Monday, February 22, 2010

A Baby's Cry in Africa

We pulled into Taiba about 4:30 in the afternoon. There is no easy way to get there. As we made our way over a road that often required us to drive off-road just to make it there I couldn’t help but think of correspondence between missionary doctor Stanley Livingston in Africa and some potential helpers back in England. They asked, “Dr. Livingston, is there a good road to where you are?” And Livingston replied, “I don’t want people who will come only if there is a good road; I want people who will come if there is no road.” If you look at a map of Senegal, it shows a highway from Dakar all the way to just north of Taiba (which is a mile or so off the road). But what looks good on a map doesn’t always translate into reality. There was a road all right, but only in the loosest definition of the word. Still, we made it.

And our Taiba friends were there to meet us. They are warm, wonderful, hospitable people. They helped us set up our tents in the small sandy courtyard of the clinic in which we’d be doing our work. They brought us food. And they shared some news: the population of Taiba had increased by one about an hour before we arrived. A new baby had been born right there at the clinic. And you know what else? That very night a second new baby was born at the clinic—a real population explosion before our very ears. This clinic is a rather dilapidated, open-air facility. The baby was born not twenty feet from our tents so we heard all the usual sounds associated with birth—a mother’s groans and a baby’s cry. That was baby number two.

And there would be one more—born on our last night at the clinic. The mother came in just as we were bedding down for the night. And this birth was more difficult than the one on our first night there. Mom had a hard time—groans and a scream or two. Whoever chose the word labor to describe this experience chose wisely. The lady labored. And we labored with her. This went on for a few hours until one last hybrid scream/groan … and then a baby’s cry. And this baby cried for awhile. I got out of my tent about four in the morning to make my bladder flatter—you've got to drink a lot of water in the desert, you know. The mid-wife was coming out of the room as I passed. She smiled at me and said, “Deux-heure trente-cinq.” She was telling me the time of the birth: 2:35 in the morning. I looked in the open door to the clinic room and there was the new grandmother mopping up the blood off the mattress upon which her daughter-in-law had given birth. She smiled at me. I smiled at her and put my hands together in a congratulatory gesture. She didn’t speak French; she spoke Wolof. I couldn’t communicate with her except by gesture. But she understood my gesture and, with bloody rags in hand, smiled all the more broadly. And in the background the baby cried again.

I stretched my legs a bit before I climbed back into my tent, but I was too wide-awake to sleep. Mom was trying to nurse the baby, and the baby was still crying now and then. A light sleeper finds sleep elusive in such conditions. But that was okay with me. It gave me time to think and reflect on our trip. And while there is much I could say, I want to focus on that baby’s cry in Africa.

Upon reflection, three births in our five days in Taiba became more than a census figure for me. I believe those births to be a prophetic sign that God is at work in Taiba, that God will one day bring new birth to Taiba—not the birth that comes from the love of a husband and wife, but the birth that comes from above; the kind of birth about which Jesus spoke when he told Nicodemus (at night, by the way) that if he wanted to enter the kingdom of God he must be born again.

This was our second trip to this village. We have worked with their immigrants in Paris once and now two times in Taiba. We are building relationships. In our time with them in Paris last September they told us that our friendship was becoming more like family—as if we had the same mother and the same father. And this time in Taiba they allowed us to show the Jesus film twice and to show an evangelistic film twice as well. We were able to pray with most of the 1000 or so we treated in our medical, dental, and eyeglass clinics. We were able to exalt Jesus in new ways. And in that same conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus also said these words: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” We lifted Him up as high as we could this time around. And I believe with all my heart that in God’s good time in days and months and years to come, many, many of them will find eternal life in Jesus.

A baby’s cry in Africa—three babies to be exact. And those births on the first and the last nights of our stay become a kind of parenthesis of hope around our efforts there. There was a groan and a cry and there was blood. It reminds me of another baby’s cry in Bethlehem—a baby born to save us from our sins. It reminds me of a cross and a groan and a cry and much blood. And it reminds me that while God often speaks and works in unusual ways, He continues to be busy about His purpose of seeking and saving the lost. I believe that’s what He’s up to in Taiba these days, and I can’t wait to see it come to pass.

Hmm. A baby cries in Africa … and I can’t help but smile.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Edward, We Hardly Knew Ye

Saturday was a sad day for Hot Springs. Martin Draper, a local dentist, and Edward Cooper, a local oral surgeon, died in a plane crash along with Edward’s two teenage daughters. In a town the size of ours, the ripple effect of such tragedies splashes onto many shores. It’s now been three days since the news, and I still can’t believe it. Shock seems like too small a word to convey what many in our city are feeling today. And that goes for all who knew Ed’s daughters, Katie and Libby. Saturday night, after the news began to spread about the crash, students gathered in the Lakeside High School field house to share their grief and encourage one another through their tears. Katie and Libby left a mark and will be sorely missed by everyone who knew them. “They were like sisters to me,” said one. “She treated me nice,” said another. “She always made me feel important,” said still another. And most didn’t have to say anything; their tears said more than their words ever could. One of the adults at the gathering told me something that seemed to capture the essence of these girls: “They loved Jesus so much. They were beautiful inside and out.” I’ve been around a lot of death and a lot of grief in my life, but does any grief hurt more than what we feel when children die?

