge became figuring out what message to bring to these deaf Kenyan brothers and sisters that would be both relevant to them and within my limited KSL vocabulary. I eventually decided to channel Dr. Seuss and do a "Green Eggs and Ham" style sermon on the topic of emptying our hearts so that God may fill us with His Spirit. The trick to giving a talk (or writing a book) with a limited vocabulary is to repeat certain patterns that use the same words (like Green Eggs and Ham does). So, I double-checked my few signs with Jerry and Stephen first, (which wasn't a whole lot of help because they each told me a different way to do each sign), and then I asked Stephen to interpret my signing into spoken English during the sermon so that I could make sure I was really saying what I thought I was saying. And, of course, they were always available during the sermon to help me out if I got stuck.

It was really nice that I got to preach the second day of the conference because I already had the chance to observe Jerry, Vernon, and Carl delivering their own talks. If I hadn't done that I would have thought that preaching a sermon in KSL just involved standing in front of the congregation and making signs with my hands that correspond to the English words I wanted to say, and that is absolutely not the way it works. Delivering a deaf sermon is more like a pantomime routine with some signs thrown in to convey the more abstract concepts. It is much more an exercise in theatre than in rhetoric, and it was lots of fun. We have some really amazing teachers in our group that I have learned so much from.

The rest of the KDPL conference has been a continual learning experience as well. The deaf Christians here are so patient with me and continue trying to communicate with me even when they have to finger spell every word. One guy just tried to tell me "Hello" last night, and when I didn't catch the sign at first he had to finger spell it three times before I figured it out. It was rather embarrassing.

Also, I somehow ended up with the job of interpreting for Nina Moore (one of deaf members of our team) as she was teaching a ladies Bible class. All of our real interpreters were otherwise occupied. There was a hearing woman in the class who didn't know sign language, so I was supposed to interpret Nina's signs into English for her. Nina was going very slowly, but even so, I could only catch about half of it. Fortunately, most of the class time was spent reading various Bible passages, so I just whipped out my Bible app on my iPod and let her follow along herself, and I think she did just fine. I wondered if she had ever seen an iPod before, but I didn't ask.

I am supposed to preach another sermon in Eldoret next Sunday, but it will be for hearing people. I think, though, that this experience today may help me with some of my anxiety. (Actually, I journalled on the airplane about my anxiety over the Eldoret sermon. Maybe I'll post that eventually.)

Lord, thank you for being faithful and for guiding me over my fear today and for loaning me your courage. Amen.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Chuck Norris of Kenya

June 9, 2009
Nairobi, Kenya

We met Chuck Norris today in Nairobi. Well, ok, so it wasn't really Chuck Norris, but maybe he could be considered a cross between Chuck Norris, MacGeyver, and Franklin Graham. His name is Bruce Kinzer, and he is beyond a doubt the coolest guy I have ever met. Bruce lives in Kijabe (just north of Nairobi) where he works with another American named Steve Peifer to build computer labs for Kenyan school-children out of 20-foot metal shipping containers.

One of our goals on this trip was to meet with Steve and Bruce to learn a bit more about this novel idea of building computer labs out of shipping containers so that we might replicate the feat at locations around Sam's Place. (The point behind building them out of shipping containers is that they are inexpensive and very secure.) Bruce has built about thirteen of these labs with his own hands and has several more in the pipeline.

When he's not building computer labs out of shipping containers, Bruce builds himself dual cab pick-up trucks out of the parts from junked Land Rovers. Yeah, he's that cool. He's even cooler than Chuck Norris. Bruce could run Chuck Norris over with a replica of a German Panzer tank he could build out of a wheelbarrow and rusty playground equipment. And not only is he a genius at making things, but he has shown our team immeasurable hospitality.

We had a lunch meeting with Bruce at a little restaurant in Nairobi called Galitos, and Bruce drove an hour from Kijabe just to meet with us. After sitting around and chatting about the details of computer lab construction over rotisserie chicken and chips (french fries), Vernon Williams, Don Herrington, and I climbed into Bruce's hand-made duel-cab pick-up truck for a ride around town. Bruce does a lot of construction and fabrication, so he wanted to drive us around and show us some of the best places to shop for supplies and equipment in Nairobi. This was enormously helpful because we found out that we might be able to save a lot of money on Sam's Place construction by using the vendor that Bruce recommended. Up to now we have been buying all of our building materials in Kisii, which is very near Sam's Place. But what we learned from Bruce is that it would probably be much cheaper to buy our supplies from this guy in Nairobi and have them shipped to Sam's Place. Way to go, Bruce!

