39 Days and Counting – Stories

Tonight was to be a team gathering time. Just 39 days before our trip, our plan was to meet and continue to plan our trainings and to work on all of those little details that trips like this require. I was especially looking forward to the time because I was wanting to hear some of the stories from Aaron, Allison, Betty, Dan, Malcolm, and Robyn that are forming as we make these preparations. Stories, not cotton, are the fabric of our lives. Facts and feelings and joy and sadness and victory and suffering weave themselves into tales. Our stories define us.

From the viewpoint of efficiency, we canceled tonight’s meeting. We weren’t going to have a lot of time together and we have some full-day work sessions ahead. Still, I will miss those stories.

Every single person has a central theme that shapes her or his life and invites others to blend-in their stories. Some of those stories feature tragedy and sadness. Others share happy times and wonderfully funny episodes. A constant feature of ongoing stories is the way that our characters continue to seek a path to stability and saneness. We seem to know that living in the extremes of happiness or sadness isn’t a rational expectation.

In just 39 days we will be stepping into a world where people’s stories are far different from ours. A different culture, a different continent, a different set of values and evaluations. We will meet people who have been happy or sad — just like us. Our days will be packed full of individuals who have stories to tell — just like us.

When we make our way back home after our journey, our personal stories will take on a new flavor. We will be forever changed. And, hopefully, our own stories will positively change the lives of our new African friends.

Stories matter because they define where we’ve been and point us to the place we’re going. Occasionally, our stories emerge from our dreams and we are left to the important task of molding something better.

As I think about the stories being shaped in the coming weeks, I know one thing for certain. Every one on our team has been dreaming of peace. We’re looking forward to the way our stories will merge to bring that theme to life — not only for our new friends, but for each one of us.

40 Days and Counting – Innocence

Great portions of my wakeful time are now spent thinking about the people I will meet in Rwanda and Kenya. With just 40 days until our team makes its way to Africa, my anticipation is growing and my excitement is building. I expect to be impressed with our hosts and those we train. I expect my heart to both soar and ache as I sit side-by-side with refugees and hear the stories they want to tell and see the life they now live. Displaced children, soldiers, individuals who have pledged themselves to missions to bring reconciliation and forgiveness, and people, like you and me, who simply wake each day to do the best they can — I can’t wait for my time with them. You see, I already know something about them. They all share, to some degree or another, a certain amount of innocence.

Innocence is a complex thing in many people’s lives. Yet, it can be so simple and powerful. As I’m writing this, I’m watching my neighbor pull her granddaughter in a wagon. Making their way up and down the street, the toddler beams happily, watching the passing scenes with interest. And when the wagon stops, there’s the incomprehensible jabbering that can only mean one thing — once more, please! I am witnessing the pure enjoyment of a moment. I am seeing innocence.

Every single person has this element of innocence. It may be an event unfolding at this minute, but it is often a memory of a time past when we believed that this world held nothing but good for us. And those moments of irritation and fear and pain were simply little reminders of how good things really are.

Children hold this innocence. Jesus talked about it in Matthew 18:1-5. “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And therein lies the greatest offer of hope. If we reclaim our innocence, we can reclaim our wholeness.

Thinking about some of the men I will meet in Rwanda, I know full well that among them will be those who have committed extreme acts of violence against their countrymen and even their own neighbors. Our team has wrestled with how these individuals will respond to our message disparaging that violence and promoting peace. Will the feelings of guilt and shame be too great?

We all feel shame when we do wrong. Sometimes we know better in the moment, but sometimes the realization of our errors comes later. As humans, we feel pain when our personal failings emerge. We wonder how we will ever be able to raise our heads and make eye contacts with others who know.

The call to peace reintroduces the potential of innocence to each of us. We all have failings. I am reminded daily of them. Yet it is the call to peace — the call to innocence — that provides my way to that better place.

My prayer for our team is that we can see the innocence of those we meet, whether man, woman, or child, and constantly hold out the hope for innocence. Innocence is the natural dwelling of those who are in peace. And it is the refuge that all of us in turmoil are seeking. It comes through the two-way door of forgiveness. Innocence returns through seeking and giving forgiveness.

41 Days and Counting – History

As just 41 days separate us from our initial day of travel, we continue to think about the history of East Africa and of the horrific acts of genocide that occurred there. But in listening to today’s news, we are painfully reminded that history repeats itself.

Leaders who encourage and promote the torture and killing of innocent civilians — men, women, and children — are not acting in the name of a divine being or a superior bloodline or a better political ideal. Instead, they promote shameless violence in the hope that they themselves will be viewed as a god-like presence. Their followers, often confused and afraid, obey orders they will come to regret and, perhaps, never really understand. No glory and no victory result from such senseless acts of cowardice.

And the world is slow to act.

We have seen the power of reconciliation in many places. Reconciliation and forgiveness stories abound in places like Rwanda and Croatia. Our hope builds as we witness the coming of peace. God’s peace is a welcome relief. Forgiveness brings rest and hope. Our team will travel on both valleys and mountain tops as we come face to face with the horrors of the past and marvel at the resilience of the human spirit as it builds bridges to the future.

