Engaging Religion

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Published on: August 8, 2013

Yesterday I attended an event at the Department of State that Dr. Shaun Casey, a member of Floris UMC and Professor at Wesley Theological Seminary invited me and the other pastors to attend.  I have learned that if you are invited to an event in the Washington, DC area, you should always go, not just because the person is a friend and someone you respect, but because it will usually be interesting in ways that you did not imagine.  Shaun will be leading the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, the State Department’s portal for engagement with religious leaders and organizations around the world.  The hope is that they can reach out to faith-based communities to ensure that their voices are heard in the policy process and help equip foreign and civil service officers with skills necessary to engage faith-communities effectively and respectfully.

It seems wise to engage the religious community and treat religion as an important factor in the thinking and beliefs of cultures around the world.  One of the big mistakes we make is to act as though religion is too personal, complicated or problematic to be a platform for discussion or even taken seriously.  Most of the world is in some way religious, which is to say that most people believe in some form of what AA calls a “Higher Power” and their beliefs influence their actions.  But what a variety of beliefs people hold.  I am pleased that Shaun was chosen for this post, not only because he is smart, but because he has a generous spirit that seeks commonality amongst diverse views.  While he is a Christian, he is an ethicist by training and knowledgeable about other faith traditions.  He is curious about what he does not know, and what he might learn from those he meets, good traits for someone in his post.

Finally, I am pleased that this is the kind of person who chooses to be apart of the church that is also my community.  I am a Christian.  I know that everyone in the world does not hold or agree with my religious beliefs.  I greatly enjoy being in a church tradition that can hold its beliefs deeply while living in respect and community with others.  Sitting in the Benjamin Franklin room, listening to the Secretary of State announce this new initiative,  I thought about how grateful I am for the often amazing people who attend Floris UMC.  They work in complicated jobs in government agencies and the private sector where they have to use their minds all day long and are in some form of community with lots of people from all over the world who come from different cultures and religions.  They do this with respect and a curiosity that enables them to learn from others and solve complicated problems.  Even a cursory knowledge of history leads one to see that religion has often been the source of many of the world’s conflicts.  Fundamentalism in many religions remains a place of conflict, hostility, and hatred today.  But there is another force at work among people of faith who are able to honor religious traditions different from their own.   When we honor and respect what is most sacred in the lives of others, it may be possible to live with each other in a way that will promote peace that serves us all.

 

Sand Castles

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Published on: July 12, 2013

I am on vacation at the beach, where I have pledged not to do email or phone calls but to just relax and have some downtime. Between the phone and Internet, it is possible to just work anytime I want, right through vacation. Sometimes that is a lifesaver, but mostly it is a way to avoid the commandment to observe Sabbath times in life. Every day seems to be a workday in America and I came here hoping to just go fallow for a week.

Sand CastleMy lovely daughters, their friends and I built a sand castle, which we do every year. It attracted a group of surrounding little kids who soon took ownership of various parts of the construction process. Eight-year-olds can be tough foremen, wanting sand moved here and there, moats dug deeper or wider and whole portions of the castle crushed and rebuilt if something looks a bit off. Everyone had ideas, many of which were good, so the building that began in the morning soon extended into the afternoon. They did give us a lunch break, for which I was grateful. By the end of the day, the castle was lovely. A full city with a large citadel in the center, a seahorse medallion on each side and sea grass flags flying from the towers.

After our work had been fully admired and the kids had to go back to their cottages, we relaxed. We sat close to the castle, because you have to guard against the random children who are castle crushers, who don’t use their powers for good. The human propensity to destroy is on display here as much as the one to create. We became sentinels. We read our books and napped with one eye open for those who might bring harm to the kingdom.

This is the problem with sand castles. No matter how hard you work, no matter how tall or wide you make them, they are fragile. They are so terribly temporary. They are not built to last. Bring a rainstorm, or a barnstorming four-year-old, or heaven help you, high tide, and soon there will be just beach, and no trace of the sweat of your brow. This is not just the way of sand castles; it is the way of our work and life. I am reading Jerusalem, by Simon Segbag, a daunting book that traces the history of the sometimes holy city from the time of Abraham to the current period. In 40 year increments. Jerusalem is a city that has been built up, torn down, established, conquered, demolished, raised, razed, and reconstructed more times than I can count. Here is a real lesson from that book: it does not matter if you are Caesar, Sultan, King, Caliph, Count, or Queen, the stuff you do in this life does not last. Even people with serious power, whose authority stretched across the known world, whose likeness was embossed on coins, were building sand castles. They had it all, some even used it for good and creative purposes, but one day the rain fell, the tide changed or some despot came out of nowhere to stomp all over their stuff.

