{ A Life Overseas: Coming Home }

With Batwa friends in Burundi // Photo Credit: Tina Francis

With Batwa friends in Burundi // Photo Credit: Tina Francis

Two weeks ago I was in transit from Burundi (East Africa) to the United States. The news flashing across multiple media outlets – CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC, the New York Times – highlighted the Israeli incursion into Gaza, the advancing of ISIS in Iraq, the confusion around the downed Malaysian airline in Ukraine and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

I boarded my plane aware of other passengers, hoping none were travelers from West Africa. I reminded my daughter to keep her hands to herself, the transmission of Ebola on my mind. As I watched the interactive map in flight, I prayed about the outbreak of violence in Libya and Gaza while we split the difference and flew through Egyptian airspace. I moved through the skies with awareness we dodged war zones on our way home after our Burundian summer.

I’d only be home for a set of days before I’d be reminded of the systemic injustice and racism that still resides in my homeland.

Read the rest over at A Life Overseas…

His life matters – world peace may hang in the balance

justin:faceofhope

This is my son. He’s ten years old.

His life matters.

How sad that I feel the need to document the obvious. But the last set of days this thought has permeated my thinking. In the months prior, I’ve been grateful he is currently living overseas where his color isn’t a factor in how his neighbors perceive him. I seldom say this out loud because people, mostly white people, accuse me of over-reacting or misreading the context or being too liberal in my reaction. But as a mother to this stunning ebony-skinned boy, I cannot ignore how other such sons are treated in my homeland.

My son’s heart and countenance are bright. He possesses a deep well of compassion for others – family, friends, the Batwa people of Burundi, the Palestinian people of Gaza. Under his smooth skin and banana-shaped dimples beats a tender heart, uncalloused by hate, hurt or racism. He is, as his favorite dancer Michael Jackson said, a lover not a fighter. “I love you, mama” he volunteers nightly.

His life matters.

When we go out for our dates, just the two of us cloistered at a table in a favorite restaurant, he gets to set the agenda with questions. And he gives me a glimpse into his heart – and he never disappoints.

The first time, over burgers and fries at In & Out Burger, he asked about the plight of the Batwa people in Burundi. “Why are they mistreated and forced to live in bad places?” he inquired with his characteristic intensity. We spoke of human rights, identity cards, tribalism and marginalization. That’s when he learned God transforms land and lives – and was already at work among our Batwa friends. “I’m glad they are our friends, mama.”

His life matters.

Another date, this time feasting on beef brochette, brought out his creative and curious side. “Mama, let’s dream about inventions to solve big problems.” I envisioned a cure to AIDS. (I had to explain what HIV/AIDS was, first.)

He imagined a car that traveled at the speed of light so that we could be together whenever we wanted, despite the distance that we endure as a bi-cultural family. We decided to call it the SOL car. He giggled at the thought of such a car, designed like a Ferrari with race car stripes, that would allow him to come over for dinner (especially on nights I made his favorite mac n’ cheese or pesto, he noted). I told him I’d use the SOL car on nights he wanted to talk about his birth mom or hear another Jesus story before bedtime. The SOL car would bridge the distance between mother and son…

His life matters.

Just last month we enjoyed our most recent date at our favorite bakery in Burundi. Over mango smoothies and chocolate croissants we talked about his chosen topic – Palestine. For two and a half hours we retraced the history – the 1947 UN Partition decision, the creation of the state of Israel, the 6 Day War and the intafada(s)… and the current blockade and incursions he witnessed on the news. His vocabulary grew to include Shoah  and Nakba. We talked about the God who is on the side of the oppressed and near to the broken-hearted, the God who does not allow us to hate enemies, and God’s image in the face of each Israeli, each Palestinian.

He peppered me with questions: Is the Israel of the Bible the same as the Israel country? Is America using it’s most powerful military to help the people in Gaza? Why is there an actual wall around parts of Palestine? Were the people of Palestine invited to the meeting about the UN Partition? Can we go there and help?

Finally he declared, as he slurped the last of his smoothie, “Once I’m done being a soccer star like Messi, I think I’ll go to Palestine and help bring peace like Jesus does.”

His life matters.

