Friday, January 24, 2014

Come out of your cave and be in my presence

GLI participants in plenary.
As Paul promised last week, this is Rebecca writing this week.

The journey to the Great Lakes Initiative Institute for Reconciliation began for me on Friday. I was so thankful that I could begin my day with the precious routine Paul and I have together – swimming, bible reading, prayer. It was a very hectic lead-up to my departure, with an up-country trip Tuesday-Wednesday, and then saying goodbye to my parents on Thursday. I didn’t even have time to help Paul stock up on coffee and powdered milk – but he was so gracious and told me not to worry about him and the boys. So that last swim and prayer together was what I needed to start well. I also had taken a few moments the night before to ask people from my prayer groups here to be lifting me up throughout the week. I knew I would need it!

Asele and Emmanuel, key GLI catalysts
and members of our own church
Paul left me at the airport exactly 2 hours before the flight and I was anticipating having some good time to finish some office work in the airport. Another member of our group of 4 showed up. And then, they called the flight to board – almost an hour early! I started frantically calling the other 2 members of our team. They were in the airport, but were being told they had come too late to check in. On my walk out to the plane, I pleaded with at least 4 staff members to let my colleagues join us. I kept praying and arguing. For a while it looked hopeless. And then we saw our friends running out to the tarmac. Apparently, the Ethiopian pilot is very strict and he wanted to leave early. The staff didn’t like to question him, even if it meant leaving customers behind. So PSA – even at the tiny Bujumbura airport, it is wise to arrive early!

We arrived early enough on Friday evening for me to take a walk down to the shores of Lake Victoria. There were incredible bird-watching opportunities there, with 4 new birds for me (including the black-headed gonolek!). It was a gift to have that time of quiet before a very intense week.

GLI worship in the Ggaba chapel
I knew I was going as worship facilitator again this year for the Leadership Institute. And, with great
trepidation, I had accepted an assignment of doing the biblical teaching for one of the plenary sessions. When I arrived in Uganda, I found out about a third assignment: the remaining founder of the Institute and a key faculty member and leader from Duke University decide last minute that he could not join us. My Tanzanian colleague Wilfred Mlay serves as the GLI Ambassador, but he was facing a very lonely leadership role all week. So he asked myself and a few others to be his advisory group and share the “up front” space with him during the week. I sometimes wonder how I ever became qualified to be asked to do things like this, but I agreed to help him as best as I was able, knowing that it would be one more set of late-night meetings and quick consults during the day.

I’ve written about the GLI Institute for Reconciliation before, so I’ll just say that it is an occasion to bring together Christian leaders of all descriptions from across the Great Lakes region to reflect theologically on the fact that Reconciliation is the mission of God. God calls each of us to be ambassadors of his reconciliation, a blessing that is best shared in action as we are reconciled to one another in spite of the divisive pressures around us. In this context we also consider the sobering fact that many ambassadors of reconciliation have been martyred, like the students at Buta; those with a prophetic calling should expect to suffer when they question the official theologies which support violence; and leadership for reconciliation requires a counter-cultural willingness to give up power. But our God promises hope – streams in the desert, lavish banquets served in the presence of our enemies – and each year we hear new examples of living people living out that godly hope of reconciliation.

GLI: Our mission is to mobilize restless Christian leaders from across the Great Lakes Region, create a space for their transformation, and empower them to participate in God’s mission of reconciliation in their own communities, organizations and nations.

Emmanuel and Eraste, sharing about developments
in Burundi church reconciliation
That is to say, what really counts is not the Institute itself, but what happens when the group we invite
returns back home to work for reconciliation. My joy this year has been to see the Burundi GLI team grow and mature as we have shared experiences over the past 12 months – 2 short retreats, several prayer meetings, 2 meetings of reflection. There is a GLI offshoot effort underway that is bringing together nearly all Burundian Protestant churches to contribute meaningfully to the national healing and reconciliation. More on that at the opportune time – now is too early.

But as a group of GLI partners, we were able to invite in a few more of these key leaders from both the Protestant and Catholic communities to join us for the Institute. We had amongst us 1/4 Catholics, several pastors representing the key Protestant forums, young activists, a few Christian NGO workers, a few foreigners whose hearts are bound to Burundi (mine included) and no less than 2 living saints. The maturity and honesty of the group as we met together in Uganda and got to know one another was truly inspiring. The leaders in the room were certainly restless, and not so much in need of transformation as in need of encouragement and fellow-sojourners. I am really excited about the potential of that gathering for the future of this country.

