One year ago today I fell from a ladder. I broke my nose and a couple teeth and tore a gash through my lip & up through my nose. God provided amazing care at every step of the way, from the folks that came to my aide where I fell to my ER nurses who got me prepped for surgery to my colleagues who operated and provided anesthesia to all those who helped me and Michelle through the recovery process.
As I reflect on that harrowing ordeal, and many other, smaller interruptions to my plans for how best to serve Christ, our students, and our patients here in Kibuye, I come back often to one question:
My plan (continuous, constantly-improving productivity) seems so effective at accomplishing those good things I know God wants, how is His plan (stuttering progress, occasional “wastes of time”) an upgrade? Or, in other words, what valuable treasure has God hidden in these pauses, delays, and lapses of productivity?
I don’t have every answer or even the answer to any particular pause (e.g., what was the point in losing the screwdriver attachment to the cordless drill today on the way home from the shop where I made a bed frame for us, requiring >45 min of searching before Michelle finally found it on the side of the trail), but I like how the question keeps reorienting me towards God and His plans. It is, after all, a principle in safe surgery that the timeout before beginning allows you to verify you are about to perform the correct procedure on the correct patient. Or, as one author of many books on productivity writes, “make sure your ladder is leaning against the right tree before you start climbing.” 😉
Yet even beyond that, it compels me to repent again of thinking that somehow the realization of God’s plans for individuals, families, & communities depends on me. God doesn’t NEED me…yet He is pleased to use me. The interruptions reveal the generous grace of God. He includes us in His work not from necessity, but from benevolence. And now every time you see my crooked smile, you too can be reminded of the God who delights in building beautiful things with broken tools.
Luke 22:39-46 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
The Pandemic of 2020 is reaching its peak in the US just as we approach the celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. In this time of profound disruption and chaos, anticipating even more as the caseload climbs and more fellow humans around the world succumb to the ravages of this disease, my thoughts turned to the above passage from Luke (my personal favorite because he was a physician/historian/missionary). I appreciate the picture of Christ’s humanity that it reveals. I’ll mention just three elements that attract my contemplation:
(1) Jesus had habits. Apparently, when he was in Jerusalem, he would often go across the Kidron Valley to pray in the gardened slope of the Mount of Olives. As his band of followers drew ever closer to the greatest trial of their lives, their Shepherd led them into a familiar rhythm of prayer. It was this regular evening prayer time (foreshadowed by Daniel’s example before the lion’s den) that gave Judas Iscariot the confidence he needed to lead the mob to arrest Jesus.
(2) Jesus knew the fatigue of sorrow. He understood how overwhelming grief can exhaust the will and drain one’s spiritual and emotional energy. He knew that temptation to passivity in the face of catastrophic loss and even warned his follows not to give in. He knew what was coming, he anticipated the threat to his disciples’ faith, and he gave them the tool they needed to face it: prayer.
(3) Jesus was scared. He knew that betrayal, torture, isolation, false accusations, rejection, crucifixion, and death would hurt. He wished for another way. The super-human stress that he faced caused him to sweat blood and required an angelic paramedic to assist him. Yet his response in the whole affair was at once familiar and profound: he prayed. He opened his heart to his Father and bowed his will to the Sovereign of the Universe.
There is a mix of emotions for anyone going into battle, facing a real (albeit small in my case) threat of death. I think I have felt them all even if I lack the vocabulary to describe them. And though I read, study, worry and fret more than I fall on my knees in prayer, I find that it truly is the antidote to fear and the oil in the lamp of faith. Because somehow, deeper still than the dread of loss and the paralysis of sorrow’s chaos, there is love. Love bids me onward, forward, and always upward.
(This post was written just over a month ago but never made it to publication. It still very much describes my experience here.)
I love being a professor. Actually, that statement is too narrow. I love being a teacher.
There’s the selfish part. Feeling like you know one subject more thoroughly than another is nice. The pride that rises up when a student asks a question and you find exactly the right way to explain it. The respect you receive from others.
Though I would have to say, for each of those, my experience as a med school professor in Burundi gives counter-examples. Emergency medicine is intrinsically general. In residency one professor used to joke that we knew “the first 15 minutes of every specialty” but little beyond that. The majority of questions posed to this professor are not met with sparkling illustrations and inspired syntheses but with fumbling attempts to cobble together the French vocabulary I have to explain a concept that exists in my mind only in English. And when you say something off-handed that turns out to be a cultural faux pas and offend all of your students simultaneously without knowing it for a week…well, let’s just say that “respected professor glow” disappears.
In the last few weeks I’ve experienced all of the above while preparing and teaching a course on Traumatology. Every career and every job has its ups and downs. Everyone starts out incompetent in their job and builds that competence over years of making and learning from mistakes. Yet I find that the stresses and strains of researching and writing curriculum and diffusing those lessons in the clinical and classroom contexts resonates with something in me. Watching students who struggle to put disparate observations into a larger schema finally “get it” when you ask them the right question to unlock their own curiosity and logic is the unique privilege of teachers. Seeing your students acquire competency more quickly than you did carries no spite or jealousy but joy and a vicarious sense of accomplishment.
Yet what I cherish most is not building knowledge or skills into my students. That is not the best part.
These students come from various walks of life. Some are the children of rural villagers whose whole communities have sacrificed to send one child to university. Others have had the advantages of excellent primary and preparatory schools and educated parents. Some are local and some are from neighboring countries. They are atheist, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, and a host of other worldview backgrounds that I do not even always know. They have different natural aptitudes and varying degrees of discipline or drive. They are different characters.
And that is the best and hardest part of being a professor. Teachers carry a responsibility to shape the character of their students. Will my pupils have better character because of their time with me? How can I reach in and influence their hearts? How do I prepare a curriculum for that?
In Matthew 23:8-12, in the midst of a scorching rebuke of the pastors and professors of His time, Jesus tucks these gems into the discourse.
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
I’ve been reading the Bible as a Christian for over 20 years. I’ve read through the Gospel of Matthew unnumbered times in the course of those years. I remember the “rabbi” part. I remember the “father” part. But somehow that “instructor” clause escaped my notice until last week when I was in the midst of preparing and teaching the traumatology course.
It turns out that the best and hardest part of my job just got better and harder. I am supposed to have good character. I am to be humble. Patient love will need to characterize my preparations and interactions. I’m also going to need to drop my title.
BUT…look at the positive of what Jesus said. We have a teacher. We have a Father. Christ, the Promised One, is our instructor. !!!
Somehow the way to be an effective and productive professor just joined the pathway to being a good anything else : point self and others to Jesus.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.