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So What Really Matters?

Sue sent me a romantic card a few weeks back…she is still in the U.S., and a month or so away from returning home to Maua.  I, conversely, am in Maua, and a few months away from venturing back to the U.S.  It is the longest we have ever been apart, and we are feeling the emptiness.

So she told me on a recent phone call that she had sent a card.  And have I ever been waiting for it!  Friday the Maua Methodist Hospital receptionist greeted me with the news, “You have mail!”   Here in Maua, mail is not a common occurrence, and it usually means a power bill or bank statement.  But I had gotten those the day before so I was excited that Sue’s card was here at long last.  (Not an accomplishment to take lightly – a birthday card sent by a daughter for my 2012 birthday has still not arrived.)  The letter was a parcel, and I snatched it out of the receptionist’s hand, amazed that Sue would send such a thick card, not even looking at the label or the return address.  I rushed to my office, closed the door against intruders and opened…..The Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference Journal, Volume One.  Huh?  Not much romance there – although there are a lot of policies regarding clergy sexual misconduct….basically saying “don’t do it!”

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For those who are not active in The United Methodist Church, a Conference Journal is the annual printing of policies, rules, addresses, salaries, leadership lists, history, who is serving what church….all sorts of nuggets that are vital if you are involved in the day-to-day life of the church.

For 38 years I received my annual journal in the mail and could not wait to tear open the packaging and read it through.  I would look for my name, the names of friends – who was serving which church, and who was on what committee.  I would pour over the pages, taking it all in.  It was an essential part of life….for 38 years.  For a lot of those years I was so ensconced in the leadership of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference that very little on those pages was new to me when it came in the mail.  I read not so much for information as for confirmation.

Now, in 2013, my 40th year since being ordained, I sat and looked at what was supposed to be a love letter, and had turned into a tome of church administration.  In my frustration I had nothing else to read, and was not yet ready to open the office door and expose my disappointment to the world, so I took the Journal and started looking….for my name and the names of my friends.  The only place I found my name was in the clergy directory, with a notation that I was a retired Elder of the church.  I knew that – guess I am still reading for confirmation rather than illumination…

As I read, it struck me that often over the years my name had been here and there throughout the thing, but how, in 2013, I was almost nowhere to be found.  For just a moment I felt like all my years of being “somebody” were now like…well, to be biblical, like withered grass.  What was it Peggy Lee sang?  “Is That All There Is?”

But that feeling was fleeting.  It was replaced by amusement at my self and my ego.

When I was involved in the day-to-day administration of the United Methodist churches in Oregon and Idaho, I felt like I made a difference; sometimes even a good difference.  I always believed that what I did was part of keeping the church moving forward.  Now, as I read the names of those in the slots I used to fill, I thought Good for them.  I hope they are making a difference, too.

As I set the Journal down, ready to face the world of Kenya again, I had to admit that I have never felt as alive in my ministry as I do now, serving a population much of the world has forgotten.

It would be a mistake to think that I am either patting myself on the back or dissing church administrative tasks.  Neither assumption could be further from the truth.  I have always believed that administration is a form of ministry.  Done well it does great good, and done poorly it does great harm.  I respect and honor those in such a ministry.   And as for patting myself on my back, I know I am accomplishing only a fraction here in Maua of what many, many Kenyans, volunteers and missionaries have achieved over the years in this amazing place.  Kenya, if anything, is a profoundly humbling.

Life changes.  And our call to ministry and service changes with it.  I could not, and should not be doing what I once did.  And I would not have been able to do then what I am doing now.  The call to service is a life long calling.  The call to serve in a set place doing a set task?  Well, that is more temporal.  Service really is a journey on a path with many a twist and turn.

What I have discovered late in life is that what is most important is serving as faithfully as possible in the moment and setting in which we find ourselves.  I had a friend who once lamented that he felt like he was born in the wrong time – really felt like he should have been a mountain man.  When he said that I remember thinking three things – he should see the movie “Jeremiah Johnson” and see if he feels the same; what about the removal of his appendix a few months earlier; and, how sad to be born in the wrong time.

As I reflect on the 2013 Journal, and ponder what once was and what now is, I am convinced more than ever that we are all born in exactly the right time.  The challenge and call is to recognize that fact and live as faithfully as we know how…whether it is serving on a church committee, shuttling beans to a school full of starving children, or trapping beaver in a Rocky Mountain stream, flintlock in hand, and an arrow on the way!

