Before and After

Lots of times, when we finish a mission trip – particularly one that involves construction – we like to share some “before and after” photos. Generally, this means that the ones early in the week show the project in some early stages, often in great disrepair or distress, while the ones at the end of the week present a glistening new edifice ready for use.

Hello, mudders...

Hello, mudders…

Our trip this week did not lend itself to such neat categories. We were called to work on a huge structure (2600 square feet) that will be home to at least four adults and six children. When we got there, the homeowner had done a good bit of work – it was all under roof, framed, and had some drywall hung. When we left, it was still under roof, had an additional 112 sheets of drywall hung, and was about halfway taped.

It’s not glistening. It’s not “move-in” ready.

But it’s a few steps closer. A great many steps, in fact.

One of Gabe's tasks was to sort the bird's nest of electrical work into a functioning breaker panel.  Mission accomplished!

One of Gabe’s tasks was to sort the bird’s nest of electrical work into a functioning breaker panel. Mission accomplished!

One of my earliest mentors in ministry said to me, “You know, most days, you won’t finish. But every day, you have to stop.” That advice has served me well in a variety of situations, including this one. It’s not done. But we are. And fortunately for everyone concerned, this house has not been our responsibility. The Lord has called this family to a new and safe place, and the Lord will allow them to enter it in his time. We were fortunate enough to be a part of the process.

And now we are coming home. If we did this right, then we are changed as much as the house was. Just like that building, we look the same on the outside. But there have been some great laughs, some profound truth, some deep sharing, and, to be honest, some very interesting noises that have been shared. Our hope and prayer is that these steps in our journey will lead us closer to being more appropriate homes for the Holy One. One of the passages we read this week was from John 15: “Abide in me as I abide in you…”

Some were changed, some were "touched", and some...well, some...

Some were changed, some were “touched”, and some…well, some…

The plan was to fix up a house a little bit so that the rightful owner could come in and live in it more completely and fully. Along the way, we hoped to turn ourselves into more suitable dwelling places for the Holy Spirit. By the grace of God, perhaps both of those goals are a little closer to being accomplished.

Years ago, I read “Living Faith” by Jimmy Carter. In it, he told the story of asking an old Amish farmer if he knew the Lord – if he was “saved” – if he was a believer in Christ. The Amish man thought for a while and then asked for a pad and paper. He wrote four names on it. “These men are the ones who own the farms north, east, south, and west of me,” he said. “You go and ask them if I’m living like someone who knows the Lord.”

We’ll show you the photos of the house. You tell us if you can see Jesus any clearer in our lives.

The crew with our chief, Bob Sherwood.  We're sad to admit that Brian left a couple of hours before this shot was taken.  He should be in it.

The crew with our chief, Bob Sherwood. We’re sad to admit that Brian left a couple of hours before this shot was taken. He should be in it.


When we finished our work in Mission, it was time to head north to the Hobby Airport in Houston, where we’ll catch a flight early on Saturday so as to return home by evening. En route, we stopped at the Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge outside of Galveston. I will close this post with a few images from the happy hours we spent there.

We passed this huge flock of Sandhill Cranes near Falfurrias as we left Mission.

We passed this huge flock of Sandhill Cranes near Falfurrias as we left Mission.

Roseate Spoonbills fill the marshes at the Wildlife Refuge.

Roseate Spoonbills fill the marshes at the Wildlife Refuge.

Fortunately, this guy was none too interested in having pasty, lumpy northerners for dinner.

Fortunately, this guy was none too interested in having pasty, lumpy northerners for dinner.

The Crested Caracara patrols the skies in much of Texas.

The Crested Caracara patrols the skies in much of Texas.

Caring for Bodies that Nurture Spirits

The primary purpose of this leg of the Africa Mission 2013 is to encourage the relief and development work that the Synod of Blantyre has done implementing the “A-Maize-ing Grace” famine relief/avoidance program. As has been documented Previously, that went off very well.