My son stretches his imagination toward peace, toward innovating solutions, toward brokering friendships. He dreams of playing soccer for Liverpool and inventing the SOL car and, as if in his spare time, bringing a lasting peace to Palestine and Israel.

But he is, after all, ten years old. He is given to fits of silliness and immaturity as any boy his age. He has more energy than his slender frame can really contain and an impulsive streak you don’t see coming. Growth spurts in rapid succession ensure he is taller every time I look his direction, but maturing happens in more subtle and slow movements. And I cannot afford to have his immaturity, impulsivity or silliness let loose on American streets – because  those very things can endanger his life. And I don’t want to become the next bereaved mother clutching a picture of her son in the middle of the street.

But he has something amazing to contribute to this world and…

His life matters.

It might even matter to world peace – if his heart for the dispossessed is any indication. So label me if you must. But include in that moniker “a mother who believes in the potential of her son and the value of all the other sons of other mothers like me.”

 

 

{ Spirit of the Poor: The Big Rest }

bigrest

Recently I’ve been considering the poverty of our discipleship. It all began when I stumbled over the word discipleship in my Twitter feed one afternoon. I recognized the word, of course. But what came to mind was how little I ever use it anymore, though I remain an ardent follower of Jesus.

This wasn’t always the case. In my youth discipleship functioned as load-bearing word in my vocabulary. This word held pride of place in youth group conversations and on into discussions in my college years. My bookshelf teemed with books on discipleship – how to be the best Christian I could be by various authors taking a variety of approaches. In my early years, it would be fair to say discipleship was a preoccupation of mine.

So how is it, all these years later that I stare at the word as a relic from my past instead of common currency?

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Weeks later I recognized that my practice of Sabbath might be the holy culprit gradually undercutting my preoccupation with discipleship, as I’d come to know it. 

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Today Esther Emery, curator of The Spirit of the Poor link up, is hosting me on her site. Click here to read the rest on sabbath + discipleship and… add your own reflections!

Summer Lessons

PHOTO CREDIT: Tina Francis

PHOTO CREDIT: Tina Francis

My summer is nearly done. In a matter of days I’ll pack suitcases, gather passports and make my way home in time for the first day of school. Glancing through the photo album of summer days, trying to discern if he hit a growth spurt between my arrival and departure, I realized another kind of growth.

These are some of the things my son learned this summer…

1. You can talk to Papa about anything new or curious happening to your body. Without going into unnecessary detail, my son is heading into those pre-teen years when bodies change. New sensations and new questions arise. What he now knows, after a candid conversation one night with both his father and I, is that he doesn’t need to be scared or embarrassed to talk to Papa about his body and its growth. Our impromptu conversation broke the ice, making future discussions more likely to happen as he reaches new heights, his voice reaches new depths. He knows Papa understands, has been through it, and will listen to him anytime.

2. God stands alongside the oppressed, ever close to the broken-hearted of the world. Multiple times this summer we landed on this truth amid our conversations. The first time, early in the season, we talked about the story of the Exodus. I told him how God heard the cry of the Hebrews enslaved in Egypt – then God acted, God delivered. Whenever and wherever people are oppressed, on the underside of justice, God stands alongside them. This came up again in the many talks we had about the conflict between Israel and Gaza – who is oppressed, and where do we find God?

3. God loves our enemies as much as He loves us. As often as we talked about Israel and Gaza, which was plenty during our final weeks, we talked about God’s sweeping call to love everyone involved in the conflict. “Why do we love every person in Gaza and Israel?” I asked. “Because God’s image is in each one of them,” he responded. Indeed, in the words of Desmond Tutu, God loves those we call enemies as much as he loves us! God doesn’t give us permission to hate, but to always work toward love of the oppressed, the neighbor and even (maybe especially) our enemy. “Jesus asks a very hard thing, mom.” “Yes, but did you think transforming the world would be easy?” I asked.

4. You get to have both your mothers; you don’t have to choose between us. This year we celebrated our 9th Adoption Day, saw the neighborhood where he was found by a farmer on the way to market and talked a bit more about our birth moms. At one point, over pane chocolate and mango smoothies, I told him he gets to have both his mothers. He doesn’t have to choose between his dreams, thoughts and feelings for his birth mom and his love for me – he can have both. “Thank you, mom,” he said, wiping away a tear or two.