There is no “wrong time”.  There is only God’s time.  And for us, that time is now.

Still waiting for that card, though……..

Shalom,

Jim

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THE TIMING OF PATIENCE…

Two of the things Kenya has taught me are timing and patience.  I am constantly amazed at how each have their place here in Maua.

Take the case of this lily.  I do not know its official name, but I call it the Once-In-A-Year lily.  I took this shot one year ago.Image

I first came across it down near the Meru National Park, about 15 km from where we live.  It is a very dry area, and this beautiful splash of color caught my eye.  In a sea of brown, the red and white and green made a statement about life and the power of life – even in a desert.

So I found one and transplanted it in the hopes it would come to life in our garden in Maua.  For a year it sputtered and wilted and revived….until one day last week I went outside to feed the cats and saw that it had bloomed.  Wow! I thought, I am truly a green thumb!

I planned on rushing back inside and getting my camera, but my phone rang and I moved on to something else.  When I returned home later in the day I saw it again, admired it, and started to get my camera.  But it had been a long day, and when I sat down and started taking the camera out of its pouch, I figured it would wait until the next morning.  It just felt so good to sit!

The next morning I went out, fed the cats, and took this photo.

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Seems that not only does this lily bloom but once a year…its bloom only lasts a day or so.  My patience paid off, but my timing was sorely out of whack!

“Patience is a virtue!”  “Timing is everything!”  I hear those old sayings run through my mind as I reflect upon this flower.  And who can argue?

When we were in church a week ago, at St. Joseph’s, raising money to finish the building and improvements that were originally planned over a decade ago, one of the pastors pointed out to the congregation that for a decade the church had waited for exactly the moment we now experienced…that now was the time…that this day would be the day to fulfill the years of waiting.  And it was.  It truly was.  We raised the money that was needed; reached our goal!  I do not know if we would have raised the same amount a week earlier or a week later, but that day and that moment was “the time”…and worth waiting for.

Patience and timing….patience and timing…neither have ever been my long suit.

When I first visited Kenya, in 2006, I remember looking at all the ruins of buildings, and sharing with our driver – now a good friend – how sad I was to see so many buildings falling to ruin.  David looked at me rather puzzled and asked where I saw such a ruin.  I pointed the next one out to him, and he laughed and explained that it was not a ruin, it was in the process of being built, and that the owners were simply waiting until they had more money available to build once again.  What I thought was tumbling down was building up.  I learned that while in the U.S. we obtain financing and then build, in Kenya they build until they run out of money, and then wait until they get more money and build another little bit, repeating the process until the building is up.  It may take years, but their buildings are almost always debt free.  I have preached here in churches that took 20 years to finish in that way.  Patience and timing…patience and timing…each are gifts Kenyans hold in abundance.

Kenya is teaching me to be patient…not exactly an American cultural value…and Kenya is teaching me to be willing to move when God tells me “move”.  Both take an inordinate amount of faith and trust.  But you know what?  While my history is littered with lost opportunities, Kenyans seem to faithfully find fulfilled opportunities….no matter how long it takes.

I’m learning…slowly, but learning.  And now I am waiting yet another year for my lily to bloom once again.  I am learning the patience to wait.  I am trusting that I will also learn the timing needed to honor the patience!  You can bet I will have my camera waiting.

Baraka,

Jim

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REFLECTIONS FROM KENYA – A COLLUSION OF CULTURES

Things are different here…

Food is different; smells are different; sounds are different; culture is different:  Things are different here in Maua, Kenya.

Starting with this edition, I am beginning a blog that talks about such differences – and yet the profound similarities that bind our two cultures together (Pacific Northwest/USA and North Central Kenya).  For all their differences, our cultures have many more similarities that escape first notice, but begin to emerge as observation skills and life’s experience begin to broaden.  Thus, what at first glance appears to be a collision of cultures becomes, upon  further reflection, more a collusion of cultures.  In this human family of ours we are much more alike than different – a reality that no amount of dogma and cultural narcissism can change.

Take, for example, what happened in church yesterday – at St. Joseph’s MCK (Methodist Church of Kenya), where Sue and I regularly worship.

