Wednesday, March 30, 2016

An Historic Day in Addis Ababa

Our family dedicated the day to gaining historic insights about Ethiopia. Some have pegged this land as the birthplace of humanity where God planted the garden of Eden (and hid the ark of the covenant). In the very least, it is the burial grounds of Lucy - archaeology's original supermodel. We saw her partial frame at the National Museum, posed in a glad box like a skeletal sleeping beauty. She will never wake, since her skull is not fully intact.

After explaining evolutionary theory to our children (an idea foreign to our family curriculum), we walked through the remaining floors. We discovered regal seats, crowns, and robes of former kings and emperors. King Selassie, the last to rule the country as king, had a giant throne crafted to disguise his short stature. His reign, however, was not short; he led the people through the second World War into the seventies. Marxism ousted him, but later the current republic won the day. The evolving (word if the day) Ethiopian flag serves as a marker of the historic shifts in governance, so explained our driver.

The higher floors of the museum showcased famous artwork by native painters and sculptors. I recognized The Skull and a piece called Demera - which was displayed at the orphanage - both by "honorable world laureate" Afework Tekele (neither a household name nor spell check-friendly).
Rounding out the museum's collection was an array of old jewelry, farming artifacts, and pictures of topless women. We did not explain this last part to our children. We did, however, buy several postcards to commemorate our visit.

History is not only learned from museums, but also the streets. Today we encountered more pot holes and homeless people. A woman with two bare bottomed children (their fronts were bare too) begged us for Birr. One of the children said, "I love you." The other said, "I have no food," while he crammed a roll into his mouth. We gave them nothing and swallowed our guilt.
While this beloved country is not rich, they are industrious. People line the streets, peddling goods, services, and making their way to and fro. New construction rises on every block. And the proliferation of malls, cell phones, and shiny vehicles makes me believe good things are coming for the nation. Case and point: they're now showing Batman vs. Superman in 3-D in the cinema on the third floor of the arcade. Yes, we did that.

So when we bring our son from his birthplace (and all humanity's, right?) to the home of the brave, we will celebrate his homeland. Ethiopia has rich history, growing industry, delicious coffee, and lovely people.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Our son does not make much eye contact. He is  a combination of shy, overwhelmed, and developmentally delayed. When he first walked down the steps of the dormatory, he turned away from us, clinging to his nanny. She had to manipulate his head so he looked in our direction. The initial eye contact was brief.

Liz and I leaned in, knelt down, and introduced ourselves as Mom and Dad. We pointed to Claire and Margot: his sisters. These greetings did not melt or unlock our new son. He remained closed. 

"He's embarrassed," his nanny said. "But he's a sweet boy. He understands everything." A fly landed on his forehead and danced around. Our son did not try to swat it away. A wave of panic raced through me.

Our first chance at bonding was not aided by the fact that our suitcase with the gifts and activities never made it to the country. The girls had picked out a special stuffed animal. I chose a puzzle. Several friends had given us art supplies and toy cars. These items and more remained in Canada (or were swiped by someone at the baggage claim).

We eventually accrued a pile of books from the kindergarten room and coaxed our son onto a bench. We began reading to him and an audience of orphans swelled around us. The crowd proved difficult for bonding, so we moved to a quiet room indoors with several couches and a stockpile of games. We settled onto a sofa and continued reading, talking, and hoping for flashes of eye contact. By the end of our two hour visit, the initial discomfort eased. But we knew we had our work cut out for us.

The second day followed a similar script. Our bag still had not arrived (would it ever?), so we could not charm our boy with new toys and interactive crafts (would we ever?). We met our boy's apprehension with a library of found books and selection of worn couches. We watched a Praying Mantis slip across the tiled floor. I unfolded a map of Addis Ababa and explained my confusion at the city's traffic patterns. 

In all of this, my son did not nod. He did not grunt. He uttered no words. He is shy, overwhelmed, and a bit delayed. But the nannies assured us he understands everything. (One even said she thinks he knows more English than Amharic, since many of the volunteers and sisters speak it.)

I hope this is true. And if his eyes are any indication, I have good reason for hoping. For today our boy birth watched us and meet our eyes much more. This is progress. This is bonding.

Monday, March 28, 2016

I Was Spat Upon and Other Cultural Experiences

We are conspicuous in Addis Ababa. My pale, white family of four does not fit the national mold. We feel eyes on us when we walk or shop or drive or eat. Some people match stares with polite greetings; a bell hop and nun have addressed Margot as "Baby." Other folks petition us for birr (that's Ethiopian cash), tips, or patronage; every twenty meters (that's Ethiopian distance) stands another shop.

