and People

Funerals

I’ve been to four funerals so far in my life. My maternal grandmother’s, a good friend from college, a young Airman in my unit, and yesterday, the husband of a co-worker. Each were very different but all had one thing in common: the air of sadness from a departed loved one.
Yesterday’s was even more different.  It was the first one held in a language I didn’t fully understand. It was the first one where the dress code was surprisingly quite casual; shorts, t-shirts, jeans, slacks, blouses. Besides the clergy, only the military members were dressed up. It was the first one where the body was cremated and the urn was being laid in the ground. I recognized a solemn hymn sung in Deutsch (Bleib bei mir, Herr!) or “Abide with Me”, the Lord’s Prayer, and a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the end.
Back home, I was very young when grandma died. I remember a huge celebration and then a lot of wailing. I remember watching my mum and her sisters cry out loud. I didn’t cry. I mimicked dad’s calm demeanor and stuck to his side the whole time. I was too young to have the kind of relationship with my grandma that my sons have with their grandma-Lagos today. I didn’t know enough to cry.
In college when my boy BH died, it rocked me. He’d joined the Navy after graduation and become a pilot.  He died in a plane crash. It didn’t hit me until I saw his casket lowered into the ground…that’s when I lost it. I had an outer body experience as I watched my self cry my eyes out. The crowd slowly walked away from the gravesite and I just froze and cried. Somehow I didn’t want to stop crying…I felt I owed BH all my tear ducts could muster.
When Zac died in 2011 (https://u2times.wordpress.com/2014/03/02/remembering-zac/) the funeral was a classic military funeral. Honor guard, gun salutes, thousands of American flags lining the streets along with citizens rendering salutes to a fallen warrior. My heart was so heavy. I knew him…he was my Airmen. I remember getting on bended knee to present his dog tags to his younger brother. The long hug with his mum and his dad’s stoic look throughout.
This is not one of those topics anyone should jump for excitement about. I write this because, inevitably, we will get to say goodbye to someone at some point or another and regardless of the culture or the circumstances, the feelings evoked at a funeral are universal: we miss them terribly; there’s a hole where there wasn’t one before; the things we were so concerned about before are no longer as important as saying goodbye.
Rest in Peace Manfred!
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Remember Me

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Earlier this week my oldest son asked me if I was religious. I was excited about the question because it told me he’d been paying attention to the message I delivered on Father’s Day about the Incredible Dad.  Without hesitating I answered that I wasn’t but that I had a relationship with God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ.
However, the question made me think about things I might be religious about. More importantly it made me think about sin and how much it separated me from God. I also thought about the words of King David when he said his sin was ever before him (Psalm 51:3) and how in reality, we only separate ourselves from our vices by the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us. We can’t do it on our own!
It dawned on me, then and there, that there is indeed one thing that I’m religious about; the cup and the bread.  I NEED communion. I NEED a SAVIOR and I’m thankful that Jesus commanded that we do this ONE thing to remember Him (1 Cor 11:24).
So much is done by individuals today to be remembered. Every minute a new YouTube video pops up with someone doing something ridiculous for fame. We dedicate days to past Presidents, renowned leaders, and Saints.  We contribute to charities in memory of loved ones.
There is a human tendency to want to leave a mark on the world.  To have our lives have some meaning. To leave a legacy of sorts.  I know what that tendency points to: It’s God’s purpose for our lives. It’s no surprise that His only Son, who was sent for a purpose, would, command his disciples to do something symbolical to remember Him. Rarely has someone’s request for remembrance been accompanied by a sacrifice for the sins of humanity.
What we couldn’t do for ourselves, Christ did for us and that was wash away and cleanse us from our sins. He took away all the thoughts of getting my life together on my own and my attempts at getting clean first.  Like the debt we would owe if someone took a bullet for us, Christ’s sacrifice for us implores us to live for him.
 
So taking communion gives us an opportunity to reconnect with Him if we’ve been disconnected. A chance to connect if we’ve never been plugged in.  A chance to acknowledge that what He did was for me (us) and that the bread and the wine, like a military retreat ceremony, is a reminder of His great sacrifice on Calvary’s cross…for ME.
For this, I will religiously remember Him, as often as I can.
 
“…the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
(1 Corinthians 11:23b-26)
 
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How can you rejoice at a time like this?