But that wasn't all Bruce did for us that day. We had been having a very difficult time figuring out how to get Internet access on our laptops so that we could maintain communication with our friends and family back home. Our best bet at the time was to buy a Bluetooth cell phone in Kenya, then buy a special SIM card for that phone that allowed us to use the Safaricom network, then buy a Bluetooth card for the laptop, then pair the phone with the laptop, then get a dialup account with the Safaricom Internet service provider, then finally have very slow Internet access. I was prepared to do all that, but on a whim I asked Bruce if he knew of a better way. He said, "Yeah, you can buy a Safaricom USB modem that just plugs into your laptop. They sell them for 4000 shillings ($53) at Westgate. I'll drive you there right now." And he did drive us there right then and helped us buy exactly we needed, and then he drove us home through the frightening Nairobi traffic. Any time we protested that he was going too far out of his way to help us he would just say, "Oh, I have to go to that store, too. Or, "my wife wanted me to pick up some groceries there anyway." Or, "oh that's just on my way home, I don't mind dropping you off there."

Bruce spent hours working with our team that was not affiliated with him in any way; in fact, I had just met him and Steve on the internet. He helped us immeasurably when there was no benefit to him, and made sure we didn't feel like we were putting him out for doing it. I'm pretty sure that's what Jesus looks like. So, if you appreciate the pictures and correspondance coming from our Kenyan mission team, you can thank Bruce Kinzer, the Chuck Norris of Kenya, a devoted servant of our Lord, and my own personal hero.

Driving around the streets of Nairobi with Bruce in his home-made, duel-cab pick-up truck was an enlightening and harrowing experience. Not only did he get us to our destination safely in rush hour traffic, but he filled the ride with very helpful commentary on driving in Nairobi. Here is my summary of his long commentary. Driving in Nairobi is like playing a game of "chicken" every 5 seconds. You cut in when you think the other driver is going to yield, and you yield when you think the other driver won't. A Nairobi driver must think quickly in every situation and weigh such questions as: Is my vehicle bigger than his? If we had a collision, who would win? Is the other guy's car worth so much that he wouldn't risk it? Is the other guy a crazy maniac who is going to yield to no one, no matter what? A good Nairobi driver must ask himself these questions about every five seconds. If he doesn't, he either gets creamed or just sits in one place all day.

Big cars rule the road in Nairobi. You would think that if you were going to be driving in traffic a lot you would want to drive a smaller car, but that's because you are thinking like an American, not a Kenyan. You would probably sit at a red-light for up to five minutes at 2:00 in the morning even when it is obvious the light is broken, and you would then feel an extreme pang of guilt as you cautiously pulled through the empty intersection. Wouldn't you? Of course you would because your Mama taught you when you were three months old to obey the law of the land, and that tendency to follow the law has been even more firmly cemented within you by the social pressure to conform to the societal norms of other law-followers. Running red lights and cutting people off just isn't a cool thing to do in the US. Kenyans obey the laws, too, because an armed policeman will whack their car with a wooden stick if they don't. Traffic flows nicely as long as the guys with the sticks and guns are standing around. Otherwise, it's back to playing chicken.

Lord, I find no greater encouragement than in seeing you visibly present in other people. We walked through some very dark places today, where the Prince of the World has his way with your precious children, yet in Bruce and in Larry and in Hollye your light shines so clearly and so unmistakeably and pierces the darkness. Thank you for raising up heroes of faith to encourage us and guide us as we seek to know you more fully and to serve you more selflessly. Amen.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

On the streets of Eastleigh

Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Nairobi, Kenya

I have always read Larry and Hollye Conway's emails and reports about their work with Made In The Streets, a ministry to the children who live on the streets of Eastleigh, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. The pictures of the children are always shocking, children sitting in the middle of trash heaps, sniffing glue from little bottles, dirty and tattered clothes, no shoes. The photographs tell a story of human suffering at its greatest, and it is almost beyond belief that there are children who know no other home but a trash heap in the slums of Nairobi. It shocks the senses even to view photos of the children on a 21" inch monitor in an air-conditioned office in a high-back leather chair thousands of miles away, so naturally I reasoned that meeting these deprived children face to face on the trash heaps of Eastleigh would be 10 times more heart-wrenching.