Josephine and I
Another joy for me was that our times of worship were full of grace. In the past 2 years, I have found myself often anxious about the unknown aspects of GLI worship, but this year I felt such peace and trust, working alongside my co-facilitator Josephine. We always had just enough time to contact other Institute participants over teatime or lunch, so that they could come and join us to help sing or read scripture or pray. Our goal was to involve many different people from different nations and different faith traditions, and this year I think at least 50 different people participated in worship at various times. My private paradigm for this kind of worship is that we are practicing for heaven. All of us have our favorite worship styles and tend to gravitate towards communities which share our preferences. But when we meet our Lord face to face, we will also meet one another there. And we will have eternity to take turns praising Him in all our multitude of ways and our multitude of languages. So, it’s high time we  practice and learn from each other in the here and now, to get ourselves ready. Otherwise, heaven could be quite a shock!

One of my favorite moments during the week came Monday evening. I really wanted to sing a beautiful French Catholic song the next morning – On the road of my life, be my light, O Lord (Sur le chemin de ma vie, sois ma lumière Seigneur). It calls upon Jesus to transfigure the harsh realities of life and be glorified by those who imitate his sacrifice. I love the song but it’s one that I can’t lead well. I had been looking all day for someone who could help me, but no one really knew the song well. I didn’t want to bother Maggy Barankitse (she’s something of a celebrity in Burundi) but finally I broke down and interrupted her as she was chatting with Father Zacharie Bukuru after dinner. When I asked if she knew the song, she and Father Zacharie stopped what they were doing and sang all four verses from memory with gusto. We ran up to the chapel together so I could learn the guitar rhythm and sang it again together, with various other members of the Burundi Catholic team. They said they were so glad to have been asked! It’s a song Maggy said she shared many times with the children she rescued during the civil war.

Maggy Barankitse

There was an undercurrent of pain running through our gathering this year as well – the sudden and terrible return to war in South Sudan. Just a few years ago, we were celebrating peace at last with friends from the youngest country in the world. But tribalism and the quest for power were never really dealt with in the new nation, all reconciliation efforts were hijacked and politicized, and the country exploded. Up to 10,000 people were killed on the first night of the crisis, December 15. No one could celebrate Christmas this year. Now there are at least 300,000 refugees and displaced people in South Sudan. Many of them cannot be reached by groups providing food or water or medical care. Most of the delegates from South Sudan could not join us – they were too afraid to leave their families behind, not knowing what tomorrow will bring. However a small group came, mostly from our organization, MCC. They looked exhausted. I think it must be devastating to work so hard for peace and then watch as death and destruction undermine all you’ve worked for. This is the kind of situation I really pray against here in Burundi or Rwanda, but too often it’s impossible to ignore the danger signs.

Catholic Shrine of the Uganda Martyrs
This year we visited the shrine of the Uganda martyrs – memorials to the 45 young men in the king’s palace who chose to die instead of give up their faith in Jesus. This was back in 1885. At that point, Anglican and Catholic missionaries had only recently arrived, and those young men learned about Jesus together, and chose to die together. Never at any point did they separate themselves into sects, but they kept singing together as they were burned alive. Their testimony and shed blood is said to have nourished a massive movement of Christian conversion in the region. Today, we must visit Anglican and Catholic shrines separately. The story is told separately, 22 Catholic saints and 23 Anglicans. And there has been bad blood between the two churches in Uganda, as a result of European quarrels.

South Sudan with it’s divided church and this new look at the Uganda martyrs made me think about my own country and the failure of most Christians to behave like ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-20). It’s easy to accuse Africans of tribalism or some kind of primitive hatred. But whether I look at FB posts by relatives, check HuffPost, or look at any other source of news coming out of the USA, all I hear are Christians whose identities are completely disfigured by tribalism. With the ways that Northern/progressive/urban Christians and Southern/fundamentalist/rural Christians demonize one another so religiously, I can almost see the Evil One dance a jig.
Anglican memorial  to the martyrs

When I looked around the room with my friends from Burundi, Hutus and Tutsis, divided before by the kind of hate-filled propaganda and manipulation I hear on the US news, whose family members were mutually massacring each other just 20 years ago, I heard a warning for my culture. Would we enjoy entering that kind of civil war again? I am quite sure that if we did, there would be American Christians singing hymns as they led the battle cry against other American Christians. I also hear a challenge: Burundian Christians, who lost so much trust in one another, have come so much farther in admitting their failures, sharing the truth, seeking to pray together and seeking the healing of their country.

