Monday, April 13, 2015

On grief, loss, and transition.


I am feeling kind of raw right now. A mixture of being unsettled, not knowing where exactly I am headed, grief, and mourning.

I am missing people in South Sudan. I am missing my life and routine and rhythm and people in that place. I knew I would. I think I will for a long time.

I’ve read hundreds of articles on missionary life over the past several years, including many on grief, loss, and transition.  I knew to expect these feelings, but it doesn’t make them any lighter. They hang heavy inside me. I don’t want to mask the loneliness, isolation, grief, and longing that is part of this transition.

Yet in so many ways, I want all this to be over. All this transition and grief and mourning, that is. I suppose it never will be, this side of heaven.

I want to feel settled again. I long for community at close proximity. I want to have a local spot to hang out in, where people know me well.  I want routine again and sense of purpose. I know, it will come. I need to be patient. Not my strong suit.

In the meantime, I need to trust that it is ok for me just to be. Whatever being may look like right now in my life.

I feel antsy, stir-crazy, bored, pulled in multiple directions, unsettled.

There are a million things I could be doing during this period in my life, but I am having a hard time focusing on anything. My heart is somewhere in South Sudan still, and my mind wanders between past, present, and future. I long to rest in the Lord, as my constant rock amidst all transitions, but I find I am so worldly these days. My proclivity to selfishness is ever present, and my choices currently are more reflective of the sinful nature rather than abounding with fruit of the spirit. I’m trying to be gracious to others and to self, but I often fail miserably.

I brought back gifts from South Sudan for my supporters. They have been sitting at my parent’s house for three months. Each time I start to write out the cards and actually mail stuff out, I just can’t seem to do it. These items all remind me of the beauty and people of South Sudan. Somehow parting with them seems like I am closing the South Sudan chapter of my life. I keep trying to tell myself that yes, I need to close that chapter in my life, but it does not mean I cannot reopen it from time to time. Somehow it seems permanent. I think I fear that I will lose track of friends in South Sudan, that I will not remember to pray for them, that I will stop calling them, that I will let myself enjoy all that is around me and forget the plight of so many that are suffering there. I need God’s grace and wisdom to live here and still have friend’s there, to learn how to love people there but have it look different since I am no longer physically present.

I keep trying to remind myself that God’s calling for my life is for the entire duration of my life. I understand that he may call us to different things or places at various times in our life, but the general calling is the same – to love, serve, and praise him. Keeping that general call in mind helps me to see that even though my physical location may have shifted, I can still continue to follow that call.  Whether living in South Sudan or Memphis or Iraq or anywhere else – my purpose has not changed. Logistics have changed, but I am still running the same race with the same end goal in mind.

As I wade through emotions and memories, I am consistently thankful for the duration on my time in South Sudan. I can say, with all honesty, that I know the Lord will continue to lead me. I just need to trust that even though I may not see the way, it does not mean that he is not there. I suppose faith is about stepping forward even when you don’t know where forward is, trusting that your guide has laid the path before hand, not without suffering, and full of love.



Monday, March 23, 2015

Reflections in fiction, stories of struggling to survive. MJ-3, LJ & JK-4

Reflections in fiction, stories of struggling to survive.

As I think and process my role in South Sudan, both past, present, and future, I wanted to share some of the fictional stories I wrote one year ago. These stories, glimpses into other peoples' lives, are a culmination of stories I’ve heard, experiences that have been shared, laments offered in reflection, real people trying to make sense of this world. Though they are fictional, most stories are based on real people living in South Sudan.


MJ – 3

The anger was immediately seen, but the depth of its grasp was still to be learned. Years of war, running, instability, death and decay had produced a hardship of heart, not recognizable at initial glance, but festering deep within the youth and young men. They had always known war and fighting, and as he was soon to realize, fighting was still how they solved their problems now.