But it wasn't. In fact it is actually worse to view their condition from the point of view of the luxury to which we are accustomed. I think what strikes us so is the stark contrast between what we view as the normal human condition (middle-class America) and the gross deviation from that condition experienced by these children. The journey to Eastleigh from Abilene, Texas is a long one, and I don't mean that it is long in terms of miles traveled, but the journey is long in terms of the spectrum of the human condition traversed along the way. Even the nice parts of Nairobi still bear the marks of poverty, and you can't even travel to Eastleigh without first navigating roads that look like they been bombarded with large meteorites. The route through Nairobi is going to pass by hundreds of shabby little shops lining badly littered streets and manned by what look to us like impoverished people. The dust and black soot from passing traffic is heavy in the air, and the smoke from the buring piles of trash that line the streets just adds to the smoky haze.

While on our way to Eastleigh we would occasionally dance inside a crater-sized pothole with a very nice car going the opposite direction, and I would think, "Why on earth are they driving that luxury vehicle through these roads, in this part of town, or that that matter in this country. Luxury cars just seem so out of place here." Then as the car passed I would look at the back of the car to see the model: Toyota Corolla. And it became apparent to me that my eyes had started to adjust to Kenya. And by the time we finally arrived in Eastleigh and pulled up to the locked and barred gate of the Made in the Streets ministry, the landscape of shabby shops and general squalor had just started to look normal to me. And when Larry took us on a hike to see the bases, the trash heaps where the street kids live, he had to point the kids out to us. I was kind of under the impression that I would be walking through the streets of Nairobi and witness this devastating scene of destitute children living on trash heaps, but it absolutely wasn't that way. By the time we got to the first base and started shaking hands with the kids Larry knew, my natural response was "Well that makes sense that they would live and sleep on the trash heaps. The decomposing trash generates heat which keeps them warm in the cool Kenyan nights." Looking at the slum around me, and with my eyes grown accustomed to the reality of life here, the street kids at the base were not surprising at all.

I met a young mother with a precious little girl about nine months old. She seemed to be a happy child and her mother seemed very proud of her. She was only a few months older than my baby girl, Anna, and she made me really miss my children. I sat on a piece of cardboard on the ground next to them to play with little girl a bit and then several other teens started showing up in the area. Pretty quickly about ten teens showed up and, after shaking our hands (hand-shaking is a really big deal here), they seated themselves on the ground to listen to what Larry had to say. Larry went around and had each of the teens introduce themselves and then had each person in our group introduces themselves. Before we arrived in Kenya, I was under the impression that all Kenyans spoke English. After all, it is one of the official languages of the nation. However, the Kenyans learn English in school, and these teens we were talking to didn't go to school. I really wanted to talk to them all, spend the day with them, and get a first-hand account of what their lives are like. And it was very frustrating that I wasn't able to do that due to the language barrier (and our time constraints).

Larry kind of put us on the spot and asked if any of us on the team had any words to say, so I spoke up and told the teens (with Larry translating into Swahili) that I teach a Kindergarten class of precious little girls, and each week I ask the girls what they want to pray for. Invariably they always pray for the children of Kenya, specifically those with no home to go to. So, I told them that whether they knew it or not there were some little girls on the other side of the world praying for them every week. I don't know if that meant anything to them or not. Maybe they didn't care. I'm sure that there were probably some words I could have said that would have been more meaningful or more encouraging, but at that moment I really didn't know what they were. If someone were to ask me back home to say a few words on the spot, I could probably come up with something relevant to the situation. But this situation and their condition was so completely foreign to me, I just didn't even know where to start. On different occasion, I was asked to lead a prayer for a couple of other street kids we met, and I didn't even know what to ask for. The road from their current condition to the "normal" that I am accustomed to is so immeasurably long that I can't even envision the map. So, I had to punt with a general prayer for peace, joy, and wisdom in all things and just trust that the Spirit of God was interpreting for me "with groans that words cannot express."

