Lenten Meditation–Grace Be With You

Our pastor has just finished a very illuminating evening study of Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians, which ends with a few concise words in 4:18, the final verse.

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.

The Apostle shares remarkable humanity with his Christian brothers and sisters in these words that deserve deeper exploration over the next several days.  What initially caught my attention was the interesting contrast between the last line of the letter compared to the opening line in verse at the very beginning of the letter:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

What is the difference here in the greeting “Grace and peace to you” at the beginning and “Grace be with you” at the end?

The following explanation is proposed by Dr. John Piper (www.desiringgod.org)  in his book Future Grace:

“Paul has in mind that the letter itself is a channel of God’s grace to the readers. Grace is about to flow ‘from God’ through Paul’s writing to the Christians. So he says, ‘Grace to you.’ That is, grace is now active and is about to flow from God through my inspired writing to you as you read – ‘grace [be] to you.’ But as the end of the letter approaches, Paul realizes that the reading is almost finished and the question rises, ‘What becomes of the grace that has been flowing to the readers through the reading of the inspired letter?’ He answers with a blessing at the end of every letter: ‘Grace [be] with you.’ With you as you put the letter away and leave the church. With you as you go home to deal with a sick child and an unaffectionate spouse. With you as you go to work and face the temptations of anger and dishonesty and lust. With you as you muster courage to speak up for Christ over lunch. . . . [Thus] we learn that grace is ready to flow to us every time we take up the inspired Scriptures to read them. And we learn that grace will abide with us when we lay the Bible down and go about our daily living” (Future Grace, 66-67).

This is what it is like each Sunday, as I enter Wiser Lake Chapel, and am filled with the Word from Pastor Bert’s inspired teaching.  The spirit flows from our Pastor’s study of the Word, to accompany each of us as we go about our week.  Grace to, and then with us.

Just as Paul intended for his brothers and sisters.  We are deeply blessed.

Lenten Meditation–Great Compassion

Another part of my Gombe saga–my work as a research assistant in Tanzania in 1975, studying wild chimpanzees for Dr. Jane Goodall

Several metal buildings were scattered along the shore at Gombe National Park, having been built over the years since Jane Goodall and her mother Vanne arrived on the bare beach in 1960.   From the very beginning, one of the most powerful connections between these two British women and the Tanzanian villagers who lived up and down Lake Tanganyika was their provision of basic medical supplies and services when needed.  Initially, under the cover of the camp tents, they tended to wounds, provided a few medications, and assisted whenever they were needed for help.  Later, an actual dispensary was built as part of the park buildings, with storage for first aid supplies and medications, many of which were traditional Chinese medications, in little boxes with Chinese characters, and no translation.  All we had was a sheet of paper explaining if a medication was to be used for headaches, fevers,  bleeding problems or infections.

There were “open” times in the dispensary and each of the research assistants took turns to see villagers as they came by to be seen for medical issues.  We saw injuries that had never healed properly, some people with permanently crippled limbs,  centipede bites that swelled legs,   babies that weren’t gaining weight,  malarial fevers.

It felt like so little to offer.  None of us had medical training beyond first aid and CPR, but what small service we could provide was met with incredible gratitude.  We were even called to attend a difficult birth in a village up the lake a few miles away but arrived after the baby had been safely delivered by the village midwife.  For this, we (and undoubtedly the mother and the midwife) were incredibly grateful as none of us had even seen a human birth before.

So it wasn’t a surprise when a villager arrived one afternoon, running and out of breath, asking that we come right away to help.   There had been a terrible accident up the beach when a water taxi engine exploded while transporting a number of villagers, with their provisions, along with some goats and chickens.  The people rushed to get away from the engine fire and the boat overturned, with people trapped among the boxes unable to escape.  Even more tragic, Tanzanians were never taught to swim, so no one on shore could help in the rescue effort.

We dropped everything and six of us ran up the beach for a mile, and could see an overturned water taxi just off shore.  The best swimmers went out and started searching for people who had been too long in the water.  They began to pull the bloated bodies to shore, one by one, the lake water pouring from lifeless mouths and noses.    All we could do was line them up side by side on the beach, trying to keep the biting flies from covering them,  trying to make sense of the senseless.  There were eight children of various ages, including two small babies, several older women, one pregnant woman, the rest men of all ages–twenty four in all, not a single survivor.

