A reflection on Jesus’ suffering and our own, appropriate for this Good Friday, from C. S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcom (p. 63-65):

We all try to accept with some sort of submission our afflictions when they actually arrive. But the prayer in Gethsemane shows that the preceding anxiety is equally God’s will and equally part of our human destiny. The perfect Man experienced it. And the servant is not greater than the master. We are Christians, not Stoics.

Does not every movement in the Passion write large some common element in the sufferings of our race? First, the prayer of anguish; not granted. Then He turns to His friends. They are asleep—as ours, or we, are so often, or busy, or away, or preoccupied. Then He faces the Church; the very Church that He brought into existence. It condemns Him. … But there seems to be another chance. There is the State; in this case, the Roman state. … It claims to be just, on a rough, worldly level. Yes, but only so far as is consistent with political expediency and raison d’état. One becomes a counter in a complicated game. But even now all is not lost. There is still an appeal to the People—the poor and simple whom He had blessed, whom He had healed and fed and taught, to whom He himself belongs. But they have become over-night (it is nothing unusual) a murderous rabble shouting for His blood. There is, then, nothing left but God. And to God, God’s last words are, “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

You see how characteristic, how representative, it all is. The human situation writ large. These are among the things it means to be a man. Every rope breaks when you seize it. Every door is slammed shut as you reach it. To be like the fox at the end of the run; the earths all staked. …

Far from lightening the dark valley where you now find yourself, I blacken it. And you know why. Your darkness has brought back my own. … I think it is only in a shared darkness that you and I can really meet at present; shared with one another and, what matters most, with our Master. We are not on an untrodden path. Rather, on the main-road.

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Though I’ve been back from the Solomon Islands for almost a month now, there’s still so much to share!

During my visit to Dean to the island of Malaita, part of the Solomon Islands, I learned that Melanesians love feast days. I also learned that they love to honor guests living among them, especially at their departure. As a farewell to Dean, the Airahu campus threw him a feast his last night there.

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Dean arriving for his feast (the shirt was a gift made for him by Melanesians), with his missionary mentors, Jon and Tess Hicks.

Things started around 8pm, though the food preparations had been happening all day.

The tables were covered with banana leaves, and then the food was portioned out onto the leaves. Above you can see rice, cooked meat in various sauces, a cassava “pudding” (made from pounding and boiling it), cooked sweet potatoes and cassava, fresh pineapple and watermelon, pork, cooked fish, and cooked chicken sausage. The attendees would stand at the tables and eat with their hands off the banana leaves. Clean-up was easy! Just pick up the leaves and dump them where the animals are fed.

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They also had a separate table for “honored guests,” with the same food on platters. We formed a line and filled up our plates.

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And then the speeches began.

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Brother Ezekiel, a member of a Melanesian monastic order called the Melanesian Brotherhood who can be recognized by their garb which he is wearing above. He is also a theology student where Dean taught. He shared his appreciation of Dean’s humility and not complaining during his time among them.

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Father Paul, an Anglican priest and principal of the Trinity School of Theology and Ministry, was Dean’s host father as well as colleague. He shared his appreciation of Dean’s hard work, especially in the garden and in supervising the final year students’ theses. He also expressed his family’s enjoyment of having Dean live with them.

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He then presented both Dean and me with gifts.

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Dean was given the chance to address everyone one more time and express his gratitude to them for their hospitality and friendship these last six months.

Dean and I were then given more gifts—a traditional woven bag, made by the Rural Training Center students;

welcome lays and “lavalavas” (dyed cloth) presented to us by students from Isabel Island, symbolically welcoming us to their island since Dean wasn’t able to travel to that island and visit in person during his time in the Solomons.

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They then sang us a song as we listened – the volume and tight harmonies that eight Melanesians can achieve—never formally trained in singing, with little practice, and with no choir director—is astounding!

And before the event ended, everyone formed a line to shake hands with us and say goodbye.

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Dean and I with the Hicks family, my hosts for the weeks I was in Airahu and missionaries based there, with their friend Josephine, after she’d presented me with the gift of the shell necklace I’m wearing.

Until next time, Airahu. We won’t forget you!

A huge answer to prayer during Dean’s missionary assignment in the Solomon Islands was multiple opportunities to preach and to teach theology cross-culturally. These are areas that Dean has wanted to explore, and he was given the chance to do just that. It was a privilege for me to get to see him teach and preach in the several weeks I was with him at Airahu at the campus of Trinity School for Theology and Ministry, which also houses a Rural Training Center.