The façade of peace covered externally the inner struggles of rage that loomed within. True, lasting peace was possible, but he knew the reconciliation process was going to be long and arduous, time-consuming and slow, but absolutely crucial to the viability of the temporary peace. There could be no other way.


LJ

He knew of war; he was familiar with death.

He was more optimistic a few years ago, more eager to induce change in his life and for his family. He had dreams, though humble and unspoken, but they provided the drive and motivation to work hard, to labor on, to strive for what was yet unattainable.

Things were different now.  He married Nancy three years ago, by traditional standards, as no formal wedding actually took place. He still lagged behind on the customary bride price, and his second child was in his wives womb, soon to make his or her appearance in the world. But he no longer found solace in his hopes and dreams. Only the drowning of his sorrows in the local brew comforted him now. How quickly things had changed.



JK-4

“JOSEPH! JOSEPH!” he screamed out as he tossed and turned under the darkness of the night, the mosquito net looming overhead. What was going on inside his mind was yet unattainable. Maybe recollections of the war, or remembrances of the evil that led him here, to this home, to this very place of perceived shelter?

Joseph awoke at the calling of his name, and as he uttered JK’s name in return, he knew that JK was still asleep. JK’s shrills dimmed to mere grunts as his body rolled over, and Joseph wandered at the depths of his younger brother’s sorrow, as he himself was quickly lulled back to sleep, repeating silent prayers of peace.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Reflections in fiction, stories of struggling to survive. BM, MT-2, MJ-2

Reflections in fiction, stories of struggling to survive. BM, MT-2, MJ-2

As I think and process my role in South Sudan, both past, present, and future, I wanted to share some of the fictional stories I wrote one year ago. These stories, glimpses into other peoples' lives, are a culmination of stories I’ve heard, experiences that have been shared, laments offered in reflection, real people trying to make sense of this world. Though they are fictional, most stories are based on real people living in South Sudan.




BM

He knew nothing of holding a small child. He knew nothing of rocking, cradling, singing, or caressing an infant.

He was the second born of four, the same mother but each with a father all his own. His mother deserted him early on to be with yet another man. His grandmother, a wily, promiscuous woman in her own right, had raised him, had been the only true mother he had ever known.

His sense of responsibility was greater than most, seeking to fulfill all of his earthly obligations, to provide for his wife’s and children’s needs, to provide shelter and clothing, school fees, and food to all the 15 people at his compound that were under his care.

His burdens were great, his resources few. He showed his love by providing. At the age of 13 he quit school to farm the land, to eek out an existence for his family. His childhood gone, his innocence extinguished, he learned to survive by the work of his own two hands. And now, by 21 years of age, he had his own compound, he was the ‘Head Man’ over the 15 people that stayed with him. He had a wife and two children, the youngest a boy, his pride and joy, his future. Yet he knew nothing of caring for the children. He feared them, strange but true. He loved them, but he lacked the where withal to interact with them. He had never held his own son, now nine months old and starting to stand. His intense fear was hidden deep within.  



MT – 2

The ululations shrill and clear, each woman producing a distinctive call, filled the air as the dust continued to rise under the unclad feet. The barren earth trampled upon as the deep, rhythmic sounds emanated from the cow skin drums.

Pounding, pounding, pounding in trance-like motion, the middle-aged men produced the pulsating beats and the women shook their crème-colored gourds with their ‘shook, shook, shook’ like sounds. The sun was casting its hues of orange, blue, and red upon the sky as they mingled with the ever-increasing dust enveloping the crowd in a fog of energy, sweat, rhythm, motion, and life. 




MJ – 2

He was returning to a place unknown, yet so very familiar. The previous four years had been spent in the same community, learning language, building relationships, preaching, teaching, healing, equipping. But somehow things were different now, as the once familiar surroundings now seemed foreboding, distant, and painful.