Which is why I need to take some Sabbath time. It reminds me that I am not indispensable and that the world will go on without me just fine one day. Sometimes the idol I worship is me and my sense of importance to my little world. It is commanded both for my good and possibly in the hope that I will gain a bit of perspective. It is interesting to me that Jesus spent time in Jerusalem at one of its high periods, when King Herod, who was a serious castle builder, ruled it. Jesus owned nothing, wanted only the essentials, and told people not to pine for the things of this world, but for heaven, the eternal city, not built with human hands, but by God. And while all those rulers have come and gone and I can’t recall many of their names after reading that book any more than people will recall mine in 100 years, people are still talking about Jesus, and he is still changing lives. Sabbath has left me longing for heaven, and hoping I can point more people in the direction of the one thing that actually lasts.

Going to Church

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Published on: July 9, 2013

I went to church on vacation Sunday as a civilian, sitting in the back because I rarely get to sit back there.

A lovely girl, probably 14 or 15, played Clair de Lune by Debussy with the appropriate tempo, not rushing. Sadly, I initially thought more about the closing fountain scene of Ocean’s 11 than the Lord, but I also considered how great it is that students get to play for real at church, because that girl offered her best.

I saw an elderly woman, probably well into her 80s, sitting by herself across the aisle. She was wearing a lavender and green outfit, matching pants and top, and looked terrific.  The colors were soft but vibrant, like Claude Monet had gone with her to choose something and after looking through the racks, said, none of this is you. Give me a white outfit and I will just paint it myself. I complimented her after the service and I could tell she was pleased in the humble way you are taught to be pleased in church.

The pastor had the congregation call out the hymns they wanted to sing, which produces a competition to see who can get the number out the fastest at the closing note of the previous hymn. If you don’t go to church, you should know that Christians love their favorite hymns and can actually feel anger if they don’t get them sung on choose-your-own-hymn Sunday. In this competitive environment, the slower paced hymn Because He Lives, closes with, and life is worth the living, just because he liv…717!

During the prayer time, a man raised his hand and asked for prayers for his son, who was having cancer treatments. This made me terribly sad, having just lost a friend to cancer this past week. I noticed that next to him was a younger man with special needs who was bald, the kind of bald that comes with chemotherapy. I was surprised how sad I felt for this man and his son, and when I saw him remove his glasses and wipe his eyes and I actually got choked up. Later, he accompanied his son to receive Holy Communion and the two knelt at the communion rail. When he started to leave, his son grabbed his shoulder and made him pray longer. I watched them as they returned to their pew and thought about how many stories of love and devotion are collected in church on any given Sunday.

You may think that I am poking fun at church, or at this church, but that would not be true. All of this was a wonderful reminder to me of reasons that I have always loved being in church. I think I enjoyed the pastor the most of all. He was an unpretentious man who seemed prepared and yet spoke from the heart and asked us if we demonstrated the heart and love of God in our lives. He reminded us that we may be the only expression of God’s love others see. That is such a fine thing to think about that I wrote it down. It is not terribly original, but it is true and convicting, which is what church is about at its best. Then we all received Communion and remembered how deeply Christ loves us and the world and then someone shouted out a hymn number and before long the benediction was announced. Even now I am thinking of sitting in the back of that church with those nice people and I am glad I went and glad I go. Because I need to be reminded of things larger than myself, and once a week is not too often.

Sermon at Virginia Annual Conference

Categories: Annual Conference
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Published on: June 27, 2013

Some of you have asked to see the sermon I preached in the Virginia Annual Conference Session for the Ordering of Ministry service.  I am not aware of anyplace where it is available by video, so I have posted the manuscript that I used.  While my remarks varied a bit from the manuscript, this captures the majority of what I shared.

Undeniably Committed

Matthew 14:33-52

June 22, 2013

 

It is an exciting night full of people who love you, people who are proud of you.

I remember this journey in my own life.  I felt called by God.  I applied to seminary and was accepted.  I was home the summer before I went there and ran into an old friend who I will call Ms. Smith.  She was one of those adults who had encouraged me for many years.  She said, you look great!  You have graduated from college?   I told her that I had.  She said, what’s next for you?