From left: ZTC Principal Kutundu, Jeff Tindall, and Vice-Principal Gunya

From left: ZTC Principal Kutundu, Jeff Tindall, and Vice-Principal Gunya

On Tuesday 5 February, we had the opportunity to explore an offshoot of that project. When my old friend the Rev. Daniel Gunya, now Vice-Principal at the Zomba Theological College, heard about the famine relief program, he asked if there was some way that the students at ZTC might benefit. These young men and women have been sponsored by their home Synods to undertake the training necessary for them to be ordained into the ministry as Presbyterian or Anglican pastors. The college operates on a shoestring and he knew that these students, most of whom are far from their homes, would face significant challenges.

We contacted our friends at the World Mission Initiative and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and they responded enthusiastically. The seminary sponsored a special offering at their Christmas worship, and students and staff also participated through the WMI office. Those funds, when topped off by a contribution from the First U. P. Church of Crafton Heights, came to $2500.

The symbolic presentation of Maize to the President of the Student Government Association.

The symbolic presentation of Maize to the President of the Student Government Association.

We arrived at the Theological College on Tuesday afternoon and met with the Administrative Team, several faculty members, and representatives of the student body and the Student Government Association. We learned that through purchasing in bulk and using a vehicle from the Synod, that money enabled the College to give each student and staff worker a whopping 75 kg (150 lbs.) of maize and 10 kg (20 lbs) each of rice and beans. Rev. Gunya said that would probably be enough to see most of those families through the middle or end of March! It was truly a gift to be able to witness God’s provision in this way.

ZTC students inspecting the storehouse of maize, beans, and rice.

ZTC students inspecting the storehouse of maize, beans, and rice.

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What was equally thrilling to those of us from the PC(USA) was the interest that the faculty and administration had in our recent discussions of partnership between Blantyre Synod, Pittsburgh Presbytery, and the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church. They asked a lot of questions about the training that our colleagues in South Sudan had received, and are eager to explore the possibilities of exchanging theological students. I felt blessed to be a part of the global church this day.

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And all day…rain. Lots and lots of rain. It made the drive back to Blantyre, shall we say, “interesting” (let’s just say that the fact that I had a four wheel drive vehicle made it fun, not frightening!). But everywhere you look, the gardens are green and growing. Thanks be to God for the promise of harvest!

On Spending the Solstice at the Other End of the World

For what I believe is the first time in my entire life, I have spent the June solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.  For much of the day, I was quiet and withdrawn until it occurred to me that I was simply sad. Then that sadness struck me as curious, and I meditated on it for a few hours.

Don’t get me wrong. I imagine there are more than a few people reading this who are saying, “For real? Gimme a break, Carver! Look at where you are, where you’ve been, and you have the nerve to mention sadness?” Hear me out.

Every June 21 of my life has been the longest day of the year. The sun rises earlier and stays out longer than any other day. There is so much time – I have worked and gardened and fished and cooked and played ball – and more on the same day. It is a day ripe with potential and warmth and light.

Yet this morning I didn’t see the sun until about 8:30.  Sunset was before 5 pm. And it was the second-to-last day of my trip to this amazing place. For the past year, when I have thought about a trip to New Zealand, I have thought about all the things I might do or see. Because the clock had not yet started ticking on this experience, all I could think about was stuff that I might do, or that I hoped to do. For better than two weeks, I have been doing so much – many things I hadn’t even thought about. Yet today, as the darkness loomed and the frost set in, I was more focused on the things that I would NOT get to do. I had hoped to see a penguin in the wild. Not gonna happen. I had dreamt about hiking along the beach and discovering sea lions. Not this trip. You see – in so many ways, it  is insignificant stuff. So why was that making me sad?

