Alone in Africa {A Story of Waiting and Advent}

Kenyan countryside
Kenyan countryside, from my bus window.

Two years ago, I flew to Nairobi for a dear friend’s wedding. It would be a whirlwind trip with only five days on the ground in Africa, my first visit to this continent. I would spend three days meeting Gracie’s new Kenyan family and friends, frosting cakes, and, finally, putting on a red dress and curling my hair to be bridesmaid. But for those first two days, I would take a bus to Mbale, Uganda, to meet Brenda and Remmy, my sponsored children.

My flight arrives late evening, and I only get a few hours of sleep before I have to get up to catch the bus. We drive as close as we can to the station, then make our way through the crowds, Gracie and her fiancée, Ken, seeing me safely on the bus before leaving.

I take one of the closest seats to the door, the stairs down and below my feet, the sun destined to bake me through the windows once it has fully risen. I am carrying two child’s backpacks, each stuffed with toys and school supplies and toiletries, along with my own clothes and my camera. I am bringing no books to read, only my journal and nine Advent cards with a picture on one side and a one- or two-sentence reflection on the other.

The day wears on, the sweat accumulating on my back and at the bridge of my nose. I see zebras on the side of the road once, and monkeys, and an egret and a cow lying down nose to nose. Short trees cover the oh-so-green rolling hills, and plots of land are marked as “NOT FOR SALE.”

I order the beans and chicken everyone else is ordering when we stop for lunch, and I struggle to understand the heavily accented English around me.

I catch snippets of bus announcements, and after a while, when the conductor mentions Kampala but not Mbale, I start to worry that I am not on the right bus. The conductor knows only a little English, so I call Ken on my basic phone, and he talks to the conductor, and then Irene, my local contact at the center, talks to the conductor, but the accents, rendered difficult in person, are nearly impossible for me to unravel over the phone.

Finally, I break through the communication barrier and learn that my first inkling was correct: We are driving north now, as we should be, but when we are still two hours from Mbale, the bus will not take that turn but will instead veer west, bound for Kampala.

I approach the conductor again with my phone, and after he speaks to Ken or Irene in their shared language, I press the phone to my ear, hearing all but understanding very little. I repeat this scene again and again, sometimes with another traveler instead of the conductor, and I piece together more and more of the plan we’re forming, while simultaneously second-guessing everything I think I know of that plan, worrying that no one else understands the situation as I do, that I will be stranded and forgotten.

But in between the phone calls, in between the stops, while this is still the road I am supposed to be traveling, I have nothing to do but watch and wait.

I see Kenya from my window, hundreds of people living their lives: Women selling potatoes on the side of the road, men sitting on the hillside while their sheep or cows or donkeys graze, children playing soccer and holding hands, people walking, walking, always walking. Sometimes, a child skips instead of walks, and my heart skips too.

When I’m not looking out the window, I pull out those Advent cards from the small cloth purse tucked in my bag. Today is day 7 of Advent, and today’s picture is of a full moon in a star-speckled sky presiding over a mountain range. A lightness at the horizon promises that night will soon end. Alicia Heater drew this picture, and on the other side, Cara Strickland wrote, “In my family, we set out the nativity scene on the mantel, without Jesus. The lonely manger reminds me that in this season we embrace waiting empty.”

I read and reread that card and the six that came before it, filling myself with pictures of small lights in the darkness, of snatches of carols and Bible verses about the Incarnation, of words about hope and waiting, memory and silence.

“‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask the Israelites. ‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask Zechariah and Elizabeth. ‘Have you forgotten me?’ I ask.”

I think about how I’m waiting for this long day to end, and how I forget about people in developing countries until they’re right in front of me.

Advent cards
The Advent cards. Artwork by Alicia Heater, reflections (on back) by Cara Strickland.

We stop at the border near sunset, and the crossing takes hours, standing in lines in first one building and then another, filling out forms and getting my visa stamped, and then lots of waiting, milling around on the red patches of dirt, waiting for our bus and then waiting for our driver.

Night is falling by the time we start up again; I see very little of Uganda in the darkness.

We reach a busy intersection, and the bus slows across from a hotel. They are stopping for me. “This is it!” people are saying, everyone now aware of my plight, my confusion, my anxiety. I gather my bags and thank the conductor. A man walks with me across the street while the bus waits for him.

I sit in the dimly lit lobby, surrounded by my possessions, for another two hours. Others notice me waiting and offer to help, but I am now where I need to be. Finally, Irene arrives and we drive the rest of the way to Mbale. I can now relax. It is nearly midnight, and a trip I thought would take six or eight hours has taken 18.