I said, I enter seminary in August.  I think I am going to be a pastor.  I will never forget what she said.  She said, oh.  Really?  Why are you doing that?  I thought you would really make something of yourself.

I don’t think that she meant it to come out quite the way it did.  She was surprised. She had not heard.  But there it was. I knew when she said, really make something of yourself, she was referring to a career that would enable me to have access to wealth and influence.  She just wanted me to have the treasures of this world.

The gospel lesson tonight speaks of treasure.

Matthew 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

I think Jesus is telling us that if we want to find the treasure in our vocation, the treasure, which is the Reign of God, we have to see its unique value and beauty.  That takes special eyes.  Not everyone sees it. Not everyone understands why you are doing what you are doing.  There will be days you won’t understand it either.

It’s in the parable.  If the man discovered a treasure and was able to buy the field where it was buried, it means someone else forgot it was there.  They forgot its value.  Or maybe the person who buried it died, and never thought it was important enough to tell anyone else about it.

That pearl, do you really think that merchant was the first one to see it?  How many hands did it pass through before it came to him?  This merchant wasn’t the first to see it, but the first to grasp its beauty, its unique and unprecedented value.

You have to have eyes to see.  You apparently have developed such eyes.  Because here you sit embarking on a vocation of service for God that will be expressed in a variety of ways, all under the heading of ministry. 

Be aware of what you are doing.  To find this treasure you have to be more than committed.  The first person, in order to gain this treasure, sold everything else.  The second one, in order to gain this great pearl, had to sell all the good pearls in which they were already invested. Jesus is not asking if you are committed.  He’s telling you that if you want to find the treasure of the Reign of God, you are going to have to sell out.  Set everything else aside.  Be undeniably committed.

I am sure that when people heard that the person buying the field and the merchant seeking the pearl sold everything to get that one thing, they thought, I wonder if they are OK?  You are that person.

And I know why you did it.  I know why you are here.  I know because I have experienced it myself.  I never knew quite knew what to call what I was experiencing.  I would see it sometimes.  Like when I read Psalm 146 (CEV):

 

The person whose help is the God of Jacob—
the person whose hope rests on the Lord their God—
is truly happy!
God: the maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
God: who is faithful forever,
    who gives justice to people who are oppressed,
who gives bread to people who are starving!
The Lord: who frees prisoners.
    The Lord: who makes the blind see.
The Lord: who straightens up those who are bent low.
The Lord: who loves the righteous.
    The Lord: who protects immigrants,
who helps orphans and widows,
but who makes the way of the wicked twist and turn!

10 The Lord will rule forever!

When I read that, I just feel my spirit soar.  That vision of God is so beautiful, and so wondrous, that its truth is worthy of all we have and all we are.  If you don’t know how to articulate why you are here tonight, why you have made the sacrifices, and why you are entering this vocation, Jesus gives us a word for it: JOY.   Jesus says that it was in joy that this person went and sold all they had and bought that field.

Jesus tells us that is what the Reign of God is like.  Selling out, being undeniably committed with JOY.  I don’t trust ministers of any type: deacons, local pastors, provisional members, or elders, who lack joy.  You can smell it a mile away.  Joyless people attempting to serve God who have little more to offer than the most recent complaint about what is going poorly or the latest cynical commentary about the bride of Christ.

I don’t trust myself when I lose my joy.  Ministry can do that. I left the church I serve early the other day. I told someone I was no longer fit for human consumption.  I needed to be with the Lord.

Joy is what draws you here.  This is not to say that its always going to be a load of fun after tonight.   A couple of days ago a 14 year old boy, who was recently confirmed at Floris UMC, died of accidental electrocution.  I will leave here tonight so that, with my colleagues, we can minister to the church we serve tomorrow.  A church that is hurting right now.  Monday will be the funeral.  We have been a community of sorrow.  But even this is a treasure.  That people pull back the curtain and allow you to step in during the saddest moment of their lives and tell you things they can barely tell themselves.  Even in that we see the beauty of God’s love and provision.  We don’t have to do this, friends.  We get to do this.  That is why Paul said to count it ALL joy.

It’s joy that makes you sell out.  Joy that leads you to be undeniably committed.

