Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas in Liberia

In case you missed it elsewhere, here's a look at Christmas for the kids in Liberia. Hope you enjoy Christmas and cherish the food and fun with family and friends. God bless.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008


I'm now editing for the third time an entry that just doesn't seem to want to come. I wonder what to write about and then, hours later (usually as I'm just about to fall asleep, but invariably when I'm out of reach of my computer), I'll think of a dozen things, each of which worthy of its own post.

- There's the obvious Christmas greeting, almost but not quite as overdue as last year's Dec. 29 email.
- There's the Christmas play I'm directing at a church here in town. (How I got into that, I have no idea; I could write an essay just figuring that little mystery...)
- There's the litany of AWESOME skin maladies that have come my way recently: ringworm on my foot, then two separate acid bug burns! (Very cool to watch how they start out like just a little red spot and then boil over then turn grey then get itchy. Completely backwards. But so engrossing, having a little Discovery Channel action right on my own skin...!)

But I think a better blog entry would have to be in regards to this book I'm reading, and the uncoincidences alongside it. The book is The Myth of Certainty, and it's all about navigating the narrow middle ground between the smugness of close-minded secular humanism and the smugness of close-minded, know-it-all, religious Christianity. The author does a fantastic job of striking a balance (offending both sides in equal measure), writing to a minority he calls 'reflective Christians'. These are people unafraid on answerless questions, insatiable minds with the humility to admit they don't know but the rigor to always demand More.

In the midst of reading my own testimony in its pages, I've been meeting new friends and having new conversations with old friends seeking earnestly for More, yet unable to stomach the religiosity and/or hypocrisy of church.

To be perfectly honest, it's hard to know what to say. Most of the time, I have no stinking clue, and that's the best answer I can give. (That's the answer I wish I'd gotten, countless times!) On the one hand, I desperately want you to get a little closer to God--more than anything!--to drink from the same Source of strength and comfort and direction that He's poured out to me. But on the other hand, all I can do is share my story: that my life has been saved, in ways I can't begin to express. I've never seen the map, and the only part of the road I know is that which I've already walked.

I want a culture of difficult questions. I want a culture that's more concerned with asking than with answering. I want to draw nearer to God -- and honour Him! -- by chewing things too big for me. I don't want anything else in life besides More. Of God. After a 25-year search, More is the only thing worth my time.

My hope is that you'll ask with me, search with me. My hope is that you'll delve only into worthy things, whether or not you agree with me. My hope is that we'll all be brave enough to agree humbly and disagree well.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Gifty is on the plane!

Is it possible? What seemed like an impossibility two months ago, two weeks ago, even two days ago -- it's happened! The first leg of the race is over for my little girl--she's got a family and she's on her way home. 

Deb and I were talking on the way home from the airport tonight what a blessing it was that she's been healthy the past two weeks--for months we couldn't keep her fevers away for more than a couple of days, and her doctors were talking about running out of options for her (she was taking the strong antibiotics they had!). But ever since her mom arrived she was great, eating and interacting like crazy. I couldn't believe it, playing with her today, how far she'd come since I met her on September 23rd. The girl I held then was an absolute wreck. The girl I kissed goodbye today was radiant, a spoiled little queen.

It's been a joy to get to know her these past few healthy weeks. To feed her her first french fry, to introduce her to her reflection, to learn what her different cries mean (and how sincere they are). To hear her first attempts at talking. Tomorrow, after thirty hours of traveling, she'll discover the land of the free: Dad, Grandma, siblings. Snow. Clean hospitals. A new liver, even.

This journey has been incredible. To face these immovable mountains day after day, bureaucratic or medical or logistical, to battle with despair, and then to see them jump out of the way -- it's been nothing short of breathtaking. I always hoped I'd see a miracle, something I could look back on and say, Yes: I watched God intervene.

I can say that now.

Thank you all for praying for Gifty so faithfully. Your support has meant so much to her, me, my team. Please keep her in your prayers, as she has a long, long way to go yet.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Need your help

After five very eventful days helping Gifty's new mom work her way through the Liberian court system and back and forth across town a zillion times, we finally made some progress: in the Republic of Liberia, my little girl now has a mom, dad, two brothers and one sister.