The lighthouse at Nugget Point

It struck me as I looked at my second lighthouse of the day (note to self: don’t whine about seeing too many cool things). As we have driven up the eastern coast of New Zealand, we have encountered several of these silent sentinels. I marveled at the things that these beacons must have seen, and I realized that I am simply thinking about my own mortality. Every day that passes is one I won’t get back again. Like my daylight on this winter solstice, my days are getting shorter. How much? Who knows? Thanks be to God, there is no detailed timetable available. But if I am not careful, the sadness emerges.

And so the lighthouse reminded me that there is a greater truth. There is a fixed authority. Whether my days are long or short is not up to me: what is mine is to live into them with fullness and joy and fidelity.

In that spirit, here is what I did in the 9 hours and 39 minutes of daylight available to me on  June 21, 2012.

Sharon, Dan, and Beth at Curio Bay. At low tide, one can step among the petrified stumps of an ancient forest, now turned to rock.

We drove from Invercargill (the southermost city in the eastern hemisphere) along the coast. We stopped  at Curio Point, where my reflections on my own mortality were put into perspective by the petrified forest that lies within the tide pools at low tide.  

This 5+ month old Royal Albatross “chick” weighs at least 20 pounds. It still doesn’t walk very well, and here is stretching its wings.

The highlight was a visit to the Royal Albatross Centre near Dunedin, where we were able to view the only place on the planet where the Northern Royal Albatross nests on the mainland. We saw five young birds waiting for their parents to come and feed them, and I realized how fortunate I am. These amazing creatures have a wingspans of well over 9 feet. They spend the first five years after leaving the nest at sea. And then they return to this little peninsula to lay their eggs and care for their young.

The Swamp Harrier soars above the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin.

One of the last things I saw as the twilight fell was a Swamp Harrier – a hawk – cruising around looking for a meal. And that hawk reminded me that I had a Father who cares for me and will not leave me.

I wish the day was longer. I yearn for more light and heat. And it will come. My prayer tonight is that of the Psalmist: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (90:12) With God’s help, I won’t take another hour, let alone another day or solstice, for granted. And may you, in your own frailty and sadness and mortality, do the same.

One more thing…tomorrow is my birthday. And here, the 22nd is longer than the 21st. More seconds of light. More opportunities to count the days and to look for wisdom. Again, thanks be to God!

From One Extreme To The Other

If I understood the guide correctly, I am standing in a “moulin“- a tunnel within the Fox Glacier.

New Zealand continues to impress us with its amazing diversity. A week ago we were on the North Island enjoying its  geothermal wonderlands as we looked at geysers and boiling mud and sat in naturally heated thermal baths.  As I write this, I am huddled under two blankets inside Fiona (our intrepid campervan) fresh from a day atop the  Fox Glacier. For several hours we hiked over this huge and ancient mass of ice that surrounds Mt Tasman and Mt Cook, New Zealand’s  highest peaks.  In fact, kiwis call this part of the country “the southern alps” and I am not going to disagree with them. One thing that fascinates me, however, is the fact that as we began our hike to the glacier, we started walking in a rain forest!

Here the sun rises near our campsite outside of Greymouth,New Zealand.

According to the Lonely Planet, the drive from Westport to Greymouth NZ is “one of the top ten drives on the planet.” The 2 lane road hugs the Pacific Coast like this for about 60 breath-taking miles.

As we have driven through the countryside, I am reminded of the saying “getting there is half the fun”. The roads are very well maintained, if somewhat narrow and twisty. Driving on the opposite side (and shifting with one’s left hand) adds a certain novelty to the adventure. And every 10 kilometers or so there is a one-lane bridge  that requires a bit of finesse to get across. In fact, yesterday we crossed a bridge that in its single lane carried not only north and southbound vehicles, but a railway track too! And, of course, it’s always more fun to drive when you are scouting out new birds, new scenery, and new road signs.

These local green mussels have been the hit of our dinner times here in Fiona the campervan. Raised locally and served with garlic butter.