Although in my work as a nurses’ aide at home, I had cared for the dying and cleaned and cared for their bodies after death, I had never before seen so much death in one place.   Within an hour, relatives started arriving, their grief-stricken wails of loss filling the air of this remote central African lakeshore.  Husbands and wives wept, keening over a spouse, children crouched, in shock, by a dead parent.  Grandmothers clutched their dead children and grandchildren and would not let go.  It was a horrifying scene.

We had saved no one.   We had no power to bring them back to life.    All we could provide that day was our compassion for neighbors who had come to depend on us to help.  It was not enough, and never would be enough.  It became even clearer to me, in a way I had never understood before, how deep was our dependency on the mercy and compassion of the Lord who was our only comfort in the midst of our great need.

I would not ever forget what was lost that day and and because of that, the knowledge I gained.

Psalm 51:

“Have mercy on me, O God…
according to your great compassion…”

Lenten Meditation–Unfailing Love

from speak2it.files.wordpress.com

Psalm 51:1

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;

I’m not sure what it would be like to be “unfailing” as I fail regularly, in large and small ways, daily.  The promise of mercy for my failings and flaws, because of the Lord’s love that never fails is of immeasurable comfort. No matter how I may mess up,  there is His merciful and healing balm offered up freely to restore me.  It is certain, it can be trusted, it will always be there.  When I fail, He will not.

Lenten Meditation–Repentance

He wasn’t just any drunk.  He was a mean drunk.  Surly, cursing, prone to throwing things and people.

My grandmother used to say he learned to drink in the logging camps and I suspect that is true.  He started working as a logger before he was fully grown, dropping out of school around age sixteen and heading up to the hills where real money could be made.  He learned more than how to cut down huge old growth Douglas Fir trees, skid them down the hills using a team of horses, and then roll them onto waiting wagons to be hauled to the mills.  He learned how to live with a group of men who surfaced once or twice a month from the hills to take a bath and maybe go to church with their womenfolk. Mostly he learned how to curse and drink.

He returned to the home farm with muscles and attitude a few years later, and started the process of felling trees there, creating a “stump farm” that was a challenge to work because huge stumps dotted the fields and hills.  He slowly worked at blasting them out of the ground so the land could be tilled.  It proved more than he had strength and motivation to do, so his fields were never very fruitful, mostly growing hay for his own animals.  He went to work in the local saw mill to make ends meet.

He cleaned up some when he met my grandmother, who at eighteen was twelve years younger, and eager to escape her role as chief cook and bottle washer for her widowed father and younger brother.   She was full of energy and talked constantly while he, especially when sober, preferred to let others do the talking.  It was an unusual match but he liked her cooking and she was ready to be wooed.

It was a marriage in a rush with a baby born a bit earlier than the calendar would have predicted.  They settled on the stump farm and began raising a family, trying to eke out what living they could from the land, from the sporadic work he found at the saw mill, and every Sunday, took the wagon a mile down the road to the Summit Park Bible Church where they both sang with gusto.

He still drank when he had the money, blowing his pay in the local tavern, and stumbling in the back door roaring and burping, falling into bed with his shoes on.  Grandma was a teetotaler and yelled into his ruddy face about the wrath of God anytime he drank, their four children hiding when the dishes started to fly, and when he would whip off his belt to hit anyone who looked sideways at him.

When their eldest daughter, the reason for their getting married in the first place, took sick and died quickly of cancer despite the little doctoring that was available, Grandpa got sober for awhile.  He saw it as punishment from God, or at least, that is what Grandma told him through her sobs as she struggled to cope with her loss.

Over the years, he relapsed many times, losing fingers in his work at the mill, and losing the respect of his wife, his children and the people in the community.  Grandma left with the kids for several months to cook in a boarding house in a neighboring town, simply to be able to feed her family while Grandpa squandered what he had on drink.