First, he spoke at the school’s student retreat which happens at the start of each new trimester. It was the last time he’d address them as a visiting lecturer. He spoke on the theme for the trimester, chosen by the principal—“Faithful to the end.” Considering Dean was wrapping up his 6-month missions assignment there in Airahu, it was fitting that he would speak on it!

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Rural Training Center students

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Students and staff of Trinity School for Theology and Ministry

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The view of the Airahu campus from the steps of the chapel

And then, Dean was given the opportunity to preach for the morning service his last Sunday at Airahu.

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After only hearing about his previous preaching experiences, it was a huge privilege for me to get to hear him in person for the first time. Both times, he was speaking entirely in Melanesian pijin! (There are enough words that are the same as English that I could generally follow the gist of what he was saying!)

That Sunday, along with the other Sundays I was at Airahu, also gave me the chance to experience Melanesian worship services. At the Airahu campus, the Anglican liturgy is followed, though students come from a variety of denominational backgrounds. A lot of the liturgy is in English, the official language of the Solomon Islands. For those of you interested in hearing what some of the worship sounds like and following along in the prayer book, click on the following links for a few clips:

Dean and I arrived back in the US a few days ago. It’s good, albeit cold, to be back.

Since I left the US last July from the East coast, traveling east to West Africa; and then traveled east from there to the Solomon Islands; and then traveled east from there back to the East coast of the US… I guess that means I went around the world in 237 days!

That’s a lot of protection and faithfulness to praise God for. Here’s hoping for a bit more stability in 2018!

Little did I know that visiting Dean in his missionary assignment in the Solomon Islands would involve my symbolic “purchase” as his future bride by a local Melanesian family that had grown to see Dean as their son.

In the Solomon Islands, it is customary for a bride price to be given to the family of the wife-to-be by the family of the husband-to-be. The currency they use is “red money” or shell money. At one time, this currency made of shells collected from the floors of lagoons was the only currency. Now that paper money has been introduced, the shells continue to be used as currency almost solely for bride price negotiations.

The shells are collected from the ocean, then sanded down into small disks that can be strung, and then the long strings tied by ten into heavy lengths of the stuff. One long length of ten strands of shells is “one shell money.” One costs from 800 to 1200 Solomon Island dollars (roughly $115-170). The craft is a slowly-dying one; fewer and fewer people know the intricate process of sanding and stringing. The value of shells varies depending on how deep people have to dive to collect that particular color of shell. The red shells are found the deepest and therefore are the most valuable, hence the name “red money” for the shell currency.

A bride price negotiation is an extended family and friend affair. In the exchange, family members and friends are called on to add their shell money to the man’s parents’ stock of shell money, which will make official the intended union of the man and woman. In the social networks of Melanesians, people keep track of who contributed to their own or their son’s bride price gift, because they know they will need to, in turn, contribute to their and their sons’ bride price negotiations. Different Melanesian ethnic groups have different standards of an appropriate number of “red money” for a bride price. For the Kwara’ae people in the area near where Dean worked on the island of Malaita, it is 5-10 (again, each one costs $115-170). For the Lao people in the north part of Malaita, it is common to exchange 30 or more!

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Father Mike is a Melanesian Anglican priest and on staff at Trinity School of Theology and Ministry at Airahu Training Center on the island of Malaita. This is where Dean has been on staff since last August as a visiting lecturer. Mike and his wife Connie befriended Dean from the start of his time in Airahu.

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What a privilege for me to meet Mike and Connie! And what an unexpected honor for them to present Dean with one shell money, to symbolically participate in his “buying” of me as his wife.

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After joining them for dinner, Mike explained to Dean that his family had grown to love him as a son and would miss him and that before we left, he wanted to contribute to “buying” me as Dean’s wife.

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Father Mike holding one shell money. You can see the 10 long strands of shells that make up one shell money.

He expressed that he knew shell money meant nothing in the US, where we were going back to, but that this was how Melanesians showed the bond that connects people. And so, he explained, he still wanted to give Dean a shell money to symbolize the connection between them. He then draped it around Dean’s neck.

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What a humbling gift to receive, and so meaningful!

I made it to the Solomon Islands where I am discovering my fiancé Dean’s world of the past 6 months. What a privilege!

I’ve met members of Dean’s Melanesian host family:

I’ve seen Dean’s agricultural work:

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Dean in the multi-functional structure he built to serve as both nursery and pergola for growing vine vegetables

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Part of Dean’s contour farming where he has designed a system of cultivation in order to guide the rain water through the garden and thus make best use of the tropics’ abundant natural irrigation

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peanuts, cassava, taro, kumara (sweet potato), banana, papaya…

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Dean’s farming has also made the land even more beautiful!

