Conversations with Christine

My streak for meeting amazing people en route to Uganda continued on my flight from Washington DC to Brussels where I had the pleasure of meeting Christine, a Congolese kidney doctor who has made the United States her home for over 20 years.  Christine is amazing in a lot of ways.  For example, she speaks multiple languages.  She’s also an equestrian with a soft spot for her horse, AJ.  Her job allows her to travel the US filling in for various kidney doctors when they go on vacation.

Oh, and here’s a big one, for the past decade or so she’s been working on establishing a kidney transplant and dialysis center in Kenshasa, her hometown in the Congo.  She spends her days pouring her time, money, heart and everything else she has into providing care for those in need.  This means doing things like hauling equipment instead of clothing in her luggage.  It means translating protocol and training nurses.  For Christine, it also meant giving up her crowning jewel, giving up her private practice in the States in order to devote more time to her bigger calling.

I can’t fathom the faith it took to make a leap like that.  And yet, when Christine and I found ourselves sandwiched together in the middlest seats in the middle row, Christine talked about how she struggles with letting go of control and turning things over to God.

Boy, there’s nothing like having someone hold a mirror to your face on a transatlantic flight where there’s nothing but time, recycled air and plenty of leg room.  Wait, that last one was just wishful thinking.

I could so relate to Christine and her fear of letting God take the wheel.  It’s a fear I face down all the time.  My own hubris wins out far more than I care to admit.  I told Christine about how God has been sending me some unlikely messengers as of late to convey that he’s in the broad strokes and in the finest details as well.  I told her about D’s words and about Santa’s gift and about how since I decided to listen to God for once and go to Africa to write with kids, God is proving his steadfastness in my life in wild ways.

There was a time in my life when prayer was just natural conversations with God, when praying was like filling my best friend in on the details of my life.  Somewhere in the last few years, my prayer life has waned into a list of gratitude or a list of wants.  Hear me out, both of those have their place.  The Bible says a thankful heart prepares the way for God and that we’re to ask for the desires of our hearts, but somehow the part where I just talked to God got lost.

Planning and taking this trip to Uganda has forced me to be real with God, to lay down the platitudes.  This isn’t easy for me because often times it means admitting weakness where I want to portray strength.  From small things like admitting I was nervous about taking photos for the book I’ll be writing with the kids to bigger things like being lonely, I’ve been laying it all out on the table.

And then trying hard to listen.

I’m not one who hears an audible voice of God, although I firmly believe that if I did, He would sound like James Earl Jones.

Instead God speaks to me most often through the actions of other people.  When I admitted I was uncertain about doing the writing and photography part of the book, Colin a teacher from Oklahoma City, who also happens to be a photographer, signed up to volunteer at the school, too.  When I told him about the book I want to write with the students, he jumped in with both feet to help with the photography side.

When I left my house at 3am and began the two and a half hour drive to the airport that began this wild journey, loneliness and homesickness settled like stones in my stomach.  For the first half hour of the drive, I didn’t see a single car or even a semi truck heading either direction on the interstate.  All was quiet and dark and even a happy playlist couldn’t help me from thinking about turning back around at every exit and speeding back to my warm bed to curl into the crook of Terry’s arms.  At 3:45am my phone rang.  It was That Laura, awake and itching courtesy of a nasty case of poison oak.  We chatted about regular old life stuff and the next thing I knew I was pulling into long-term parking at the airport.

When I boarded the plane from DC to Brussels and settled in next to Christine, I realized that I’m not alone in struggling with letting go.  I’m not alone in feeling nervous or lonely at times.  Time and again on this trip, God is making sure I know I’m not alone.  So now I’m starting to think that the voice of God isn’t that of James Earl Jones.  Maybe I hear God best when he talks to me through the chipper voice of a faithful friend calling.  I’m even beginning to think that the voice of God may even have a Congolese accent.

I guess the point is to keep listening because God speaks in surprising ways.  For me the point may be to keep listening because God speaks.  Period.

Traveling with Santa

I was once offered a job on an airplane, salary offers scribbled on the backs of airline napkins and everything.

