Tiny Human Things

There are so many things I don’t know.  On my mind this weekend was all the not knowing I’m mired in regarding the killings in Charleston.

I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll ever know, how a person can take the life of another.

I don’t know words that would even begin to offer a grain of comfort or solace to the surviving family members. “I’m sorry for your loss,” sounds trite, like their family members died in a car accident and not at the hands of fellow citizen. When killings like these happen in places like Rwanda, we use words like “genocide”, but when they happen here we use euphemistic words like “tragedy”.

I don’t know how to answer the questions that are coming across the ocean to me.  I don’t know how to explain to my Ugandan kids that racism is alive and shooting in the U.S.

I don’t know how to answer my kids, my sons, when they ask, “Mum, what are you going to do about it?”

That’s the one that sucks every last breath of air out of me, leaves me fallen and deflated.

What am I going to do about it?

This is when the not knowing hollows me out.

This weekend, in the middle of all this not knowing, I’ve been doing little things, tiny human things, like breathing in and out and praying.

I’ve talked about my prayer life before, how it’s not eloquent or remarkable in any sense. Years ago, I had a student who collected rocks.  She loved rocks and loved tumbling them in her rock tumbler.  Her family moved in the middle of the school year and on her last day of school, she brought her rock tumbler to show the class and for one long day, the clattering sound of her rock tumbler filled our classroom. At the end of the day as we said our final goodbye, she took a shiny, smooth, black rock out of her rock tumbler and placed it in my hand.  I still have that rock.

image courtesy of sodahead.com
image courtesy of sodahead.com

I thought of my rock tumbling girl this weekend, thought of that smooth rock when I prayed a prayer I’ve never prayed before; one lone word, clattering over and over again between my teeth.

Emmanuel.  Emmanuel. Emmanuel.

God is with us.  God is with us. God is with us.

I prayed it like a promise, prayed it because sometimes the name of God is the only word I can think of, both strong and gentle enough to collapse the darkness I feel in times like these.

On Friday morning with Emmanuel tumbling in my mouth, I headed out to the garage where two discarded pieces of furniture are in the process of being repurposed for my classroom. One is a tattered, brown microwave cart that’s now bright aqua and lime.  The other is an old school desk I also painted bright aqua.

A friend came over to teach me how to chalk paint and then how to buff a wax finish.  Her instructions to me were simple, “Just keep going.  You’ll know when to stop when it has a sheen to it and it’s smooth to the touch. You’ll feel the difference.” Refinishing old things and making them new again felt like another kind of prayer and I added her words to my mouth. “Just keep going. You’ll feel the difference.”

Her daughter, a student at my school, came over, too.  The little girl and I finished up a grant application for children who want to do good for their community. If we’re chosen we’ll use our grant to install a Little Free Library at our school.  The name the little girl has chosen for her little library makes me smile.  She wants to call it The Little Library That Could.  It’s the perfect name and I added the words, “I think I can, I think I can,” to the growing jumble in my mouth.

That same day, a glass repairman was scheduled to fix some cracking chips in my windshield.  When he arrived, I wanted to wag my finger and scold him for missing his “between 8 and 12” appointment. I was covered in sweat from praying and painting and buffing that old school desk.  He was sweaty, too, no doubt having had fixed several cracked and broken windshields already that morning. I kept my nagging finger to myself and instead offered him a glass of cold water.

Despite the praying and buffing and dreaming of little blue engines and books for children, I was still angry.  I wanted to be by myself stewing in my garage, mad at the world, chewing on stony prayers and rubbing that old desk until it felt different, until I felt different.

Instead, I was joined by the repairman and I listened as he talked about applying precise pounds of suction and pressure to the glass before applying the glue to heal the cracks. I listened when he told me about his daughter who is having surgery in a few days, about how he hopes this time, the surgery will work and her arm won’t be paralyzed anymore. I added his daughter’s name next to Emmanuel in my mouth.

I still haven’t finished buffing that old school desk yet.  I still feel angry about the killings in Charleston.  I still don’t know what to do, how to change the hearts of people set against their fellow man.

But there are things I do know.

I know there are fathers full of hope of restoration for their children.

I know there are people adept in repairing cracked, broken things.

I know there are book-loving children who want to share that love with other children.

I know there are friends who see beauty in old, discarded things, friends who say holy words like, “Just keep going.”

Above all, I know that when I can only do the tiniest of human things, when I can only utter jagged prayers, when genocide and darkness and hatred seem pervasive, there is still Emmanuel.