Enough American politics. I might make myself sick.

On the final day of the Institute, I was asked to present a biblical engagement on the topic “Why me? Why bother? Spirituality for the long-haul.” I decided to take a rigorous look at Elijah in 1 Kings 19 – the exhausted Elijah who has just come down from Mt. Carmel having defeated the prophets of Baal in a great show of power. I thought I would find a guy who just needed to practice better self-care and be in God’s presence. But when I really studied the passage, I found something much more interesting. The Bible isn’t cynical about Elijah. It clearly shows a man who has been completely faithful to God, following every instruction, including bizarre ones like accepting food from un-kosher ravens (What kind of meat do ravens bring you anyway? Don’t ask! Just cook it really, really well), or being supported for years by a pagan widow who has no actual food beyond the current meal she is serving. Elijah went on to confront a corrupt king, and gave 100% in doing what the Lord asked him to do to show the unfaithful people of Israel that Yahweh is the only real God.

Salim, a Palestinian Christian, who works
to reconcile Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land
But I think that what sent Elijah over the edge was not just pure exhaustion, too much effort spent in ministry (as it is for most of us who reach that point). No, Elijah prayed for death because he had done his best, 100%, and it was all a complete failure. I know that there were some leaders in the room in Kampala who have been just as faithful as Elijah but who have seen their vision end in complete failure. There are no immediate answers. God allows Elijah two good nights of sleep and two good meals before facing the tough questions at Sinai, the mountain of the covenant. Elijah pours out his accusations honestly. After a pause, God asks Elijah to come out of the cave and be in his presence. And God agrees with Elijah’s accusations. But he also unveils a much, much bigger plan than Elijah had imagined. There is a plan for judgment of those who enjoy living in judgment. And there is also the assurance that Elijah is in good company. He may feel alone, but there are not 2, not 100, but actually 7000 others who worship Yahweh as god. So, Elijah is sent off to anoint 2 future kings and his own prophet successor. And here’s the best part. In his lifetime, Elijah only anoints 1 of 3 – Elisha to succeed him. And Elijah never again appeared to struggle with failure. I take a lot of comfort in the fact that we can have a vision for our lives that exceeds our own lifetime.

Kate and Jean-Serge, two GLI friends
The week ended well, with really warm, loving worship and a party at the end of the day on Friday. Most of us traveled back to Burundi together on Saturday, and I was so happy to see my boys and Paul at the airport! We had a fairly quiet weekend after I got home, just catching up with each other. I needed some time to just “be” with them – I really loved being able to serve so intensely during the week, a lot of prayer, not much sleep, but always enough for the coming day, not much time, but just enough to do what was necessary, always the words coming from outside of me for the moment. It’s amazing to find oneself really serving as an instrument to build up the body of Christ, not an owner of gifts, but one through whom they are given. But it’s hard to maintain that level of spiritual alertness for more than a week. So I had planned a retreat day on Tuesday. I really am thankful that God had prepared the place for me in advance where I could meet with him and just rest. And again, Paul allowed me to take the time all day Tuesday, while he kept the kids in their normal school routine.

So, that’s the scoop. More on a “normal” week next week.

Looking for signs of hope with the martyrs
P.S. As a follow up and natural extension to the week in Kampala, the GLI Burundi team joined many other Christians for the world-wide prayers for Christian Unity on Thursday evening. This year, the service was held at the large Catholic cathedral downtown. I was with a Quaker colleague who noted that it was only his second time entering the Cathedral. I asked about the first time. He told me that he had sung in a choir there on the occasion of the 1993 funeral for the assassinated first Hutu President of Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye. It was his murder that sparked the 14 year civil war here. I felt even more keenly the longing that my friends and colleagues never need go through a horrible time like that again.

1 comment:

Chris B said...

I have been drawn repeatedly to this story of Elijah over the years. The NIV translates verse 3 as 'Elijah was afraid' but the KJV has the more literal 'Elijah saw'. Like all of us, he thought that a spectacular and overwhelming display of God's power (or grace or love) would change the leader's hearts. And he was shattered and exhausted when it didn't. God's question continues to haunt me, "What are you doing here?"