Sunday, November 30, 2014

Community: Learning from the South Sudanese

The South Sudanese operate on a level of communal living that I’ve never experienced before.

There seems to be no need for “alone time,” and most of life is lived outside among friends and neighbors. It’s rare to go more than a day without seeing a close friend. The only reasons to be alone inside the house are if you are sleeping or sick, so we frequently get asked what’s wrong when we spend more than a few minutes inside.

In the same way that time and space are communal resources, possessions are also shared, especially among family members. If you have something that someone “wants” (and I say “wants” because there’s no Nuer word for “needs”), there’s a strong cultural expectation that you give it to them. The subtle way to ask for something is telling someone you like it. We’ve learned that compliments are not part of Nuer small talk, because we’ve unintentionally asked for some of our friends’ belongings this way.

At first the constant asking really grated against my expectations of friendship. Aside from occasional rides to the airport, I didn’t have a lot of experience with relationships where people routinely asked for things.

For a long time my first instinct was to say “no” whenever possible, telling myself I didn’t want to create dependency. But as these relationships deepened it became harder to say no, and I could tell it hurt the friendship. Also, as I read passages of Scripture on giving and sharing with those in need, I felt increasingly convicted that in most cases it wasn’t the correct response.

Having lived this past year in countries heavily reliant on outside aid, I have witnessed forms of dependency that result in a loss of dignity and feelings of helplessness, which I have no desire to replicate. Rather, what I feel the Lord calling me into is a life of interdependence that points back to him as the ultimate provider and operates out of love, not guilt.

I still struggle to hold my possessions with an open hand and constantly have to pray for wisdom to know when and how to give, but the Lord is slowly changing my perspective to see giving as an opportunity for blessing instead of a burden. I am thankful to my South Sudanese friends for helping me understand more of what it means to live in Biblical community.

Two Jerrycans

In the grand scheme of things, our life in Ethiopia is pretty cushy, both when compared to the living conditions of the majority of human history as well as our neighbors. There are still times though when I compare it to certain aspects of life in America and find myself feeling discontent.

One day in particular the power and water had been out for longer than usual; our electronics were dead and our last barrel of water was almost empty. For several days I had had one of the intestinal infections that frequently plague our team, and I really just wanted to be somewhere with indoor plumbing.

That night as I lay covered in sweat I kept thinking: does God really love me if he called me to live in a place like this? My dad always loved and cared for our family so well, and I can’t picture him moving us to a place where it gets up to 130°F with no air conditioning, no running water, and constant sickness – not without a good reason. So either God loves me less than my dad, or he does have a really good reason.

The Lord reminded me of John 10 – how he has other sheep that are lost, whom he desires to bring into his flock. And as Jesus freely and lovingly laid down his life that we could be reconciled to the Father, so he invites us also to enter into difficulties that others would know that love too.

I think the Lord also desires to set me free from the lie that circumstances are somehow a measure of his love. I want to be able to walk joyfully through any struggle, believing Romans 8: that nothing can separate us from the love of God. How powerful would it be if instead of longing for difficulties to end, I could learn to worship in the midst of them?

I am continually humbled by how the Lord provides for our needs. The next day our friend Nyaret brought us one of her two jerry cans of water, which held us over until the city turned on the water the following day and we were able to refill our barrels. Her act of love blessed us beyond just the gift of water.

God is so faithful, and I can confidently say, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Saturday, October 11, 2014


In Nasir we were spoiled to have a Doctors Without Borders hospital a short distance away. Although there was only one occasion when one of us needed treatment, we felt blessed to have access to good medical care in such a remote place.

The town where we are currently staying in Ethiopia is another story. While in many ways it is significantly more developed than Nasir, the choices for medical care are limited.

The local clinics, staffed by persons with basic medical training, take the shotgun approach. It seems that everyone who walks in with a fever has malaria, typhoid, and anemia. People walk out with bags of malaria medicine, antibiotics, iron supplements, and pain pills with little to no instruction on how to administer them. The Nuer name for these places, Duel Waal or “House of Drugs,” seems appropriate. It’s not surprising that drug resistance is rampant.