I also once held airline sickness bags to the mouth of a college student who had the misfortune of getting his wisdom teeth removed the day before flying back to school on the East Coast.

When I began my flight from Sacramento to Washington, DC, en route to Uganda, I wondered where Scott, the feed farmer, would fall on my best to worst plane companions scale.

Scott was on his way to a church leadership conference in Canada and had a stack of paperwork at least 4 inches thick that he was to read over before the conference.  Poor guy.

We began chatting across the mercifully vacant seat between us and Scott regaled me with tales a unique employee named Rambo.  However he solidified his spot in the number 2 ranking of favorite plane companions when he told me a tale of the last church leadership conference that ended with one of his conference colleagues riding in an open trunk, blowing cigar smoke at the cars behind them.  Good stuff, but alas Scott had his silver medal ranking taken away by a force of nature so magical that it can only be explained in two words:

Santa Claus.

I swore Santa Claus had just walked past me and into the lavatory.  He wore a red shirt, a snowy white beard, and glasses perched on his nose revealing his twinkling blue eyes.  The only things missing were his sack of toys and a reindeer or two.

I stopped him on his way back to his seat and asked if I could take his picture.  He smiled and obliged, almost giving a ‘Ho Ho Ho’ kind of chuckle.

“My littlest nephews are not going to believe that I was on a plane with Santa!  One of them was just wondering last Christmas where Santa goes on vacation.”  I could barely contain my glee as I snapped his photo.  And then Santa did a very cool thing.  He gave me his business card with his secret identity so I could show it to my nephews.  As it turns out, in his off-season, Santa is known as Marty the missionary and he was headed to Africa that day.

Marty, er, Santa, boys and girls, I mean Santa, entertained Scott and I with tales of Santahood including the gut wrenching story of a little boy who climbed atop his lap and asked for his mother’s cancer to be taken away.  Santa also told us a hilarious story about another boy who was being a holy terror in the seat of his haggard mother’s shopping cart.  Santa leaned down into this boy’s face, squared him with a serious look over the rims of his glasses and said, “You know who I am, right?”  The little boy nodded, mouth agape.  “Then you be good to your mother and listen to her.”  The boy nodded again and sat quietly in the cart.  The mother sighed with relief and on a subsequent aisle asked Mrs. Claus to thank Mr. Claus for his help.

Santa gave me a gift on that flight to DC.  You heard me right, I got a gift from Santa and it wasn’t even close to Christmas.  I know, I know, try to contain your jealousy.  After all, you don’t want to be on the naughty list.

The gift Santa gave me was a Rubik’s cube sort of toy that unfolds and refolds to tell the story of the life of Christ.  Now this cube isn’t really my style for sharing my faith, but it was a sweet act of kindness on Santa’s part.

When the flight landed, Scott and I parted ways.  I wished him a fun-filled conference and, fingers crossed, a story or two that might land him in the trunk.  He wished me the best on my work with the students in Uganda.  Then came time to bid Santa ado.  We said our goodbyes and Santa in all earnesty, with his mouth drawn up like a bow, told us he loved us.  I smiled because his authentic love for people couldn’t have been more evident.

You can imagine my delight when I discovered that Santa was on my flight from DC to Brussels and then seated right behind me on my flight from Brussels into Africa.  All day long Santa told me tales of the lovely Mrs. Claus including how much he’d missed her these last two years since her passing.  I saw photos of Santa’s seven children and his grandchildren.  Santa even confessed to wearing only red shirts.

As I said, the Jesus Rubik’s cube isn’t my style of sharing my faith.  Surely, I’d miss a fold or a turn and leave poor Jesus stranded in the tomb or something.  But I’m keeping the cube as a memento because each time during my trip when a pang of homesickness would seize my stomach or a shadow of doubt about this harebrained idea to write alongside kids in Africa would sweep across my mind, Santa was there with a word of encouragement or a kind gesture.

I know people who travel with images of saints to watch over them.  I don’t believe in the deity of saints, but I can’t help but laugh at God’s sense of humor for sending Saint Nicholas to watch over me as I traveled across the world, alone but never lonely.