St. Joseph’s is a pretty fair sized congregation, one of the largest MCK’s in Kenya.  It worships close to a thousand people per week in three different services: English, ki-Swahili, and ki-Meru.  The “ki” means “language”.  It also, like many of its American counterparts, has old debt to pay on past capital improvements, and new debt to incur on dreams, visions, and improvements.  Yesterday was the final of three Sundays to raise 4,000,000 Kenyan shillings (ksh or /=) to retire old debt and pay for planned improvements.  It is easy to quantify 4 million /= into USD ($$$); at 85 /= to the $, it works out to a little over $47,000.  But to compare it to raising $47,000, say, in Portland, is a much different matter.  The closest I can come is to imagine a US church of 1000 members wanting to raise $40,000,000 in three Sundays.   I base that on the fact that US incomes are well in excess of 10 X’s equivalent household incomes in Kenya – probably more like 100 X’s in many cases, but $400,000,000 seemed like a figure that would make you quit reading!  In any regard, it is a boat load of money.  Maybe your church would find that a snap to raise, but I have never served a church like that in my ministry.  And when I heard about St. Joseph’s plans I smiled politely.

They raise funds here a bit differently than we do in the US.  Honored guests are invited to the fund raising Sundays, and the top honored guest’s friends all contribute to make their friend feel honored.  Harambee (hah-rahm’-bay) is a word that means “to pull together”, and fund raisers here are truly harambees!  Everyone pulls together.  Yesterday was a beautiful example of exactly that!

At the conclusion of the worship service, everyone in church is divided into groups – guests, community leaders, church members, etc.  And each is invited forward as a specific group.  The first group up yesterday was guests and a collection of folks who were believed to be the major potential donors.  It is an interesting process.  Members of the group stood up and formed a line from the back of the sanctuary to the front.  Sitting in front and facing the line were the honored guest, her guests, the clergy staff, and church dignitaries.  Then each person stepped to the front, handed an envelope to a person with a microphone and whispered something into  his or her inclined ear.  The receiver of the envelop and the whispered word then said aloud into the microphone the name of the donor and how much each was donating.  Try that in your home church some Sunday!  Following the announcement, the donor placed the money in a basket, and the congregation would applaud.

So picture the line, the announcements, the clapping – “Mr.XXX gives…(pause) 50,000 /=” (yay!!!! clap! clap! clap!)  Mrs. YYY gives….15,000 /= (applause)….” and so on and so forth.  About half-way through the procession of this line – may 30 people long, a very elderly, older woman stood.  Horribly bent and stooped from years of carrying heavy loads, and wearing her Sunday best, which looked very tattered torn, she made her way to the front of the line.  Several people tried to call quietly out to her that it was not yet her group, but she could not see and could not hear well enough to heed their whispers.  This was her turn, and she would not be denied.

She hobbled up to the front of the line.  The person next in line stepped back gracefully, although I suspect she did not even see him.  And with a gnarled, shaking hand she dropped some coins in on top the envelopes.  I think I heard her few coins clatter on each other in the basket.  The man with the mike had to stoop down further than was comfortable to hear her give her name and her amount.  He stood up an, in the same volume he had used with every other gift, proclaim her name, and said…”100 shillings!”  That is a little under $1.20.  The place, which had been whisper-quiet, erupted with cheers, applause and that wonderful Kenyan trill!  This she heard.  She looked up, tried to see the crowd through smudged, thick glasses, and smiled a smile that would, and did, light the room.  Then she returned to her seat and sat patiently through a service that lasted over seven hours.

She was honored.  Her gift was honored.  She is a stakeholder in the future of the church.  As I sat back, sighed and felt the moistness in my eyes I pondered what Sue and I had given a little bit earlier.  I was not embarrassed nor ashamed, mind you, but I was reminded in a meaningful way of the true power of the story of The Widow’s Mite.  I never quite got it as clearly as I did at that moment.

The lines moved on; the flights continued; and finally the grand total was announced.  I was just a shade over 4,000,000 /=.  Wish I could say it was 100 /= over, but it was actually more like 500 or 600 /= over their goal.

Every time someone talks about “those poor people” in Kenya, I think I shall be reminded of that solitary soul giving her tithe. As wealthy as we are, we have much to learn and gain………..