The local hospital is slightly better. You may get to see a doctor, and there’s less chance of being given a false positive for malaria or typhoid. But you have to make sure to bring your own food, water, sheets, and a friend to follow your paperwork through the convoluted, overworked bureaucratic system.

Faced with limited options for physical remedies, the spiritual route becomes more appealing. But there are only two choices: the power of God through Jesus Christ or the power of Satan through the witchdoctors (which is out of the scope of this post).

The Bible is filled with stories of healing and instructions to the church to pray for the sick. With so many of our friends suffering from various illnesses (most of which are not malaria, typhoid, or anemia), we are committed to lifting them up in prayer, believing that God’s healing power is the best option.

I can’t say that I understand how God heals. It seems like sometimes it’s flat out miraculous while other times he uses the natural systems he designed to bring it about. So far I haven’t seen anything “radical,” like the lame walking or the blind receiving sight, but then again, maybe I have been too afraid to pray these kinds of prayers.

I do believe that it’s God’s heart to heal and restore, and it’s my hope that those around us would experience physical healing as well as the equally awesome power of God’s love and forgiveness.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Search for Nyibol

When we arrived in Ethiopia back in March, the first thing we did was begin searching for our friends from Nasir. We would stop individuals on the street, asking if they had any news from South Sudan. We were able to reconnect with most of our friends, but had been unable to reach Nyaret and Nyibol, the two ladies who served us so faithfully in Nasir.

Although sickness had prevented us from traveling before we left for Uganda in June, this past Saturday we decided to make the trip out to Matar, a town about an hour from the South Sudan border where we had heard Nyibol was staying. Early in the morning we loaded up in a Land Cruiser and set out to try and find Nyibol.


After four bumpy hours we made it to Matar and began to canvass the town, stopping people to ask if they knew her. We heard vague responses that she had been there a few weeks ago, but no one knew where she was now. Then, out of nowhere, we ran into her son, who told us she was in the refugee camp near Nyinyang, about 30 minutes away.

Although us kuwayni (foreigners) did not have approval to enter the camp, some of the group went with Nyibol's son to find her while we waited under a tree outside the entrance. (We were so blessed to have her son with us, because there’s no way we would have found her amidst the 40,000 people living in the camp.) Finally we saw the car coming back and there was Nyibol!

It was a sweet reunion, and there were many rounds of “Male, male migoa, male midit” before we all got back into the car to return to Gambella. On the drive back, Nyibol told us some of her story. Back in March she suffered a gunshot wound and had been transported to a MSF hospital in South Sudan. After she was discharged, she walked for 10 days back to Nasir before finding her way to the refugee camp in Ethiopia.

Perhaps the craziest part is that as we were driving, we got a text from Jared that Nyaret, who we thought was in South Sudan, had just shown up in Gambella!

This morning we met together with Nyaret and Nyibol. We praised God for the amazing way that he reunited us after months of praying to see each other again. We believe that only the Lord could have led us to Nyibol and brought Nyaret to Gambella, all in one day.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Living in Community

Because of the conflict in South Sudan, many people have fled across the border to Ethiopia. Some are living in refugee camps, but others have gone to surrounding towns to stay with family. When you add the flood of NGO workers to the area, you have a major housing shortage on your hands. Consequently, it was a gift from God that the Pierces, Christina, and I were able to find a small house for the 7 of us to share.

As much as it’s an adjustment to live with a family of five, I know that it’s just as much of an adjustment for them. It’s not easy to be a parent with an audience – having to go to another room to discipline in private, trying to keep things clean or keep the children quiet on a Saturday morning.

It’s also not easy to be the audience. There’s a certain amount of rule breaking that kids get away with when mom or dad is in the other room, but when there are four adults instead of two, not much goes unobserved. When do I say something and when do I keep quiet? When it looks like someone might get hurt? How much is interfering with someone else’s children and how much is part of “it takes a village?”