I fall asleep in my fancy hotel room thinking about the kindness of strangers, and I awaken to palm trees and a fancy buffet breakfast and excitement.

I meet Brenda, a teenager on the verge of adulthood whom I have been sponsoring for more than 10 years. She is almost as tall as my 5 feet, 9 inches. I meet her mother and stepfather and siblings, and I see where she goes to school. She is wearing an ankle-length blue-and-black dress, and I recognize her immediately. I can tell she recognizes me too. She can’t stop smiling. She shows me old letters and pictures I’ve sent her over the years. She speaks less English than I expected, but someone is always there to translate.

For weeks, I didn’t know if my other sponsored child, Remmy, would be able to come. He is from another part of Uganda, at least half a day’s journey away. I was planning to mail him his gifts once I was in the country, but then I found out that they would be able to bring him to Mbale after all. He is here with Godfrey, a former sponsored child himself, and they also came on the bus. He is eight years old and shy and doesn’t smile for the camera at first, but eventually we bond over selfies, and he delights in taking pictures of everyone and everything with my DSLR camera. He is wearing a tan suit and dress shoes, but seems more comfortable, more himself, after he takes off the coat.

We eat a meal together, and the center staff share Brenda’s file with me, and then we take the van to her family’s house and I meet everyone. Remmy is there too, sandwiched on the couch between us and treated as part of the family. They open their presents, and then they give me presents I had not expected: a purse with black and white and red beads that Brenda made for me, and a letter from Remmy’s mother that means more to me than I can say. I wish I could have met his family too.

The day fills me up to the brim, worth every twist and turn it took to get here. Before I know it, I am waiting on the side of the road for my bus. Brenda and Remmy and I sneak in a few more pictures, a few more memories, and then the bus arrives and we say our hasty goodbyes.

With Brenda and Remmy
With Brenda and Remmy, right before I left Mbale.

The return trip is uneventful. I sit next to another American all the way to Nairobi. Through the night, I sleep and I wake and I cross back into Kenya and I sleep again. I am not alone and this time I don’t need my Advent cards to comfort me.

So many of my experiences with Christianity have soured, but the season of Advent remains sweet to me. I have a soft spot for “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and the candles and the waiting. I don’t know how much is true and how much is myth in the traditional Christmas story, but somehow, for a few weeks, I’m able to suspend my cynicism and let my heart expand in the darkness.

Advent has never been more special to me than it was that December in Africa, and especially that day when all I had to keep me company were those cards, when I was waiting in the unknown and could only gaze at the pictures and the words and think about all the others who have also felt lost and forgotten.

 

Alicia Heater’s illustrations can be found at slightlystationery.com, and Cara Strickland’s writing at carastrickland.com.

Staying Attuned {an Advent reflection}

Mbale, Uganda
Mbale, Uganda

Dear Uganda,

We will be meeting each other soon, and forming first impressions. The sun we both know will shine on us at the same time, and in the short hours I have with you I pray I will be straining to see.

I’ve been writing to two of your children, a boy and a girl, and I know a little bit about you – about climate and crops and family life – but not nearly as much as I should.

I know there is violence and poverty, illiteracy and corruption. I know there is beauty and I know there is pain.

And I know that I often see the nations of Africa with bleary, blurry eyes, until all I can make out is a giant swirl in the shape of a continent.

Today I’m writing at Annie Rim’s blog, for her series on Advent. My first guest blog! Join me there to read the rest of this post.

Listen to the Longing

Travel is lovely; travel is lonely.

I know loneliness very well … both the loneliness of a crowded room and the loneliness of my own room. I know the loneliness of being the only one and the every one.

I know longing too.

Many words are associated with these four weeks before Christmas, these four weeks they call Advent: Expectation. Anticipation. Hope. Waiting. Arrival. Come. Longing.

Longing.

One quarter of December I will spend simply getting from one place to another. Another two quarters, roughly, I will spend being in those other places. And this doesn’t count all the time spent preparing and recovering, the prologue and the epilogue.

This month, I will be spending a lot of time with the new and the old and the in-between. I don’t know if this will make the longing heavier or lighter than if I were to pass the time in my new home, in my new normal.

The longing that unites us Christians is the longing for Christ, the longing for all to be made right in a shitty world. I think of these words from Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

But there are other longings: For that to end which has plagued us for far too long. For that to begin which has evaded us for far too long. For grace in the long, long middle. For purpose. For peace. For love. For knowing deeply and being known.

