My Mom = A Pine Tree

Over a century ago in the Occident, a movement was born to celebrate motherhood and mothers. In France, in 1906, a prominent citizen of a little known town organized a party honoring mothers on a Sunday in June. Two mothers received a prize and the town of Artas forever won the claim to being the birthplace of Mothers’ Day. (For reference, Wikipedia says that the US established Mothers’ Day in 1914 under Woodrow Wilson in part due to the consistent lobbying of Anna Jarvis of West Virginia.) It is celebrated the second Sunday in May for many nations but in France it is the last Sunday in May. Why? Not sure, but it affords me the opportunity to write about my favorite lady born in Europe.

It is not necessary to get overly philosophical on the subject of motherhood as its essential role in the continuation of the human race is evident and one needs no explanation of how a mother’s presence empowers one to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I would, however, like to take this moment on the European calendar to celebrate my own mother with one very bizarre simile.

My mom is like a pine tree.
Every plant has its way of responding to adversity. Pine trees, if they lose their central growing shoot will not sprout a new one from the stump but will let the next tallest branch take over the role of trunk. You can tell from the shape of a pine tree the trauma that it has experienced. My mom has survived being shot at, airlifted out of a conflict zone several times, being thrown into multiple different cultures and geographies, and a breast cancer diagnosis. Each time, she has continued to grow closer to God and if you ask me, she points straight to Heaven, directing the attention of those who know her upward.

Pine trees are also evergreens, which means that they do not lose their leaves in winter. They have several adaptations that enable them to survive in harsh conditions like the waxy cutin that covers their needles, stomata that can close to reduce moisture loss, and a kind of freeze-proofing process that means they can do photosynthesis even during winter. My mom is a bit like that. Though she certainly doesn’t like being cold, she has been productive in every season of life, true to her God-given design. She has at various times in her life been a political prisoner, refugee, nurse, teacher’s aide, volunteer coordinator, and missions administrative assistant. I love that she always finds a way not only to survive but to serve.

Conifers all produce sap. It is kind of like the blood of the tree. It carries nutrients up and down in the xylem and phloem (like the arteries and veins) from roots, trunk, branches, and needles. It is one of those features that allow the tree to avoid “hibernation” in winter. And if you’ve ever come in contact with my mom, you probably noticed that you left with a little residue of wisdom and affection still on you. She has spilled countless words of godly counsel on me (like helping me find my way into medicine, missions, and marriage to Michelle). And I know that as many wise words as she drops on me, she is sending dozens of heartfelt prayers up for me.

Yep, my mom is kind of like a pine tree.

Happy Mothers’ Day Mom!

my dad may have edited out the red of my post-international flight eyes

The Quarter Life Non-Crisis

in front of the Reformation Wall in Geneva
Christi and Michelle pose with four famous Swiss/French Reformers in Geneva

My sister-in-law, Christi, is an incredible woman. She has faithfully served in a small and ailing church in a rural community outside of Los Angeles. She has persisted in a job that had become increasingly stressful and domineering in the past year or so. She has done all of this while suffering recurrent bouts of physical discomfort brought on by a missions trip to SE Asia. As she prayed over her response, she concluded that she was to decrease certain commitments and increase others. So, with little fanfare, she committed to a Bible study at our church, Grace Community, quit her job, and took an extended break to visit Europe. All this with a minimum of drama.Often when someone faces down such changes in ministry, job, and life, it is accompanied by sleepless nights, long phone calls to friends and family, and lots of reading / counsel-searching.

in front of the United Nations European Headquarters
Christi and Michelle in front of the Geneva HQ of the UN

Why so little drama with Christi? Please indulge me with three observations.
First, changes in career and ministry profile don’t generate undue drama for Christi because she has a settled faith. The question of God’s sovereignty has already been answered for Christi. And she has seen His provision for years in her own family life. She trusts a good God who is in control of every circumstance.

The second reason these disruptions in externals do not translate to internal disruption is that Christi has already faced fear and survived transition. She moved several times as a kid, left for college, came back to finish college, studied abroad and served internationally. When she took a job, she was ready to learn its exigencies and protocols rather than assuming she already needed to know how to do it. The same applies to her new adventures.

Last in my list but not in real life, Christi has confidence in a safe landing pad. The Rose Family is tight-knit and extremely hospitable. It is hard to imagine any scenario in which Christi would not have adequate emotional and financial support to find new work and service.

Paris stretches out behind the Rose Sisters from the Eiffel Tour
Michelle and Christi in Paris as seen from the Eiffel Tour

I submit to you that the greatest human instrument through which this great theological training, navigation of life’s ups and downs, and haven of familial rest and support came was, in one person: Mom Rose.

Christi is the image of her mother and they share a great many traits and life experiences. It has been my privilege to see the strong and steady influence of Mom Rose on her two girls over these past few weeks as Christi has stayed with us. The character of the disciple is testimony to the faith of the discipler.

Be blessed Mom Rose! Happy Mother’s Day!

Shepherds Conference Snippet

Burton Michaelson poses with your missionary in front of Grace Community Church
Mr Michaelson handing out daily itineraries to conference guests
They call them “Burton’s Dogs” because he’s been so faithful at the grill
Mrs Michaelson is in center frame packing the hot dogs her husband grills

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.

A Stickler for Details

Carlan teaching
Carlan teaching a simple Gospel illustration to the medical students of Hope Africa University

“I am going to award you 10 points out of 20.” 

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

Dinner with the Directeur

The medical director & family

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.)

An Ode to Copper

Coppers look

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.