You are treasure hunters.  You have no idea where that quest may take you.  Here is what you may not know: places of wonder and abandon lie before you.

13 years ago a group of us entered into a partnership with the Sierra Leone Annual Conference to establish a home for war-effected children called the Child Rescue Centre.  A GBGM missionary, Rev. John Yambasu, founded the center with 40 children who were living on the street and in the market place.  One of those children was Abduli Swarai.  I first met Abduli in 2002, when he was about 11 years old.  I have seen him about every 18 months since as he has grown and matured.  He was able to visit Floris UMC in April. I took him to the sanctuary to let him see where he would speak the next day.  He looked around the Sanctuary.  I showed him the four inlays in our Lord’s Table that contain wood from Sierra Leone, an idea we got from Woodlake UMC.  Abduli ran his finger over the wood and smiled, like it was a touchtone to his home.  I said, Let’s go.   He said, Rev. Tom, I must first pray in this place.  He knelt before the fountain in the chancel of the sanctuary. He prayed for some time.

When he finished, I said, “Abduli, what did you pray about?”  He says, “Well, I told God that when I was a small child and living on the streets and there was no one to look out for me, this was one of the churches, these were some of the people who took me in, who cared for me, fed me and got me to school.  And I just wanted to give God thanks for that while I was in this place.”

When I looked at Abduli, I realized that I was looking at one of the pearls of great price.  I was looking at the treasure in the field.  My joy over what God had done in his life was great, but it was multiplied when I considered what God had done in my life and the lives of all those who had invested in him and the other children.  I thought about all the hours that had been invested, and all the money.  I thought about how hard it had been digging for that treasure.   But in that moment, seeing Abduli pray, I was so full of joy that my heart nearly burst.

I could tell you so many other stories.

Like the people in the job training programs in our facility that are finding real jobs because a Deacon, Rev. Martha Real, found her treasure.

I could tell you about the young woman who walked in recently with ash gray skin to our Celebrate Recovery service.  She said, I’ve been off heroin for 8 weeks.  I don’t believe in 12 step programs, but heard this one had Jesus so I figured I should give it a try.

I’d tell you about Jeffery, a young man with special needs who hands out bulletins and greets those who come to worship every week, and his buddy, Zac who hangs out with him and the pride and joy on Jeffery’s face when he was confirmed this year.

I’d tell you about the family that was baptized and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior at our Spanish–speaking service last week, which was led by a Local Pastor and one is about to become a Local Pastor.

I would tell you how, three weeks ago, I got to help with HIV testing for pregnant women in Africa who would have no access to such medical care except for Mercy Hospital, which has been supported and nurtured by churches in Virginia and the wonderful people at UMCOR.

You have no idea where this thing will take you.  But I’ll tell you this.  If you pursue this calling with abandon, if you sell out, if you cut ties with the complainers and the whiners and the cynics and throw your lot with those who have shovel in hand and sweat on their brow, it doesn’t matter where you end up, it will be treasure after treasure after treasure, pearl after pearl after pearl.

You will dig long and hard, hours and days at a time wondering if there is really any treasure to be found.  You dig giant holes, and wonder how you are missing it, until one day you hear the shovel clank against the chest. But the treasure you find is of such value and such beauty and worth that it makes it all worthwhile.  It is the treasure that is worth the sacrifice of all the other treasures.

You see, Ms. Smith was wrong.  She thought I could make something of my life.  I have always known I couldn’t.  But as Bishop Cho reminds us when we are attune to the Holy Spirit, God can, by calling us to find a treasure that really is a treasure. The Lord is giving us far more than we could ask or imagine.

So Congratulations. I am so glad that you have left it all, to do that which God has graciously called you to do.

Sell out.  Be undeniably committed.   And count it all joy.

 

 

Two Words That Describe It All

Categories: Sierra Leone
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Published on: June 10, 2013

We had dinner with two young men who lived at the CRC for many years and one who was in the Child Support Program, which means that he lived with his parents but his school fees were all paid by the CRC. All three are now in college in Freetown. They are hard-working and doing well. In return for their tuition, they each put in 450 service hours a year, which is no small undertaking given that they are full-time students. These hours can be done at the CRC, Mercy Hospital, or any other location, like a church or in their community. Afiju is studying community development. Yusuf and Aruna are in medical college. When they finish, they will begin their internships so that they can become doctors.