In our first full day, our pale, white family of four braved this foreign land. We all took second takes at the breakfast buffet when we rolled back the lid to uncover spaghetti with scaled eggs, roasted broccoli, ground beef with mushrooms, and watermelon juice; but no one took seconds. My wife fought back a panic attack when we spent thirty minutes at the Post Office (that's Ethiopian for market) bargaining for cultural garb for the girls.  And we constantly watch from our car seat the constant disorder of traffic, thankful for a gracious driver who both navigates and negotiates for us.

In spite of the cultural differences, we have managed well thus far. Most people we have encountered speak English. Most menus and signage are translated for our tongue.

Even the man who spat on me yesterday apologized in English. He raced after me with a handkerchief to erase the offence. With his free hand he reached in my pocket for a deeper crime. I caught him in the act. Having learned how to stop bullies from my educated daughters, I looked him in the face and said, " Stop. I don't like what you're doing." He removed his hand and dashed off, waiting for the next big, white target.

Being conspicuous, though, has its upsides. We have received more generosity than scrutiny. Moreover, it will help us empathize with minority people when we return home. And when this pale, white family of four returns home, we too will be conspicuous. For we will add a quiet and dark son (that is Ethiopian), making us a conspicuous family of five.

Arrived in Addis Ababa Alive

We are alive, but one bag did not make it across the Atlantic Ocean. Inside it held my laptop and all our gifts for our son. The representative at baggage claim told me the luggage would arrive on Tuesday. Thus my updates are restricted to the Blogger App. This forces me to be concise - a foreign language.

My wife and daughters were troopers. We amassed a total of twenty hours of movie watching and piles of picked at airplane food. Claire started the fourth Harry Potter book; Margot played hours of Text Tumble; Liz fought anxiety (and mostly won); and I ate snacks.

Our resolve finally suffered when the visa line crept like rush hour traffic, one suitcase went incognito, and aggressive bag boys requested extra tips ("for the boss").

Nevertheless, we arrived in Addis Ababa. A driver took us to our hotel where we have leg room, WiFi, and free reign on the bathroom. Things are looking up for this traveling crew. Now if we can just stay awake

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Solidarity and Our Send-off to Ethiopia

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (Rom 12:15)
The idea of solidarity--one for all, all for one--is not unique to the Church. Whole families may mourn the death of a matriarch. Whole schools may rally around a teacher facing cancer. Whole cities may parade after their team wins the trophy. Whole nations may lament after an acts of terrorism (e.g., Brussels). Humans, by nature, are a vicarious bunch. 

But what sets the church apart, or at least should, is her ability to transcend the moment and offer enduring love. Family solidarity is a birthright and duty. Local solidarity is proximate and opportunistic. Sports solidarity is a seasonal fad. Patriotic solidarity is reactionary and cliche. 

Church solidarity, on the other hand, is an historic, spiritual reality. It's rooted in the Incarnation of Jesus, who identified with fragile human flesh. It's proven in the Crucifixion of Jesus, who served as a substitute sacrifice for a world of sinners. It's perfected in the Resurrection of Jesus, who imaged a new humanity. And it's realized in the Spirit of Jesus, who unifies and empowers the Church to demonstrate Jesus' enduring love.

Love in the Christian community may include duty, proximity, season, and cliche, but the well goes much deeper. I experienced such love as my mother-in-law made her slow fade to Jesus. I watched such love as people moved furniture from my cousin's former residence to his new one. I tasted such love in a delicious spread of ESL Thanksgiving desserts. And I felt in a hundred hugs (two from Dan Porter!), emojis (15 from Athena Deck), gifts (see table below), and best wishes (see cards above) our family received in the last week as we prepared for our trip to Ethiopia. 

The time has finally arrived for us to meet our son. Our joy is full. Our bags are stuffed. The Church rejoices.


Stay tuned for more blogs from Ethiopia and check out my wife's posts (but there is a competition, so read mine twice).

Monday, March 14, 2016

Poor Timing and Learning to Practicing

My friend Aaron practices his sermons before preaching every Sunday. This weekend I noticed him slip away during an ETS regional conference. "Where did you go?" I asked when he returned.

"I had to practice my sermon."

Jeremy, Tim (me), Lee, and Aaron @ ETS Regional
Hours later, Aaron vanished again to rehearse. I envisioned him preaching to trees and parking curbs.
When I asked Aaron how often he runs through his message, he said, "Six times."

"And you preach for thirty-five to forty-five minutes each week?" I asked, incredulously.

"About forty-five. Yes."

My mind performed a quick calculation. "That's four and a half hours of rehearsing."

"That's right," Aaron said, obviously impressed with my math skills.

But, truth be told, I was the more impressed figure of us two. I rarely gave my sermons a dry run. At best, I worked on my introductions while driving around town in my car.

"How much do you practice?" Aaron asked.

Fortunately, I had just reflected on that question. "I work on my introduction while driving around town in my car."