The people, their faces, actions, the rise and fall of their voices, their tattered and torn clothes, the rhythms of their gate, it was all too easily recognizable, but somehow the war had changed things. The never idyllic life style, but sense of hope and optimistic change none-the-less, the short-lived peace, all but gone now. The community, the people, the very land all groaned in agony as they slipped back into the familiarity of war. The horrors of the past were resurfacing again.



Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Reflections in fiction, stories of struggling to survive. NP & JWT

Reflections in fiction, stories of struggling to survive. 

As I think and process my role in South Sudan, both past, present, and future, I wanted to share some of the fictional stories I wrote one year ago. These stories, glimpses into other peoples' lives, are a culmination of stories I’ve heard, experiences that have been shared, laments offered in reflection, real people trying to make sense of this world. Though they are fictional, most stories are based on real people living in South Sudan.


NP – 1

She knew nothing of love, only of passion and desire. She had learned to give herself away freely, to enjoy pleasure and to never feel the pain.

She knew of darkness and knew nothing of light. She had seen only suffering, felt its grip pulling her down. There were moments of happiness, but they were too few and too long ago to remember them now. Her survival rested on blocking the pain, neglecting her self and living only for the moment, not caring or acknowledging that there might be a future.

She was young, only 14 years in age, but her soul was old and frail, well beyond the deception of her youthful stance and ensnaring eyes.



JWT – 1

“When God made me, he did not make me smart”, he replied.

Learning had never come easy to him. His mind wandered too freely, his focus shifted too much, and his sense of self-worth was too desperately low. He resigned himself to a future of labor, digging the land one swing of his hoe after another.

His coordination often failed him, his judgment often misled him, and his lack of self-confidence entrapped him.

He had hoped for more, as a younger boy dreaming of adventure, longing to explore, hoping for more than the life of poverty he had always known. But now the truth set surprisingly in, suddenly and concretely, without a mere shred of doubt. He knew, at the age of 19 years old, that he would never accomplish more. His life of poverty had now become a life sentence of despair.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Reflections in fiction, stories of struggling to survive. MJ, MT & AA

Reflections in fiction, stories of struggling to survive. 

As I think and process my role in South Sudan, both past, present, and future, I wanted to share some of the fictional stories I wrote one year ago. These stories, glimpses into other peoples' lives, are a culmination of stories I’ve heard, experiences that have been shared, laments offered in reflection, real people trying to make sense of this world. Though they are fictional, most stories are based on real people living in South Sudan.


MJ – 1

He had come to love others, to teach others, to preach, to heal, to equip, to lay down his life in service of his lord. He asked for grace and the strength to reach beyond himself to love others with and through the power, grace, and mercy shown to him by his Savior.

He knew the challenges were many, but he could never have predicted how the suffering would be so great. He had hoped he would like the culture and the people, but he had no idea the extent to which he would fall in love with them – as his brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors. Nothing could have prepared him for how much he felt cared for by his host culture, and how much he felt burdened for them to know everlasting joy, hope, and peace. The tears of grief observed, the extent of suffering locals experienced, and laments on their behalf were to become a common occurrence in his daily routine. If he only knew of what was to come, would he have chosen this life?

Surely he must have prayed for grace for the moment and courage to live out his faith, as no mere mortal strength could have carried him through the onslaught of suffering, sorrow, and death that was soon to come. He did not fear death, but he feared not truly living.

Many within his own culture, and even those that shared his religious beliefs,  questioned his lifestyle, his desire to serve the Lord to the ends of the earth, to go to an ‘unsafe’ place. Most thought him naïve, but he knew the risks, at least as well as he could, but his faith was greater than his fear. He asked not for safety, but for faith – a faith to enter into areas where others would not go, a faith that knew no borders, a faith that compelled him to love recklessly.


MT – 1

The evil that set in was palpable. The grip closing in on the community was undeniable. So many had turned towards the way of this world. Their hope was only in themselves and in lore of tradition, they gave power to the local witch doctors, and the witch doctors in turn held a trance over the people, using fear to motivate and control.

