Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Review: Surprised by Oxford

We are fortunate here in a land where English books are scarce, to have a lending library at our mission office.  John recently brought home a book which he obviously enjoyed immensely.  He read segments out-loud to me so I told him to let me read it before he took it back to the library.  I was not disappointed in this book which I enjoyed immensely.
Exeter College Chapel
Surprised by Oxford is written by Carolyn Weber and is the story of her conversion.  The copyright date is 2011 and it is published by Thomas Nelson. The title is obviously a take-off from C.S. Lewis' conversion story, Surprised by Joy. The author won a scholarship to study Romantic Literature and to earn her MPhil at Oxford University.  The book is organized around the academic terms at Oxford:  Michaelmas Term, Christmastide, Hilary Term, Eastertide, and Trinity Term.

Oriel College
The author, though raised in a Catholic home, had seldom attended church and considered herself an agnostic.  Early in her first term she met a fellow student at Oriel College.  He was showing her how to set up an email account and opened an email he had received, but hadn't read, to show her how convenient it was to have email.  The email content shocked her as she took it wrongly, not understanding the Christian references in it.  (Telling you what the email was and why it shocked her would be a spoiler!)  Thus began a honest sharing of beliefs and struggles, hours spent asking questions, and a growing conviction of her need for a personal relationship with Jesus.  She also recounts the conversations and relationships she had with friends and with professors that helped direct her into a personal relationship with Jesus.

I liked this book so much for several reasons.
Balliol College Hall
I've been involved with "street evangelism".  I think it has it's place, but I must admit I'm not comfortable with it.  Maybe it's just my personality.  I've also seen people take the approach of standing on a street corner and yelling and I doubt if very many people are reached this way!  In the picture here, we never
saw anybody stop to listen to him....they just pushed by to get to where they were going.  This approach often ends up with people feeling attacked and beat over the head with a Bible. There has to be a balance between the urgency of the message and respect for those you are sharing with.  I know some people, in general those that I consider to have the gift of evangelism, who can share the Gospel with absolute strangers in a loving and gentle way.  (My brother-in-law is an example of somebody who can do this.)  

This book, on the other hand, shows how having a relationship with a person while being honestly open about your faith, sharing as the person is ready to hear, in my opinion, is a much better approach.  I really enjoyed following the dialogues she had with friends who gently pointed her to Jesus, but who didn't compromise anything in their beliefs.
"The High", Oxford
The second reason I liked the book is that if you are in a relationship with somebody who is asking hard questions, this book helps you figure out some of the ways to answer some of those questions.  It would even be a good book to share with that person as it is never preachy or heavy-handed.  It is simply one woman's story.

The third reason I liked the book is that, though some of the topics are a bit heavy, she writes with a great sense of humor which saves the book from getting too bogged down in theology.  As I said, it's a memoir, not a theology book.
Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

And the fourth reason I enjoyed this book is because of its setting in Oxford. I've been to so many of the places she describes. Since John has been working on his degree from the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies based in Oxford, I have a pretty good understanding now of how the higher level MPhil and Doctorate programs work.  But even if you don't have any background in that, and even if you've never visited Oxford, I think you would still enjoy this book.

One of the things about the book that was neither good nor bad for me, were her many references to literature, and to the Romantic writers in particular.  They did not detract from the story, but for somebody who is well versed in the Romantic writers, the book would have even more depth and meaning.  I just wasn't really sure what she was referring to at times!

A few quotes from Surprised by Oxford

"I remembered when I had fully expected Christians to be naive and unrealistic...what I really did not expect to discover was just how realistic they are, while striving for the idealistic.  Now I understood that there is an art to honesty.  And there is nothing naive about cultivating a pure heart."
Church of St. Mary the Virgin

"I saw how they ministered to the dying and sick, the forgotten and neglected.  How they touched the untouchables, whatever a society deemed those to be.  Tey walked a far braver walk than that of self-indulgence.  Our culture wants to ignore death, pretend it does not happen.  We want to live forever, and live that way without, very literally, the weight or weakness or wrinkles of wisdom."

"How my friends who grew up in Christian homes took their gifts of faith from their parents for granted!  How prayer came as second nature, an obvious problem-solver or comfort or alternative to panic, anxiety, fear.  They took for granted the powerful pause of grace before meals.  How oblivious they could seem to the precious and effective armor they had been given:  to have the gift of faith from your childhood, to lean into it and grow into even have the luxury to rebel against it."