I didn’t know the Cooper girls, but I know their mother Cheryl, their brother E.P., and I knew their dad Ed. Those who knew him best will tell you how much he loved God and his family and the Razorbacks and adventure and life. I was very aware of some of that, but I knew Ed in a bit different way. I got acquainted with him back in 1997 when my son Nathan was in need of serious facial reconstruction surgery. Nathan’s bite was off. He needed his upper jaw pulled forward and his lower jaw pushed backward—lots of cutting, lots of blood, tricky stuff. There were a few preparatory visits with Dr. Cooper prior to the surgery. And when everything was ready, Dr. Cooper and his partner, Dr. Lloyd, spent about 6-7 hours taking my son’s face apart and putting it back together again. When you trust your son into someone’s hands to do something as radical as this, you sort of want to know something about the guy with the hands. We had heard so many good things about Dr. Cooper—“Call me, Ed,” he told Dayna and me on the first visit—and he certainly lived up to the hype. I’m not just talking medically here; I’m talking personally. We talked about some of the common friends we shared. We talked about our common faith in Jesus. He spoke kindly of our church and spoke lovingly of his. He took an interest in us not just as patrons but as persons. He took time to explain everything involved with the surgery. He gave us confidence. He inserted humor in the conversation. He put my son at ease, and he made it very easy for us to trust our son into his capable hands. The surgery went very well. Our son ended up with a normal bite. And my family ended up with a new friend.

Ed was involved in so many things that it was hard not to bump into him around town. He was at all the Lakeside Ram games. We served together for awhile on the Board of the Charitable Christian Medical Clinic. He was a last-minute replacement to serve as a dentist on one of our church mission trips to Honduras—foregoing part of his family’s spring break plans that year so that he and his son could go take care of some people in great need. And, just as he did for countless other teenagers in Hot Springs, when the time was right, he took out our daughter’s wisdom teeth too. It was my joy to play basketball with him and his son a few times over the years as well. So our paths crossed now and then. And every time we bumped into one another he would ask me about my wife and kids, calling them all by name. He was especially interested in our son because of all the time he spent with him around the surgery. And when Ed asked how Nathan was, he was never satisfied with, “Oh, he’s fine.” He wanted details: what he was up to, how his kids were doing, how his work was going. And if you’re a parent you know that few things knit your heart closer to another’s than when that person takes a genuine interest in your kids. God did a lot of people a favor when he made Edward Cooper—my family included.

I knew Ed a little. I only wish I had known him more. Many in our town knew him very well, loved him very much, and already miss him more than words can say. So I pray for them. I pray for his wife and his son and his friends and his church and his staff. I pray that they experience God’s peace that passes understanding, God’s strength made perfect in their weakness, God’s grace that is sufficient for every need, and God’s good hope that if they know Jesus, they will hold those girls again and enjoy fellowship with Ed for all eternity.

I’ve got a lot of friends on the other side already, and now I’ve got another one. So while my grief is but a teardrop in the bucket compared to those who knew him best and loved him most, I write this blog for those on the outer edges of Ed’s life who knew him and loved him in our own way too. And I think I speak for them all when I say, “Edward, we hardly knew you in this life; we look forward to knowing you better in the next.”

Monday, February 1, 2010

I'm Hungry

Since January 4 I’ve been part of a six-week fitness/diet challenge through The Fitness Zone in Hot Springs. This is the third year I’ve subjected myself to this craziness. But it works. The first year I lost 14 pounds, and I’ve managed to keep it off. It’s amazing how much easier it is to do push-ups and pull-ups and run when you’re carrying fourteen less pounds. The challenge does a lot of people a lot of good. Participants earn points for exercise and for sticking with the diet plan. Exercise—no problem. Diet plan—big problem—at least for me.

I like to eat. I like to eat what I want to eat. And what I want to eat isn’t always on the challenge diet. Can you believe that chocolate chip cookies didn’t make the diet? And where is the spaghetti and the pizza and the barbecue? Not there either—oh the humanity!! In all fairness however, participants are allowed a cheat meal on Saturday and a recovery day on Sunday to eat whatever we want. You think you look forward to the weekends now? Get on this diet and weekends can’t get here soon enough. Forget Friday. "Thank God it's Sunday!" is my mantra for the challenge.

Anyway, I picked up a book the other day to help me get a better grasp of this whole food thing: what’s best to eat, what to avoid, how much is too much, etc. The book is called Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. It’s written by Michael Pollan. The dude’s not a nutritionist; he’s a journalist—but a journalist educated in all things food. He’s written other books on the subject like In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. And he’s even won an award or two for his books.

What I like about Food Rules is that he keeps things short, pithy, witty, and in sync with common sense. He lays out the book in three sections, counseling us to eat food, to eat mostly plants, and to not eat too much. Within each section he states basic rules about eating—64 in all. Here are some of my favorites:

Rule 2: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

Rule 7: Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.

Rule 12: Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

Rule 13: Eat only foods that will eventually rot.

Rule 19: If it was made from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.

Rule 20: It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.

Rule 24: Eating what stands on one leg (mushrooms and plant foods) is better than eating what stands on two legs (fowl), which is better than eating what stands on four legs (cows, pigs, and other mammals).

Rule 35: Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature.

Rule 36: Don’t eat cereal that changes the color of the milk.

Rule 37: The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead.

Rule 39: Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.

Rule 47: Eat when you’re hungry, not when you’re bored.

Rule 57: Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.

Rule 64: Break the rules once in a while. (This is my personal favorite.)

Food Rules is a quick read and a fun read. The book also struck a spiritual note with me because it reminds me of the glory of God’s creation and His ample provision for our basic food needs. The Bible doesn’t require a believer to live by a certain diet. Jesus said that Old Testament food laws aren’t binding on those who follow Him. But we can learn a lot from Bible food laws. Most of them are pretty much in sync with modern nutritional guidelines. And just exercising a little common sense in our eating practices will go a long way toward helping us shed some unneeded pounds and improve our overall health. And who knows? It may even help us live out this admonition of the Apostle Paul—one of his food rules: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Thank you, God, for food.