Tuesday, February 20, 2018

“Almost everyone who met my wife quickly concluded that she was remarkable. They were right about this. She was smart, funny and a great teacher. Often, after working with her on an education project, people would approach me and say something to the effect of, you know, I think the world of you, but your wife, wow!” — Not a quote from me, but the words of a very famous man who knows exactly how I feel. Once when I met a new missionary here, he said, “Oh, I know you. You’re the husband of Mama Africa.” Yes, indeed and proud of it.

          Today I am remembering a 74-year-old woman who gave the vast majority of her life to the service of God and His children by teaching, loving, caring, and inspiring children from West Texas, to a Los Angeles ghetto, rural Arkansas, urban Boston, Hispanics and Marshallese students in Springdale, Arkansas, and in the East African bush.  I remember her, I honor her, I continue to live for her, I keep the school she began up and running, I continue to feed the three, four, and five-year-old orphans she brought here to learn and to be loved.  She was such a “good and faithful servant” for so many, many years that I stand in her spiritual shadow and will for the rest of my life.  I once wrote that she would never have a school named for her, but I did that myself.  This woman, my wife for over 52 years, loved, taught, and inspired thousands of children mostly under six years of age and from many states, ethnicities, and nations and taught them that they could be so much better than they thought they could.  A gifted portrait artist from the day I met her, she did portraits of every child she ever taught and gave them to them.  While I was recovering from surgery in Nairobi, she did portraits of the four daughters of the German missionary who did so much to help me and keep me alive.  She had them professionally framed and gifted to him after we had returned to Bunda.  Up until the day she died, she had kindergartners she taught decades ago following her on Facebook and constantly telling her what a major difference she had made in their lives.
               While she was teaching and serving, she was a loving and adventuresome wife willing to tackle almost anything and to go almost anywhere while being my best friend--to the very end.  She was a loving, nurturing, caring and creative mother to her three sons, and they freely acknowledge what she did for them and the gift of the love of life she gave them.  
                Gee, a wonderful wife and best friend willing to move from Texas to California to Arkansas to Massachusetts and back to Arkansas before moving to Africa—what a woman!  She was a loving and giving mother, and a servant of God and teacher and inspiration for thousands of both children and adults for over fifty years of her 74.  She was a mother for almost fifty years, a wife for almost fifty three, but a teacher for over fifty two years.  How do I honor in my memory such a woman who did so much for others?   She stayed up to date with all the latest news from science to changes in education and deserves to be on the cover of “Time Magazine” but would be embarrassed by the attention.  She loved Oprah and Ellen and was a big fan of Maya Angelou and Nelson Mandela.  And she was devoted to the little Tibetan Terrier named Sissie that was so devoted to her.  That’s my Karen Wiggins (Mama Africa), and while death took her from my daily life, it did nothing to our relationship which will remain strong and true as long as I still draw breath.  I love you, my sweet, and always will.  I suspect that I am not the only one who loved and loves “Mama Africa.”

Sunday, February 18, 2018

“The only courage that matters is the kind that gets you from one moment to the next.” ― Mignon McLaughlin

                Back in the sixties and seventies, a very popular saying and philosophy was “Carpe Diem!” which is Latin for “seize the day.”  Back then it was a way of saying “live for today” because who knows what will be coming tomorrow.  There was a whole school of poetry based around it to rationalize doing dangerous and daring things, especially involving sex.  The whole thrust of the thing was that if you died suddenly, you would never have had the exciting and thrilling adventures you would have if you would just “Seize the Day.”  They stole this from Christ who had a completely different meaning in mind when He said, “Consider the lilies . . .”  Christ was urging us to love others now and not wait until we were comfortably well off.  He was also urging us not to worry about the future but to put our trust in God—and we should.
                 Consider that Twelve-Step Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous are known for using the phrase “one day at a time.”  It’s nothing really new with them, but so many of us are always planning far down the road for ourselves, our spouses, our children, our work, and our churches that we frequently forget that all God ever gives us is “one day at a time.”  Jesus talked about it more than once, most famously in Matthew 6:25-34, in what I call the “consider the lilies” discourse.  No matter how much we want to live tomorrow today, we just can’t, nor can we relive yesterday.   After my last bout with this stomach infection, I have to put together seven days with no problems so the doctor will be happy, but after just two days, there were problems, so I am starting over—one day at a time—which is what I should have done from the start.  Of course we have to plan, we have to save, we have to prepare for things that are coming, but we can’t live any more than one day at a time no matter how frustrating that can be.  Alcoholics, and I know several who have been sober for over twenty years or more, still only focus on one day at a time because it only takes one day to fall off the wagon.  We can spend years building our reputations of integrity, honesty, decency, and righteousness, but it only takes a moment to tear it all down, irreparably.  There are examples aplenty, like Lance Armstrong, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, and many politicians and others whom we admired and held in high repute only to see their feet of clay bring them down—permanently.  My problem-free seven days is beyond my control, but how I live each of those seven days is completely within my control.  Every single day I must love others as myself (just like Karen did—God, I miss her), I must prove to be a neighbor to those I do not know, I must let kindness and peace rule my heart, and when I slip (as I frequently do), I must turn to another of those “twelve-step” devices and make amends wherever I can.  I must ask forgiveness of those I hurt and of God—and during the last thirty years or so, I have done just that.  It was not always so, but it is part of who I am now, how God has shaped and formed me since I became the clay in His potter’s hand.  Do this today: practice kindness, be slow to anger, quick to love, and look for the best in all those around you.  You only get today to do this.  Re-read Matthew 6: 25-34 and pay attention.  Read it aloud.  Read it to those you love.  Agree to practice it together.  I so dearly want to get my seven days without a problem, but I can only do one day at a time no matter how badly I want it otherwise.  Back when I was younger and climbed mountains in winter, I did what was called the “rest step” when at the higher altitudes that sapped your strength.  You just took one step, crunching the snow, rested a second, and then took the next one.  It seemed that I was making no progress at all, yet it was the only way I could reach the summit—and reach the summit I did.  Do the same with every day, just do that day, rest a bit, and then do the next.  It will take you to the top of Jacob’s ladder, to the very heights of heaven itself—one day at a time.  It works and Christ knew it and implored you to do it.  I’m going to do it today without Karen, so I'll be doing it alone unless you join me.  Please do.