The days seemingly grew darker, not in light, but in cloudiness, cloudiness of soul and mind. The desire for more overcame the desire to love, and the hearts of men grew darker and darker. No act was unthinkable, no deception too great, even the minds of youth were corrupted towards greed and power. Overflowing wealth and control became the ultimate goals.


AA – 1

His heart sank deeper that day than he had ever known before.

The depth of his sorrow was blacker and thicker and more engulfing than he thought he could survive. He felt as if death had snatched his own life, but somehow he was still breathing, slowly closing his eyes, and hoping for the world to have changed when they opened again.

He was still alive while his son lay motionless in his arms, a creature so small, so innocent, recently so full of life, but now only death and decay.

He fell to the floor sobbing as the new wave of emotions, a new flood of sorrow, engulfed him yet again.


“WHEN! WHEN, oh Lord, will this suffering end?” he sobbed.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Reflections in fiction, stories of struggling to survive. JK #2 & #3

Reflections in fiction, stories of struggling to survive. JK #2 & #3

As I think and process my role in South Sudan, both past, present, and future, I wanted to share some of the fictional stories I wrote one year ago. These stories, glimpses into other peoples' lives, are a culmination of stories I’ve heard, experiences that have been shared, laments offered in reflection, real people trying to make sense of this world. Though they are fictional, most stories are based on real people living in South Sudan.


JK – 2

As he slowly faded into unconsciousness yet again, he saw a flicker of light, deep within him, barely visible yet undeniable. As his eyes unwillingly shut, he could see the flicker growing, a flicker he clung to from the moment this horror started. A flicker that gave him hope in what appeared a hopeless situation, a hope that saved him, a hope that helped him, a hope that allowed him to carry on, a hope that he had only discovered one year before.

He knew nothing of religion or this power called God. He had heard mutterings of the name, but never understood who or why he was, if he really was at all. All he knew was his culture, his traditions, communing with the ancestral spirits still alive today. He knew the traditional healer had often called upon these spirits, and he himself had always been taught to fear them - to fear their power, to fear that others may call upon them to curse you or your family, to bring sickness or even death.  No joy or hope was to be found in his culture, only fear and anxiety and blame. There was always someone to blame for every misfortune encountered. Nothing was by chance. He longed for something more. He knew there must be more. As he fished in the mighty river, or swam upon its banks, as he ran through thicket along its sides in search of bush rat with bow in hand, he questioned how it all came to be, how he came into existence.

Though he had heard stories time and time again from his ancestors, he always questioned if they were really true. There were too many shortcomings, too many pitfalls for them to be entirely accurate. But he knew of nothing else. His hope remained only in himself, in his own strength, in his own power. He felt so alone amidst a community of kinsmen, a tribe he owed allegiance to, but to which he never fully agreed with. There had to be something more. Or maybe this really was it, the here and now, living in the moment, caring for only himself and his family, seeking to serve no one. Is this truth? He himself struggled to believe.
  
JK – 3

He had seen white men before, but he had never been close enough to hear their words, or touch their skin, or to actually talk with one of them. They appeared occasionally within the town center, but then they were gone as quickly as they came. They never stayed. No one actually believed they cared enough to live with the local people, to learn the tribal tongue, to learn customs, culture, and tradition.

Many white men came, and he had heard that they wanted to be friends with people from the community, but they never sat at the homes of locals or greeted in the traditional way, they dressed ridiculously, and they never footed (walked) anywhere, they always rode in their land cruiser beasts, with windows shut and cameras flashing. They always remained at a distance from the people, the very people they claimed they had come to serve.


He did not think favorably upon these people that seemed to have wealth unending, that seemed trapped in their own comforts to fully engage beyond what they knew, that claimed friendship, but were not his friends. He wanted nothing to do with them.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Reflections in fiction, stories of struggling to survive.