The last post mentioned something of our daily routine. I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed cooking here. Each of the campgrounds has a large clean kitchen, and many days we take our supplies there and cook breakfast or dinner. We have eaten a lot of lamb, a great deal of cheese, and, of course, prodigious amounts of kiwi fruit. Two pounds of that little gem costs about a buck and a half. Most days we barbecue, although we have made exceptions for shellfish and pasta on occasion.

So all in all our trip is progressing amazingly well. We appreciate the prayers and support we have received from everyone, and look forward to times to share more photos and re-engage on a more personal level.

The team of intrepid travelers atop the Fox Glacier. It is estimated that the ice on which we are standing is more than 100 yards thick.

Dangerous Wonder

When I last wrote, we were escaping the hustle and bustle of Egypt’s number one tourist destination…and now I sit in an oasis that is about the most remote in the entire nation.  More about the oasis tomorrow…today: How we got here.

One of the other Land Cruisers attempts to outrace us across the desert.

We took the bus from Luxor to Dahkla – about 6 hours.  We rested, and then took the bus another three hours to a small oasis whose name I cannot remember.  Once there, we transferred to three ancient Toyota Land Cruisers.  I mean to tell you, these vehicles have seen some action.  As we sipped tea while the luggage and camping gear was being strapped to the roofs of these trucks, I noticed armed guards watching our bags.  Turns out that to enter this part of Egypt you need an “escort” from the Tourist Police.  For a while, that meant five dour looking fellows in full combat gear following us in a Camry wagon, but that was later reduced to a side-arm wearing fellow who asked for (and got!) the front seat.

The desert as a place of double death and danger...this is the carcass of a German warplane that went down in the Sahara at the time of the fighting near El Alamein.

If we were to scan the scriptures, we would find that often the Desert is a place of wandering and punishment: think of the Children of Egypt having left Egypt, or Jeremiah’s wanderings, or Elijah fleeing Jezebel, or Ishmael and Hagar driven out by Abraham and Sarah.  And,  to be sure, we experienced the desert as a dangerous place.  The temperatures are scorching – I measured it to be about 100 degrees early yesterday afternoon.  With the window of the Land Cruiser open (air conditioning? Surely you jest!) it felt like I was sitting in front of a dryer vent, only hotter.  If we didn’t have enough water, we’d be goners for sure.

Ariel and Jenny returning from a "toilet stop" at the White Desert. Not too many places to hide!

However, the desert is also a place of blessing: think of Paul’s meeting the Lord on the road to Damascas, or Philip and the Ethiopian, or, of course, Moses in many instances.  The desert is where you can encounter the Holy.  And we did.

The White Desert is full of odd shapes such as this (we decided it was a chicken under a tree) that the wind has carved from the soft white rock (I think it is either gypsum or talc).

In the Jordanian Desert of Wadi Rum, we camped with a group of Bedouin in their homes.  Here, on the eastern edge of the Sahara, we carried our mats and blankets and set up the camp ourselves.  For the first time in our lives, the Carvers were not worried about rain on a camping trip. 

A Desert Fox heads for home after a night of foraging in the White Desert

This little guy wanted to come camping with us in the White Desert.

We ventured through a part of the Desert known as the “White Desert”, so named because of the many rock formations that pop up from the landscape and look like so many carved marshmallows.  We camped here for a night, and the white rocks in the 3/4 moonlight were a beautiful sight.  When in Jordan, there was no moon, and the stars were bright.  Here, I could have read by the light of the moon and the reflection off the white rocks.

The Black Desert is so named because this volcano erupted centuries ago, spewing black lava and ash over the golden sand.

A little further north, and we encountered a region known as “The Black Desert”, so named because of the volcanic sediment that litters the ground.  In its own way, it is fascinating and beautiful.

