Thawing my heart in the heat of Africa….

I’m back home, and don’t know how to write about what happened.  But I wanted to share something… so here’s this morning’s entry from my prayer diary, with a few pictures thrown in.

Good morning God…

I’m back in Seattle.

I remember being in the thick of my time there – tired, hungry, annoyed by sweat and bugs and the smells that come to humid places that have no showers.  I remember thinking, “I can’t get home soon enough – back to wood stoves, and skis, cologne and college basketball, my wife, literacy, favorite smells, high speed internet.”  How shallow is that?

Now I’m home, and when I scroll through the pictures, tears come to my eyes – tears of gratitude for the privilege of meeting people who taught me things I didn’t want to learn, things I didn’t even know I needed to learn.  And I’ve a feeling the learning, and the relationship with these wonderful people, has just begun.

One thing I’ve begun to learn through this visit is that “normal”, on both sides of the continent, is in need of readjustment, and that we can help each other learn.  They need to  learn hygiene habits, and that water from a deep well is much better than water from the lowlands, where parasites and mosquitoes conspire to deal sickness and death.  They need to learn that saving money is a good thing, and that they’ve the power, even with their own limited resources, to build their lives, their families, their communities.  We can help them learn these things – we must help them – we will help them.

I (I won’t be bold enough to use “we”, though I suspect many will agree) need to learn how to dance.  Not literally so much (that’s beyond teaching in my case), but in other ways:

The dance of joy is written into their lives. Without any of the things we’ve deemed essential, they manage to smile.  For all their lack of sanitation, and vitamins, and recreational opportunities, and clean clothes, and benefits packages, and happy hours, and professional sports, I swear they’re onto something because it seems like they enjoy life more than most of us, in spite of our multi-levels of security: financial, medical, physical, emotional.  It’s sinking in, just a little, that my world won’t collapse if I don’t take my bevy of morning vitamins, or if I skip the latest seminar on making my church cool, or if I never write another book in my life, or buy another pair of shoes.  JOY doesn’t need shoes, or conferences, or vitamins, or relentless status updates – JOY, it seems, is about living in the moment, content with what I’m given – those are my impressions at least.

I don’t mean to romanticize.  There are people living with nightmares and trauma because of the Rwandan genocide in the 90’s.  There’s political tension bubbling, just beneath the surface.  Though there’s progress with infant mortality, kids die all the time, and parents don’t just take it in stride – it cuts them to the core, just like it does us.  The suffering is immense.  Still – the dance of joy is woven right into the fabric of it.  Go to church in Rwanda and watch them dance, remembering that they’re way less than one generation removed from killing each other with machetes in ways more brutal than I can stomach writing about.  And yet – joy.  I’ve much to learn.

The dance of community reveals my relational poverty. When I was there, in the thick of it, with people everywhere (Rwanda is the densest populated African nation), I longed for the solitude of my cabin.  When I’m just with me, I get along with everyone in the room perfectly.  I felt, in Africa, my impatience, my arrogance, my selfishness, my greed.  Nobody was lecturing me from a position of moral authority.  It’s just that they’ve space in their lives for gratitude, celebration, relationships.  When we went to that first village where our church had put in a well, they’d planned a feast for us – slaughtered a couple chickens, boiled a dozen eggs, and served mountains of fruit!  They would have gladly danced, eaten, and celebrated with us all day, but of course we had other important places to be, as we Americans always do.  And so, we enjoyed a few minutes and moved on.

“This ‘moving on’”, I remember thinking, “is the story of my life.”  I’m good at having a thousand acquaintances, much better at that, in fact, than having real friends.  They don’t have the “thousand acquaintance” option on the table, and so many of them have mastered the art of community and real friendships.  Now that I’m back where “solitude on demand” is available to me, I’m praying Jesus, that I’ll remained challenged by the countless examples of interdependency and community that I saw there.

The dance of faith in Christ is beauty and grace in Africa.  In one church we visited a man gave a profound and powerful sermon about how to keep moving ahead joyfully, even when you lose everything.  He wove scriptures together with personal narratives from his own life and the life of the nation, calling people to “give thanks anyway” when all hell breaks loose, because Jesus is still with us.  It was said better than that, but you get the point.  After, we gathered with the pastor, and I asked him if the man who preached was some sort of associate pastor.  It turns out he was a layman, a deacon.  You see, the deacons fast and pray with the pastor every Saturday, while the pastor trains them as leaders.  They practice preaching, learn to study the Bible, and pray for their town.  I wonder if, even in my highly paid position, I’d be willing to fast regularly, or give up one of my (often) two days off, in order to equip leaders in my church?  I wonder how many council members I’d have if fasting on Saturdays was a requirement?

It seems like this trip has had the effect of revealing a lot of arrogance I’ve had, and then squeezing it out of me, a process I hope continues.  It seems also, that I’ve a chance to live better here because of it – more intentionally, simply, generously, joyfully.  I am, now that I’m home, profoundly grateful for the learning, born in the warmth of Rwandan and Ugandan culture, that’s beginning to thaw some coldness in my heart.  I pray the thaw continues.

Thanks God, for the privilege, profoundly so, of being there… it’s great to be home – may the seeds you’ve planted through the thousand beautiful people I met bear fruit, and spare me from settling back into the insidious pull and demands of my often sanitized faith.  Amen…Amen.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • http://www.LRreteats.com Ricky Gregerson

    Richard, I don’t read all your blogs, but many. For me, this one was the most vulnerable, most beautiful. Thank you.

    • Graham

      I concur. I was and have been convicted of a lack of joy and generous spirit of late and this really hit home(both post and sermon today). Thanks for both a convicting word and hope that God isn’t done with me yet. Peace.

  • Jim Underhill

    You can count on one Council Member…

  • Jaymie

    Amen!! thanks so much for sharing, Richard. Very thought provoking and stirring.

  • Susan Lane

    Thank you for your hard work to deeply reflect on your trip so you can share with us. You continue to remind me that there is far more than the the binaries of rich/poor, comfort/hardship, good/bad. I pray too for thawing in my life. As a brand new council member, I’d also be willing to fast on Saturday.

  • Kelly K

    Richard, thank you so much for your last post. Everytime I’ve visited a less developed country like Africa I return home with similar thoughts. I’m always conscious of wanting to hold on to those convictions but it’s difficult when I get back into my regular routine. Somehow though, experiences like yours have a way of seeping into your heart and changing you in ways that you’re not really conscious of as you move forward.

  • http://www.dogslikediggingholes.blogspot.com Chris G

    Well said sir! There is a ton of wisdom in your words here. Thanks!


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