I think about all the people who have invested time and money in the CRC over the years.  The board meetings, fundraisers, Volunteer in Mission trips, planning events, and scads of unsung personal hours that volunteers have logged on the U.S. side of the Atlantic, much less the hours the Sierra Leoneans have contributed on a volunteer and staff basis. Thousands and thousands of hours that could have been spent golfing or taking a nap or riding a bike or something. And it has not been easy. We are working with kids, which are some of the most unpredictable beings in the universe. We are working across cultures, which means that there are a lot of ways miscommunication and misunderstanding can occur. As God is able, it has all worked out, but it has taken some effort. Sierra Leone has its own factor of difficulty. Poor roads break vehicles. Extreme rain, followed by a dry season, wrapped in high temperatures, make maintenance on everything from vehicles to buildings a constant endeavor. And wells go dry. Don’t even get me started on wells going dry. Or how the pump can fall down the well and get jammed. Don’t even ask me about that. And one time when the power went out, which is a fairly regular event, thieves stole the power cables that feed the CRC and Mercy Hospital. They stole the cable off the poles. If you steal the power lines that provide electricity to a children’s home and hospital in one of the poorest countries in the world, you are a very bad person. That may sound judgmental, but it is just so true it is plain.

Let’s just say that there are lots of reasons to feel weary when you say “yes” to God in this endeavor. So I am eating dinner with Yusuf and he is talking about why some doctors stay in Sierra Leone and why some leave as soon as they can to make more money abroad. He tells me that the issue is whether you have a desire and passion to serve the people who need it the most in your own country as a citizen of Sierra Leone. Yusuf tells me that he wants to be the kind of doctor who puts the people first. He is already known for the uncomplaining way he fulfills his service hours, so I believe him. I look down the table and see Afiju laughing with Emily, a 19-year-old member of our team who has been his pen pal since the third grade. It’s obvious that they really know each other and are enjoying finally talking in person. Then I see Aruna engaging another of our college students. They are comparing notes on what classes they take and what it is like to attend college.

I take all this in, even as Yusuf begins to speak again, and two words come to me like a bolt of lightning that God has aimed right between my ears. And I wanted to share them with anyone who has ever given time or money to the CRC or Mercy Hospital, and especially if you are like me and have felt weary from time to time.

Those two words were: Worth It.

Water

Categories: Sierra Leone
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Published on: June 8, 2013

Well waterWater is everywhere here during the rainy season. It rains most days at some point. The storm is never very long. What it lacks in duration it more than makes up for in volume. Sheets of water come down with such intensity that the cistern fills quickly.

In the back of the CRC compound is a well that is accessed by a pump. It is the old-fashioned pump with a handle that you move up and down. Water comes out of the spout into your bucket. When I use this pump I gain a deep appreciation of what a resource water is and how valuable it is to everything we do from drinking to cooking to cleaning. It never occurs to me to waste a drop of that water. Even after I finish pumping, I do not move the bucket until all the water has stopped flowing from the spout. What people know is that the well, during the dry season, may run dry. If the well runs dry, there is no plan B. So they respect the water. They cherish the resource because everything depends on it.

I think about how different this is from my life at home. Trips to Africa have changed my relationship with water. I turn it off when I brush my teeth. I don’t water my lawn. But there are other resources that I am less careful about. The money I spend, the electricity I use, the food I eat and the food I waste are all resources that I interact with daily. It is easy to live as though all of life is the rainy season and the cistern will always be full. I am hopeful to keep this picture of the pump in my mind, so that I will be grateful for what I have and honoring of what I use.

A Day at the Maternal Health Clinic

Categories: Sierra Leone
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Published on: June 5, 2013

clinic

I spent the day at a maternal health clinic that Mercy Hospital offered on the outskirts of Bo, where people have little access to medical care. Creativity is a wonderful human quality that is used in abundant supply here. A nurse taught the women when to come to the hospital. Rather than lecturing, she sang a responsive song that the 100 or so assembled women sang back to her. When it came to listing reasons, like heavy labor, or your water breaking, not only did she sing it, she danced in a way that portrayed the symptoms so that the women could see what it would look like. If you have never seen a woman dance in a way that portrays her water breaking, then you need to come to Bo, because it is fabulous. A second song taught the women when to bring their child to the hospital. Between the chanting and the nurse’s dancing those symptoms, and all these lovely pregnant African women holding their other children while singing, it had to be the happiest clinic in the world for the first ten minutes.