Friday, February 16, 2018

“For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.” — Ernest Hemingway

           The story, probably not true but fun to think it so, is that Ernest Hemingway was having lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City (I’ve had lunch there with my oldest and someone asked him if I was famous) with some other writers and wrote those words on a napkin.  A novel in six words, he said.  A very sad novel.  The lost future, the probable lost marriage, the terrible waste of a life summed up in “Baby Shoes: For Sale.  Never Worn.”
             Equally sad are those who think because they have lived a long time and done much, that their lives really matter.  Like Mr. Potter, in Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” who serves as such a bad example of how to live your life.  In the end, he was just a selfish, lonely, and miserable man.  We all know, deep down, that it’s never about what you’ve done, who you know, how much you have, or how many love you.  It’s about who you are, how you live, and do you make life better for others or just yourself?
             I think about Karen’s life a lot since I was a part of it for over half a century.  She lived life, all of it, in ways that have always made me proud.  It’s why anger has never been a part of my grief, neither at God for wanting her, or her for leaving me behind.  She knew how strong I was, and God knew why I was still needed here.  One woman who wrote on Karen’s passing said that Karen was the first person to ever ask if she’d been saved—while they were both in high school.
           She was hand in hand with Christ as a child.  When I would drift away from God—so many times, she would look to Christ with tears in her eyes, and He would tell her not to be sad, that I would be back and that she would be proud.  And I did come back, and she was proud because she told me she was.
                   In the end, I became the kind of Christian she was—from the inside out.  Christ filled my soul and wasn’t just clothes I could put on or take off.  Christ lifted me above and beyond denominational description and made me a missionary to everyone.  Karen found the place that she knew God wanted her, and I went with her and still live my Christianity here, in Africa.  
              When Karen was in the third grade, she was asked to write a paper on a major theme (some teacher, eh?) and she chose Africa as her topic.  Perhaps a little ambitious for a third-grader, but then she ended her life in Africa living out her mission to children, especially orphans.

                She was a special wife, a special mother, a special teacher, and a special friend.  On her memorial stone are these words in Swahili:  “Anapenda kila mtoto” which means, “She loved every child.”  I truly believe her life, all seventy-four years of it, can be summed up in six very happy words:  “She Loved: Every Child.  They Knew.”

How sad for a man if when he dies, these are the words on his stone:  “He lived.  He died.  Few knew.”

How powerful six words can be.  

Christ Loved: All Others.  Do You?