Merton Street....I loved this street because the tourists hadn't discovered it and it really felt like you were stepping back in time.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Helping and Being Helped, Part II

Helping is something we do a lot of here in Niger.  After all, according to the Human Development Index, Niger is the poorest country in the world.  And on the years that it's not, it's not far from the bottom.  So there is plenty to do to help.

In fact, when we are surrounded by poverty, it's easy to feel guilty when others help us or do things for us.  Here in the big city we know many who live at an economic level similar to ours.  But when we were in the village, even though we tried to live simply, we were still at a much higher economic level than anybody else we knew.  So when people would help us in some way, we would actually feel guilty and embarrassed that they were giving to us from out of their poverty.

But there were times when we really did need help.  Other times we didn't know we needed help, but were given it.  When we look back now, we can see how others came along side us.  John often said it's times like those that actually made people more open to us and receptive to our message.  They were times when people saw we were human and just like them.

In January, our conference speaker, Dr. Joshua Bogunjoko, who is also the International Director of SIM, spoke from the book of Philippians.  Paul starts the book right off by saying he is a servant and the people he is writing to are saints, setting the tenor by not exalting himself above the Philippian believers.  Then in chapter 2, Paul talks a lot about how we should be mutually submissive, helping each other.  It's not just me helping you, but also letting you help me.

This sent me reminiscing a bit about times we needed help from others.

For starters, when we first moved to the village in 1992, we didn't know anybody and knew only a few greetings in the Songhai language.  Within a day or two of our arrival, a neighbor introduced herself to us.  She quickly became a friend, but more than that.  She worked for us in our house, but she also "adopted" me into her family.  She would come and tell me that a neighbor had just had a baby, or was getting married, or had just died and we needed to go over and greet the family.  When we got there, she would tell me where to sit or stand, what to say, and what to do.  Whenever I made a cultural faux-pas, she wouldn't get upset with me, she would just say, "You know, in our culture we .....".  John also had a friend who did similar things with him.  This is an excellent example of a time when we needed help and didn't even really know it!  

I remember one night John took some people home to the next village, about five miles away.  He was gone for a really long time.  This was before we had phones and I was really starting to get worried about him.  I told my friend and she came and sat with me for awhile and then she started to get worried, too.  So she went and got her husband who had a driver's license and access to a vehicle and he went out looking for John.  John had had a flat tire and was on his way home by the time our friend found him and was embarrassed that I had sent out the search party.  But it just illustrates how people were willing to help us when I was afraid and feeling vulnerable. 

When Suzanne was little she had a lot of problems with asthma, but we didn't even know it was asthma until it was officially diagnosed when she was in 4th grade and we were on home assignment.  Interestingly, it was Dr. Joshua Bogunjoko mentioned above who first told us she probably had asthma.  If I remember correctly we were staying in the guest house together and he just said that as an observation.  He and his wife were serving at Galmi Hospital as doctors back then.  But I digress.  Back to my story.  So Suzanne would start these coughing spells in the evening and then she would have a really hard time breathing.  We thought she had pneumonia because that's what the doctors in Niamey would say whenever we'd bring here down for medical help.  Anyway, she started one of these episodes in the village late in the afternoon.  By evening she was really having a hard time breathing.  Some of John's friends were around and saw her.  We really didn't know what to do and driving to the capital city in the dark was not something you did unless it was an absolute emergency.  So John's friends stepped in and said, We're taking her down to the hospital to the doctor there.  We all piled in the truck and went down to the hospital.  Mind you, the hospital there was NOT NICE!!!  But they took us in the operating recovery room which was pretty clean and put Suzanne on oxygen.  I'd like to say it helped, but somehow it wasn't working right and it made her feel even more like she was suffocating.  We left at the crack of dawn for the big city and got her the help she needed.  Just as an aside, when she was in 11th grade, she prayed for God to heal her and He did and she hasn't had any asthma episodes since then and has even run a marathon!  Anyway, this was another example of a time when we were scared and at our wits' end and our friends stepped in and helped.

I mentioned our neighbor who lives in a grass hut and who we help a lot with food and housing needs.  
But do you know that she helped us, too?  Just to show her gratitude, every day she would come in and sweep the sand in our yard (that's what you do here).  She'd clean up all the dead leaves and junk that had blown in overnight.  And all that in spite of having a bad back.