Anyway, at the first base camp I was telling you about, after I had babbled something about my Kindergartners praying for them, Carl Moore had the wisdom and presence of mind to lead them in a prayer. Carl is deaf, so Carl signed the words of the prayer to Jerry who spoke them in English, and then Larry translated them to Swahili. And Carl knows just what to say. After the prayer, I passed out some granola bars to the teens at the base. I had brought along a bunch of them as snacks for myself on our Kenya trip, but I figured they needed them more than I did, and I was really drawing a blank about how else I could help minster to them, and passing out granola bars was really the best I was able to come up with under the circumstances.

Although I don't see any direct benefits from my brief trip to the bases, I am somewhat reassured in knowing that Larry and Holly Conway are continually involved in long-term ministry to these kids, and that their long-term involvement in the lives of the kids on the streets of Eastleigh is bearing real, tangible fruit in terms of rescuing these children from lives of hopelessness and giving them a bright future off the streets.

Lord, I feel so completely insignificant in your service. I am so small, and the combined suffering of your children throughout the world is so overwhelmingly vast. I know that your Body on earth, the Church, is blessed with divine power to heal and to love and to smash the gates of hell which shall not overcome it. I really do know (though I sometimes forget) that I am not able or expected to heal this broken world alone and certainly not by my own power, but only as a member of Your Body of which You are the head. So heal me of all my delusions of grandeur and use me in Your Kingdom however you see fit, according to your wisdom, even if it means I have to be a toenail in the Body of Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On the ground

Tuesday morning, June 9, 2009
Heart Guest House, Nairobi, Kenya

Ok, it's 5:00 am, and I can't sleep. I slept three hours on the plane ride to Nairobi, and I guess my body just thought that was enough. I'm going to be dead tired tomorrow, but there's not much I can do about it. Gordon, lying in the bed next to mine is having the same problem. My biological clock is just telling me it's time to be awake. So rather than just lie here in
bed listening to the roosters crowing outside (yes, there areroosters), I might as well do something productive (like write a blog entry that I might post if I ever get an internet connection).

Our flights from Dallas to London, and then from London to Kenya seemed to take an eternity. Fortunately, British Airways really takes care of its passengers. They had a nice selection of in-flight movies to pass the time. I didn't want to spend too much time amusing myself, though, when I had so many other things to be doing (writing, learning sign language on my iPod, reading the excellent selection of emergent Christian books Hollye Conway requested). However, "Children of a Lesser God" just seemed to fit so well with some of the themes of our trip, I just had to see it.

During our layover in London, we just barely had time to hurry through Heathrow airport to make our connecting flight, and then, back on the plane again. I was going to watch some movies on the flight to Nairobi to help me stay awake, but I thought my video screen was broken. Mitchell showed me where the "on" button was about 30 minutes before we landed. Oh well, at least I got some good reading time on the flight.

Our arrival in Nairobi was pretty uneventful. We only lost two bags out of 40, and even those on our team who didn't already have visas got through customs pretty quickly. The airport, at least, was much more modern than I had expected, and so far I haven't yet had the
feeling "Oh my, this is a third world country!"

Larry Conway met us at the airport with three large vans (matatus) with Kenyan drivers, so we packed in and immediately started making our way to our luxurious accommodations. I don't even say that tongue-in-cheek, either. The guest house we are staying in while in Nairobi is *really* nice. Well, really nice for Kenya, I mean. Jerry said they wanted to put the easy part at the beginning of the trip this year to give us a chance to get over our jet lag. Anyway, it far surpasses all my expectations. There are some things that probably wouldn't fly at a five-star hotel in the states (well, okay, or a one-star hotel for that matter).

For instance, the manager of the place said that he was going to turn the water on for us for an hour tonight. Steve and Jerry explained to us that what he really meant was that he was going to turn the *hot* water on for us tonight for an hour, and then again in the morning from 5:30 to 8:30. Anyway, I ended up getting in the shower tonight somewhat after the one hour cutoff time for the hot water, and I fully expected a cold shower, which I got. What I did not expect though was for the water to stop entirely while I was taking a shower. When the man said he was going to turn on the water, he really meant he was going to turn on the water. Apparently, Nairobi is on water rationing right now due to the drought, and the way the city rations water is by shutting it off completely at certain times. Fortunately our very nice guest house keeps some large water tanks on the facility so that they can give us water at least on a limited basis (6-10am and 6-10pm).