One minute I’m celebrating the joy of my mum’s 70th birthday the next minute I’m overwhelmed by all the tragedy in the world. Plane crash in Egypt; concert fire in Romania; war torn Iraq, Syria, and Libya; drunk drivers crashing into trick-a-treaters; refugees fleeing war-ravaged cities and arriving in Europe in the thousands, many drowning enroute from Northern Africa; disease-plagued countries; poverty, malnutrition; violent extremists; and a general lack of tolerance for humanity. It’s all overwhelmingly depressing. With all this going on around us, what is there to rejoice about?

Usually we respond with gratitude for being spared from these atrocities. I don’t want to believe that a loving God would spare some and just say “screw-it” to others.
Some Christians will even say things like “God must be punishing them for their sins.” I can’t even fathom the logic and the venomous judgement in this statement. It paints God as an egotistical maniac who goes around ignoring His own promises simply to place “some” sinners in His crosshairs and to then “take them out” with a tornado or earthquake.

Some direct their anger towards God, blaming Him for the state of the world and at the same time denying He even exists because a loving God wouldn’t let any of this happen. These same people will also find someone to blame. It must be the U.S. President’s fault because leadership (the one you don’t like or support) is always responsible.

Honestly, if you have a heartbeat, you can’t help but be moved to some sort of reaction and then…?

Exactly. What happens next? 

I have noticed an acute focus on God’s priorities following disaster or tragedy. We may not be outright accepting of a specific dogma, but we tend to value love over hate, tolerance over intolerance, service over self, giving over taking, fraternity over factions, solutions over blame, forgiveness over resentment, and of course, grace and mercy. 

We live in a very imperfect world filled with imperfect people. With this inherent imperfection, we simply lack the capability to create perfection. We easily try to talk in terms of goodness but goodness wasn’t the plan to begin with. “Good” people have bombed abortion clinics. “Good” people traded slaves and hung them on trees. “Good” people have stood by and watched others prey upon the weakened (notice I didn’t say weak). “Good” people troll the Internet daily and “kill” people with their vilifying comments and then blame them for “putting themselves out there” as to say, “well they deserve it”.

I wish there was a utopia where we could all just rejoice 24/7. A place without pain or sorrow. A place with clean air, green grass, blue waters, no famine or disease, no family drama. A place where birds chirped, lions roared, and people sang all in one rhythmic chorus. 

Wait! Such a place has already been described…by the One who envisioned it to begin with. He also promised that in this world, we would have trouble but in Him, there’d be peace. He didn’t just leave an image for us to be transfixed while staring longingly into space for that utopia. He offered and indeed freed us from mental and spiritual slavery while here. He left instructions on how to treat others in the midst of the storm. He acknowledged that our attempts at goodness would never hit the mark but then offered to bridge the gap between our fallen nature and perfection.

How can you rejoice at a time like this? You don’t rejoice in what is…you rejoice in the hopefulness of what is to come. That hope leads to a peace that passes all understanding. That peace is hard to contain and drives us to serve others with our time, talent, and treasures.  That service, is how humanity bounces back from tragedy. All this is done, not for praise or recognition, but with a deep sense that “we are all beggars, telling other beggars where to find bread.”

What if you don’t believe any of this? Then the obvious question is, what do you believe and how does what you believe inform your reaction to the world around you. I remember a conversation I had with my son a few years ago. It was about value. What we do either adds value to people’s lives or doesn’t. Thus, the purpose of this post isn’t to advocate a certain dogma, but to encourage a perspective that results in added-value in spite of crises or calamity.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33

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Three Score & 10

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For months many have been preparing earnestly for this day. They’ve kept up with current trends, searched online and in neighborhood stores for that perfect costume. The one that cries individuality but conveys that huge “Wow!’ factor when unveiled. Yes, for many Westerners tonight is Halloween. Interestingly, I’ve never celebrated the event. I’ve never donned a costume or gone to a costume party. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the tradition per se, it’s just, the day holds a much bigger significance in my life. Today is my mum’s birthday and she turns 70! So, I’ve always spent the day reflecting on who she is and what she means to me.

