A little over a week ago the 2017 Shepherds Conference at Grace Community Church finished up having welcomed over 2500 men from around the US and world to Sun Valley, California for a week of teaching and refreshing fellowship. I cannot recount to you all the stories of providential meetings with various friends from bygone days or the inspiring messages from great scholars and students of the Word…but I would like to highlight one faithful family. Burton Michaelson is a founding members of Grace Community Church and his construction company built many of the church buildings including the main sanctuary where Michelle and I were married.
But at 87 years old, he and his bride, Dolores, are still building up the church in Los Angeles and beyond. He was already on campus at 6:30 AM just to hand out little flyers with the day’s schedule on it to attendees as they entered campus (see photo). And for lunch he helped grill hundreds (if not thousands) of hot dogs so that people could grab a quick bite in between sessions.
Last month I wrote about Grandpa C. and the legacy he left me of faithfulness to the end. In 1 Corinthians 4:1-2 Paul writes to a church that had lost their confidence in him, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” The Michaelsons certainly demonstrate how to be about their Lord’s work even in their golden years.
Last weekend Michelle and I visited some family friends in a city called Bourg-en-Bresse. These are families that knew my mom’s parents while they were missionaries in France. I recorded one of their stories in a newsletter sent at the same time as this post. If you are not yet receiving those newsletters and would like to, please request an add here.
Grandma C : My mom’s mom died of leukaemia when I was quite young, so I do not have many of my own memories of her. It was, therefore, a joy and an adventure to hear these long-time friends recount stories of things she had done or impacts she had made. A lot of the stories her friends told me were of meals she hosted in their apartment including “tuna rolls” which were not, as our California readers might suppose, sushi, but rather a baked dish wherein canned tuna was spread over a strip of dough that was subsequently rolled up and baked with white sauce. I’m imagining a cinnamon rolls but with tuna instead of raisins, sugar & spices in the middle. If that doesn’t sound appetizing, rest assured, it went over well with the French woman who copied the recipe and served it to her own family.
It seems that Grandma C also had a lot of space in her life for others. Another woman from the church told me that she deeply appreciated Grandma’s mid-week lunches. She would have one or more women from the church over to eat, talk, study and learn together. What struck this woman, now a grandmother herself, was how often Grandma was asking questions. “What do you think about this? How would the French respond to this situation? How could one explain this idea to someone with a different background?” This woman found such curiosity endearing and disarming.
I think that one of the chief advantages we get for living abroad is seeing how another group of people respond to the universal difficulties and challenges of life. Ironically, it is in requesting those insights that we get the chance to confer some of the that benefit on our friends from other cultures. But that humility seems a prerequisite and truly stood out to this dear friend even thirty years after Grandma died.
Grandpa C : One of my favorite anecdotes about Grandpa C from our time with these families in Bourg-en-Bresse has to do with bananas. There was a time after my grandma died that my grandpa stayed in the home of another family from their church. One afternoon one of this family’s children offered Grandpa an overripe banana, perhaps in an overly aggressive way (as children sometimes do). Grandpa’s exact response escaped the hearing of the boy’s mother, but the child quickly left to entertain himself outside or elsewhere. Afterwards she asked my grandpa about the bananas and he replied, “I’m terribly sorry, but even the smell of overripe bananas doesn’t agree with me.” I’m not sure I got the quote right, but it really touched her how gentle he was even in expressing a negative opinion. (We speculated that it might have had to do with the time he spent as a hostage in Congo or his service as a submariner in WWII.)
“He helped us repair our house.”
“He’s the one who put up this wallpaper. Look, it has lasted 30 years without peeling.”
“He knew how to get anything working again.”
“He taught me a lot about gardening. I still have the tools he gave me when he left.”
“When they left on furlough, they let a struggling young woman stay in their house.”
“I never, ever saw him get angry or lose his composure.”