Thursday, February 8, 2018

“The sound of our generator reminds me of God, really.” ― Me

              We must change the oil in our generator every time it runs for twenty hours or more.  We will be changing the oil today (with a new spark plug) for the fourth time in two weeks.  The power has been going on and off every day and even when it’s on, it may not be at full voltage or it may surge and throw all the breakers such that we have to run the generator even though the national grid has power.  Made me think about why we need to pray, get together with other Christians, read the Bible, and reflect on our actions as Christians.  None of us can run for as many as twenty hours without needing a little refreshing of our beliefs and actions based on those beliefs.  To live as an authentic Christian (I say “authentic” Christian because there are many who claim the name but live as if it is meaningless) takes some work.  Sunday Schools, church services, sermons, hymns that rekindle old feelings and new hymns that get your blood flowing—all are necessary.  Alcoholics Anonymous is successful (I think) because of the sponsors.  We all need someone to tell us that even though we have failed or been tempted we need to get back on track.  I still love Elie Wiesel’s nightly prayer, “So God, how’d I do today?  Did I make you proud or ashamed?”  We need stuff like that.  One of the things I miss most here are the early morning coffee and donut Bible studies with other men.  I went to two or three a week.  They were like AA meetings for me.  Even high tech things like Facebook can help.  On Facebook, I read Bible verses and see video clips of Christians in action that give me a lift (or make me cry or both) as well as seeing what churches around the country are doing.  Even writing my blog every day forces me to bring my religion into sharp focus on a daily basis.  We all need to change our Christian oil every twenty hours or so and sometimes need to add a new spark plug to help us get going again.  As wonderful as meditation and withdrawal can be, we live the kinds of lives that need positive daily interaction with God and His children.  A pastor friend of mine used to use her steering wheel as a kind of rosary.  The finger bumps on the back of the wheel were prayer points for her, and she would pray several prayers every time she drove (not with her eyes closed, though).  I thought it was such a neat idea that I started doing it (thanks Dee Dee).  I haven’t driven for many years now, so I use a cross on one of our walls as a kind of mezuzah (the thing Jews touch coming in and going out of their houses) to remind me to pray.  Of course, lately I can use every time the power goes off to remind me where the real power enters my life and soul.  We are all too blessed not to offer thanks every day and to ask for help getting through every day.  Prayer changes things, and that’s God’s truth.  Karen prayed for me every day, and I miss that.  I hope she’s still talking to God and saying good things about me.  As for you, talk to Him today . . . and listen, too.  He has something to say to you . . . every single day.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

“In times of adversity, you will realize who is there for you. The struggle is real and those who walk with you with love, are honorable true friends.” ― Angie Karan

                   I am now able to go back and reread the blogs I wrote right after Karen went to her eternal home.  What follows is the blog I wrote exactly one week after she died in my arms.  It spoke to me in a very special way, so I am reprinting here.  I hope it has special meaning for you, too.
                 "One of the most wonderful things about life are relationships.  This should not be news to any of you. However, it seems we do need to be reminded now and then that things, honors, awards, money in our bank accounts, the size of our houses, the titles on our office—things we think are important—aren’t.  When life hits you hard, you learn about relationships: the ones you didn’t know were so strong and the ones that weren’t what you thought they were.  When Karen fell, John and I tried calling anyone and everyone, but phones were off, or being charged, or out of minutes, and we just weren’t getting through to anyone.  Then John got on Facebook messenger and Samantha came immediately.  (Samantha Archer is an Australian Anglican missionary who with her husband and five children live near us and have been here for ten years.)  Having her here, a familiar, caring face with a soothing voice was a pearl beyond price.  A taxi driver we knew went to Shaban’s house since his phone was broken and brought him here.  Now doing things here in the middle of the night is not the same as other places.  It’s dangerous, there are no streetlights—it’s just damned different and difficult, but the doctor came.  By the time Samantha drove me to the hospital, following the doctor, there were almost twenty people there to help.  As the days went forward, those who really cared became visible and real.  Kellee Cogdill, a Baptist missionary, cooked us some home-made Southern fried chicken and drove it down to us, getting a speeding ticket in the process (we covered that cost).  Kellee is southern and the chicken was incredible.  We let Shaban and Racho each have one piece, and they couldn’t believe chicken could taste that good.  Kellee’s husband came, too, and was just quietly there—which was amazing support without voice.  Matt, Samantha’s husband, also came and prayed with us.  Support came from all over.  From the U.S. Embassy, from the Hindu folks in Mwanza, from family and friends.  One of my cousins wrote that though we hadn’t seen each other since we were teenagers, it was still just like it was yesterday.  
                        Support, emotional, physical, logistical, financial, and medical came from people we seldom saw yet who loved and cared for us as only happens when Christ’s commandment to “love one another as I have loved you” is put into practice.  Support came from all over the world, came by email, sms, messenger, Google Hangout, and as I wrote yesterday, from an old man standing across from us quietly holding his hand over his heart and saying nothing yet speaking volumes.  The woman from SimuSolar (John's boss) in Mwanza who came by bus (a two-hour ride one way) just to help clean and organize who also brought food and turns out went to college in Boston was another surprise.  There is no way to thank all of those who helped—but they didn’t do what they did in order to be thanked.  They did what they did because they loved and cared.  We all do and have done things like that.  Sometimes, we get thanks for caring acts that we have already forgotten that we did.  It’s like that when you are living in imitation of Christ.  I got short messages that hit me in the heart from men who had lost their wives, from wives who had lost husbands, and from a mother who had lost her son.  Those were special because those knew the power of that pain.  One of the great blessings that Christ gave us is just that—the power to lessen other’s pain.  There are always some who are well intentioned but who cause hurt and distress rather than bringing comfort.  I remember that every time Karen was pregnant there were always women who felt the need to tell her horror stories about pregnancy.  There will always be people who think they know how you should be grieving and may even get mad at you because to them you aren’t doing it right.  Those should just be forgiven but not allowed to remain in contact when what you need is support, comfort, and love.  There is no correct way to grieve, no correct way to respond to the death of a loved one, no correct way to interact—only the way that God guides you to do it.  Remember that you must always be kind, first, be kind, second, and be kind, always.  I will get through this.  It won’t ever go away, and there will always be pain, but there is also life and children who are hungry and need love.  God has shown me the way I need to travel.  God not only knows where He is taking me, but He also knows how to get me there.  That is true for you, too.  Make sure those important to you know how much you love them.  When things go bad, those people will be the first to be there for you, no matter what."