Grandpa sobered up for good while his boy fought in the war overseas, striking a bargain with God that his boy would come home safe as long as Grandpa left the booze alone.  It stuck and he stayed sober.  His boy came home.  Grandpa felt forgiven and became an elder in his Bible Church, taught Sunday School and gave his extra cash to the church rather than the tavern.

Sitting in a Christmas Sunday School program one Christmas Eve, Grandpa leaned toward Grandma and she noticed his face broken out in sweat, his face ashen.

“Phew, it’s hot in here, “ he said and collapsed in her lap.    He was gone, just like that, in church, sober as can be,  on the day before Christmas.

He was home at last.

Lenten Meditation–Ash Wednesday

End of Carnival
End of Carnival by Carl Spitzweg

I did not grow up observing Ash Wednesday.  Even as a child in a mainline Protestant denomination, I had only a fleeting awareness of the significance of the days leading up to Resurrection Sunday. When my new middle school friend, a Catholic, wore the cross of ashes on her forehead to remind her of her mortality and her need for repentance, it marked me as well:

I will be ashes someday.  That is a given.  There is no drawing of the first breath without knowing there will be a last breath.  That awareness changes everything in between.

Salvation from the ash heap is only through the sacrifice and gracious gift of the Risen Savior.   I cannot save myself.

The party may be over, but there is plenty left to celebrate.    This is only the beginning.

May 19, 1975

This is another piece of my Gombe saga, working as a student research assistant for Jane Goodall in western Tanzania in 1975.

At first glance,  Gombe National Park in Tanzania felt like paradise—a serene piece of the earth filled with exotic and fascinating wildlife, an abundance of fish and fruit to eat, and the rich unfamiliar sounds and smells of the tropical jungle.  It was a façade.  It was surrounded by the turmoil and upheaval of political rebellion and insurgencies in its neighboring countries, inflamed even more by the fall of Saigon in Vietnam a month previously due to the earlier pull out of the Americans from that long and tragic war.

Only a few miles north of our research station in Gombe National Park in western Tanzania, there had been years of civil war in the small land locked country of Burundi.  When the wind was just right, we could hear gunfire and explosions echoing over the valleys that separated us.  Escaping refugees would sometimes stop for food on their way to villages in Tanzania to the south, seeking safe haven in one of the poorest countries in the world, only a decade into its own experiment with socialism, Ujamaa.

There was also word of ongoing military rebellion against the dictatorship of President Mobutu in the mountainous country of Zaire twelve miles west across Lake Tanganyika.

Morning comes early for field studies of wildlife, as the research day must start before the chimpanzee and baboon subjects wake up and begin to stir. Before midnight, while we slept soundly in our metal huts scattered up the mountainside, a group of armed soldiers arrived by boats to the shore of Gombe National Park.

Storming the beach huts housing two unarmed Gombe park rangers and their families, the soldiers seized one and demanded to be told where the researchers were. The ranger refused to provide information and was severely beaten about the head and face by the butts of the rifles carried by the invaders.  The armed soldiers then divided into smaller groups and headed up the trails leading to the huts, coming upon four sleeping student researchers, tying them up, taking them hostage, forcing them into boats and taking them across the lake back to Zaire.

Asleep farther up the mountain, we were wakened by some students who were fleeing, hearing the commotion.  No one really understood what was happening down lower on the mountain. There were shouts and screams, and gun shots had been heard.  Had someone been injured or killed?   There was no choice but to run and hide deep in the bush at a predetermined gathering spot until an “all clear” signal was given by the rangers.

We hurried along barely familiar  trails in the black of the jungle night, using no flashlights, our hearts beating hard, knowing we had no defense available to us other than the cover of darkness.

That was the longest wait for morning of my life, sitting alongside Jane holding her son Grub.  A hand full of other students had also made their way to the hiding spot, none of us knowing what to think, say or do.  We could only barely see each other’s faces in the darkness and were too frightened to make any sounds.  We carried no weapons, and there was no way to communicate with the outside world.   We had no idea how many of us may be missing, or possibly dead.

Jane held Grub in her arms, trying to keep him quiet, but his eight year old imagination was ignited by the events that had just unfolded.