The season of Advent is the first season of the church calendar. It is a beginning, of sorts, but it also meets us in the messy middle. Whatever longings we’re carrying when we light that first candle and sink into the cold and the light, the invitation is the same: To name it and sit with it. To not hurry past it or push it down or change its name, but to say, “This is what I’m desperate for. This is what I’m feeling around for in the dark. This is my ache.”

At least, that’s the invitation I hear, when I slow down enough to listen.

And after all the preparing and the packing, once travel is underway and there is little to do but wait and sit and be carried to distant lands, if you let yourself, time will slow down. You may find in yourself someone other than a list-maker, a doer, a blur among other blurs. You may find longing again.

And that longing, it is lonely, and it is lovely.

Advent of Restlessness

mountains
Photo by james j8246 on Flickr’s creative commons.

I have a bit of a crush on Advent.

I buy things for Advent and I daydream about Advent and I want to spend as much time with Advent as possible.

And every year, I am disappointed. This isn’t because Advent stands me up, however, but because I make Advent stand in the snow, and put a Santa hat on her head, and fill her arms with enough books and music and art and calendars to make anyone topple.*

When will I learn that Advent is more about letting go and listening than strapping as many things to my body as I can?

Maybe this will be the year I fall all the way in love with Advent.

After all, I can relate more to Advent longing than Christmas joy. Give me poetry that makes me ache, give me songs that make me cry. Give me silence and take away the color and let us sweat and climb together. Maybe the sun will come out from behind the clouds for a moment, maybe we will glimpse the shore across the channel, maybe we will catch an earful of birdsong before we have to pull our hoods up and turn our bodies away from the wind.

I am restless. I am always restless. Even on my happiest days, I am restless.

I look for people who will take away my restlessness. I try to make something of myself. I cannot stop moving, but I know I must stop moving.

I think of St. Augustine’s words and I know, deep down, that I’m looking for God, somehow:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

I’m looking, but I have not found. At times, I think I glimpse something out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn, nothing is there.

The sky is overcast and I am so cold.

But I can breathe.

Maybe the real God is not who I expect. Maybe the real God doesn’t want to take me off my lonely mountain and stick me in a room where the windows are shut tight and all the furnishings are from a certain decade, a certain century, a certain school of thought. Maybe the real God is breathing the same air I am and likes the mountain as much as I do.

I pull hope into my lungs, hope fills my ears and streams from my eyes, hope dances with me in the darkness, hope sits with me in the pain. And this is what I love about Advent.

 

*Not that Advent books and music and art and calendars are unhelpful. Quite the contrary. I just tend to imbibe too many at once. This year, I will be sitting with my friend Cara Strickland‘s devotional calendars, a bit of music, and perhaps a book of poetry (any suggestions?).

Life on autopilot: it’s time for a change

Wednesday was one of those days where I felt everything, and I’m so grateful.

I sat in my swivel chair, shut tight in the little studio while instrumental Christmas carols filled the room and the waveforms rose and fell right along with them. In between pushing record and stop and occasionally adjusting the volume, I was reading Liz Curtis Higgs’ book The Women of Christmas.

Somehow, we received quite a few copies of that book here at the station, and so one day a couple weeks ago, I found that shiny red hardback in my box. A new resource! I thought, admiring the Christmassy cover.

There are many Advent resources, I’ve found.

Perfect for this girl who’s bringing Advent to the late-night hours of a small Christian radio station.

So there I was, reading The Women of Christmas while the music played, and I felt it, all of it.

The Christmas story was alive in my heart, and I wasn’t reading it just so I could pull out a few quotes for my radio show.

The night before, I had been reading another book, and I was having trouble getting into it. At the back of my mind were thoughts like maybe I can pull something out of this for my blog and how can I use this in my writing/teaching/speaking?

This is why I’m not a fan of writing book reviews. The knowledge that the book review is waiting for me just past the last page, and demanding a solid analysis and arguments, distracts me from being able to fully enjoy, immerse, be. That tendency to turn everything into a performance is already there; why exacerbate it?

So there I was, reading this book, Grace for the Good Girl, and I finally gave myself grace. I finally let go and let myself read without the pressure of having to remember everything or be able to regurgitate it later. It was wonderful.

My days of being are few and far between.