Our friend Jeremy joined the conversation. "I practice every Friday. I didn't used to, but [one of my elders] said I needed to. It's made a huge difference." 

"In what ways?" I wondered.

"When I speak my sermon aloud, it helps me with the pacing. I can hear areas where I get off track or bogged down."

"I practice, too," Lee said.

The conversation quickly strayed to another topic. Aaron eventually disappeared again for another homily to the sparrows. But I was left evaluating the quality of my sermon preparation. Nearly nine years and 4500 hours of sermon-crafting later, I felt capacious room to improve.

The feeling intensified on Sunday morning. My introduction wandered. My treatment of the "end-times" confusion for the Thessalonian church (2:1-4) created "end-times" confusion for my congregation. (Is the man of lawlessness Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton?) My emphasis on the  victory of Jesus (2:8) and glories of work (3:6-12) lost its punch with a meandering history of labor. And, worst of all, my timer malfunctioned: I preached long.

The timer was my safeguard against rabbit trails and run-on sentences. I purchased it at the beginning of the year to help shorten my sermons to a palatable, forty minutes (or less). It was my sign of self-improvement. I've achieved my goal once this year.

This past week was no exception. Before the sermon I failed to reset the dial to zero. I preached blind until my voice ran out. It was my second-longest sermon ever.

I have logged a respectable amount of hours preaching (one more after this Sunday!). I am an adept and creative presenter.  But I can improve. Anyone can fine-tune his or her craft by deliberate practice. In his book Outliers, Maclolm Gladwell highlights the 10,000 Rule: [T]he thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That’s it. And what’s more, the people at the top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder. (Gladwell, Outliers, 39).

Excellence gets beyond watching the timer and counting the hours; excellence prioritizes practice. I may not run through my sermon six times this week like Aaron, but I will spend more time driving around town in my car and practicing. I need to get beyond the introduction of my message. 

And on Sunday, may God help me reset the timer.

Monday, March 7, 2016

On Death and Dying: An #EasterGram Meditiation

Harriet Kubler-Ross's classic work, On Death and Dying, tackles a difficult topic the Western world refuses to ponder. We have a tendency to dress up death. We supply euphemisms (went to sleep, passed away), plan ceremonies, sew the lips of the departed shut, and wax eloquent about going to "a better place."

@KPahl89 #EasterGram #Death photo for @LeesburgGrace
Meanwhile, death remains a constant menace. We can run, but we cannot hide. Aging creams and antioxidants may slow decay, but they do not stop the inevitable. We all die.

For some death is a quick and unfortunate accident. For others it is a dehumanizing marathon of tubes, treatments, medical interventions, and surgical "last hopes." Ross considered death today "more gruesome in many ways, namely more lonely, mechanical..." (pg. 8) than earlier eras. We can sustain a low quality of life for a long time. But the body can only sustain so much suffering; the spirit eventually grows weak and unwilling to go on. And then death comes as "a severe mercy." Few go gently to the night.

Ross wrote, "We would think that our great emancipation, our knowledge of science and of man, has given us better ways and means to prepare ourselves and our families for this inevitable happening. Instead the days are gone when a man was allowed to die in peace and dignity in his own home. The more we are making advancements in  science, the more we seem to fear and deny the reality of death" (pg. 7).

I had the privilege of watching my mother-in-law die. The family convened for several days while she lay on her bed. Her breath was weak. Her murmurs quiet. Her bones showed through her shirt. But her eyes darted about the room, alert. And her hand gripped her children's, firm. She died with her favorite people within reach; we sang and said "I love you."

Nearly three years has elapsed since Marcie died. My wife and I visit her gravestone often. When the sun shines, my wife can see her reflection in the glossy stone. Glimpses of Marcie still caress this land of death and dying. But she is missed. Death leaves gaps and scars and empty spaces at dinner tables. (It also inspires blog posts, which is my wife's newest effort to maintain sanity.)

Family photo taken at Marcie's grave site.
As we each make our own march toward death -- prolonging our arrival with organic oats and BPA-free water bottles -- we must remember our lost loved ones, as well as the dust-trail legacy we leave behind. We all die.

Mortality weighs heavy on my mind at the close of every winter. For in the horizon looms Good Friday. On that day I recall Death taking its greatest captive on a Roman cross. On that day the crowd gloried in the stench of execution, and Jesus felt the sting of death. On that day, darkness covered the earth. "It is finished," Jesus prayed. He gave up his spirit and died for the world of death and dying.

Without a robust reflection on death and dying -- which we mock with each new zombie film and vampire series -- we dishonor the dead. Moreover, by robbing the grave of its victims -- with crematoriums and lucrative funeral processions -- we reduce the glory of the resurrection.

We all die. We must face the fact.

But Jesus rose again.