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Dean explains his implementation of the “banana circle,” a tropical permaculture design he’s made wide use of here

I’ve sampled some tastey local foods, some of which Dean has been growing himself (including below, grilled fish, cassava-and-banana “pudding,” and fresh coconut):

And I’ve been taking in the tropical beauty of the campus of Airahu’s Trinity School for Theology and Ministry (its chapel below), Dean’s home since August and where he has been on staff.

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Five days from now, I’ll be somewhere in transit on my way from West Africa to the Solomon Islands. My fiancé Dean and I are beyond excited to be reunited after over six months of separation with limited communication. I admit, that is at the forefront of my mind!

But five days from today I will have also closed a 4-year chapter in West Africa, where I have worked as a single missionary since my arrival in February 2014. Dean and I are interested in coming back here as a married couple and continuing in missions work here. But only time will tell and only God knows if my departure on Sunday is a “goodbye” or “see you later.”

When I told Dean I’d marry him, many months (spanning multiple years) of spiritual discernment had preceded. I’d had to discern if God was calling me to marry Dean. I have never assumed I would, should, or could marry. I tend to believe that we should treat marriage more as a specific calling from God, rather than as a default status that most of us will eventually enter into. And so, whether or not I should ever marry, and then whether or not I should marry Dean, were causes for much wrestling with God.

Paradoxically, the fact that Dean is interested in working overseas made the decision harder for me. You see, if a man didn’t want to work overseas, the answer was easy for me – I wouldn’t marry him. And I’d carry on as a single missionary with only one person’s factors and uncontrollable circumstances (that is, my own). Barring things like my health forcing me to return to the US or getting kicked out of a country or God making it clear in some other unforeseen way that He was calling me back to the US, I’d carry on as an overseas missionary.

But a man like Dean who was open to work overseas brought a new dilemma. Being someone that I highly respect, had grown to love, and felt compatible with, Dean was someone I was very interested in marrying. And his interest in work overseas was not giving me the red light that would have otherwise kept the conversation from going further.

And yet I realized that marriage to him would inevitably open the door to new possibilities and additional sets of uncontrollable circumstances. It would open a new door to “the best and the worst.” Marrying him would obviously mean the end of my work as a single missionary, which would mean at least a temporary departure from West Africa. And after that, none of us have any guarantees. Even as Dean and I hope and plan to return overseas, possibly even to the country I’ve been working in, I knew that when I married him, I’d have to be at least willing to give that up if God chose to lead that way.

And after all, there have never been any guarantees all along. I’ve always needed to be willing to give that up if God would lead that way. I knew that the day might come even as a single missionary that God would ask me to give up overseas work as a missionary. I chose not to think about that much, and I often chose to mistakenly believe that I was more in control of staying in overseas missions since I was single and was dealing with only my own factors! But I knew deep down that God would always lead as He chose.

Thankfully, God has led in a way where I didn’t have to choose between overseas missions and marrying Dean. At least from this vantage point, God in His gracious kindness seems to have given me both. What an undeserved gift!

And so, I have sensed God’s calling to overseas work since I was a child. And now God is also calling me to marry Dean.

I’ve been spending my last couple weeks in this country in the capital city as I wrap things up – my literacy research, my relationships here, the belongings I’ve accumulated. One of the few perks of the noisy, crowded city is its location on the coast which affords long beach walks. I was recently enjoying one such walk with a dear friend and colleague. We were reflecting together on both our imminent departures. Hers comes after nearly 14 years here, living here in the capital city and mostly loving it and thriving here. Me, after 3 years (broken up) of living in the country and learning to love it because I knew God had brought me here.

She fell in love with this city and never thought she’d be leaving now. I had learned to thrive in this country, though had never fallen in love with it as she had, and I also never thought I’d be leaving now (nor certainly getting married!). And yet neither of us feels like we’re making that difficult of a move; the time is right, and we each feel in our respective situations that God has lined things up to show us that.

As we reflected together, we realized how often God graciously works that way in our lives. The change that you could only imagine with confusion and dread a few years ago, today seems normal, right, and a good next step. Sometimes what God is asking us to do today, we couldn’t have imagined accepting a few years ago. But in the interim, He has done the work in us and around us to lead and guide us and prepare us to follow. He does the necessary changing in us so that what we once would have fought and feared, we now accept when He asks us.

And we all have our unique sojourns. Sometimes what God is asking someone else to do, we can’t imagine accepting. Meanwhile, God is asking us to do something that the other person couldn’t imagine accepting.

It’s all a wondrous mystery really. Seasons change, even callings change, and God stays the same as He leads through it all.