That's wonderful and a miracle in itself, but there's still the U.S. side of things. Gifty has changed her ticket to Wednesday, and we're hoping and praying that by then, with a lot of hard work, we can either find her aunt or another relative that can help us straighten out the facts and satisfy the Embassy that she is in fact abandoned. We're putting the word out here, and I would ask you to please pray with me that my little girl gets to go home -- to a real hospital, where they can give her a new liver and life -- on Wednesday.

For now, Gifty's health is the best it's been in a long time, and she's been able to live with Mom at our friends' place, so we're grateful for that and for finishing with African bureaucracy...almost! Much love. More soon.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

The big week

It's crazy how fast these last few months have flown by. I met Gifty on September 23rd, and last Friday night, the 28th of November, her new mom arrived on a plane. Hopefully on Friday, after a week of final medical checks and legal hurdles, they'll board another plane together and fly back to the States. There are still a lot of doors that need to swing open for my little fighter, so please continue praying with me that everything will go well...

Wednesday, 26 November 2008


It's been hectic around here. For weeks. Unrelenting. But it's had me digging deeper, for which I'm grateful. I've had to push myself, I've had to ask more difficult questions, I've had to admit failures. It's been wonderful.

I'm grateful for so much, this year. For early Christmas presents, yes. For a visit with my old friend from high school. For the chance to wear many hats in a 'typical day' (haha). For the sweet knowledge that my life is in hand, wherever it takes me and for however long. For the African dawn bursting through palm leaves and barbed wire, warming me each morning along with thick, dark coffee. For the innumerable people who've made this bizarre place home, full of love.

I just feel spoiled.

Over and over again as I open my journal to decompress, I just resort to that same word: spoiled. God's given me more than I knew how to ask for.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Re-thinking the Figured Out

I'm reporting from Ganta, a small city five hours' drive (or, more accurately, slalom) from Monrovia. Today and yesterday we've been assessing orphanages up here, introducing ourselves to the people and the problems they're facing. 

Stone church in Nimba

We stayed the night at the Methodist compound, at a guesthouse tucked behind a beautiful, sleepy old stone church. Instantly you turn into the driveway, you feel the age of this place: the ancient palm trees in neat rows, the wide lawns, the sense of calm that comes of order not imposed but grown.

I woke up this morning feeling like I was back at camp, where I grew up: the stillness, the smell, thin pillows' happy ache. Only the dew was missing--despite the lovely chill that makes you want to journal in a big hoodie, it's never quite cold enough to produce dew.

I am truly blessed, and rarely have I been more keenly aware of it. Perhaps strangely to you, it's not working with destitution that reminds me of this--not nearly so much as the simpler things of the day, especially the sprawling quiet of an African dawn. The richness of experience even in routine--as long as I can keep my eyes open and my skin porous.

Because I'm with a short-term team from the States, I also have the benefit of seeing with fresh eyes things that have become normal for me. Last night after dinner we pushed our chairs back and got into hours of excellent dialogue about what we'd seen, about Liberia's outlook and the challenge of addressing not only the immediate physical needs of children, but the needs of the whole child. More and more it's not the poverty that breaks my heart -- mostly because 95% of people here are facing those biggest and most basic struggles -- but it's the de-individualization of children living in institutions; it's the lack of love and attention they receive; it's the lack of imagination and dreaming I see in them that hurts the most. And these things are infinitely more difficult to address than hunger, disease, education...

Young Richard, smiling

After you give a fish, teach fishing. Relief gives way to development. But after you hold a child, how do you leave him with love? How do we cultivate environments of love and holistic growth, throughout and after the emergencies? How do we encourage a mother of eighty children to raise up eighty individuals as she would in a family of five?

Saturday, 1 November 2008

The Other Way

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
--"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost, 1916

I often wonder about the other way, no more or less but altogether Other. We by nature long, I think, for that which we don't have--especially that, surely, which we've forfeit. I'm well aware and blisteringly grateful for what's in my hands, overflowing, and for the way I've chosen. (Well aware, that is, when grounded!) And I wonder too if the choice is permanent. I don't think it is, I think I could travel by that Other road, "Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubt... if I should ever..."

I'm fascinated these days with images of walking through life and the choices in frame of mind that make the difference between hiking and trudging, strolling and marching the days. I've found, as I'm sure have you, the only real companionship on the road, on the highways and byways, is God. This stage of life, I'm hiking for the edge of loneliness: a purposeful, shall we say energetic stride, but trying not to stare too hard at my feet; trying to enjoy the journey as if, as in cliché, the journey itself were the first destination.