5. Be like Messi, not Renaldo. For my son, everything comes back to soccer. His favorite player is Messi, and he regaled me at length with his virtues as a player and a person. One of the sterling qualities – he does not let insults provoke him to unsportsmanlike behavior. This in contrast to his rival, Renaldo, known for arrogance and aggression. So when he’s insulted on the field or at school, the new rule? Be like Messi, not Renaldo!

PHOTO CREDIT: Tina Francis

PHOTO CREDIT: Tina Francis

I think our summer lessons will serve both of us well in the season ahead. And as he grows out of his shoes and shirts, I pray he will grow into a young man capable of deep compassion and complex conversations. I hope he will, with each day and each choice, become a peacemaker that will make big (and small) contributions to the world God so loves.

Finding Sabbath (a poem)

week51 pineapple

I Sabbath in quiet,

in the late, dark night

on the edges of Sunday

buried in the pages of a book

maybe savoring the sun-sweet bowl of pineapple in the late afternoon

I feel Sabbath good

in a momentary sigh

a slow inhale and a slower exhale

my body draped across a couch

conscious of my toes wiggling

I feel it’s holiness

in unhurried conversations

in decisions to not do,

to not clutter,

to not add one more thing

in unapologetic stillness and guilt-free day-dreams

in space to imagine other possibilities beyond our binaries, our violence, our walls

When rest re-calibrates me I’ve submitted to Sabbath well.

 

 

{ A Life Overseas: The Sign That Matters }

signMatara

Five years ago we landed in Burundi. Around the small capital I noticed signs everywhere – signs of other NGOs present in the city with logos plastered on their large Land Cruisers, big placards at their local offices and signs out in the countryside wherever they had a project. The rampant self-promotion turned my stomach sour. No one could do any good thing without erecting a sign to mark it, to prove their worth and claim their territory.

For the first season I nursed a secret sense of pride over our unmarked cars that criss-crossed the city, often full of Burundian friends who shared in this development adventure. We didn’t need signs to validate our partnership or announce our project; we just did the work that needed to be done with our friends.

We managed to work in one community for three years without a single sign, but watched thirty families move steadily toward a viable and vibrant community.

Right about that time we began work with another community of 660 families in a different province. We started planting hundreds of trees together, advocated for identity cards for all the adults and birth certificates for the children. Soon we began constructing an elementary school. And somewhere amid all this activity the local officials made a strong recommendation – that we put up a sign.

Read the rest over at A Life Overseas…

My son’s birthright

driving

This past Friday our small family piled into our car and drove to Bubanza. We celebrated the completion of the first academic year of Kwizera Academy, a school we founded just last year. On the drive home, slicing through the Burundian countryside, I thought about what this landscape has come to mean to me. I felt more deeply what I hope it means to my son who is native to this place. I’m not a poet, but these are the strands of words I captured as we traveled home in the bright noonday sun…

Friday Drive

We watch the passing landscape as we cut across the Burundian plain.

I keep your iPod tucked away on purpose.

This is your landscape, son.

Be bored by it, absorbed by it,

notice something new,

recognize what’s universal.

 

Steep in the hot colors; let them stain you.

Reds, greens, yellows awash with sun,

bulging bunches of bananas (still chartreuse) balanced on bikes,

rice spread on the roadside, resting in their golden husks,

pyramids of orange mandarins stacked on rickety tables.

This is your palette.

 

Born to this soil – it’s yours

and it matters.

The mingling of soil and soul always does.

You belong to this land irrevocably -

beyond passports, birth certificates, even adoption decrees.

 

Your connection is like Adam’s,

a shared substance with red dirt,

variations of green vegetation,

ombre-shaded elevation from deep silver-tipped waters of Tanganyika

to greyed hues of distant (and many) rolling hills

touching the brilliant sky blue.

 

This place is your birthright.

This Writers Life

Photo credit: Sarah Joslyn of SarsCreative,  originally created for SheLoves Magazine.

Photo credit: Sarah Joslyn of SarsCreative, originally created for SheLoves Magazine.

My friend and fellow writing group partner, Christiana Peterson, invited me to share some thoughts on my current writing projects and writing process. How could I not play? First, take a moment to visit Christiana’s place and read about her process (she’s currently working with words around themes of farming, intentional community living and death – so you don’t want to miss out on any of those ideas!)