On Tuesday night we stopped at an oasis in the town of Baharia.  Wednesday, we awoke and began the drive of our lives: 450 Kilometers (200 + miles) by Land Cruiser through the desert.  Sometimes, there was a road.  Often, all four wheels were in touch with the ground.  We had a crazy driver who put the fear of God into us (and showed us a great time) by racing (think Dakar Rally) across the sand dunes, up and down and through…

The experience was enhanced by the presence in our truck of yet another “Guardian” AND the fact that our driver must have the world’s largest collection of contemporary Egyptian music.  We had six hours of Arabic singing, accordion, and recorder playing through the cassette system that was on the edge of blowing out the Toyota’s remaining speaker.  Six hours, and not a song was repeated.  Wow.  I mean, wow.

We drove nearly 4 hours without seeing another living creature, save some sort of desert eagle.  No other cars, no trees, no people…nothing but sand and sky.

Dangerous, if we were not prepared and guided.  Beautiful.  Amazing.  And we ended up at one of the most beautiful places of the entire trip: the Oasis and town of Siwa, about 20 miles east of the Libyan border.  But that’s another post…

I rejoice in having the time to be in this place.  And I am continuing to think about how it has and will affect me.  And while it is amazing, I will confess to missing my garden, my boat,  and most importantly, my community.  The desert is a place to reaffirm not only one’s love for the Lord, but one’s love for the not-desert.  So I will sleep tonight eager for the experiences of tomorrow, but I will dream of Pittsburgh.

The Galilee Experience

Wow!  That’s all we can say after two days and nights in northern Israel – the region known as Galilee where Jesus conducted most of his ministry.

Sunrise on the Sea of Galilee.

The day started in an amazing fashion.  We were staying at Nof Ginosar, a kibbutz located right on the lake.  We had access to the sea all day and they also have a fascinating exhibit of a 2000 year old fishing boat – just like the kind that Jesus’ followers would have used.

In Luke 5, Peter says,  “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”  Now, I don’t know what Pete was using, but my Little Cleo pulled in this monster:

Dave 1; Fish 0

He looks small, but he's actually smaller.

After a successful morning with the fishing rod (at least as long as I”m not trying to feed my family), I woke Ariel up and we took an early morning dip in the Sea of Galilee.  Amazing.  Then, we did what the two of us do best: We wandered and we hiked and we wondered and we imagined.  We got in our little Chevy and we drove all the way around the Sea of Galilee.

We visited some of the churches and shrines that commemorate various events in the life of the Lord: The place where Jesus is said to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount; the Chapel of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes; The Church of the Primacy of Peter, and more.  But what really got us were the sites where there were simply ruins.  We loved visiting Korazim, the town that was condemned by Jesus for their lack of faith.  When we got there, the temperature in our car registered a cool 46 degrees centigrade (115 farenheit).

Dave on the cliffs at Kursi, formerly known as "The Region of the Gedarenes"

Later, we found ourselves at Kursi, the site where Jesus drove the demon from a man into a herd of swine that later rushed off the cliff.  This has always been a favorite story of mine,and to imagine it happening there was simply marvelous for me.  Recent road construction unearthed a 4th or 5th century church that was built to commemorate that miracle.  Amazing!

From there,we went up the hill and discovered the ancient town of Hyppos, one of the “Ten Towns” (the Decapolis) that is mentioned several places in the Gospels.  Here, we had the entire place to ourselves, as we explored this town of great Greek influence and knowledge, now a several-kilometer long street of ruins.  Look:

Those zany Israelis have a unique strategy to make sure you stay on the paths. Why bother with "keep off the grass" when you can threaten to blow people up instead?

Step fancy, missy, and watch for land mines!

We truly enjoyed wandering and imagining what the people’s lives might have been like, and what the place looked like now.

Amongst the ruins at Hyppos - one of our favorite places!

The day ended as we realized that we had forgotten to eat lunch (yes, we drank a LOT of water).  We started looking for a restaurant, but they were all closed.  We pulled into a gas station and asked, and the guy basically said, in Hebrew, “What kind of crazy person are you?  It’s a Friday night (Sabbath for the Jews) during Ramadan (when Muslims fast).  Jews aren’t working and Muslims aren’t eating.  Good luck, folks…” But we had our hearts set on St. Peter’s Fish, and finally, after an hour or so, we discovered a joint run by a group of guys we think were Lebanese Christians.  And they served us St. Peter’s Fish and dates for dessert.  It was splendid.

