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Gratitude in the messiness

Exactly one month ago we were supposed to leave for Nairobi, Kenya. Contracts were signed, bags were packed, dreams of a new life were about to come true, and then in a matter of days all the plans we had carefully built came crashing down. It was a mess. We were a mess. The world felt like it was a mess.

But in the midst of that mess we were reminded that we were not alone. God showed up in the messiness. God spoke words of love and affirmation through the texts and calls and drop-ins of friends. God provided for us with Ali getting a job teaching elementary music at a nearby school district. God blessed us through the generosity of my parents who temporarily gave up their house to our would-be renters and moved into our basement so that we could have some sense of stability. Not only that, but they’ve helped with meals and dishes, watching the kids, and they haven’t even complained about all the noise we make and our incessant singing.

God has reminded us through the radical generosity of others that He is still a God of Manna in the desert. While the last month has been difficult and painful and filled with plenty of unknowns and unexpected challenges, we have been reminded that we are not alone in the messiness. God is here. God has always been here. Our God is Immanuel.

To those of you who have prayed for us, sent us job postings, baked bread, brought over a 6-pack of beer, sent cards, and checked on our spirits, please know that we are incredibly grateful for you; grateful for you being the hands and feet of Jesus for us and with us. Thank you for surrounding us with love in our hour of need and for giving us hope. From the bottom of our hearts we thank you.


Simeon, Alison, Lydia and Sam

The End of Holding Hands

I took my 7-year-old son on a special day out yesterday. For a looooooong time Sam has wanted to go to Hershey park, so at long last we did. He was so excited the night before he could barely sleep. When we finally arrived, parked, put on our masks and started heading towards the entrance Sam slipped his hand into mine. It was such a sweet and simple and beautiful thing. He wanted to be connected. Even as he jumped up and down with anticipation he never let go.

He held my hand all the way through the parking lot and into the park. After a little while I found myself looking around and noticing that there weren’t others boys his age doing the same thing. None of them were holding their dad’s hands, and I felt a little self-conscious. On top of that my hand was getting quite sweaty as the sun was beating down on us, and I really wanted to say to Sam. “Let’s not hold hands. I’m right here beside you, that’s good.”

But as I found myself wanting to say those words Sam wrapped me in a big hug as we waited in line for our first ride, the biggest roller coaster he’d ever been on, and he said, “Daddy, this is the best day of my life. I’m so glad I get to spend it with you.” As he said those words my heart melted. Here I was about to tell him we should stop holding hands because I was self-conscious and my palms were sweaty, and what he was trying to say to me was that he wanted to be connected. He wanted to share this experience together.

We held hands for nearly the next 6 hours in the heat as we walked all over Hershey park. His little hand in my larger sweaty hand. Swinging back and forth as we walked and chattered and decided which rides to do. It was a beautiful day.

 As our day came to a close and we walked back to the car, Sam’s little sweaty hand was still slipped into mine. I found myself wondering if this would be our last trip to the park where he’d want to hold my hand and be connected in this way. He’s growing up fast, and we live in a culture that doesn’t value this type of connection for men and makes it feel uncomfortable. I’m living proof of that, sadly.

Dads, I wonder what messages we are sending our sons with the ways that we choose to be physically present with them. Do we teach them with our actions that it’s OK to be tender and gentle with other boys as well as to be rough and tough. Do we show them in our own male friendships that physical affection is not only OK, but that it’s good and necessary.

When I look back on our day together years from now I will assuredly forget the rides we went on, the food we ate and the things that we talked about, but I will always remember holding Sam’s hand, being connected to him and being filled with love for my sweet, sensitive son. It may be the end of holding hands at Hershey Park, only time will tell, but it will be a day that I will never forget.

Through an outsider’s eyes

I grew up most of my life in the lush green mountains of Papua New Guinea- a place of beauty and adventure. I lived on a mission base with hundreds of other missionaries from around the world. The majority of families were from America and in many ways it felt like a mini-America. There was a smattering of Papua New Guineans who attended the international school for missionary children, but they were the outliers in our mostly white missionary bubble.

Almost all of the missionaries hired Papua New Guineans to help around the house. We had a wonderful woman named Jonah who cleaned for us, and Iyah who mowed the grass and did other odd jobs around the yard. The narrative I grew up with was that we were helping them, providing them with steady income in a world where most Papua New Guineans were subsistence farmers on their ancestral lands and couldn’t find paying jobs. To work for a white missionary family was a coveted position. I never thought twice about this arrangement growing up.

About 10 years after I graduated I returned to Papua New Guinea and the mission base where I grew up. I returned to be the speaker at the high school’s annual spiritual retreat. I brought my good friend Nick Peterson with me. I told him so many of my stories about growing up in PNG, and was excited to show him the amazing place in the flesh. I couldn’t wait for him to get a window into my childhood, so he could better understand me.