I’m too much about lists and tasks and getting five things done at once. And usually, those five things can all be done with the help of a mouse and a keyboard. I’m convinced that all of this, all the lists and the task orientation and the spending all my free time in front of the computer, dulls my mind and heart.

And honestly, I’m already tempted to believe my life right now is dull.

I am 25 years old, and I live at home with my parents, and even though I have a job and a blog and a group of youth group kids I love, my life is safe, easy and predictable.

And what do I do? I dull it still further.

I want my life to count, even now in the in-between and the over-familiar.

I’m on autopilot right now, and autopilot is easy. But autopilot steals my humanity, one hour at a time. It steals my ability to feel and think deeply, to empathize, to truly live life.

Wednesday was one of those days where I felt everything — the Liz Curtis Higgs book, the words and Scriptures and thoughts I spoke into the microphone — was fully present, and felt like a person, not a robot.

This brings me to today, and this weekend.

I’ll be spending a good part of this weekend in a car, and after two and a half hours of sitting in the dark thinking, I already feel emotionally and spiritually rejuvenated. This is going to be a healing weekend, I can tell.

It’s too soon to decide which attitudes and activities need to be replaced in the long-term, but I think it’s time to take a break from this blog. I was already going to take two weeks off for Christmas, since I’ll be on vacation in England, but I think it would be healthy for me to start my blog vacation early.

Blogging has become more about lists and tasks and social networking, more about trying to turn barely processed thoughts into polished writing, more about analyzing my life while I’m living it than it is about the sheer joy of writing. I need time to think and pray and be. I need time to rediscover my love of writing, and to decide what role blogging should play in it right now. Does the activity need to change, or just the attitude, or both? I don’t know, but I need to turn off the autopilot to find out.

Thank you to all of you who have supported me in this journey. I hope that this time off is the start of something new.

11 Things I Learned in November

After a hiatus last month due to 31 Days in the Word, I’m back with a hodgepodge assortment of what I’ve learned this month. For the fourth time, I’m linking up with Emily Freeman and other bloggers to give you a recap of November’s fun and memorable discoveries. Enjoy!

1. We finished our fall Share-a-thon at KVIP radio a few weeks ago, and I learned (again) that I’m exceptionally and increasingly comfortable on live radio, almost unnaturally so for my level of introversion. Of course, a lot of it has to do with it being this radio station and these co-workers/co-hosts and those listeners, but it still boggles my mind sometimes.

2. For my birthday dinner at Olive Garden, I tried wine for the first time. I’m not a fan. At least, not of the particular white wine I sampled.

3. Speaking of alcohol, intoxication in this country is defined as having a blood alcohol content level that is at or greater than 0.08%. When I went in to retake a portion of the written test as part of renewing my driver’s license, I realized I had no idea what the legal limit was. Luckily, I’m a good guesser (on that and a couple other questions), or else my trip to the DMV might not have been so quick.

4. I am a Jesus Feminist: “I have always accepted the basic complementarian understanding of gender roles without giving it much thought: Women are to submit to their husbands, and preaching is for men. … Now, I’m starting to question it. I’m finding strict complementarians and those who take Paul’s words on submission to their literal extremes. I’m learning to walk in the freedom and love of Christ. And for the first time, I’m asking questions. Why can’t a woman preach? I wonder. For the first time, it’s bothering me.”

It was a big step to write about something so controversial (or potentially controversial) here, but I desire authenticity, and for me authenticity means allowing myself to wrestle and ask hard questions outside of the safety of my own head and home. And I’m glad I did.

5. Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the best film adaptation I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a great movie in its own right as well. I look forward to seeing it again.

6. November 3rd was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. I learned which countries have the most extreme persecution. China isn’t as high on the list as I expected it to be. Also, I found out about Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini, who is currently imprisoned in Iran for his faith. Read his story and sign the petition here.

7. Not every American makes pumpkin pie from a can. I’d always assumed that was the norm, since it’s what we’ve always done — in fact, if it hadn’t been for a pumpkin carving activity in high school, I might’ve never, in all my 25 years, interacted with the insides of that gargantuan vegetable (or fruit?). Granted, I don’t know what percentage of Americans opt for the can over pureeing the pumpkin themselves, but I can no longer hold my can with the same pride and joy that I did before.

8. It’s worthwhile to enter book giveaways. Though I am biased, seeing as how I’ve won four much-desired books in the last month or so.