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me. ” ― Fred Rogers

              While it's true I celebrated when Lewis Hamilton won his fourth World Driver’s Championship in Formula One racing in Mexico last year, it made me think of his father who worked three jobs when Lewis was young so that the young man could follow his dream.  In my mind, the father is the true hero not the son.  We honor and celebrate our heroes from baseball, football, entertainment (how many Oscars has Meryl Streep won?), and other sports, as well as those who have done well in business.  We also honor those who have given their lives to the service of others, like Mother Teresa, those who have helped shaped nations like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi.  We celebrate the explorers, the pioneers, and those whose work has saved the lives of so many others like Dr. Jonas Salk or Marie Curie.  These have all become the heroes of many and the inspiration for their lives.  
                 I have a little different take on things.  My heroes are people whose names no one knows.  They are the single mothers and fathers who devote their lives to see that their children have a chance and work multiple jobs to improve the lives of their children.  I see heroes in the unpaid or poorly paid teachers who work hundreds of hours a week tutoring, mentoring, and trying to help those students who don’t seem to get it from regular teaching.  My heroes include the man called Ikey who spent his life bagging groceries, but, in his spare time, delivered prescriptions to shut-ins and ferried the elderly to church every Sunday.  Every community, even yours, has people who do things for others without any thought for themselves.  They do without so that others can have basic necessities.  These are the living saints that will never be recognized or honored by the church for living the lives that truly become the Gospel.  Real heroes are the volunteers who serve food to the hungry, who man the food pantries, who go into the poorest neighborhoods to bring clothes, food, or just a listening ear to the poor, homeless, and depressed.  I have known many of these. Volunteers who take weeks of training so that they can be the unpaid voice for hours on the suicide hot-line or who listen to those in horrible distress who call the rape crisis lines.  Missionaries sometimes get singled out for praise for moving to foreign lands where all is not safe or familiar, but there are those living right next door to you who do as much or more for the marginalized people in your own community.  Women can sometimes name the few women who were at the forefront of the movement that brought them the ability to vote but cannot name the thousands of woman who suffered much more than the leaders did but without whom the movement could not have succeeded. This is true of every great movement of societal change be it the end of apartheid, slavery, or giving the right to vote to those denied it for so very long.  We know the names of the leaders, but without the thousands or millions of followers, there would have been no leaders whose names we all know.  It is not the pastors with familiar names, or the recognized saints that have carried the peace and blessings of Christ to the millions who now know Him.  It is the unnamed woman who walks with the aid of a stick who brings food to the hungry—she’s the image of Christ.  It is the woman with the guitar singing to orphans (see picture at the right).  It is the elderly man dying of cancer who refuses to stay home on Sunday morning, but insists of being in the back of the church, unheard and unseen but full of the Holy Spirit.  Those who live as Christ called us to live are almost never lauded, celebrated, or given plaques rewarding their achievements, but they are the reason that Christianity is the largest religion in the world.  
                       I smiled today when I read a Facebook post of a man I know who was celebrating his last chemo treatment.  I smiled when I got a notice on my Facebook timeline by a neighbor I have not seen in thirty years, but who took the time to let me know he was proud that I was still in the "Good News" business.  It is not the names of heroes everyone knows who change the world.  It is the unsung, unheralded givers of themselves as they follow the teachings of Christ about love, forgiveness, and caring for the widows and orphans.  You know such people because they are all around you, and you may be one yourself.  Seek one out and let them know you appreciate what they do.  My sister, a retired teacher who spent years taking care of my ailing parents and with health problems of her own, still tutors and mentors troubled children—giving them a lift, a shot at a life they might not otherwise ever know.  She’s a hero in my book, even if you don't know her name (it's Penny).  Thank God for those whose joy comes not from fame and glory but from simple service to those in need.  God bless every one of them—and you.