These are just some of the testimonies given about Grandpa and the impression he left on people. In some ways, it strikes me just how ordinary most of those memories seem. Home improvement and maintenance. Sharing hobbies. In many ways I grew up thinking of the grand adventures Grandpa C must have had – the travails of growing up on a farm during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, the trials of Navy life in the Pacific theatre in the 1940s, the turmoils of bringing your wife and young daughter to Zaire/Congo and evacuating them multiple times during the struggle for Independence and then civil war. But his most indelible impact seems to have been in all those daily moments, compounded over a lifetime, of loving his neighbors. It is a special heritage to me that his legacy should be at once so attainable and so aspirational.
Why would a language school require all students to give their testimony in French in front of the entire student body?
Because it’s good for us.
How many times did you hear that phrase or a similar phrase growing up? Eat your vegetables. Play outside. Do your chores. There is something about doing what you would rather not in order to get to a result that you would like. Perhaps nowhere is that more tangibly, palpably demonstrated than public speaking in a foreign language.
Michelle just completed her first address to the student body in French. It was fantastic! She presented herself, her spouse (me), and the work in Burundi. She then told the story of how she bought her mahogany Kawai baby grand piano after graduating CSUN. Like so many stories of God’s grace, it falls into three parts, the prayer, the pause and the piano. OK, maybe not all stories of God’s grace end with a piano, but so this one does. Here’s an abridged transcript of what Michelle said in French.
“After graduating from CSUN, my dad gave me a gift of $5000 to buy a new piano. I searched through ads and in musical instruments stores. The shop owners would just laugh when I told them I was looking for a baby grand (my old piano had jagged keys that sometimes cut my fingers when I played it) and quickly ushered me to the back of the store where the upright pianos were. The best I could figure, I needed at least $7000 to buy a baby grand.
Then, one day, I came across what seemed like a good possibility. One shop had a black baby grand piano for sale within my price range. The salesman said that I needed to buy it on the spot, as there was another woman interested in the piano. Feeling rushed, I called my dad who advised me to pray about it before buying it. I told the clerk I needed the night to pray about it and when I called the next morning, the other customer had already purchased it. Months went by without anything better.
Had I passed up God’s provision? Sure it didn’t have the best sound, the action was heavy and it was boring black. I prefer natural wood colors. But it was the only baby grand I had seen in my price range. Until one fateful day when I saw an ad in the paper. “Baby grand piano. Good condition. $6000.” It was extremely brief but something in me told me to call on this piano. The seller invited me to come check it out. When I arrived, we went inside his deceased mother’s house and pulled a heap of blankets off a beautiful mahogany baby grand. Opening the cover I found the felt still on the keys. The tone was remarkable. The action was crisp and light. I was delighted. This was an excellent piano.
He showed me the paperwork that accompanied the piano. His mother had been the original owner. What’s more, it had been constructed in the year of my birth. And even more, he said that during the Northridge earthquake a speaker had fallen off a shelf and scratched the back of the lid. He wanted to reduce the price so that we could fix it. (Later I visited a piano store just to check on what this piano would sell for in their store. The vendor’s estimate: $25,000!)
This is how God works. He is good and He is in control. He knew all the pianos in the area and He directed me to that one in His time. He doesn’t always say ‘yes’ but He is always the same.
In the midst of language school here in Albertville France, we had the opportunity to participate in a Christmas concert put on by the local church and in partnership with the local town Mayor and held Albertville’s concert hall.
It was a first for the church so we weren’t sure how many people would even come. After months of planning, rehearsing and practicing the concert day came. The concert hall was almost filled (300-400) with an eager crowd, many of whom had heard about the concert by the many flyers put up around town:
Michelle played an original piano arrangement of Carol of the Bells and also accompanied the other singers. Michelle and our teammate Greg Sund accompanied a beautiful arrangement of Angels From The Realms Of Glory written by Dan Forest for 4 hand piano, cello and vocals.
It was a 2 hour concert of both classical and contemporary Evangelical Christmas music. The concert had a warm reception and we were called back for two encores!
Here is the group of musicians: 4 pianists, a cellist, percussionist, 3 vocalists, a bass player, and a guitarist.
But the unsung heroes of the concert were the behind the scenes people, one of which was Carlan. He was assigned the job of doing all the lighting. This involved him climbing scaffolding and making his own filters for all the lights. Here he is working hard during one of the rehearsals.