My Right Ear

It was my right ear that heard the voice in my bedroom.  We laid in bed with the cool of night tucking in the corners of our sheets.  It was that blissful period of silence when all the words of the day had been said, when his fingers curled around my hip and the only sound was the syncopated rhythm of our breathing keeping track of the seconds that tiptoed by as we edged into sleep.

My left ear-my good ear-was pressed against my pillow when my right ear, the ear marred with scar tissue from countless childhood ear infections, the ear that struggles to hear anything, heard the voice whisper in our bedroom.

“What did you say?” I rolled toward my husband.

“I didn’t say anything,” his words were thickening with sleep.

“You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I heard a voice.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“I swear I heard a voice.”  I sat up in bed and looked out the window into the backyard to see if it had come from there.

Nothing.

Even the blackberry bushes that scratch along the fence were still.

My husband patted my hand.

“I’m not saying you didn’t hear a voice.  I’m just saying it wasn’t me and I didn’t hear it.  What did it say?”

“It was a whisper and it said, ‘Let go.’  I swear I heard it.”

“Maybe you’ve watched Frozen too many times,” he laughed.

“I haven’t seen that movie yet.”

“What did the voice tell you to let go of?”

“I don’t know.  It didn’t say anything else,” I shrugged.

He rolled over and I laid back down and tried in vain to close my eyes and rest.

His breath fell into the familiar pattern of sleep and I slipped from bed into the living room where I flicked a blanket over my legs and stretched out on the couch.

“Okay, I’m listening.  Let go of what?  And when am I supposed to let go of it?”

I felt silly talking out loud, but I figured if the voice was going to audibly speak to me, then I’d better say something back.

I waited to hear the voice again.

I waited all night, my arms goosebumped with anticipation, but the voice didn’t speak again.

Now here’s where you and I might have differing opinions, but I hope you’ll hang in here with me anyway.  The most rational explanation I have is that it was God speaking to me.  Believe me, I know how crazy that sounds.  Like ‘Go Build An Ark, Noah’ kind of crazy.

I believe God still speaks today.  I really do.  But the truth of the matter is often times, most times, really, I think I don’t hear His voice because I don’t listen.  I don’t take the time to get still and earnestly listen.

So it’s no surprise to me that He waited until the rare moment that I was quiet and spoke into my scarred right ear, the ear that is constantly a beat behind and causes me to pepper conversations with, “What?  What did you say?  I’m sorry, but I didn’t hear you.”  The ear that causes me to utter the geriatric phrase, “Speak into my good ear.”

Since the night I heard the voice, I’ve continued to ask what exactly I’m supposed to let go of and when I’m supposed to let go of it.  God hasn’t spoken to me again, at least not audibly, which is equal parts relief and disappointment.  I really don’t want to be the crazy lady who hears voices, but I also, with every fiber of my being, don’t want to be the girl who misses out on hearing God.

I heard God whispering on a Thursday night.  The following Sunday morning we sang a song in church and part of the chorus was, “You are God.  You are God.  Of all else I’m letting go.”

Maybe that’s it. God is God and I should let go of the rest because in the light of God being God the rest really just doesn’t matter.  If only it were that simple to put into practice, right?  Right.

It occurs to me now as I lay here under my mosquito net in the early morning hours, with the sounds of Gulu waking up filtering up though my window, that maybe there isn’t one particular thing that I’m supposed to let go of, but maybe the point of God whispering to me in my bedroom that night is that now I wake up each morning and ask, “Ok, what do you want me to let go of today?”  Maybe it’s not about letting go of one thing, but about being willing to let go each day and focus on the fact that God is God.

Even still, I go to bed each night and lay on my side with my left ear-my good ear-pressed against my pillow, leaving my scarred right ear at the ready because if God wants to speak into it, I don’t want to miss His whisperings.

The End of the Dry Season

This year has been a season of waiting. I am awful at waiting, even worse at waiting patiently. Since the day I returned home from Uganda last summer, I’ve been yearning to go back. Yearning is a powerful word and for that reason it’s a word I don’t use often, but it’s the only word that fully captures this visceral longing I have to return to the children and to the place I fell in love with last June.

It’s strange to love the people and the life I have here, but to have that same depth of love for the people I met in Gulu. It’s a wonderful kind of strange though, to feel at home in two such different places.

It’s the place where I had the privilege of facilitating students in writing stories of their lives, stories that both broke and mended my heart. It’s the place where I continually found unexpected beauty, so much so that nightly I dream memories from my time there. It’s the place where I first met my sons and began my surprising journey into motherhood.