My daughter Hannah and I helped read tests for malaria and HIV. My respect for the medical community, already very high, went up a notch or two today. When you are doing these tests, you are wearing gloves, but you realize that you are possibly a thin layer of latex away from something you don’t want in your life. We gave each child a malaria test. A technician pricks their finger to produce a drop of blood. This blood is put in a very small plastic hole in the test kit. Let me say that getting a drop of blood to fall from the finger of a struggling child into this tiny hole is harder than Luke Skywalker dropping a torpedo into the exhaust vent of the Death Star.

Pregnant women received the malaria test as well as the HIV test. I cannot quite describe what it is like to wait for an HIV test to show its results. One stripe for negative. Two stripes for positive. If you are positive for malaria, you go down the hall and are given some pills. Most people here have malaria on a regular basis, although the efforts of the UMC’s Imagine No Malaria campaign and similar programs by other organizations are now driving down the incidence of the disease. A positive HIV test, on the other hand, changes things for the rest of your life, especially in a country where medications are hard to get on a routine basis. So we waited for results, one by one, and every time an HIV test came back negative, I felt such relief. One time I was looking at this woman who was pregnant. She had that radiant look that women often have when they are pregnant. They are feeling large and unwieldy while you are looking at them thinking how alive and vibrant they appear. She had two children with her. These children were twin girls who were about 18 months old and very cute, with big dark eyes and long eyelashes. I began to think about what it would be like for her family to get the news that the test had two stripes, how her husband would feel, and how that might impact them all, and I was so very happy when only one stripe appeared that I wanted to do a fist pump and yell “yes” but restrained myself.

By the end of the day, much to my joy, all the HIV tests were negative and it was my best day here so far, in a week that has included a lot of very good days. Here is why it was my best day: I love the fact that the church cares enough about people to provide them with access to the instruction, the tests, nutrition packets, exams, and medicines these women could never afford but all received today. It was hot, and a bit overcrowded, but everyone was seen, and every mother was treated as though she was important, and her child was important, and life was important and even sacred.

I think the church is an imperfect body with a lot of flaws, but some days we do exactly the kind of thing that Jesus would have us do. We just nail it. We get it all right. And today was that day for me. 

Joy

Categories: Uncategorized
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Published on: June 3, 2013

There is an image of poverty that I used to carry in my head that looked like a child in rags. The child was very sad. What I have discovered over the years is that while endemic poverty is no gateway to happiness, it does not have the ability to keep people from the experience of joy. Let me be clear, before you think that I am going to paint the picture of the happy poor person, poverty stinks. Poverty at the level you find in many developing countries like Sierra Leone means that 1 in 5 children will die of a disease before the age of 5. One in 25 women who bear a child will die from a related complication. Hunger will be a part of your life. Finding water during the dry season may be a daily challenge. While other kids go to school, which requires a uniform, supplies, and a small fee for tuition, your kid will work in the market or some other place. The list goes on, but I want to be clear that poverty is not God’s idea, and it is not good for anybody.

But it does not have the power to preclude joy, which is what I was reminded of all day. I was reminded at church, where the congregation shared two offerings with singing and dancing before the ushers came later to take the offering two more times.  After the service one of the members told me with great excitement that they had all made pledges to have the church painted and repaired before the 60th anniversary celebration. These are people who have very little, but share the little they have with trust that God will provide.

I was again reminded when we took a walk with some of the CRC kids. There is a crocodile nearby and you don’t get the chance to visit a crocodile every Sunday, so we walked up and saw him. All along the way our group of 20 was laughing and talking. They took us through town and showed us the fire and police stations, the market, and the original CRC building. The kids were so proud to show us these things, and had so much fun doing it. I realized that they truly see themselves as children of God. They live in a dimension of joy that poverty has not had the power to break.

A Tour of Mercy Hospital Research Lab

Categories: Sierra Leone
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Published on: June 1, 2013

Let me begin by telling you that it all started at the playground at the last Floris UMC building. Then let me tell you about Mackenzie, a graduate student at Notre Dame, who is staying here at the Missionary Training Center in Bo with our team. We spoke with her yesterday when the team toured the Mercy Hospital Research Lab (MHRL), located at the United Methodist Hospital that our church helped to establish. Mackenzie is finishing up her Master of Science in Global Health by spending seven weeks in Sierra Leone. She is studying Lymphatic Filariasis (LF), a neglected tropical disease transmitted by mosquitoes, which infects over 120 million people worldwide, 40 million of whom are disfigured and incapacitated by the disease. She is working at the MHRL with Rashid Ansumana, the lab’s director. Rashid—whose research grants are administered by George Mason University—spent time in Herndon while doing some training in the Washington, DC area on the equipment he now uses in the lab. Rashid attended Floris while living with Dave and Stacy, two members of our church. Dave is the person who initiated this research and who worked with Rashid to begin his projects.