On the day of the concert, during the last rehearsal God answered prayer by providing a dress for Michelle to wear, lent by a kind member of the church, perfectly her size!
Thank you all for your prayers! It is so fun being a part of what God is doing here in this corner of the world! (Enjoy a 14 sec clip from backstage. We will link to more when it becomes available.)
Nous sommes arrivés en août et ont été occupés immediatement. Ok…now back to English:-) We arrived in late August and hit the ground running. Our goals for this year are for Carlan to continue his French language acquisition and for me (Michelle) to learn as much French as possible for life in Burundi. The day after arriving we took our placement tests and then started classes the following day, and it hasn’t slowed down since. Carlan is in the most advanced class and I am in the debutante class.
Our weekly routine usually looks like this:
Monday: class all day / homework in the evening
Tuesday: class all day. In the evenings I attend a local art class where I can practice my French and learn painting. Once a month Carlan attends a continuing medical class
Wednesday: day off / study day / get out and enjoy the mountains / music practice for Sunday
Thursday: class all day / every two weeks we attend a French Bible study
Friday: class all day / date night
Saturday: study day, take weekend exam
Sunday: day of rest / once a month I play the piano at our local French church and Carlan works the sound board.
I have also had the opportunity to arrange some Christmas music and lead our student body in choir practices leading up to our graduation performance on December 16th. Also, on December 17th I will have the opportunity to be a part of a Christmas concert held at a local concert hall.
We would appreciate and covet your prayers!
That our minds would retain the onslaught of information we are learning each day
That the Christmas concert would be a blessing to many people
That we would have the strength needed for living abroad and learning a new language
We are adjusting well thus far
God has given us opportunities to serve our local church and community
I could see their faces fall as the impact of my grading statement landed in their hearts. In the Belgian system we have borrowed and adapted at Hope Africa University, 12/20 is passing. They had clearly fallen short.
As I reviewed the breakdown of their scores with them, these three Burundian medical students became increasingly aware that their failure to pay attention to the details had cost them points on their presentation of “Hematuria” (blood in the urine). In all fairness, theirs had been a pretty average presentation: data dutifully copied from some paper or online sources, slides hastily constructed at the last minute because other things were more pressing until the day before they presented and relatively little interaction with the audience. But what really got me were the errors in spelling, grammar & formatting. Every slide was a minefield of minor inattentions that conspired to distract from what they were saying. They lost 3 points on that basis alone.
If you ask my teammates, I’m the most likely to fail a student or a group. I don’t think that I am mean-spirited or domineering at heart (maybe every tiny tyrant thinks that they are being just). I simply expect better from students in a doctoral program. I fail people out of fear and out of hope.
I fear the consequences of allowing students to get by with minimal last-minute effort. I fear what happens if we reward inattentiveness at any level in their medical training. I fear the prospect of releasing even one single graduate into the world as a doctor when they aren’t ready to shoulder the burden and discipline of caring for another human being’s life.
I hope that holding a higher standard will drive these students towards excellence. I hope that they will take my feedback and do better the next time. I have to believe that they are capable of growing and developing into proficient teachers of themselves and others because I’m betting the farm that they are the next generation of medical educators.
I am reminded of a story about Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State demanding excellence out of his aides and ambassadors. The following is a quote from Winston Lord who was Ambassador to China (1985-9) and Assistant Secretary of State (1993-7) as interviewed by George Washington University in January 1999.*
I would go in with a draft of the speech. He called me in the next day and said, “Is this the best you can do?” I said, “Henry, I thought so, but I’ll try again.” So I go back in a few days, another draft. He called me in the next day and he said, “Are you sure this is the best you can do?” I said, “Well, I really thought so. I’ll try one more time.” Anyway, this went on eight times, eight drafts; each time he said, “Is this the best you can do?” So I went in there with a ninth draft, and when he called me in the next day and asked me that same question, I really got exasperated and I said, “Henry, I’ve beaten my brains out – this is the ninth draft. I know it’s the best I can do: I can’t possibly improve one more word.” He then looked at me and said, “In that case, now I’ll read it.”