We’re also not talking about the few hours you spend with your roommate or family after everyone gets home from work or school. This is 24/7 living with the people that are your coworkers, friends, and small group. You eat together, work together, pray together, and battle sickness together. You don’t ask each other “How was your day?” over dinner, because you already know the answer.

Sometimes it can be frustrating, feeling like there’s no place to retreat, but living in community is also freeing. I’m pretty good at covering up my sin for a two hour weekly small group, but when you live together there’s no hiding your issues. My teammates know when I’m having a bad day; they see my frustrations and my selfishness. And it’s a good thing, because it forces me to face it.

In spite of the challenges of intense communal living, I’m so thankful for my teammates. I’m a different person than before we started living together, and I have a much better perspective on parenting. I can’t think of anyone else with whom I’d rather have shared the last 11 months, 3 African countries, and 8 different living arrangements.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Holy Land

At the end of June, Christina and I traveled to Israel to meet up with our families for a week. While just visiting the sites would have been amazing in and of itself, it was even better that I got to experience it with my mom and dad, whom I hadn’t seen in 10 months. We rented a car for 3 days to drive up to Galilee and then down to the Dead Sea, but we spent most of our time walking around Jerusalem.

Old Jerusalem is truly an intersection of faiths, with the Armenian, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Quarters all within less than a square kilometer. One hears church bells echoing amidst calls to prayer and sees mosques next to synagogues next to cathedrals. Most of these buildings were built on top of holy sites, where significant events were believed to have taken place.

One of the most prominent sites in the Old City, the Temple Mount, is highly contested among the different faiths. Now host to the Muslim Dome of the Rock, it is also believed to have been the site of the Jewish Temple before it was destroyed in 70 A.D.

During a tour of the tunnels along the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, we reached a place where women were praying and small scraps of paper with prayers written on them were stuffed into cracks and crevices in the wall. We learned that this is said to be the closest point along the Western Wall to where the Holy of Holies used to stand, where the presence of God dwelt.

Of all the holy sites, this one in particular struck me with sadness. People travel from far away, desiring to be near to God, and the closest they can come is outside of the wall around the location of where the holy place used to be.

I realized that I take for granted that for those who believe in Jesus Christ, the temple is no longer about a physical, earthly location but the presence of God living in the hearts of his children: “Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?” 1 Cor 3:16. His Spirit is with us wherever we go.

So while it was amazing to spend a week in Israel and experience many of the sites where Biblical events took place, I am thankful that intimacy with God is not dependent on location. Those living in a remote village in Africa can have the same access to God as someone standing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

“For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” Hebrews 9:24-28

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The War Hits Home

On May 4th Nasir was finally taken by government troops. This did not come as a surprise to anyone, as Nasir had been the headquarters and recruiting grounds for the rebel forces for months, but the news still hurt. We were so thankful to hear that there were few civilian casualties (unlike other clashes in the past few months), but my heart still grieves with those who fled their homes, many traveling for days on foot to reach the refugee camps.

We heard the news on a Sunday afternoon here in Ethiopia, and we spent our normal team devotion time praying for Nasir. Slowly we were joined by friends: Mary Nyakuoth, a Bible school student, and Nyatet and Mulan, teenage girls who live nearby. We took turns singing and praying in English and Nuer, and we read Psalm 46 together:

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. […] He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; […] Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

A week later we heard that following the fighting many compounds in Nasir were looted, including ours. Although we haven’t seen the damage, it was reported that what wasn’t taken was intentionally destroyed. We don’t know which side was responsible for the looting, and it really doesn’t matter. I’m asking God to help me to forgive those who have taken our belongings and praying that the things taken would be a blessing to them. I’m thankful that our treasure is in heaven “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

Although in many ways I feel helpless in the face of this conflict, I am thankful for the privilege of being here during this time, meeting friends and colleagues as they come across the border. In a very small way, we are able to share in their sufferings: rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn.

My prayer is that a lasting peace will come swiftly, for the glory of God and the good of all the people of South Sudan.