Thursday, 30 October 2008


Whenever I travel back to Canada and the States, a lot of folks inevitably ask, "Is" (To which I laughingly reply, "Yes -- safer than here, at least!") But the other day I was wondering about how war ever began in this country of peaceable, smiling people. Who it is that begins a war, and what are the early days of a conflict like? The scars of war are everywhere here, still. Every single lamp post is riddled with holes, most buildings have shell holes painted over. Even our house has a couple of bullet holes, but it seems far away, long forgotten. We speak of the "three world wars" making up Liberia's 14-year conflict with a kind of textbook-like objectivity.

This morning, however, there was a rumour of war on the other side of the city. There have been no rumours before today, no sense of discontent, no announcements of groups forming against the government. So where on earth does a rumour like this come from? The biggest disturbance this country has seen in two years has been a labour dispute at the UN. Who would start a war here? The powerful elect, that's who: those making six figures but not seven in a country where teachers and civil servants make $50 per month.

Of course this morning's panic was just a mix-up -- the Drug Enforcement Agency destroying confiscated dope apparently sounded like gunfire -- but it so quickly becomes "War!" as word-of-mouth quickly exaggerates. My heart sinks a little to see my Liberian friends revert. The old fear -- and curiosity -- return quickly, the dual instinct to run away and toward. Common sense is the first casualty of any conflict, I imagine, as it becomes every man for himself. 

I pray that the majority prevails in Liberia, that a handful of the arrogant rich don't ever again stir to conflict the good and simple common man. To me this is the most urgent reason to close the poverty gap, not between Africa and the West, but within African nations as they develop.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Liberian Dictionary, Vol. I

Liberian English (pronounced "englitch") is not nearly so complex as some would have you believe. Over the next few weeks, I'll be your humble tour guide as we navigate Liberianese together. Just follow along with me, speaking the words out loud in your cubicles and dropping the phrases into conversations at the water cooler.

Words are translated into American in quotes, with phonetic pronunciations in italics.

Introductions and Polite Conversation
  • How are you doing? - "How the day?" (howda deh) - also "How's your body?" (howde bodeh). A casual greeting appropriate for strangers or family any time of day. Good responses include "Fine" (Fii) meaning great, "Not bad" (Noh bah) meaning pretty good, "I'm trying" (Ah tra-eeh) for not-so-great, or simply "Yeah" (yahhh) meaning I don't really know you but thanks for saying hi. For intermediate students, these three replies should end in '-O', for example "noh bah-O!" or "ah tra-eeh-O!"Other answers for the advanced student include "I thank God" (tank goh), or "I tell God 'thank you' for life" (Ah te goh tankyoo fo lii).
  • I'll be right back. (or, Wait just a second)- "I'm coming" (Ah comii). While it would seem to mean the opposite, this is a polite way to excuse oneself in leaving, or to ask for your listener's patience while you get to your point the long way 'round. For the intermediate and advanced speaker, you should end with the rhetorical "yeah?" (Ah comiiYEEA?). This common suffix will be picked up later on in many other phrases as well.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Breaking. Properly.

We're always talking in soft tones about being broken, living a broken life. Heady stuff. That's another post altogether: this one's about surfing. Most of you don't care about surfing, I realize -- probably the only of you who do care were with me this morning...but nonetheless:

I woke up at 4:45 this morning -- and before I go any further, can anyone tell me why, no matter what hour I set it for, I invariably wake up fifteen minutes before my alarm goes off?? And for a bonus point why, if ever I choose to rely on my internal clock, I sleep till ten?? So anyway, I get up early (I love making coffee while it's still dark out -- reminds me of snowplowing in Canada), and a few of us drive downtown to Poopie Point. I've put off going for...well, over a year. First because of the stories of stepping over "inuukshuks" and then paddling past, um, floaters. Then I missed a bunch of opportunities simply because I was lazy--and hey, it's five in the morning, can you blame me?

But MAN, today was perfect. Today's going to make going back to the old beach breaks really awful. I rode only a few -- I should've gotten into way more -- but to ride so LONG. Ah. To finally know what it's supposed to feel like. Brilliant. And then to stay in for so long! Normally I get tired or bored or sore after 45 minutes on a beach break. We were in the water for three hours this morning. It was ridiculous.