Mastery comes slowly and requires effort. I know I’m not the smartest or most gifted educator, even on our team, but I want to get better at providing feedback and setting clear expectations upfront so that students can excel – because in a small sense, any time I give a student a failing grade, I’m giving myself a failing grade. I can’t take on their work ethic or procrastination as a personal defeat, but these kids are capable, intelligent and generally diligent. If they know the standard, they usually rise to it. They’ve just been allowed to stagnate in mediocrity because the system they’ve come through to get to us provides so little formative feedback and followthrough. We are (and I am) happy to stem that tide.
Please pray for our professors and students, that God would grant grace and clear communication across linguistic and cultural boundaries to best prepare them for a lifetime of serving Him and patients. Thanks.
(PS: I gave them a chance to regain those points by revising their presentation and remastering the content. I’m proud to say that they made big strides and ended up with a 12/20.)
* http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/coldwar/interviews/episode-15/lord1.html, accessed 22 June 2016
Life in Africa is much like how life used to be 70 years ago. Food is organic and most of our meals are made from scratch. During our most recent trip to Burundi (June 2016) we made fresh pasta topped with our own freshly made pasta sauce. Thanks Shay for the pasta maker! And thanks Elise and Maggie for being two very eager and helpful sous-chefs!
Joys of cooking in Africa:
Everything is totally organic and fresh!
Creativity is the name of the game.
Bananas are plentiful and amazing…so are pineapples and avocados!
Challenges of cooking in Africa:
Water pollution. Even washing veggies takes extra effort.
Power outages. Sometime you can’t open the refrigerator or start the crockpot.
Lack of food variety and bugs that like the food too!
Next time: What nonperishable food to bring from the States that they don’t have in Africa:
Spices and bouillon.
Anything chocolate: Cocoa powder, brownie mixes, chocolate chips etc.
Tuna and canned meats.
A variety of teas. Burundi sells tea…but only one type of black tea.
Dr Wilson BIZIMANA, wife Jeanine & son Jolison in 2015
“When we received your invitation we thought that there would be five or six other people here,” reported Dr Wilson BIZIMANA, medical director of Kibuye Hope Hospital. “But when I got here, I found that it is just my family. Why have you thus honored us?”
The humility implicit in that statement is only one of the reasons why we admire Dr Wilson and love his family so much. He graduated from the University of Burundi in 2011 and took a risk by coming to work for Kibuye Hope Hospital upcountry. In 2013, the medical director resigned in a huff and the leadership of the church and of Hope Africa University (which own the land and direct hospital operations, respectively) appointed Dr Wilson as interim (then permanent) medical director. This rapid rise to responsibility is not too unusual in Burundian business, but what happened next is.
The next year, 2014, Dr Wilson was offered a government job back in the capital. These jobs are highly-coveted because, beyond the prestige, the pay is pretty consistent and the work hours are flexible (meaning you can hold multiple jobs simultaneously). Previously, 100% of our other employees had chosen the government job when offered. But Dr Wilson didn’t. His precise motives are his own, but given that his wife and son were living in the capital at that time, his decision to reject the government’s offer and move his family to Kibuye is a HUGE statement of confidence and hope in what God is doing in our community.
Dr Wilson is not a member of the Free Methodist Church of Burundi (he worships at another Protestant church in the area) and yet has maintained excellent professional and personal relationships with their hierarchy. He has navigated the hospital through major personnel and legal straits with minimal damage and he brings an air of calm, considerate leadership to the helm. His wife, Jeanine, just completed her bachelor’s degree in language pedagogy and teaches French and Kirundi to our team kids (and selves). They live with their son Jolison and one-on-the-way next to the McLaughlins and the school in our neighborhood.
The dinner was a big success, a crazy linguistic blend of English, French and Kirundi (good to have a couple language teachers at the table). We enjoyed hearing our Burundian counterparts’ story of falling in love and getting married as well as recounting our own. We enjoyed a delicious meal of rice and a modified ratatouille Michelle made. We even slaughtered our prized rooster to serve in a tomato sauce made by Carlan. (Read more about that rooster here.) We capped the night off by sharing some proverbs in different languages (classic Burundian conversation) and prayed for each other.