Bad things happen when people try to take the place of God. Our team hopes to be part of the peace movement that writes a much brighter future and a more positive history.

42 Days and Counting – Tribes

“Education is inoculation,” we are frequently reminded by Dr. Betty Gilmore, our team leader and the director of the Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management program at Southern Methodist University. With that in mind, our team has been seeking and absorbing material about Africa and, specifically, Rwanda. As I’ve gone about my daily reading, I’ve been a little discouraged. Just 42 days and the unread stories of this small, beautiful country seem to stretch out to infinity. One of the surface features of the Rwandan story is that of tribes.

This region of Africa has been inhabited by three primary tribes: the Hutu, Tutsis, and the Twa. The Twa is a very small part of the Rwandan population — about 1%. A Pygmy people, the Twa are hunter-gatherers and skilled in the craft of pottery. The Hutus have always been the largest of the tribes with over 80% of the population. Even though a minority, the Tutsis gained power and ruled over the region for over a hundred years with relative peace. When the Belgians discovered the riches of Rwanda and began their colonization and control of the country, they immediately begin to show favor to the Tutsis, providing better education and financial incentives. The discrimination fostered by the Belgians served to increase the ethnic divide of the country. Finally, when the Tutsis began to tire of outside influence and begin to push back, the Belgians incited the Hutus against the Tutsis. Violence between the tribes was present long before the holocaust of 1994 and tens of thousands of Tutsis were slaughtered over several decades.

In 1994, a long-engineered killing spree was initiated against the Tutsis. Over the period of 100 days, close to a million people — men, women, and children — were slaughtered in the name of ethnic cleansing. The world community was slow to respond. To those on the ground in Rwanda, I’m certain that it felt like the world was simply choosing to look the other way.

This little bit of history doesn’t tell the full story. Nor does it inform us of all that has happened in the last 20 years. But it does give us a frame of reference for our mission come September.

While tribes have been an integral part of the fabric of this country and most of East Africa, we are going to share about the potential for reconciliation that springs from the hope of a larger view. What we hope to share is a simple truth.  Some concepts have far more potential than those associated with caste and ethnicity. We are going to reinforce what these wonderful people long to believe — by valuing every human being and through acts of forgiveness, true peace can come. And, we can’t help but touch on the even more gigantic truth. We are all God’s children. And that means more than tribe, the deepness of the pigment in our skins, the shape of our nose, the accent in our speech, or our earthly family tree.

We are His. And because of that, we must act differently from the world. We’re still part of a tribe. But the tribe is not set apart as Tutsi or Hutu or Twa — or African or Asian or European or American.  Our tribe is one.

43 Days and Counting – Interruptions

Hundreds of details. Office work. Chores at home. Social events. Big things. Little things. Some urgent. All important . . . to someone. That was what was going through my mind yesterday — that and the reminder that  it is just 43 days until our team makes its way to Africa on a peacemaking mission — when I opened the email asking if I would attend a gathering at church. I already had a meeting that evening, but I thought I could probably squeeze them both in. “These interruptions,” I thought. “Why is it that interruptions come at the most inopportune times?”

I don’t know if you’re like me, but I tend to organize and dramatize my life around big, upcoming events.

“If I can just get past this publishing deadline . . .” Or, “If you can just hold off until after I go to Africa . . .” Or, “Yes, I do love you, but let me finish this phone call . . .”

Most of us hate interruptions.

We plan to do things. Good things. We set priorities. We schedule our to-do tasks. We check our calendars. We get plenty of rest. We eat fiber. We exercise. We prepare. We smile benevolently at others.

All with the hope that life leaves us alone to do what we have planned. But then we are interrupted.

For some of my friends, interruptions have come with sinister name tags. Cancer. Death. Addiction. Divorce. When we think of interruptions, our natural reaction is to draw in a quick breath and do whatever we can to avoid the delay and the inconvenience. Sometimes we utter a soft prayer, “God, if you’ll just make these people leave me alone for a little while . . .”

But interruptions are what they are. And they come at us without hesitation and sometimes without mercy.

That extra gathering last night: It’s the reason that I’m a day late on this blog entry. It’s the reason that I missed the other meeting I was supposed to attend. The things that happened at that gathering and just after are the reason I couldn’t get to sleep and I didn’t feel like going to the gym this morning. That extra gathering — it was the first domino to fall as my world momentarily cascaded out of control.

With a little different perspective, I can now see some things.  The experience I had at that gathering and a couple of conversations after it did send my schedule into the ditch.Yet, I wouldn’t trade the time. I needed to hear the things I heard. I needed to pray the prayers that were offered. I needed to have those conversations.

I’ve heard interruptions called “divine appointments.” I don’t know who came up with that. But Mr. Webster should put it in his dictionary.

In 43 days, Betty, Robyn, Allison, Dan, Malcolm, Aaron, and I have big plans. We are finalizing the schedule. We are hoping that all goes the way that we have engineered it. Yet, I think we are all hoping for interruptions. Those divine appointments are what makes our lives interesting. Our prayers are that those interruptions come as people we need to know and meet, things we need to do — whether we know it or not.

Truth be told, the stories we tell about this trip will be about the interruptions, not the flawlessly-executed plans.