The moral of the story? Well, I never thought surfing was worth navigating a Poopy Beach (that's actually what it's called); I never thought surfing was worth getting up at five a.m. to risk a secod bout with e.Coli ....but I'd never ridden a proper break, either. :)

Tuesday, 21 October 2008


the days are getting so much better.

each time i make that choice
          to laugh, not shout,
          to breathe, not bite,
          to rearrange perspective,
life gets quantifiably better.

each time i choose my mood.

each time i remember to pray.

each time gratitude shines on me
          for where i get to be,
          what i get to do,
          who i get to walk with--
                    these are all unearned gifts.
and when loneliness comes,
when doubt comes sulking with it,
it's my choice again to trust.
it's my choice again to relax, engage, dig in
          to this wild time, short or long.

and the days are getting so much better.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

One step backward, two steps forward

When you think of coming down with pneumonia, you probably don't think it a plus. At least I don't. But for Gifty, my little stinker, it might be. After a one-day discharge last week, she's back in the hospital with a little pneumonia and a nasty cough. Despite that, her insatiable appetite is loving the regular doses of vitamin-enriched milk and the attention of a great pediatrician. I think she's still posting gradual weight gains even with the setbacks. Piko, her darling caretaker, tells me that she's been lively and playful lately as well. All good signs. 

I went to see her this morning, and was delighted when she refused to be held by anyone but me. (Sorry, Deb. Point: Tyler.)

On the adoption front, we're moving ahead with one of the several families that have offered to adopt Gifty. They're lovely people and have almost all of their paperwork up-to-date, meaning that as long as the embassy cooperates, Gifty should be home before Christmas. I hesitate to say that out loud, but that's my prayer...

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

simple vs. easy

I'm a sucker for profundities, always have been. I like idiomatic truths; I love it when people can sum up big things in simple language. About a month ago a teacher of mine revealed that simple does not equal easy -- that the big ideas are simple yet difficult. Isn't that true: our most sublime truths can be understood in a moment yet take a lifetime of study to grasp.

I've just started reading Donald Miller's follow-up to Blue Like Jazz, a much meatier but just as entertaining little collection called Searching for God Knows What. Sitting out on the porch this morning, the dawn full in my face, I couldn't help but quote whole sections of it into my journal. Great, sweet truthy bits like this one I just have to share. He's talking about how Biblical authors spontaneously break into poetry when the ideas get too big to be related by literal language. How we betray moments of truth, of love, of surpassing beauty by stabbing at them with our wimpy formulas and steps and bullet points:
If you ask me, the separation of truth from meaning is a dangerous game. I don't think memorizing ideas helps anybody understand the meaning inferred in the expression of those ideas. .... I wondered if when we take Christian theology out of the context of its narrative, when we ignore the poetry in which it is presented, when we turn it into formulas to help us achieve the American dream, we lose its meaning entirely, and the ideas become fodder for the head but have no impact on the way we live our lives or think about God. This is, perhaps, why people are so hostile toward religion. (57-59)
The poetry isn't just the vehicle but is intrinsic to the meaning. I love it, and I dare you to disagree: Do you remember the story, or do you remember your Grandpa's voice and smell and the twinkle in his eye as he told it? Which was the more important?

The fundamental truths are simple. Really, really simple. But they're also extraordinarily difficult, and please don't try and make them simple. I plan on working them out for the rest of my life.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Rubber Ducky, you're the one...

Jen: "I'm at the junction. I just got in an accident -- the brakes went out completely!"
Me: "Everybody ok?"
Jen: "Yeah, I just had to give the bus driver $25 to fix his bumper. I was going really slowly."
Me: "Ok, I'll be right there."
Jen: "Actually you can't... The whole road is closed for a soccer game."
Me: "Cramer, can you take me down to the junction on Matt's bike?"
Cramer: "Can I shower first?"
Me: "No...Jen just got in an accident."
Jen: "The policeman's still got my license."
Me: "Yeah ello, Sa."
Cop: "Yeah ello. Everyting fine, I took good care."
Me: "Yeah, thank you for taking care of ma people. The man gone?"
Cop: "The man gone, everyting fine. Only the police left now."
Me: "Ah, I see. So how the day? Big game, uh?"
Cop: "Yeah, Liberia versus Tunisia. So how best can we do?"
Me: "You have her license?"
Cop: "I got it right here."
Me: "Can I have it?"
Cop: "Yeah, here it is. So how best can we do something here?"
Me: "Let me ask you, the Liberian license, is there still some delay? Because the police can hammock me for no license, but I hear you can't even get one..."
Cop: "Big delay. American license is fine, fine. No problem."
Me: "Aha, good to know. Well, thank you sa. I will see you again."
Cop: "Ok, any time. I'm on the ground."
Jen: "How much did you give him?"
Me: "Nothing."