As you think of him, please pray for Dr Wilson and his family. He faces daily pressures to compromise and faces many discouraging realities. Join us in asking God to uphold him and endow him with the wisdom and grace each new challenge demands. Thanks.
(PS: They are due to deliver their second, a boy, by C-section in the middle of July.)
Rule #1 about receiving a gift chicken in Burundi: Smile broadly and be effusive with your thanks.
Rule #2: Do not name that chicken.
I’m afraid we violated Rule #2 within hours of receiving a “welcome back” chicken from one of our good friends in Burundi. Though his crow made him sound like he’d been smoking a pack a day for twenty years, he was a beautiful chicken. He had an almost metallic sheen to his burnished brown plumage with an emerald green tail and a near-perfect comb. He carried himself with the dignity and pomp of a cock without rival in the area around the Quadplex and even ran quickly enough to evade two Burundian men and two white women for 15 min. He was a good chicken.
But there comes a day in every Burundian rooster’s life when he is required to make the ultimate sacrifice so that others can eat. Copper’s day came one week ago when Dr Wilson and his family came over to eat with us. Michelle had already grown too attached to our laryngitis-striken alarm clock to stick around for his final rites, so Josias, one of the team house helpers, slaughtered and prepared the chicken. He tasted as good as could be expected served with a tomato sauce over rice and our guests were pleased and honored that we would sacrifice such a chicken for them. Well done Copper.
One of Michelle’s goals for our family is to raise chickens and/or goats (for milk) when we move back long-term, so we might need to get a little better at following Rule #2 in the future. Do you have any other rules to live by when you receive gift chickens? Comment below.
In February we had the privilege of attending and speaking at the M3 Mobilizing Medical Missions Conference in Houston. Here is a recap of our time at the conference.
The conference was brief (Friday-Saturday), but good and very encouraging. Each of the 4 plenary sessions were packed with at least 5 speakers doing a Ted-style talks (18 min). The breakout sessions were a bit more in depth. Carlan was the first main speaker for the conference and he did a great job. Thank you for all your prayers! Kibuye Hope Hospital, “our” mission in Burundi was one of the highlighted ministries of the conference and received a check for $10,000 from the conference sponsors at the end. Our Kibuye booth was busy the whole time and there are TONS of people interested in what we’re doing in Burundi. The holistic vision of what we are doing and the emphasis on team/community really attracted the interest of people from lab technicians, pharmacists, physical therapists, med students and a bunch of specialists in attendance. Praise God!
Below is a picture we had taken with Paul Osteen and his wife Jennifer.
Below is a picture taken during out of the breakout sessions. It was encouraging to see many medical students and residents with a heart for missions in attendance, and with many eager questions.
Below is a picture with Chrissy Chipriano, who flew out from Serge to help us man the booth. We couldn’t have done it without her! Behind us you can see the banners that Carlan designed himself.
It was a great experience connecting with those who are like-minded in their desire to use their gifts for the glory of the Lord and in His service. We really enjoyed reconnecting with Paul Osteen and his family and seeing their heart for missions and desire for the spread of the gospel. He had the speakers and their families over to his house for dinner before the conference started which was a rich time of fellowship. The evening ended with the group congregated around the piano singing Amazing Grace while Michelle accompanied.
While we were attending the conference, Carlan’s grandfather Del Carper went home to be with the Lord. We were saddened to be away from home but thankful that he is now free from pain and his faith is now sight! A few weeks prior we had the opportunity to visit him the day after his 91st birthday and to celebrate with a chocolate pudding pie (he had no remaining teeth at that point, probably due to his inclination to favor the sweet dishes on the menu 🙂 Before we left we asked him how we could be praying for him, and he said, “Pray that I will remain true to the Lord.” What a heart of faithfulness to the very end! We were so very thankful to have had this opportunity to visit him before he passed away.
Thank you all for your prayers! God answered in many ways!