Life In the Restoration Business

Did I tell you guys I’m leaving for Africa in ten days? Well technically, I’m leaving for Madagascar – the island nation off the southeast side of the continent, near Mozambique. We’re leading a team of 10 to the Africa Mercy. They’ll stay for years, I’ll be back at the end of March.

Here’s what Madagascar looks like through the lens of our amazing ship photographer Ruben Plomp.

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I know. Torture. Right? Photo Credit: Ruben Plomp

As some of you know, I work for Mercy Ships an organization that runs the largest, non-governmental hospital ship in the world. Since last fall, the ship has been docked in Madagascar providing free surgeries – orthopedics, cleft palate, fistula repair and tumor removal – for people who lack access to such care. We’re in the restoration business and here’s just one of the amazing stories that came off the ship last week.

tumorCan you imagine the shame and rejection that comes with being a little boy with a huge cyst? Zakael can.

A few weeks ago, a guy named Mr. Sambany came to us with a 16 lb. tumor on his head and neck that he’d carried for almost 20 years. He walked three days to get to the ship. While our surgeons reviewed with him the dangers of removing such a large tumor, Mr. Sambany said he knew he might die, but he was already a “dead man” for the way he is treated.

Here he is post surgery.

Sambany We’re in the restoration business.

The surgeons, nurses, cooks, physical therapists, engineers, teachers who work on the ship are not just volunteers, they actually pay Mercy Ships to donate their time and skills. Most ask their communities for financial support to do it. What’s cool about that is, you can stay home and support someone working in Madagascar.  You can bring hope and healing to Mr. Sambany and Zakael from Kansas.

But when Christmas day looks like this in Madagascar, why would you stay in Kansas? If you want to help us in person. You can do that too.

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Crew in Santa hats! Photo Credit: Ruben Plomp

But if you decide to volunteer on the Africa Mercy long term, ten months or more, you get to come to Texas first for training.

And that’s where you will run into me.

They call me The Meddler.

They call me The Meddler.

Because it’s hardly just people with tumors and burns and birth defects that need hope and healing. There is so much broken in all of us, and where else in your life does anybody look you in the face and say:

“Do you realize your mouth is working against you?”

“Are you aware that what you heard as a child, contradicts what Jesus says about you?”

“Don’t you know who you are as a child of God? You are beloved, redeemed, precious, alive, whole, seated with Him, hidden in Him.

As a Jesus follower, I’m staking my life on this information, and the result has been radical and interesting. Stay tuned for the next month or so, and I’ll show you what I mean.

In Haiti last July, one of my team members asked what I get out of being away from Sam so much and traveling to hot, hard, sometimes dirty places with Christians who are in one moment really holy and in another totally freaking out.

“I get to watch God change your lives,” I said. I get to be in the restoration business too.

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Thoughts From the Ranch.

There’s a place on the ranch I’ve photographed more times than I can ever count. This is it.

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I lived here for six years and watched the seasons change that field like the Lord expects us to change – from glory to glory in ever increasing measure. But even now, every time I try to capture it, to own it by putting it in words or photographs, it slips through my hands and breaks my heart with yearning.

When it comes to me and the ranch, the only thing I can have is the moment we inhabit together and that, I think, is exactly how it is with God.

There is only now.

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But as ever, Ike is down the road on his backhoe and the neighbors are sipping cocktails. The bald eagles fish from the snag, and the sun outside Dodo’s warms the pines just like it has for the last hundred summers.

When the sun hits their ruddy, old bark, their fragrance is so subtle and fine, it’s almost hard to take, but if I stop to breathe it in, to capture it, it fades. The only way I get to smell it again is to walk slowly and appreciatively through the pine groves breathing normally and saying thank you.

The Psalmist says, in his presence is the fullness of joy. He didn’t say I could capture it like fireflies in a jar to save for later.

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The word of God and the mountains have helped me understand something I never did before:

You and I are just as much part of this creation as the peaks, the meadow grass and the rainbow trout with their dusky pink sides, but we’re the deeply beloved part that He made in his image. We forget that all the time, and maybe that’s why we snap so many pictures, and write so many words. It’s like we’re trying to remember something the daisies and the dragonflies never forgot.