Ariel enters the Mediterranean Sea at Caesarea Philippi

This morning, we got up and tried to find a little village in Nazareth where they do reconstructions of life in the first century, but we gave up because Nazareth is HUGE.  Funny, but on the Christmas cards it seems so small… So we blew out of Nazareth and went to Caesarea Philippi, the ruins of the amazing town that Herod the Great built in the first Century.  The ruins are scattered up and down the Mediterranean seacoast, and you can walk and wade and swim through them.  There were a ton of helpful signs and we learned a lot…and had a wonderful time.

All we can say at this point is WOW.  What a wonderful experience – and a wonderful day.  Tomorrow we will worship in Jerusalem and then head back to Jordan through the Palestinian Territories.  From there…well, that’s another story.

The hoopoe is the National Bird of Israel. We saw a flock of them at Caesarea Philippi

A Disappointment…and a Joy

Well, Thursday was the day I had been looking forward to…the day where we would be able to visit with new friends at the Sabeel Study Center in Jerusalem, and hear about the peace process from the perspective of some Palestinian Christians.  So much of what we hear and read in the USA is filtered through somebody’s special interest, and we were excited to have received an invitation to join with Sabeel for worship and study on Thursday afternoon.  We made the preparations…we had gotten a map, we had gone to Google Maps, and we printed out a set of directions.  We left our hotel early, in time to make two important stops:

The Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam

Ariel really wanted to visit the Dome of the Rock, the mosque that is built on top of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and I was longing to visit the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the man who had been lame for 38 years.  I drove the rental car through the windy streets of the old city and even got a parking place.  Later, we got to our car just as a policeman was writing us a ticket for having parked with a tire on the curb.  This guy has obviously never been to Pittsburgh.  But we played the happy-go-lucky tourist card and he tore the ticket up.  Shalom!

So we were ready for Sabeel.  And we left 50 minutes to make what Google was calling an 18 minute journey.  We were in, I thought.  In!

I have driven in numerous countries on four continents.  I have never, ever, EVER been so lost or so frustrated as I was yesterday.  To begin with, Google Maps didn’t account for the construction.  OK, that happens.  Then the map we bought in the city was flat out wrong.  And nearby the Old City, maybe one in five streets had a sign on it.  Tee street signs there are made of decorative and illuminated glass panels, which seems very classy…until you remember that it’s in a part of the world where rock throwing is practically a national pasttime.  Bad Idea, folks.  Bad idea.  We literally had NO idea where we were for 45 minutes.  After an hour and a half of trying to find the place, we gave up.  It was really, really, discouraging.

However, we were driving north – leaving Jerusalem and heading to the Sea of Galilee, the site of Jesus’ ministry for most of his time on Earth.  En route, we drove through the Palestinian Territories (which floors me – that I, a regular guy from Pittsburgh, can come and go at will, while someone who has been born and raised there must have permission to go to Jerusalem or to swim in the Sea of Galilee…I don’t get it).  We passed Jericho, and wound up at our hotel just north of Tiberias.

Beach bums...with a sense of style when it comes to headgear!

What a change!  The air was crisp and clean (although hot – today we registered 46 degrees centigrade as we drove!).  And we just relaxed as we sat around the beach at the Sea of Galilee.  We explored the Kibbutz where we are staying, and found cows and sculpture gardens and friendly faces…It was great.

A quick visit to the Sea of Galilee refreshes a frustrated traveler. I was going to walk,but that is SO 2000 years ago. I decided to try flying instead.

And after a good night’s sleep, we rose to see the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee – a brand new day!  But that will have to wait for another post…for now, celebrate a profound disappointment absorbed into a beautiful day…and hope for great days to come.  Shalom!