48 hours after hopping on our first plane we arrived at Ukarumpa. Being back, it felt like nothing had changed. All the same houses and trees were still there, some of them still with the same missionaries. The clay was as red as I remembered, and mountainous landscape was even more breath-taking.

 As Nick and I walked around the mission base on our first afternoon, I was jabbering away pointing out all the places of importance from my youth. I was caught up in that invigorating yet surreal feeling of being back in an old familiar place that you have been away from for too long. While I was seeing everything through old eyes, Nick was seeing it all through fresh eyes. Eyes that were very different than mine, African-American eyes that were attuned to issues of race and privilege that I was clueless about. Eyes that had seen and witnessed racial injustice in ways that my naïve sheltered eyes couldn’t even imagine. My privilege afforded me the opportunity to be ignorant and blind to the very race and power dynamics at play all around me growing up.

            But Nick walked into my missionary bubble, a safe haven of whiteness, and within hours he burst the bubble. Nick began to point out things I’d looked at my whole life but had never seen. He began to ask questions that I’d never known to ask. When I saw Ukarumpa through Nick’s eyes, eyes that were never afforded the option of naivete, my world was forever changed.

            Nick immediately recognized the gaping disparity between whites and blacks. The white community had better jobs, houses, transportation, clothing, access to material goods, medical care. The list could go on. The Papua New Guineans all worked FOR the missionaries. Never the other way around. The balance of power was greatly weighted towards the white missionaries. Nick commented that it felt like he was in a time warp going back to the Southern United States from a former era. We always laughed at Ukarumpa that we were behind the times, but the truth of his observation about our little community was sadly no laughing matter.

 I didn’t spend much time thinking about the differences between blacks and whites in PNG, because the emphasis of the community was unity and togetherness. This message of unity lacked the necessary nuance to navigate the discrepancies in privilege and opportunity that existed. Hidden within the message of unity was an unspoken message of sameness that was sadly not true. My existence at Ukarumpa as a white missionary kid was NOT the same as the Papua New Guinean kids who I grew up with, from the food that I ate, to the vacations that we took, to the bed that I slept in. Our lives were profoundly different. A difference that I was vaguely aware of on the periphery of my thinking, but not one that was openly discussed and explored within the public life of the broader missionary community.  

When I think back to all the hours I spent in church, and Sunday school and in youth group and school chapels I cannot recall any teaching or seminars or sermons focused on racism or injustice. Public conversations about the inequity of our community were generally absent. (It’s possible these conversations were happening among adults but kids and youth were not invited to participate).

There was a fixed focus on the mission at hand- Bible translation. We were taught to have great compassion for the Papua New Guineans because they didn’t have access to the Bible in their own language. We were greatly concerned for their souls, but the same level of compassion was not cultivated for the physical state of the people we had come to reach and their access to medical care, clean water, safe housing, jobs, quality education. The message that the Bible is a sacred book and tool to save the souls of the unreached came through loud and clear. Jesus’ message of justice and equality for the poor and the marginalized was but a whisper in comparison. The focus on souls and the future allowed for a type of blindness to physical bodies and the present.

            I don’t want to live blindly anymore, which is why I’m sharing this reflection in hopes that it might help you see a little more clearly as well. I’m profoundly grateful for Nick and his willingness and ability to help me see and learn and grow. I recognize that I still have much to learn. Speaking up is part of me trying to foster conversation so that we can continue to learn and grow together.

The Dining Room Table

We have a kitchen table with a built-in leaf that allows the table to expand and contract. As a family of four we really only need the table to be on its smallest size. But because we regularly have folks over for meals, we keep it at its largest size to accommodate as many people as possible.

            We had to do some work on the kitchen floor this week, which required us to move the table. To make things easy, we reduced the table to its smallest size. When the kitchen repair work was complete we moved everything back to its original place. I was about to elongate the kitchen table when I realized that we won’t be having anyone over. I stood there staring at the table thinking of all the friends and family who have sat around it. The meals we’ve served and the stories that have been told. The messes that have been made and the laughter that has filled the kitchen and spilled out into the entire house.

As I looked at the little round table, it seemed so strange. So small. Sure, there’s a lot more space now to maneuver in the kitchen, but I would trade the inconvenience in a heartbeat to have friends back around the table. To shake hands, hug, share life shoulder to shoulder.

The increased space in the kitchen feels symbolic of the increased space that we are facing as a country. Social distance, physical distance, and separation creep into our ordinary conversations. Wide spaces that can make our homes and routines and lives feel lacking and empty.

In the days ahead, whenever I sit down at the kitchen table to eat I’m going to be intentional about praying for one of the families that has sat around the table with us. When you notice the spaces where things and people are missing because of the current pandemic, I invite you this week to take time to pray. Pray for the people who come to mind. Friends who you regularly see at your gym or yoga class, your colleagues from work, church family…

The time is coming when we will one day sit around tables together. In the meantime may we fill the empty seats and spaces with prayers for those we love. May we continue to live with hope and gratitude.