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We are His, and each time the sunset drops a pink coverlet over the mountains, he is calling us back into the fullness of joy. His joy, right now, where he wanted all of us, all along.

Notes From Congo – Part II

Something that surprises me each time I return from an exotic place like Central Africa, is how dire people assume everything is there. They say things like “Wow, is that safe?” or “What a tremendous sacrifice you are making.”

Ahem. Ladies and gentlemen. CNN is lying to you, because frankly cold showers and spam pasta in the Republic of Congo are kind of awesome, and at times our recent field service there felt exactly like this weird statue in Nice, France.

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Yes, there are oversized, naked, ugly things happening in Congo and I don’t want to minimize that, but occasionally you can sneak in behind those things, sit on a fish and flip your hair. In other words, there is an abundance of hilarity, joy, irony and fun to be found even in hard situations, and that, I like to think, is the way of things in the Kingdom of God.

See Jesus didn’t promise us happy, he promised us full, which is different. And sometimes you’re walking back from the river when you accidentally recreate the Beatles Abbey Road album cover, and it’s funny and every bit as important as all the sad stuff.IMG_4206

So since I care about you guys, you need to know about this Nutella substitute. It’s sold in pretty much every tin shack shop lining the main drag in Impfondo, Congo. IMG_4621

Though it’s fairly expensive, it comes in mini size and hefty three-gallon lick tubs, which I felt spoke to its obvious popularity among locals. But I discovered, the post-purchase hard way, that this sticky brown crap in the little yellow tubs tastes exactly like Vaseline and dirt. So it’s lucky I only bought four. Everyone I forced to eat it agrees, it is a unique chocolate taste.

My digestive system and I have an agreement these days though, so I don’t mind befriending guys like this on the street and eating whatever that is in the middle, liberally covered with salt and MSG and wrapped in newspaper.IMG_3362 I ate it with gusto and so did my pal Ryan, even though there’s a good chance it’s made of a relative of these three, who were waiting in line for their turn to become BBQ.

IMG_3363Or it could have been made out this crocodile, after his ride in a crowded minvan. Actually, the crocodile was never inside the minivan, silly, he went on the roof for safety. But he totally could have gone inside because his mouth was tied shut with string.

Incidentally, crocodile does taste like chicken, chewy, fishy chicken.

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But enough about food, let’s talk about sweating.

Impfondo lies just north of the equator, on the Ouibangi river and is nearly swallowed by jungle. So, as you might imagine, working outside 9-10 hours a day there creates a remarkably moist personal environment. Even better, when you sweat like this, every drop of saturated fat you’ve ever consumed leaks from your pores. The medical terminology for this is “The Crisco Sweats.”

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The validity of this claim is still under review by Hospital staff, and there are more than a few naysayers, including Mama Sarah, the nurse in the red scrubs below. But what could she possibly know, she spends her days cleaning and bandaging the feet of local men afflicted with leprosy. Nonetheless, she stopped by to weigh in on the sweating question.

“Nope, sorry guys. Your fat is not coming out your pores.”

Dang.

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Do you see what we are doing in these pictures? We’re off loading gravel from Jupiter the Unimog – a beastly diesel Mercedes personnel carrier that blew a tire 100 feet from where we actually needed the gravel. Of course a Unimog not loaded to the top with gravel weighs two million pounds, so jacking it up to change the tire, even if there was a spare, which there wasn’t, is kind of a cruel joke. So this is what happened next.

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Back and forth, two million times.

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An exercise like this can really help you grasp how far you are from acting anything like Jesus.

Me: “Wow. It totally figures that Jupiter died 100 feet from where we need the gravel.”

Stefan: “I know isn’t it amazing it died ONLY 100 feet from where we need the gravel?”

Me: “Um yah. That’s what I meant. Excuse me, I’ll be over here, praying for myself.”

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I think sometimes when my life is boring it’s because I’ve neutered all the struggle right out of it. Approximately 100% of all tasks in Impfondo, require some form of struggle, sacrifice, endurance and/or sweat, not to mention a mess of other sweaty people nearby. And that, my friends, is what made evenings like this, swimming in the river under the full moon, indescribably beautiful.

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