"Oh well," I thought, "I guess that's the end of my shower". So I started doing my other getting-ready-for-bed chores like brushing my teeth. They had told us we weren't supposed to drink the tap water anyway, so it wasn't a big deal that I had no tap water for the teeth-brushing. This place supplies each room with a big 5-gallon jug of bottled water to compensate for the absence of potable water from the tap, so I had plenty of water to brush my teeth and get ready for bed.

Then I went to use the toilet. I flushed once and it didn't all go down, so I tried flushing again. But, of course, I soon realized (too late) that when the water is off you only get one flush, and I was going to need considerably more flushes than that. My four room-mates, Steven Greek, Mitchell, Zach, and Gordon, were all already asleep, so I had to resolve the problem alone. My first attempt was to perform another flush using bottled water. (Okay, I know that's
wasteful, but when you the toilet won't flush, you gotta do what you gotta do, right?) This solution involved wrestling the very heavy 5 gallon water jug out of its dispenser unit (by myself) and dumping it into the back of the toilet (while splashing it all over the bathroom in the process, of course). After all that, though, it still wouldn't flush completely.

So, how to rectify the situation? Well, maybe you could think of a better solution, but the only one I could come up with was to reach into the toilet bowl with my hand and scoop everything out into a plastic ziploc baggie. Ok, I know that sounds gross, but when the toilet won't flush (and you're sharing a room with four other guys) you do what you gotta do, right? So, after the dirty deed was done, my next reaction was to go wash my hands in the sink. Oops. Thwarted
again. No water except the big water bottle sitting next to the toilet. If I had any foresight I would have returned the (very heavy) water jug to its dispenser before I got my hands dirty, but as it was I had to pick the 5 gallon water jug up with my clean forearms, turn
it upside down, and manuever it back into the dispenser (while splashing water all over the bathroom again, of course).

Once I finished cleaning up the mess and finally crawled into bed, I wasn't there more than 2 minutes before Gordon got out of bed and headed to the bathroom. It was already too late before I could stop him. And I guess he just wasn't as conscientious (or stupid) as me because I certainly didn't hear any water sloshing noises coming from the bathroom when he finished.

Anyway, I didn't expect a flushing toilet in the first place, and I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that we had one. So, I don't know why I have to get so bent out of shape about the toilet not working. I should just be thankful that I didn't have to grab a flash-light and
head to a choo (outhouse).

I know it doesn't sound like it, but we actually did more tonight after we landed than just have memorable bathroom experiences. Hollye Conway had a nice snack of fruits and vegetables, cheeses and cake, waiting for us at the guest house when we arrived. We support some really wonderful
missionaries here in Nairobi, and I hope that we are able to convey to them during this trip how very much they are loved and appreciated.

Tomorrow, Larry is taking all of us to see one of the base camps at Eastleigh. A base camp is a big trash heap which the street kids call home, and we are going to get to meet some of the kids that Larry and Hollye love and work with. I'm so excited about meeting them, and I have so many questions about what their daily life is like. It probably isn't appropriate to ask most of my questions, so I might just need to pick Larry's brain on the way. I do want to do something
for them, though. Maybe I'll take my stash of granola bars and beef jerky with me to pass out to the kids. I'll certainly let you know how it turns out.

Lord, please continually remind me to rely on your providence at all times and in all places, and fill me with your joy even when my expectations go unmet. Minster to me through your precious children who live on the streets, and use us in whatever way you can find to bless and encourage them. Amen.

Monday, June 8, 2009

In the airport

Wow. We just got 10 people with three checked bags a piece and two carry-ons through DFW airport security with no serious hangups. We did have to toss some acrylic paints that Gayla brought for crafts at the children's camp we are going be holding at Sam's Place. Apparently acrylic paints are considered hazardous cargo by the federal government, so they went in the trash. Fortunately, Gayla outsmarted the TSA and packed the paints in two suitcases and they only caught one of them. So we will be arriving in Nairobi with half of our dangerous contraband. Other than that, though, things went very smoothly.

As soon as we got through the security, we met up with some other other members of our mission team, Carl, Nina, Lewis, and Davonna, who just flew into DFW from Tulsa. The Tulsa members of our team are all deaf, so we have gotten an opportunity to use some of our new sign language skills. Unfortunately, the four of them speak ASL, not the Kenyan sign language that I have been learning, so they are continually correcting my signs. This is going to get really confusing really quick. Jerry told us that KSL and ASL are very similar; only 20% of the signs are different. But, so far, that hasn't been my experience. Maybe the few signs I know just happen to fall in that 20%. But Carl, Nina, Lewis, and Davonna, are all very personable and patient with our communication difficulties.