One time Suzanne's missionary friends came up to visit her.  One of the girls put her cell phone on the window sill.  In all our years in the village, I think we had three things stolen from outside and never anything from inside the house.  Well, there was once from inside the house by a cheeky kid, but that's another story!  So when this girl couldn't find her phone, we never dreamed that it had been stolen.  But when we saw that the window screen had been pulled out and she remembered that as the last place she'd seen it, we knew that's what happened.  The next day we told our friend (the one mentioned in the first story) about the missing phone.  She told her husband who was very angry.  He said, "Yaaye and Hannatu have helped so many people in this town and they have never done anything bad.  It's not right that people treat them this way by stealing from them!"  He started talking to people up and down the street.  A man across the way that we knew well had a little table he'd sit at all day and sell candy and cigarettes.  He said, yeah, he'd seen some kids coming in our yard that weren't the regular kids that came in and out.  He knew their brothers to be known as thieves.  So he went to their house and demanded the phone back (not even being 100% sure it was them).  Sure enough, they brought it out and he got it back for Suzanne's friend!  And this is another example of a time when people helped us in a situation in which we would have been powerless to do anything.

So many times people have given us a bag of peanuts, sesame seeds, dried hibiscus flowers, a chicken, or eggs.  The people who gave those things literally needed them themselves to eat or to sell to get food.  But they generously shared with us.  Recently a friend gave me a bag of sesame seeds that will last me a very long time.

 For me this is the hardest time to accept help, because I really don't think I need it....and they really can't afford to give me something I don't need.  But I think our relationship needs for me to accept something from them, to allow them to bless me, to let them enter into my life in the only way they can.  We also have the danger here of helping so much that we begin to feel that people like us only for our money or for our stuff.  So when you are helped it begins to feel like a real friendship.  Not allowing others to help us is prideful.

If you are, by personality, a "doer" or a "helper", I encourage you to let others do for you and to help you from time to time!  You will be blessed and so will they.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Thankful to Help and Be Helped, Part I

In January when we had our annual Spiritual Life Conference, Joshua Bogunjoko, Director of SIM, was our speaker.  He brought us messages from Philippians.  One of the things he said was that as missionaries we need to be willing to not only help, but to allow ourselves to be helped.  I'll be doing a 2nd part to this blog and look at that statement in more depth.  But this week my thankful pictures center (mostly) around helping and being helped.

Monday -- This actually happened just before John left, not technically this week, but I've been thinking about it a lot this week....and in Part II, I'll write more about my friend, H____.  
H____ is one of the poorest people I know.  I also consider her a dear friend.  She has listened to the Gospel and is definitely open.  She and her husband and kids were squatters on an empty compound next to ours.  Her girls and Suzanne were best of friends.  They lived in a grass hut that her husband managed to keep in some state of repair.  Her husband died a few years ago and her kids are just as poor as she is, so they can't help her much.  The owners of the land came and built a house on the property, but thankfully they have allowed H____ to continue to share the yard with them and to live in her little grass hut.  The last time we were there we noticed what terrible shape it was in.  She had tied pieces of plastic onto the "walls" to keep out sun and rain, but the termites had eaten through the supports.  It was a house, but just barely.

Then just before John left, another friend, A.D., called and told us that H____ really needs to have her hut rebuilt before the rainy season.  He said if we could send some money, he'd make sure people came and built the hut for her.  What makes me so thankful, is not just that we are able to help, but that this man, who is no relation from her, is from a different ethnic group, and who might take some guff from the neighbors for helping her, took on the responsibility to make sure she has a relatively dry place during the rainy season.  A.D. had made a profession of faith, and then pulled back, but we see evidences in his life that he is living in a Christian way.  Please pray for him to really stand for Jesus and to not try to walk in both paths!

Tuesday -- We've had a short-term couple here who lived in the apartment above the office and got really involved in our office morning devotions.  They also had a ministry at church.  And I personally am thankful that they helped me by translating a number of documents from English into French!  On Tuesday morning they wanted a group photo, so here we are (three people are missing, one of them being John).  (I didn't take this photo....obviously.)

Thursday -- Daniel and S____ were good friends growing up.  S___ still calls me every now and then just to greet me.  He called last week and what I thought he said was, "Ey wande hay" (My wife had a baby).  Then on Thursday he called me again and said, "Ey wande hay."  I was so confused!  What?  How could she have a baby two weeks in a row.  Well, it turns out, what he really said the first time was, "Arabi wande hay"  (blame it on less than ideal phone connections!).  So his half-brother's wife had a baby exactly a week before his wife did.   And here's a throw-back picture of Daniel and S__ when they were about 17.  Both are married now.  I'm thankful for this continued relationship. And we were able to help out a bit by sending both brothers some money to help purchase food for their naming ceremonies.