Mackenzie was telling me that Rashid and the MHRL have made some serious discoveries over the past few years that just amazed me. This small lab figured out that Chikungunya, a disease that has not been present in Sierra Leone since the 1970’s, had reemerged and was carried by mosquitoes. They also discovered two separate genes in the human body. Genes. This is amazing to me. (If you have a science background and want to read more about it, Rashid wrote up the technical aspects of this work.)

Mackenzie is assisting in analyzing the data that the LF Programme in Sierra Leone has collected on current LF transmission levels. She will also be mapping household infection rates to see how each monitored household has either maintained or lost their infectious status as a result of the treatment. Recently MHRL came across a seven year-old boy in a remote village that suffered from advanced LF disease, known as lymphedema, causing a severely swollen lower leg. This is very rare as LF disease takes time to progress and normally afflicts 20-30 year olds. Through MHRL, they were able to get him appropriate treatment and testing at Mercy Hospital, to which he previously would have never had access. (Blogger’s note: I made Mackenzie type that because I wanted to sound really intelligent.)

All of this began several years ago when Dave was talking to Cynthia, a doctor in our church who helped start Mercy Hospital, on the playground at the last Floris UMC building. He asked if Mercy might be interested in a research lab on their compound. If you would have told me years ago that one day our church would help start a hospital that would have a lab that would be the first to discover a re-emerging disease, or that it would identify two genes, or that we would have a graduate student living in our housing who was doing serious scientific research connected to Notre Dame and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, I would have told you that you were crazy and such things were not possible. But apparently with God, all things are possible, including the church working with scientists to heal the sick. Apparently God can do far more than we can ask or imagine, as the good book says. The church and science should be working together, I think, because both believe in the wonder of creation and both are seekers of answers. I have been thinking all day, since we toured the lab and talked with Rashid, how good God is, and how blessed we are to have started this work, having no idea where it would take us…which is a wonder in itself.

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Sierra Leone
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Published on: May 31, 2013

There is a pattern to life when I am at the Child Rescue Centre that is different from my life at home. I get up early with Eric and Gordon who are helping me identify new muscle groups with their work out routines. We eat breakfast with the rest of our team and then have a time of bible reading and prayer that lasts between 20-30 minutes. This is followed by work, lunch, and more work. We are making concrete pads over drainage channels to improve safety for the children and painting their homes. Then we play with the kids in the late afternoon, have dinner, go to vespers with the children, and then join for our own devotional time together. This time includes the discipline of Christian conversation, which is when people talk about what God is teaching them, and how they are experiencing the day. Such time can be particularly rich when time is not an issue and people have come together with a desire to grow in their faith. The day closes with prayer for sleep. Opportunities for prayer return whenever one is woken in the night by the barking of a dog or the rooster that begins crowing at 3 a.m. and has not been notified this is to be connected with the break of dawn.

As I type this, what I notice is that there is more God in my life in Sierra Leone than there is in Herndon. Humbling thing for a preacher to type, but I am afraid that it is true. What is required for a vital faith is this level of intentional living.  They are called spiritual disciplines, and I have never liked the sound of discipline. Discipline is what the teacher gave out when I forgot homework or talked in class, which is something that happened a lot. It was writing 100 sentences (I will not talk in class. I will not talk in class.) or sitting in the quiet area. But time with God, if it is to be rich, has to include the discipline of making time to read the scripture, pray, have a conversation with a friend, and examine the day to see where the Spirit is guiding you, and what is being said to you. It just takes time. And while there are 101 reasons that such time simply cannot be found in my normal life, but can be found when I am in Africa, they simply don’t hold a candle to the goodness that I experience when such time is taken. So it seems that while I hope our efforts change the lives of the children at the CRC, or the patients at Mercy Hospital, I am equally hopeful that another life that may be changed by the insights gained here will be my own.

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