We had a near catastrophe, though. The airline employees at the gate had been calling our four deaf friends names for several hours to try to resolve some mix up with their luggage, but of course they couldn't hear it. And, of course, none of the rest of us are tuned in to listen for any names but our own. I happened to notice their last names in the list of passengers being called, so I let them know they were needed at the gate. Fortunately, we have Jerry with us and he interpreted for them and they got it all resolved, but we could have had a real problem if their luggage hadn't made the flight. Anyway, that is probably a pretty boring story for everyone except me. I only tell it, of course, because I was the big hero who saved the day, and everyone always wants to be the hero of the story, don't they?

We are just about to board to the plane, and Steven Greek hasn't been optimistic about our chances of getting internet access once we get to Kenya, so maybe it will be a while before you here from us again.

Lord, unite our team by the power of Your Spirit. Give us patience with one another and the perseverance to continue trying to communicate even when it is difficult. And bless our families we leave behind with peace as journey so far away. Amen.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Expectations and Anxieties

Lots of people have been asking me recently whether or not I am excited about our upcoming mission trip to Kenya. My wife even asked me which single thing I am most nervous about and which single thing excites me most. I found it interesting that I had the same answer to both questions. I find, looking forward, that the event I am most anxious about is also the event that excites me most: communicating with the deaf in Kenya.

Sam's Place is to be an orphanage for deaf children. The children will be deaf; the teachers will be deaf; some of its administrators will be deaf, and it is currently being built by deaf Kenyan men that we will be working shoulder to shoulder with merely days from now. So in order to really be effective at Sam's Place, I really need to know how to speak their language.

Several years ago, Katherine and I took an American Sign Language (ASL) course offered at our church by a woman in our congregation (Nancy Prince) who works closely with the deaf. We learned a lot of signs and I still remember a few of them, but I had serious difficulties learning sign language in that classroom setting. We got to see each sign a couple of times and then: on to the next one.

Anyway, I can't really communicate effectively in ASL, and they don't even use ASL in Kenya; they use Kenyan Sign Language (KSL). One of our trip leaders, Jerry Drennan, has been trying to teach us Kenyan Sign Language in a special Sunday morning class we have been attending over the past few months to prepare for our trip. But I found myself having the same struggles learning Kenyan Sign Language; seeing each sign a couple of times in class just isn't enough for me.

Recently, though, I found my salvation from this dilemma. I am finally seeing myself being successful at learning sign language, and as a result I have suddenly become 10 times more excited about learning KSL and even more excited about going on the mission trip. And what is the source of this educational revolution? The iPod.

Steven Greek, another one of our trip leaders who has spent many years living and working with the deaf in Kenya, produced a short video several years ago in which he demonstrates a few Kenyan signs. Jerry passed the DVDs out in class one morning, and I immediately converted the video into a format my iPod can read and started watching.

It was amazing! I could rewind and watch Steven do the signs as many times as I wanted. I could learn KSL in doctor's office. I could learn it in bed. I could learn it on the toilet. I could watch it with the sound off and drill the signs I had already learned. Steven's video is 24 minutes long, packed with 172 signs, and I learned them all in a few days.

So, I started putting my new-found knowledge to use by having conversations in KSL with some imaginary Kenyans, but my imaginary friends and I were quickly frustrated by the very limited number of things I was able to converse with them about. We could talk all day about "Hallelujah, praise Jesus," but I found that when I tried to say things like "put the bags of cement in the wheelbarrow and empty it next to the dormitory," I was stumped.

Not to worry, though. Steven Greek may be hundreds of miles away right now (he lives in Tennessee), but Jerry Drennan knows KSL, too. So, I figured that all we needed to do was to film Jerry signing a few hundred more signs (including important words like orphan, Sam's Place, and Texas) and we would be set.

Fortunately, Jerry was very good-natured about my request and graciously accepted my list of 400 carefully chosen new words. Another good fortune was that Mitchell Arnold, one of the teens going on the trip this year, is an avid media enthusiast, and he agreed to film the signing sessions for us with his video camera. We filmed all 400 words in two recording sessions, and as soon as Mitchell gets the video edited I'll be on my way to tripling the number of signs I know.