Just another day of T.I.A. moments -- dancing instead of bribing, thanking God that no one gets hurt when the brakes go out. Always fixing something... :D

Friday, 3 October 2008

Oh the irony...

...of a nasty head cold in the heat of Liberia. How this is even possible when I'm sweating 22 hours out of every day, I'll never know. But this morning I'm almost through it...

Debbie's arriving today, the final piece in our amazing team. Looking forward to having her here with us, not only because she's hilarious but because we've been running into many medical questions lately and we need our expert nurse on the ground.

Newsletter's almost done. Photos to come, I promise. Sorry I've been so bad at posting pictures this time around. I'll make it up to all y'all, just you wait...

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Open doors

This time last year, I only knew a couple of families who'd adopted kids from overseas. Adoption was a strange word and a foreign concept that happens 'out there'. Now it seems I keep in more constant contact with friends I've never met, adoptive families from all over the place. How this came about I have no idea, but this past week I've seen amazing fruit come of these distanced friendships.
Since meeting my little friend Gifty, I've had to wrestle through a lot of things I'd never dealt with before. For one, she's made me more paternal than I've ever felt, even when my nieces were tiny. And just as I was starting to feel really uncomfortably fatherly with this little tiny fragile ball of awesome in my arms, the doctor (a very sweet Spanish paediatrician named Elena) told me she's not going to make it. She needs a new liver, and that "just doesn't happen here."
I can tell you that any reservations I had about adoption as a partial solution to the global orphan crisis were summarily squished in that moment. I wanted her to be adopted almost as much as I wanted to adopt her myself.
While I never would have thought it possible, especially given Liberia's moratorium on adoptions, doors have been opening at every turn for little Gifty: a wonderful family has come forward that wants to give her a loving new home in the U.S., the Liberian government has said they'll do everything they can to speed her way, and with a few more doors opened (mostly at the U.S. embassy), she could be Home in time for Christmas. Then, of course, it's onto the transplant list and even if she makes a full recovery she's got a long road ahead.

For now, my hope for her has found friends in circumstances, coincidences, minor miracles. For now, she's getting a little bit fatter, a little bit feistier each day. For now, my hard little heart is a little softer for witnessing all this.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Ok, enough...

One thing I've learned about Liberia that you won't find in any book or atlas: everything happens on the 15th of the month. Ask a group of folks when rainy season begins, for instance, and they'll have a heated argument about whether it's May 15th or June 15th. It might even come to blows--watch out.
Well today I was told that no, it's not September 15th but October 15th that rainy season ends. I thought it was safe to come back. I was wrong, apparently: this morning the rain started at 7 and by 9 there was over two inches flooding the entire yard... Doesn't help the motivational level, let me tell you...

Saturday, 27 September 2008


This is Gifty, my little prize fighter, with Piko as we transfered her from one hospital to another (also run by the excellent staff of MSF) closer to us. Since beginning treatment, her eyes have whitened considerably and her abdomen has shrunk, but she's still just over 11 lbs. at 14 months. The diagnosis is that her liver isn't working, a condition from birth that, at this point, would require a transplant to fix.
I've been spending a lot of time with Gifty this week, arranging caretakers, talking to MDs and PAs, and best of all just pacing the halls with her in my arms. I've never known a baby with such spirit before, which makes her prognosis all the harder to take. It's been a real joy to intercede for her and advocate for her, as the closest thing she has to a parent.
Please be praying with me for Gifty: for continued improvement of her immediate condition; for relocation upon discharge to a better home; and for wisdom in seeking a long-term answer for her condition.

From old to new

So it's time for a change, I reckon. The old blog has served me well but, as I'm more and more involved in the craziness of keeping up with all of you, a Blogger blog seems just so much easier. Plus, it allows me to get a little more creative.

I've tried importing the entries from my other, but it doesn't seem to be working too well, so for now at least, you can visit the old site if for some reason you want to stalk me into the past.