Dust

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Driving through Nigeria in the middle of the Harmattan, I am struck by the starkness of the landscape. Everything is dry, dust is like a heavy film everywhere on everything. At first it is hard to breath; then your nostrils and lungs become use to it. There is hardly the sight of green anywhere. Experiencing this barren, starkness reminds me that Lent is approaching. Ash Wednesday is at hand and the marking of foreheads with dusty ashes in the shape of a cross will soon take place.

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Ash Wednesday was always an intense time for me as a congregational pastor. It was the day when there was a steady stream of people coming into the church. There was usually two services, one at noon and then one in the evening.  In between the services, random people who hadn’t been to church in a long while would come in and ask “pastor can I get some ashes.” Why would anyone want to be reminded of their mortality?

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

The day was particularly challenging and emotional during the part of the worship liturgy when the young people would come to the altar rail. Children that I had baptized,  teenagers that I had confirmed, would come–even mothers would bring their small babies to have that cross of ash etched on their foreheads. It was a solemn moment for me, these were my kids, and here I was reminding them of the inevitability of …. well you know. Using my thumb to mark this cross on their foreheads was different than marking a tiny forehead with oil at baptism. It was different than that fragrantly traced mark that held the smell of oil of clove and cinnamon and signaled a beginning–an entering into a new life. This dusty stark mark was a reminder of death.

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

As I sit writing, the reality that we are fragile, mortal human beings is right in my face. I am thinking of and praying for those who I have come to know in this short time working globally and how many of them are experiencing the fragility of life. I think of those who are holding the hands of loved ones attempting to stare down disease and sickness. I pray for those who are experiencing the struggle of getting to the other side of hardship. Tears fill my eyes just as they did when I marked the foreheads of those babies, my children. My heart breaks at the thought ………

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Yet, as I sit in this early morning darkness, I am reminded not only of life’s fragility, but the meaning of the cross.

Yes, Ash Wednesday, the forty days of Lent serve as a time for us to remember our mortality, our fragility, our helplessness in the reality of sin and death. Yet that sign, that mark on our foreheads, that cross is a promise of life, of love of a future. Yes, we remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return; we also remember the life given for us on a cross.

Driving through Nigeria, at first glance  all I can see is desert, bareness, hard solid rock formations, dust all around, but even in that dust there is new life.

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I am westafricabound.

West Africa Bound

“For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

I am so glad that God knows, because you could not have told me last year this time that I would be about to take my first trip to Africa as an official representative of the ELCA, that I would be boarding a plane and flying out on January 16. This time last year, I was returning to my congregation after the holiday. Now, I am preparing to go to Africa.

I will be in West Africa a total of three months. Much of that time will be spent in Yaounde trying to learn French. The territory that I am responsible for consists of Senegal, Central African Republic (CAR) and Cameroon where much of official church business is conducted in that language. Some working knowledge of French will help as I serve. In these three months, I will also travel to Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia and Senegal. Perhaps, I will get to Nigeria. I was hoping to visit CAR, but as you know there was recent rebellion. Things look better now. So who knows?

I have so much to do, so much to learn. Since I began this new call on November 15, 2012, I have been reading files, books and internet articles about Central and West African countries. I am learning from Global Mission staff members and trying to get my head around all that this new call to serve entails. It was helpful to meet Anne Langdji. Anne is one of the ELCA Regional Representatives. She serves with her husband Willie; they live in Yaounde, Cameroon with their son Micah. She traveled to Chicago in December and was able to tell me much about what she does and how the ELCA is accompanying companion churches in the region. All of this has been part of the preparation and I am extremely excited to participate in this work.

So far, I have gotten my immunizations including yellow fever which is a required vaccine to enter most countries in West Africa. I have also taken a round of oral typhoid and I have my malaria prophylactic. Collecting all the things that I need has been one of my main objectives. I have purchased sunscreen for the intense African sun, mosquito repellant with DEET as a layer of protection from mosquito bites; I have sent off for my Visa for entering the country and asked for an extra battery for my computer in case of power outages. I have set up Skype on every electronic device I have. I am even preparing my digestive track by eating probiotic yogurt. You laugh, but the preparations to travel and to fully serve in this capacity have been intense.

Besides all the physical preparations, I know that God has been preparing me for this call all of my life. I studied African and African-American history in undergrad. On my shelves are books that cover everything from African theology to African art. I have always been extremely curious about the slave trade and the West African region of the Continent. In my more recent past, I have found myself hanging out with friends from West Africa attending parties and listening to music. I have eaten the food, listened to the language and experienced the culture here in the US through my friends from Nigeria, Liberia and Togo. Thirteen years ago I had a West African symbol tattooed on my left shoulder. God has even prepared me through my two congregational calls. In one I learned to withstand hardship; in the other I learned to minister through a crisis, preach cross culturally, supervise staff, read a budget and accompany the people of God. Coincidence or preparation, I guess it depends on your point of view. I believe that in every experience, as Daryl Coley puts it, God prepares us for “the next matter in our lives”

I have always dreamed of visiting Africa and God has made the preparation. As God has planned, Africa will be a regular part of my life and work. Pray for me as I am westafricabound.

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