I'm going to post the videos on YouTube when they're done, and I'll link to them from this blog in case you happen to be interested in learning KSL sometime.

Anyway, now I am getting very excited about getting to converse a bit with the deaf Kenyans we meet and work beside. Then again, they may just watch me waving my arms around in the air and scratch their heads in consternation. I guess we'll find out.

Lord, open my eyes so that I may see my brothers as you see them, and cleanse my heart of pride and prejudice so that I may love them as deeply and unconditionally as you do. And if I yield to the temptation to view my relationships with my Kenyan brothers as an act of altruism with myself as the noble benefactor, please gently humiliate me as you see fit to heal my inflated self-perception. Amen.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

What to wear

I don't usually spend much time worrying about what to wear or what to take on a trip, and I certainly don't spend much time shopping for clothes, but I have broken character on both of these counts for our upcoming Kenya trip.

I had originally planned to just take a few pair of old khakis and a few of my older button down shirts for the trip. I was going to pack plenty of socks and underwear and t-shirts and fill up my one allotted suitcase. (We are each allowed to check three bags on the airplane, but we are only supposed to use one of them for our personal belongings. The other two bags are reserved for goods and equipment for Sam's Place and our missionaries in Kenya.) However, when Scott, a friend of mine who is also going to Kenya this summer, told me about his recent trip to REI, I scrapped my original plan and started to shop.

Scott's amazing revelation was that he is only going to be taking two pair of underwear on the trip. This concerned me a bit at first since we are going to be rooming together most of the time. However, these are not your grandpa's underwear. Ex Officio makes some light-weight, quick-drying boxer-briefs especially for travelers (called Give-n-go). The plan is that you wear the two pair on alternate days and wash the dirty pair in a sink each night, and they dry quickly enough that they are ready to go back in the backpack when you wake up in the morning.

I was sold; and not only did I go for the quick-drying underwear, I went for the whole concept of packing light. So, my wife and I spent several hours one night at Sierra Trading Post online, looking at light-weight travel clothes. I am fair-skinned and sunburn very easily, so I really need to wear long-sleeved shirts in Kenya (since it is both high altitude and right on the equator). I was worried, though, about getting hot in long sleeves. Never fear, the Ex Officio Trip'r long-sleeved shirt is here, featuring light-weight, quick-drying fabric, 30 SPF sun protection, ventilated back and underarms, zippered security pocket, and it's wrinkle-free to boot. I purchased three such shirts plus two pair of light-weight, quick-drying Cloudveil Caribe pants, and four pair of quick-drying socks. That, along with my three pair (they were on sale) of Give-n-go boxer-briefs makes up my entire wardrobe for the trip, and it all fits nicely in a one-gallon Ziploc bag.

But that's not all, no, that's not all. Ex Officio also has a new product called Insect Shield. It's an odor-free clothing treatment that is certified by the EPA and CDC to protect you from insects so that there is no need to use a potentially-harmful bug spray, and it lasts up to 70 washings. The only Insect Shield clothing I purchased was a big floppy sun hat, but they also have a program where you can mail your clothes to New Jersey to be treated with Insect Shield, and then they mail them back to you. Hurrah! So, after my Ex Officio wardrobe arrived in the mail, we immediately tried it on, washed it, and shipped it off to New Jersey. (And, hopefully, I will get it back before we leave. If not, you will be sure to hear about it here.)

So, once I was sure that all my personal belongs could easily fit in my backpack (that I'm taking as a carry-on), that left plenty of new possibilities for my empty suitcase. We support some amazing missionaries living in Nairobi, the Conways, who work with some of the street children there. I asked them if they could help me fill my empty suitcase by giving me a wish list of goodies from the States, and they were happy to oblige. I gather from their wish list that Mexican food is in short supply over there, so instead of bulky khakis and t-shirts my suitcase is now filled with enchilada sauce, diced green chilies, Velveeta cheese, and Pace picante sauce (good selections all).

So, my plan is to carry everything in my backpack, wash my quick-drying clothes nightly, and pack them up again in the morning. We'll see how that pans out. So far, I have been getting more excited about my recent packing than I have about the trip itself. I'm not sure what to think about that. Maybe that's good preparation for Africa, finding joy in the present and not worrying too much about the future.

Lord, forgive me for my self-centered materialism and continually remind me, particularly on this trip, that everything I own belongs to you and is to be used as a tool in your service. Amen.