Needless to say, Santa parked his sleigh firmly in the number 1 spot on my list of all time favorite plane companions.  Marty Santa spends his days comforting children in need, redirecting them when the opportunity allows and even reassuring big kids like me that God shows up in magical ways even when the calendar doesn’t read December 25th.

D’s Gift

In the tent of my mosquito net, I lay thinking of just where to begin, dear reader, to tell you about the amazing adventure I’m having in Uganda.  As so many wonderful things do in my life, this story begins with my grandmother.  I’d been missing her like crazy as I prepared for my trip, brokenhearted that I couldn’t tell her all of the little details.  Like so many of my adventures with my grandma, this is a story that I wouldn’t have believed had I not been there.

Did you know I’m named after my grandmother?  Yep, Alicia Jean.  When I was a kid in serious trouble, my mom could really stretch my name out when she felt that my first name alone wasn’t doing the trick.  Alicia Jeeeeeeean!!!  Few people outside of my family know about my birth middle name because when I got married many years ago, I replaced Jean with my maiden name.  What does this very boring namesake lineage have to do with anything?  I’m getting there.  Promise.

My grandmother, Betty Jean, loved to travel and she loved a good adventure.  In fact she loved adventure so much that she kept $100 pinned in her bra at all times “just in case”-not just in case something bad happened, just in case something good could happen with the help of a little spare change.  Be it treating the table for lunch or splurging on ice cream sundaes, her bra money came in handy on more than one occasion.  Is this really a story about your grandmother’s undergarments?  Fine, I’m done talking about my grandmother’s bra and I’ll get on with the story about what happened the day before I left for Uganda.

The day before I left, unbeknownst to me, the local newspaper re-ran the story about my trip that was printed a few weeks ago in the Anderson Valley Post.  This was a pleasant surprise and it filled my inbox with well wishes from friends and strangers alike.  One particular email caught me by surprise, an email from D.*

D is a local who has been a missionary off and on in Uganda since 1991 and after reading the article about me, she wanted to meet and answer any questions I might have as well as give me some Ugandan Shillings she had left from her last trip.  And by some, she meant a LOT, as in an amount that was exceptionally generous, especially from a complete stranger.  D told me about her time in Uganda and I told her about my trip that was mere hours away from beginning.  Then she took out the envelope fat with money and in her other hand she held a singular knee-high pantyhose.

“Do you know where you’re going to keep your money?” she asked.  I told her the variety of locations I planned on keeping it.

“Well, I always kept my money in a pantyhose and then pinned it inside my bra and it worked for me.”

Of course she kept her money in her bra.  I laughed when she told me that, but kept the reason to myself, knowing that my grandma would have been nodding her head in staunch agreement.

I asked her if she was sure she wanted to give me all of this money.  She did and all she asked in return is that I deliver a kind message to her pastor friend in Gulu.  If I felt compelled, I could also give him some of the money.

Before she left, D prayed for me.  In my book, the more prayer, the better, especially when it comes to big adventures that leave my stomach snapping with excitement and nerves.  After praying for me, D told me God was giving her a word for me and that word was ‘special’.  I appreciated the sentiment and the care D bestowed on me, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Yes we’re all special in God’s eyes.  What’s the big deal?”

And then, because skepticism never, ever trumps love, D paused and said, “I have a second word for you.  ‘Jean’.  Your name is Jean, isn’t it?”

“It was.”  I stammered, too surprised to tell her anything else.  I started looking around my house for anything visible that said Alicia Jean.  There wasn’t anything, since it’s part of my name I haven’t used in over 15 years.

“God wants you to know you’re special and that he knows you, right down to your very name.”

I swear I almost broke my neck careening it around the room to see where she pulled ‘Jean’ from.  No Jean anywhere.  Coming up with nothing, D and I hugged and she went about the rest of her day, leaving me in a cloud of disbelief and wonder.

The money D gave me was an incredibly generous gift, but the real gift she gave me was the knowledge that my grandma was with me in spirit.  And also in the Shillings I tucked into a pantyhose and pinned in my bra.

*I’m calling her D because I didn’t ask before I left if she wanted to remain anonymous or not.  Plus it’s late here and I couldn’t come up with a more creative name, like say one with more than one letter.