All year my sons have been asking when I was returning. Each time they asked, I swallowed back the lump in my throat and responded that I didn’t know when, but I would return.

Each time I thought I had a return trip to Uganda planned, it was cancelled or fell through for reasons beyond my control. And each time the trips fell through I thought of my promise to my sons. I thought of how they have lives built upon the painful shards of other broken promises. I vowed not to become one of them.

Last year I went to Uganda with the words of Isaiah 30:21 as a guiding thought for my trip. The verse says, “Whether you turn to the right or the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’

As bad as I am at waiting, I’m even worse at waiting and listening for God’s voice. Then there’s the whole issue of hearing God’s voice and choosing not to be obedient.

Can I be honest with you? Even the word ‘obedience’ makes my spine prickle. It is a word and a concept that feels as easy and as appetizing as swallowing rocks.

But I love God.

More than anything else.

And here’s the great part, He loves me, too, and wants to work in me despite my impatience and disobedience. Because God is a good parent, a good Father, part of His love means helping me move beyond impatience and disobedience. Part of that love means giving me time and space to practice patience and, gulp, obedience.

So this year, I prayed and tried to listen for God’s voice telling me what to do. I don’t really relate to pious prayers filled with thees and thous. Wanna know the prayer I prayed most this year? Six simple, but not so easy words, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Sound familiar? It’s the prayer of a father who had a son inflicted with a spirit that gave him such massive seizures that on more than one occasion the boy seized so violently that he fell into burning fires and deep waters. The father brought his son to Jesus and the father said, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responded, “If I can? All things are possible to him who believes.” And this is the part I love, the father doesn’t pretend to be pious. He doesn’t pretend to have faith that he doesn’t actually possess. The father says, “I do believe. Help my unbelief.” Jesus healed the little boy, which I think is the bigger reason that particular event was recorded in the Bible, but it’s not why the story captivates me.

What captivates me is the desperate honesty of the father who looks into the face of Jesus and admits he both has faith and lacks faith and then he asks for help. Now that’s a guy I can relate to.

Each time my return trip to Africa collapsed beneath me, I was left brokenhearted. I felt like a failure and a liar and it was hard not to lose hope of returning. So many times in the middle of the night, those words ‘failure’ and ‘liar’ looped in my head. In the middle of the night, with the sounds of the quiet house around me and my sleeping husband snoring next to me, I’d pray that father’s prayer. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

And each time I prayed, the words of Isaiah came back to me. “You will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’ I listened for that voice, listened with such desperation that my heart sometimes felt like it was going to pound out of my ears. Do you know that kind of desperation? I imagine you do. It’s the kind of desperation that comes when we are broken with such acuteness that praying six words and then being quiet enough to listen is all the faith we can muster.

I needed to be broken this year. I needed to learn to wait, to wait and cling fiercely to the promise of hope. I needed to learn to have faith that there is so much more happening than I can see. I needed a year to learn to listen for the voice behind me guiding my steps.

I listened and it was how I knew that I was supposed to begin getting my classroom ready for the next school year in June instead of waiting until August like I usually do. It was how I knew that I was supposed to book an appointment with the travel nurse and get the one last shot I needed for my trip, even though I didn’t actually have a departure date.

Last Wednesday my waiting came to an end when plans to return to Uganda came to fruition. Last Thursday I had my appointment with the travel nurse and booked my plane ticket. Last Friday I gave my sons the exact date I’d be returning. I leave in a little under two weeks and am counting down the days until I get to hug my beautiful sons.

This is one of my sons, Geoffrey, and I last summer.
With my son, Geoffrey, last summer.

These seasons of waiting, these times of fervent yearning for things that are yet to come, are sometimes called dry seasons. They are desert times when my spirit feels parched through to my very bones.

Here we have four seasons; winter, spring, summer and fall. Did you know that in Uganda there are only two seasons? There is the dry season and there is the wet season. The dry season ends in June, giving way to the beginning of the wet season in July.

After a year of walking through my own dry season, it is only fitting that my return to Uganda, my return to my sons, coincides with the start of the wet season when the rain in Uganda falls heavy and hard onto the parched earth.

Today I prayed a different prayer. I’m sure there will be many times in my life to come when I again pray, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” But today I was able to honestly pray three beautiful words, words that have been a long time coming, words that have never rung more true for me.

“Lord, I believe.”