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1. What are you working on?

I am currently writing a practical theology of adoption. This project weaves together my own stories of adoption, a theological framework for adoption, discussion of the formative aspects of adopted living and ends with a personal declaration of where adoption fits within salvation history. In many ways this is my story and also how I’ve come to articulate it – which is through the biblical text and the ever-present Spirit.

But I do believe this work serves as more than just my personal memoir. I hope this will be an offering to all those touched by the goodness of adoption – with fresh language for what to us is a sacrament and spiritual formation, with a more comprehensive conversation about where our adoptive story fits within the stories of Scripture and encouragement to embrace the full range of adoptive gestures and those included in our tribe. I also hope the community at large will see how adopted ones contribute unique gifts to families, churches and communities. It’s no small task…

Right now I am at the halfway mark – I think!

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

Where to begin? The current crop of books that tackle adoption from a Biblical perspective offer a very different description of both adoption and Scriptures related to it. The leading books are written by men, some adoptive fathers, most with conservative theological commitments. I imagine you already see some of my distinctive features!

I write as a woman, as an adoptive mother, as a person who lives between mainline and progressive communities (and comes from a conservative family). I write as bi-cultural parent. I write as one experienced in both domestic and international adoption.

But most distinctive might be the fact that I write as an adopted person with 40+ years of tenure in the company of the adopted. I write from inside adoption as one shaped by it and conversant in its nuances and complexities and stunning goodness.

But I do also write with a different sense of where adoption is connected to the Biblical narrative. I do not see it as connected to evangelism, mission or primarily as an antidote to abortion in a political climate. I see it within the bigger story – where adoption finds true congruence in both Old Testament and New Testament alike. I’m tempted to share more… but you’ll just have to wait for the book!

3. Why do you write what you do?

I write about more than adoption. I love to write about jubilee, justice, hope and the prophetic goodness and challenges I see in Isaiah, Micah and Jesus. I write about community development, stories of hope I uncover in my bi-continental life, the ordinary things and favorite Biblical texts along the way.

I write to discover truths more deeply. I do it to witness to my own development or call out my own blind spots. I do it to cultivate authentic community with others wrestling with similar ideas, stories and questions. I write to encourage deeper transformation within myself and (if God allows) within others.

 4. How does your writing process work?

I write in a journal daily – or nearly so. This is a spiritual practice for me and has been formative for, dare I say, decades. So many seeds are deposited in the soil of these blue-lines pages.

I am a firm believer in free-writes as a vital part of the creative process. I do multiple free-writes each week, always on Friday mornings, and turn to this mode of writing when I’m at an impasse. The best advice to those uninitiated in the mechanisms of the free-write – go get Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones at once! (True story: I started writing the adoption project in the margins of this book.)

When I sit to write, I begin by lighting candles to hallow the space and create a hedge of sorts. The candles are lit with a prayer, inviting God to be present in the work I’m about to begin. The flickering candles remind me to stay attentive to the work – aware God answers and is near to me as I write. The sight of the orange flames out of the corner of my wandering eye corral my thoughts, bring me back to the holy task at hand. I also am less likely to roam about the house with candles burning in my writing space!

I use lots of paper and spill copious amounts of ink when I’m working. I have huge sheets of paper when sketching ideas and connections or outlining sections of chapters. Actually, I use as a tablet paper intended to be desk pads. I have two side by side to give me about 60 inches of writing space. I also have a basket of various colors and sizes of post-it notes to annotate and color code along the way. Writing for me is a very concrete practice – I need to feel the pen in my hand and the surge of words skipping across the page like a rock across the surface of a lake. I need to shape the letters, write word clusters, see the written words and allow connections to rise to the surface on the paper. I’m very tactile when it comes to my writing… (This is the reason I’m committed to making my kids practice their penmanship all summer long, every summer. If they become writers, I want them to have the ability to write fast across the page and feel the creativity at work in their very body.)

When I do get stymied, there are a few things I do.

