34 Days and Counting – Difficulties

As I prepared to write my previous post, I attempted to open my website. No response. Frustrating. In fact, very frustrating. Over the past several months, I had experienced multiple outages. Recently, my web host provider, assured me that our difficulties were over. But now, more than 30 hours after the website went down, I am writing this post off-line as I did yesterday. With just 34 days before we head to Africa, technical difficulties in delivering our story was the last thing I needed.

I went to the office about 7:15 this morning to work on several projects. I sat at my desk with my oversized mug and felt the steamy aroma of my extra-bold coffee wrap around my face. As I positioned my cursor, I had every confidence that the website server would be up and running. After all, the technical folks had been working on this for almost a full day and, since computers work fast, I just knew that joeycope.com was up and running again.

But it wasn’t. I took a sip of coffee and tried hard to work on something else. But every few minutes, I’d go back and enter my web address. No connection.

My annoyance with the situation grew. Irritated, I opened a book that our team is reading in preparation for our time in Rwanda and read for a while. Perspective is a sobering thing.

In just a few weeks, Robyn, Malcolm, Aaron, Dan, Allison, Betty and I will have a different worldview. As much as we’ve studied and talked about Rwanda and Kenya, we won’t be fully ready for what we will see and we’ll never be the same again. And that will be a good thing.

Difficulties are popping up. Some of them are the everyday variety. Others have much deeper significance.

A serendipity of facing difficulties is having loyal and trusted friends by our sides. And that’s the essence of our team — loyal and trusted friends.

Countdown days 35 through 30 were written on the right days — but posted late because of a

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major web server outage. My apologies for the delay in posting and for posting several a day to catch up.

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.

50 Days and Counting – Variables

In just 50 days, if it’s God’s will, I will be joining a team of peacemakers on a flight to Amsterdam to connect with a flight to our final destination — Kigali, Rwanda. I say, “God’s will,” because first, everything is subject to God’s will and, second, there seem to be an exorbitant number of variables that could change everything.

For a West Texas boy, these variables were once things I classified as “world events.” By that, I generally took them to be things that didn’t affect me directly. Over time, I’ve come to see that I’m affected by each and every thing that happens. As a result, I feel pain more often. I cry when I hear stories about children and puppies. My breath catches in my throat when I hear others sing with enthusiasm. I mourn at senseless death. I celebrate the deaths of those who lived well and left a legacy. I congratulate those who achieve. I encourage those who who try. I laugh at myself. I party with those who have experienced good things. Who knows, I might even dance some day.

But for now, I’m seeing variables that could complicate our trip and our mission. Airliners that disappear mysteriously or that are shot down unmercifully. Outbreaks of Ebola virus and the real danger of contagion. Acts of terrorism that take the lives of innocent people. Missiles flying. Governments so focused inwardly that they have lost sight of humanity and a world conscience. Total disregard for the role of a higher power in all of this.

As you feel things growing dark, let me remind you that there is light all around. True, these variables could disrupt my plans for travel. Yet, in the midst of all these difficult things, there is hope.

There is hope in the potential of this trip, for example. Hope for those we will touch with our trainings in conflict resolution and servant leadership. Hope for the refugees we will visit. Hope for those otherwise-strangers we will encounter along the way. Hope that the lives of each and every team member will be propelled into a higher orbit of consciousness, sensitivity, and purpose.

But there is also abundant hope in the event this trip is canceled. I’ve come to know six other people who have come from diverse backgrounds to form a team. We’ve learned from each other. We’ve laughed together. We’ve experienced challenges. And in the next 50 days there will be much more.

There is hope in the very challenge of doing something different. Stepping boldly across the lines that define our comfort zone combines terror and possibilities in a single emotion that will forever change us.

I’ll be sharing more about this intended journey. I invite you to join us through your thoughts and your prayers. We’ll be mindful of you and the variables you face, too.

The Nature of Glass

This article appeared as part of my Distinct Impressions series over a decade ago. So many of our fears are unwarranted. Yet, as we dwell on the unlikely, our anxiety builds. And so it was that, on an elevator in Atlanta, I began to consider the nature of glass.

Photo Credit: LeoSynapse at FreeImages.com

There are 47 floors at this Marriott in Atlanta and the elevators move upward in a giant cavern-like atrium.  While I was looking up from the lobby, someone commented that it appeared that we were in the belly of a big ol’ whale.  (Made me wonder what everyone else in the lobby had done to make God angry.  I had a pretty good idea why I would’ve been tossed off the boat . . .)

I really hadn’t much thought about glass elevators until I boarded one with 15 other people yesterday.  I was the last one to get on.  There was a lady at the front of the car who moved toward me as soon as the door closed.

“Excuse me, but I’ve got to be up close to that door,” she said.  “If I look out the glass, I’ll grow faint and I’ll probably throw up.”

With that she pushed me further back in the car.  It was probably a group dynamic thing, but I suddenly found my face pressed against the glass, unable to back away.  All I could think about was her last words, “look out the glass . . . faint . . . throw up.”

Words are powerful weapons in the hands of trained professionals.

As the express elevator quickly bypassed the first 30 floors, little beads of sweat broke out on my head.  But I couldn’t force my eyes closed.  I just kept watching the floor fall away.

But I got a grip on myself and began to think rationally.  This glass between me and oblivion was substantial.  In fact, it was plated glass — strong enough to walk on.  I couldn’t break this glass if I tried.  I started going through everything I knew about glass.  It was then that I remembered . . .

Glass is a liquid, you know.  Over time it will actually “flow” as gravity pulls it earthward.  Next time you’re in an old house check it out.  The glass at the bottom of the windows will be thicker.

(That is one of the few things I learned in college physics.  That course, by the way, is why I didn’t pursue a medical degree.  I figured if all I really learned from eight hours of credit was that glass was viscous, I might not be particularly well prepared for a career that seems to pivot on scientific knowledge.)

Suddenly viewing my safety barrier as a liquid wasn’t the best idea of the day.  The thought flashed on my memory screen about the time the door opened. I moved quickly and decisively to nimbly assist the queasy woman off the elevator.

She would have been more grateful if it had been her floor.

I didn’t think the fact that I also had gotten off on the wrong floor was something I needed to bring up.  So, after I apologized and pressed the button for another elevator for her, I wheeled around and strode confidently down the hall.

When I got out of her sight, I ducked in the stairwell and slowly ascended to my floor.  Not slowly enough it seems.  As I crossed in front of the elevators on the way to my room, my new-found friend was just getting off.

“I couldn’t find the ice machine on my floor,” I said for her benefit and walked toward a likely location for an ice machine.  She was kind enough not to ask what I intended to put the ice in. When I was sure she was in her room, I went back to the elevator platform and pressed the button for one more ride to the bottom and back up. I had to restore my confidence — in elevators, in glass, and in myself.

Why is it that we can think ourselves into fear?  And perhaps more disturbing, why is it we can think our way out?  Surely, raw intellect can’t be the answer to every problem we face.

Tomorrow I fly home to Abilene.  The good news is the plane windows aren’t made of glass.  I don’t think that Plexiglas is a liquid.  If you know different, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to think about it.