I am who I am because God chose her. I’ve been told I’m a carbon copy of her. I don’t see it, but I do see her beauty (both inner and outer). My dad would have been crazy to have missed her during their college days at the University of Nebraska.  That smile accentuated by radiant cheek bones. That resilience. That work ethic. Her realistic idealism. Her philanthropy. Her care for those society has written off.  Her support for dad through some difficult times. Her support for her family…ALL OF THEM.  The things she’s endured herself.

You see, mum was born into a large family. Six sisters and one brother. She was dependable as a young girl. Her parents could always count on her. She did well in secondary school and it wasn’t a surprise that she earned a USAID scholarship to Nebraska and then onto Purdue for her graduate studies. Someone that focused would have to attract a like-mind. Falling for that equally handsome doctoral student was only natural. They married in Lincoln over 45 years ago and still look great together.  I love the pictures mum sends me of her and dad dressed up for Church every Sunday. She’s still radiant!  The picture I just received of her sitting in a brand new car dad bought her today underscores her excitement but more importantly, her gratitude to God!

As the first in her immediate family to go overseas for an education back in the 60s, she knew her siblings would need her. Her community back home would need her. Her homeland would need her new found expertise. She and dad returned home with me to do their part in helping a country 13 years removed from independence.  Today, mum is a retired civil servant and philanthropist. In her time, she’s helped advance the cause of science and technology; supported her siblings, nephews, and nieces in getting their education; and has done the same for so many more. Every New Year’s day, hundreds return to express their gratitude for my parent’s support. I can’t return every year, but I thank God daily for the gift of my mother.

She’s still the best driver I know…even at 70! She’s the best price negotiator I’ve ever observed. If you’ve ever shopped in an open market in Africa, the Caribbean, or any developing country, you know how important negotiating is to the final outcome. Mum is a certified pro.  I could write a book about this woman but knowing her, she’d prefer the blessing of simply fulfilling God’s call on her life as a servant, daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, sibling, and friend.

I love you mum…HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!

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A night of culture…musically speaking

So I’ve been living in my apartment since July.  Other than my family’s visit over Labor Day, I haven’t entertained at the loft…well, until this past Wednesday. “The Loft”…that’s what I call my place. I live on the top floor of a shopping complex; next to a fitness club and with the view below. To say this chapter has been therapeutic is an understatement. I enjoy waking up before dawn to the smell of freshly baked bread and a view that heralds God’s magnificence.

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And so for the past five weeks I’ve been facilitating discussions among a group of 12 individuals from 12 different countries. Discussions cover a range of topics from migration to terrorism, transnational organized crime and gender equality. These amazing professionals from various fields have taught me so much since we started this journey together. They are part of a larger group of 105 participants attending a course on applied security.

Last Saturday we held a Culture Night where all 105 participants got a chance to showcase their individual cultures with food, drinks, pictures, and art. It was an amazing event…so much food from as far as Honduras all the way to Afghanistan and South Africa. But then on Wednesday, I experienced a different kind of culture night when 10 of the 12 in my discussion group dropped by my apartment. I knew some of them were fans of music from the 80s and so I had a video playlist projecting on the wall. The balcony seemed to become a nice gathering spot despite the cold but clear night.  We talked about family, travels, and joked about the teams loss during volleyball.  I learned more about them as individuals, their aspirations, likes, and dislikes.  I also marveled at how this group that five weeks ago had never met, came to become a well-oiled intellectual and social machine.

Back inside I switched roles from party host to “Karaoke DJ”. Hearing people from so many different countries sing along to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”, Fugees “Killing Me Softly”, or Michael Jackson’s “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” was a hoot.  Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” was the fan favorite.  But, the highlight came when I asked each of them to pick a favorite music video from their country. I then played the video on the big screen and we all got to enjoy a healthy sampling of world music.  It was so much fun to see each of them temporarily forget the challenges each of their countries faced while excitingly digging through YouTube for a favorite music video.  I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk about the universality of music and how people with so many differences can also have so much in common while coming together to sing popular tunes.

What a night…definitely up there among the memorable ones!

There’s just something about fellowship, even through music, that connects humanity and opens us up to be better listeners especially in the company of those who don’t look, sound, or even live like us. I am blessed to have had a rich multicultural journey thus far and one that has less to do with the places I’ve been but more to do with the people I’ve encountered.

 

“Show hospitality to one another without complaining.  Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God.” — 1 Peter 4:9-11 (NET) 

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