Lizzie and her books
I’ve won four out of five of these books in giveaways. (from left to right: When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman, Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey, A Million Little Ways by Emily P. Freeman, and The In-Between and Wrecked by Jeff Goins)

9. I love Advent. Last December was my first year of truly observing this pre-Christmas season of waiting and expectancy, and now I’ve taken things to the next level by bringing the celebration to my radio show. Of course, one of the consequences of doing so — particularly this Christmas — is that I’m already halfway through Advent on my program while in the real world Advent hasn’t even started yet. But I don’t mind this head start. In fact, I’m interested in the Christian year even beyond Advent, so I purchased the book Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God by Bobby Gross.

10. I’ve never owned a dog (and never really cared to own one), but after taking care of a couple’s border collie/Australian shepherd for three weeks while they were on vacation, I realized there’s more to dogs than loud barking, slobbery licks, and poop. Dogs are very affectionate, and I loved being welcomed home from work by my canine companion, Ozzie.

11. I’m not a Whovian (yet?), but after watching “The Day of the Doctor” (the 50th-anniversary special for the beloved British TV show, Doctor Who) I understood why people love it so much, why this is a big deal. I was also confused a lot of the time, but that’s to be expected for someone like me who’s only seen a dozen Doctor Who episodes in total.

Living the Joy

_DSC0150Today is a day of joy.

But it’s not Christmas yet.

No, it isn’t. Neither is it any sort of long-awaited day circled on my calendar. There are days I’m looking forward to in the weeks and months and years to come, some of which are attached to definite dates, while others are still fluttering in dreamland.

But I’m not there yet, and I don’t want to live my life in a constant state of assuming that the greatest joys in life are in some future, far-off place. As I get to know people more, as I get to know God more, our relationships won’t be the same. They will get better. In that sense, the best is yet to come. But I don’t want to just bide my time until the conditions are perfect, because the conditions will never be perfect. Not in this life.

I don’t want to lose sight of this journey, this beauty, in a rush to get to a destination. Because the only destination that bears the resounding finality of crossing the finish line in a race is death, and even that is debatable. All the other “destinations,” all the events, the milestones, the turning points, expand the original journey, they don’t complete it.

And yet there is beauty in expectation. There is beauty in waiting. There is beauty in Advent.

In this waiting time, this “now and not yet,” I can find real joy in that just-as-real “now” even as I wait for what is “not yet.”

I don’t think I will ever stop reminding myself how important it is to seek God not as a means to an end, but as an end in Himself. Not as a means to having a more fulfilling Christmas, or being a better person, or finding out my purpose. The noblest of ulterior motives is still an ulterior motive, and it doesn’t compare with the pure joy of knowing and loving just to know and love.

It’s not just about five days from now, or 55 days from now, or five years from now. It’s today.

To Fully Love

spending timeIf we look at our relationships with the people we love the most, we will learn so much more about what it means to love God.

When you love someone, you aren’t counting the time you’re spending with them in order to meet a certain quota. You’re simply radiant in being with them, and the time goes by faster than you want it to, and if you’re counting anything, you’re counting the time until you see them again.

God isn’t measuring your devotion to Him by how many chapters of the Bible you read each day or how many minutes you spend in prayer.

Relationship is the most important thing of all, which, at its most fundamental level, is love.

Advent is waiting for Jesus to arrive, and wanting that arrival more than anything else, and welcoming Him with both arms around His neck when He comes. That full, unreserved embrace is what it means to fully love, what it means to give Him your all.

Take Me to the Manger

I get excited easily. Especially this time of year.

But something has happened since I stopped eating from the children’s menu and started wearing make-up. Something bad.

Each Christmas, I feel it. I see it. Hopes are raised, lists are written, traditions are sought after. I dance the dance, but find myself disappointed and cynical at the end of it all, as torn wrapping paper covers the living room floor on the 25th of December.

We must do all the traditional things. We must saturate ourselves in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Christmas. And if it snows, so much the better!

I’ve been chasing after an experience, hoping to catch the joy, to feel the excitement, to revive the Christmas spirit I remember from my childhood … to dance around the manger with all of my holiday paraphernalia.

But even if I watch all the right movies and bake all the right desserts and put my tree up at the right time, even if I devote all my time to finding the best, most generous and unexpected gifts to give and play only the most reverent of Christmas music, I won’t find what I’m hoping to find.

I’d rather have Jesus.

That’s why, this year, I’m celebrating Advent. Not as a piece in the puzzle, a means to a fully gift-wrapped, gingerbread-covered end. But because in Him is the only true joy. Because He is the one I want, the one I am waiting for, the one I will welcome.