  • Always free-write.
  • Stand in my living room and begin preaching. Standing as if before an audience and speaking extemporaneously often dislodges whatever was stuck. The words I hunted around for on the paper seem to come out of my mouth when I imagine myself preaching.
  • And sometimes I need music to help. I always start in quiet, but if that isn’t working I find music to set a different mood. I love Strauss waltzes to pick up the pace, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to mimic my inner intensity or Ottmar Leibert’s flamenco guitar to offer a subtle melody to encourage a more gentle flow. There have been times I’ve need a song by Sting to help me get into the scene, Under the Desert Moon helping me feel the movement of the Nile River as I write about Moses, Desert Rose with its riffs in Arabic to pull me closer to the tenor of the Middle East as I try to describe the region – you get the picture. U2 and John Lennon have also come to my aid in recent months!

I do move from journal to free-write to outlines and then on to typing the words into the actual document. As I tell my husband, what I really need to write is space and snacks. (They have to be snacks that don’t leave any residue on your fingers, though, because no one wants sticky fingers on the keyboard or slippery ones trying to grasp a pen!)

 *****

Now it is my turn to tag a couple of friends to share their writing process, and I turn to an actual couple that I met through Deeper Story. I invite Seth and Amber Haines. Both are talented southern writers given to poetry and lyrical prose, words written with tenderness and acute accuracy, metaphors that penetrate and thoughts that plunge deep. How do they do that? What funds their imagination and draws out their poetic voice? I want to know more…

 

How to Host a Short Term Mission Trip (part three)

5 years!

This is the third and final installment (for now) on how we host short-term mission trips, based on ten years of experience! We just took our summer team to the airport last night, so I’m pretty tired. Hope there aren’t too many typos in this post – but if there is – please forgive me! 

*****

We just said good bye to a team of friends who left Burundi last night. Their send off included one last party with friends, good food and the experience of the Burundian drum corp. As they loaded their luggage into the cars and headed to the airport, I thought back over the week.

I remember, in a word, the vibrancy of the first few days up-country as our guests mingled with our Batwa communities. I remembered the moment Godece washed my muddy feet after I fell down the rain-soaked hill of Matara. I’ll never forget the leaders of Matara parading toward us with gifts – a chicken, a branch of green bananas, beans and fruits – all from their abundance. Now they bless us with their first-fruits, after 5 years they have more than enough to share. These are the snapshots from a full week – and if there were time I’d tell you so many more things that took my breath away during this week of visitation and celebration.

Even this morning, as I’m hung over with exhaustion (and an eye red and watery from some kind of scratch or infection) I can remember these few things clearly. I can articulate them even through the fog of my aching bones and coffee-craving. Because we prepared for this all along.

Let me share quickly (because I am really tired) how we practice story-telling and prepare our teams for their return home after their short term mission trip…

Read the rest over at A Life Overseas…

Hosting Short-Term Mission Trips (part 2)

photo credit: Tina Francis

photo credit: Tina Francis

When I was young I remember embarking on my first short-term mission trip – to Hawaii. I don’t recall much of what we did while on the island, but I remember when we clustered under the buckling metal patio cover for morning devotions. The team leader opened up his Bible and taught us about the seeds of the gospel we were meant to cast with generosity across the globe; a kind and gentle sort of evangelism.

Years later, while in college, I participated in a Spring Break mission to Ensenada. Did I help build something or feed someone – I can’t remember. The tents caked with dust, the days of discomfort, the paltry meals stick in my memory. The other impression time hasn’t eroded were the twilight gatherings round the fire pit, when we heard sermons on the virtues of mercy and evangelism working hand in hand for the advancing of the Kingdom.

My own experience of short-term mission trips convinced me that people needed me to come and help them fix their broken world. The times of devotion reinforced the message, telling me that Jesus expected me to do my part in saving people. I often walked away from mission trips feeling sorry for the poor, sensing the imperative to evangelize but heavy with guilt because I didn’t do enough of it. My ways of thinking about poverty, mission, and evangelism were never challenged, only confirmed.

But when people come to Burundi I want them to see Scripture afresh. I want team members to witness the words and works of God already afoot in Bubanza, Matara and Bujumbura. I want the stories of Scripture and the red soil to mingle – stretching and challenging us, over-turning our assumptions, offering fresh vision. I want my team to feel God’s active and subversive words as work among us.

Here are some things I consider when it comes to crafting devotions for short-term mission teams… You’ll need to click over to A Life Overseas to read the rest!