In March of 2014, I wrote a series of very short fictional stories, or more so glimpses into people’s lives, as I was preparing to return to South Sudan. As I thought of the people, my South Sudanese friends and family, their stories continually played over and over again in my mind. By that point I had lived in South Sudan for over four years, and the stories of war, struggle, death, life, living, and joy were all intermingled in my mind. I thought of details, of colors, of sights and smells of the land, of dust and heat, of tragedy and blessing, all combined into the emotional landscape of the place. A history of war, tragedy, and lives lost all faded into the current theme of hope and optimism as South Sudan was seeking a new start, yet those optimistic emotions were crumbling fast as horrific memories of past were surfacing again as a new war started in December 2013, and continues to this day.

Now one year later, in March of 2015, I am once again reflecting on the people of South Sudan. One of my greatest joys in South Sudan was the privilege and honor of sitting with people, hearing their stories, experiencing their way of life and seeing their conditions. Their stories, their personhood, their friendships changed me. I was drawn into their struggles, into their hopes. They lamented the past, and they dreamed about the future. They invited me in to live life alongside them. For them, the people of Mundri, South Sudan, I will always be thankful. My heart will always be missing something, incomplete in some manner, when I am away from those I love, longing to return. This is true of all the places I’ve lived and all the people I’ve loved. Yet thankfulness abounds for opportunities had. My heart, though incomplete, is warmer, larger, more encompassing now because of my experiences. I feel most complete in the company and service of others, trying to reflect the love of one much larger than I, recognizing my own brokenness, confronting rather than denying the brokenness of the world, entering into suffering trying to see God’s face throughout.

As I read of continued conflict in South Sudan, and as I talk with friends there, my heart is weeping for continued struggle, for a darkness that haunts the land, for people hungry and homeless, for people wielding their power and in the process destroying others, for hope deferred, for violence that doesn’t seem to have an end in sight. I pray for my friends and family there, offering my laments and anguishes unto the Lord, trusting that he hears the cry of his people.

As I think and process my role in South Sudan, both past, present, and future, I wanted to share some of the fictional stories I wrote one year ago. These stories, glimpses into other’s lives, are a culmination of stories I’ve heard, experiences that have been shared, laments offered in reflection, real people trying to make sense of this world. Though they are fictional, most stories are based on real people living in South Sudan.

To God be the glory. Even in the midst of suffering.

-sjw
March, 2015


KJ

His eyes slowly lifted their gaze and then he fell back into a deep sleep, as if consciousness was eluding him yet again.

The memories were too great, the burdens too many, and the faces of the dead flickering through his mind too much to bear.

The woman hunched over the chair, eyes half opened, hair tightly woven against her scalp, but still her facial features contorted, worn, wrinkled skin and thick brow. No doubt a woman that saw a lot of suffering, had paid dearly for a life long but harrowingly lived, as she now lay dead, a small bullet wound faintly noticeable over the right temple. Another victim of this great tragedy.

Somehow he had survived. He saw the trail of death everywhere he went, narrowly escaping his own demise too many times to count. Surely the Lord wanted him to live, he had no other offering as to why he was still alive when so many – father, brother, sister, neighbor were all shot down, hacked to death, raped repeatedly, abandoned, left to starvation and dehydration; always the large vultures soaring above, waiting for the next victim. The brutality was beyond what he would have thought possible, too horrific for words to convey, too near, yet too much for him to deny. But still he was here, somehow his prayer of repetition, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” had carried him those 500+ miles across barren desert, a wilderness of heat, death, decay.

He knew he had no strength to run, no power to mentally think or make sense of it all, no resolve left to fight. All he could muster, every ounce of his very being, repeated, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” as he struggled repeatedly for months, moment by moment, to lift one leg and place his foot forward and then to repeat again a thousand, or maybe a million times over. The will to survive was stronger than the aching, constant desire to give up, to lay down and join the legions of those left dead along the way.