Friday -- Actually, just about every day this's been so dusty.  This picture is taken at Sahel and you can just barely make out the city skyline through the haze of dust.  It's easy to complain about the dust....that's the air we breathe, people!  And it's impossible to keep your house clean.  But what I'm thankful for is that it has kept the temperature down a bit.  It's not unusual by the middle of April to have daily temperatures around 110 degrees F.  We've barely seen anything over 102, so that's been nice!  

Saturday  -- Unfortunately the dry dusty weather creates a perfect climate for meningitis and Niger is having a meningitis epidemic right now.  SIM was able to help all the employees who work at the office by injecting them and their children against meningitis.  Nurse Judi came in and filled needles and stuck people for the better part of two hours!  I think she did between 40 and 50 injections.  

As soon as it rains, the epidemic will end....but it probably won't rain until some time in May or June.  Our church today was doing injections after the service and I heard that there will be a public campaign to inject people this coming week. You can read more about this epidemic at, and .  (I'm not sure how that last article morphed into an article on peace-keeping forces....weird writing, or no editing, or something!)

Sunday -- This year our church is really focusing on getting involved in missions which is sure something to be thankful for!  Today it was announced that we have a new missions' pastor, pictured here with his lovely wife, who also works at our office.  The church has several mission "projects" going on and these were presented today.  It's neat to see how our church is reaching out to others with the Gospel as well as helping in practical ways such as getting a well dug in one of the villages.

Sunday, April 12, 2015


Monday -- Grocery shopping here is pretty basic, which is fine with me.  I find grocery shopping incredibly difficult back in the USA when I have to make so many choices!  Here there are two brands of spaghetti, two brands of olive oil, three brands of mayonnaise, etc.  And then a lot of the items available are eliminated off my list because I can't afford them.  So when I find something here that I've never seen before and it's affordable, I get pretty excited.  Last week I found both oat bran and wheat germ!

Tuesday -- John and I went for a date to one of our favorite restaurants. 

 It's by the river and has really basic fare....brochettes and french fries.  They have a few other things, but not much.  It's a laid-back atmosphere, is affordable, and it doesn't matter what time you go.  (A lot of nicer restaurants don't open until 7:00 or even 8:00 p.m.) This was our last chance for a good conversation before he headed off for England.

Wednesday -- I like how John used a real-life example in our Bible study on Matthew 6.  We were going over the passage about why do you worry about what you will eat or what you will put on.  He explained to the guys how when he waters, the termites come out of a hole (in the house?!!!) and then the lizards come and eat them.  He said the termites didn't wake up this morning worrying about what they would eat.  With their little minuscule brains I'm sure they didn't even remember they had termites for dinner yesterday.  But God fed them (and good riddance to the termites).  Likewise, we need to not worry about what we will eat or wear tomorrow.  One of the students asked the excellent question, "Is it wrong to plan ahead for our days and even years to come?"  What do you think?  How would you answer that?  

Thursday -- John left early, early Thursday morning.  Thursday noon the office ladies had lunch together at my neighbor's house.  Her girls had made three kinds of quiche and muffins.  I'm so thankful for my friends....and that I had something special to do on John's first day away.  Unfortunately one of our friends couldn't be there because her mother-in-law is sick and she needed to go home and check on her during the lunch break.

Friday -- Rocks, you say?  Yes, well, under those rocks, which is our driveway, is the septic system.  I came home Friday to find workers here with the lids of the tanks (septic and dry well) and both of them full to the brim.  No wonder our toilet was having such difficulty flushing! I'm thankful that our neighbor (three of us have the same septic tank) called the workers and dealt with the whole mess.  I just held my breath and tried to not look!  And aren't you glad I didn't take a picture of the tank with the lid off?! :)

Saturday -- I made hummus and had that for a snack.  Mmmm, it was delicious.  It's so easy to make.  This is how I do it....and I know I got the recipe off the internet, but I don't know where so I don't know to whom I should give the credit.  

Whirl in a blender until smooth:
1 can chick peas (garbanzo beans) (I used a 14 oz. can)
1/4 cup tahini
1/4 cup olive oil
juice of two lemons
1 bunch of cilantro (I just used some dried cilantro and didn't really measure it)
1/4 cucumber, peeled and then diced (I didn't even remove the seeds, but you could if they are really big)
1 clove garlic
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp paprika
This turns out creamy and tastes great.  It's good as a dip for veggies or with pita bread.

Did you notice my little photo bomber in that picture?  Don't worry, she didn't actually stick her nose in it.