“Will they kidnap me, Jane?  Will they come for me?  Where will they take us?  Will they shoot us dead?”

Jane, her face hidden by her blonde hair loose about her shoulders,  sat rocking him, cradling him. “Shhh, shhh, we don’t want them to find us.  We’re safe staying right here.  Everything will be fine in the morning.  No one will take you from me.”

She concluded: “They would have to shoot me first…”  and at that, Grub began to sob silently into her shoulder.  He knew that was how baby chimpanzees were captured by bounty hunters, by shooting the mother dead and snatching the infant from her protective embrace.

When the morning of May 20 dawned, the park rangers located us, and pieced together the events as best they could–the soldiers were Zairean rebels living in remote mountains, fighting  an insurgency against the Zaire government. Seeking funds for their cause, they saw a kidnapping of Americans and Europeans as a way to raise quick funds and world publicity and sympathy.  Four of our friends/coworkers were missing, the camp was ransacked and the rangers hurt but with no life threatening injuries.   There was no way to remain safe at the Park, and our colleagues needed whatever help we could offer for their rescue.

We were able to send a messenger to a nearby fishing village, and a radio call was sent out to the small town of Kigoma, then relayed to Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi.  Help arrived within a few hours, when a United Nations boat monitoring the civil war activities in Burundi pulled off shore near our camp.  We were told we needed to evacuate Gombe that day, and would be taken to Kigoma, and then flown by bush pilot to Nairobi, Kenya to cooperate in the investigation of the kidnapping.

In Nairobi, at the US Embassy, I met CIA agents who viewed our wild primate studies with some suspicion.  Each of us were grilled individually as to our political beliefs, our activities at the camp and whether we may be somehow involved in subversive actions against the Zaire or Tanzanian governments.  We were dumbfounded that our own countrymen would be so skeptical about our motives for being in Africa.  It became clear our own government would be no help in resolving the kidnapping and bringing our friends home to safety.  The agents did not shed any light on whether our friends were alive or dead.

We were then hustled into a press conference where we were interviewed for television and print media by the worldwide news agencies, and my parents saw me on the CBS evening news before they actually heard my voice over the phone.

It took over three months, private negotiations and ransom money to free all four of our friends back to safety.

Childrens’ Hospital Rotation

The call came in the middle of a busy night
as we worked on a floppy baby with high fever,
a croupy toddler whose breathing squeezed and squeaked,
a pale adolescent transfusing due to leukemia bleeding.

It was an anencephalic baby just born, unexpected, unwanted
in a hospital across town, and she needed a place to die.

Our team of three puzzled how to manage a baby without a brain–
simply put her in a room, swaddled, kept warm but alone?
Hydrate her with a dropper of water to moisten her mouth?
Offer her a taste of milk?

She arrived by ambulance, the somber attendants
leaving quickly, unnerved by her mewing cries.

I took the wrapped bundle and peeled away the layers
to find a plump full term baby, her hands gripping, arms waving
once freed;  just another newborn until I pulled off her stocking cap
and looked into an empty crater — only a brainstem lumped at the base.

Neither textbook pictures nor cruel jokes about frog babies had prepared me
for the wholeness, the holiness of this living, breathing child.

Her forehead quit above the eyebrows with the entire skull missing,
tufts of soft brown hair fringed her perfect ears, around the back of her neck.
Her eyelids puffy, squinting tight, seemingly too big
above a button nose and rosebud pink lips.

She squirmed under my fingers, her muscles strong, breaths coming steady
despite no awareness of light or touch or noise.

Yet she cried in little whimpers, mouth working, seeking,
lips tentatively gripping my fingertip. A bottle warmed,
nipple offered, a tentative suck allowing tiny flow,
then, amazing,  a gurgling swallow.

Returning every two hours, more for me than for her,  I picked her up
to smell the salty sweet scent of amnion still on her skin as she grew dusky.

Her breathing weakened, her muscles loosened, giving up her grip
on a world she would never see or hear or feel to behold
something far more glorious, as I gazed
into her emptiness, waiting to be filled.