Sunday -- Our services are often pretty long and today we had three extra things on the end, but all three were real celebrations.  The first was a baby

dedication.  I love how all the moms in the church come up and support and encourage the family.  (I know our churches in the US ask if the family and church will support and help the family and that's great.....but I really like how the African-American church we attended in Maryland had the entire family come up with the parents and's just a very visual reminder that we stand behind you, that it does, indeed, take a village....or, if you please, a Church.  So this isn't a criticism, just a statement of something I've grown to appreciate.)  

We have had a short-term couple who have taken their retirement to come to Niger for part of each year, I think, seven years in a row.  Each time they have ministered wherever they've been asked.  This time they came and did a family/marriage ministry which they really enjoyed.  The ladies sang for them, then had them come up and receive a gift.  It was a very fitting appreciation for a couple who have attended this church whenever they've been in Niger.  The other day they were leaving the office (they stayed in an apartment above the office) and I heard our receptionist refer to them as "les jeunesses"....the young people.  Isn't that great?! 

And the third celebration was that one of the ladies in our church had attended the Trauma Healing Training seminar.  Part of the program is that those who are trained hold two groups in which they go over the materials with others.  This lady had already held her two groups and presented the participants with certificates.  Unfortunately I didn't get a picture of that.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

My Favorite Vacation

Tuesday and it's time to link up with Momfessionals for "Show and Tell".  Oh, woops, it's Wednesday....and will probably be Thursday before I actually get this posted.

It's hard to think of a favorite vacation.  When I was a kid growing up in Nigeria, our parents always got a month of "holidays" which they always took in Miango where our mission had a "rest center".  It was an ideal place for vacation:  all meals prepared, peace and quiet, time to read, sleep, hike, etc.  The thing is, Miango was also the location of the boarding school where us kids attended.  My parents always came in March, so when they came we would move into their cabin with them, but we still attended school and life carried on as normal.  Except that our parents were there and that far outweighed the fact that us kids never actually went anywhere on vacation.  Except during Christmas and summer holidays we got to go home, so I guess that was our vacation.

When we returned to the USA, our family still didn't go on vacation, as in to a special place.  Instead, we always took my parent's vacation time and visited relatives.  Which was fine by me.  Playing with cousins beats time at a resort anytime as far as I was concerned! (That's me on the top left....somehow my brother wasn't in this picture of a time the Texas cousins came to visit us.)

 Then when John and I got married and became missionaries to Niger, we also spent our holiday time down in Miango in Nigeria.  It really was a mom's dream vacation, especially those three meals served daily.  Just show up to the dining room!  Oh, yes, and afternoon tea every afternoon at 3:00.  After siesta. Miango is on a plateau and not in a big town, so there are a lot of beautiful places to hike, which we did at least several times a week.  

And if you go at the right time of year, it rains every afternoon, something that we don't get as much of up in Niger.
There were always other families there so our kids just spent hours playing outside or going with us on group hikes.

Every family had their own "cabin" which consisted of two or three bedrooms and a bathroom.

In the evenings we would gather for group devotions.  Sometimes we would watch a movie together or play games together.

Then it got really hard to travel down to Nigeria and we started looking for other places to go.  Two different years we went to The Gambia to visit my sister and her family.  Those were also fabulous vacations because we were with family and  we got to stay in nice hotels along the beach.  The summer months are actually off-tourist season so we got really good deals on hotels.  Every night we would eat out or cook simple fare in our suites.  Mostly we hung out at the pool and walked along the beach.  The undertow there is pretty scary, so we didn't swim much in the ocean.  The first three pictures are from our first trip to The Gambia and the last two from our second trip.

The year between Suzanne's junior and senior years in high school, we had nowhere to go for vacation.  Getting down to Miango had become difficult and we couldn't afford to go back to the USA.  But we needed a break from work and from the heat.  In passing one day I asked a friend if she knew anybody who needed a house sitter during the summer.  She said, yes, she had a friend employed by the US Embassy who was looking for someone to stay in their house and take care of their cats.  That was a great vacation for us.  We didn't have to stay anywhere, yet it was like we'd traveled to the USA.  Every room was air-conditioned and set at about 72, much cooler than we keep our house.  There was a pool in the backyard.  They had a connection to Armed Forces Network TV, lots of movies, and a Wii.  I still had to cook, but we ate out a lot.  Suz had a lot of friends over and we kind of adopted all the single guys who enjoyed playing video games and watching AFN.  

For me a good vacation involves having family around and going to a place that gives us all a break from work, including cooking!