July 2012


This weekend I went up to Hudson, NY for a wedding. A childhood friend of my brother Ian from our home town of Jos was getting married, and Ian flew through 3 continents (Asia, Europe and Africa) to be there (!) Several of Ian’s classmates from our school in Nigeria were there too including the best man whom I’d not seen in 30 years! Besides a wedding, it felt like a small high school reunion. We laughed and reminisced, relishing times long gone, remembering those years with deep affection.

There was a sense of tremendous joy at the wedding.  J’s mother, a Nigerian, and his father, a white American, who now live in Ohio had flown in. And the pastor who married them – the best man’s father – had lived in Nigeria for 13 years, so even though I never knew them – I had graduated by the time they came – we chatted like old friends, united by an attachment to a beloved place.

But for me, there was a tinge of sadness laced throughout the event. Although we were on the edge of a valley, with sweeping views of the Catskill mountains (?), on a beautiful farm, and they were being married by a Lutheran pastor, neither the bride nor groom claim Jesus as the Lord of their lives. So there was no scripture reading, no hymns, no mention of marriage of being a human approximation of Christ’s relationship to us his church. In fact there was no mention of Jesus at all, and only several cursory mentions of God, the very one who created marriage.

I felt awful feeling sad and even worried at points that I was being overly sensitive at best or self-righteous at worst.

And then, this morning, one of the verses my Celtic devotional led me to was this: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” Gen 29:16. A statement Jacob made while he dreamed and saw a stairway extending down from heaven.

I chose to interpret this verse as God’s re-assurance to me that he had been fully present at that wedding – something of course I knew in my head. He was in the joy and in the toasts and the stories and their journeys and our journeys bound up in theirs, and in the celebration of family and of committment and of love.

I was simply looking for him in the wrong places.

 

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Three years ago in early July, before South Sudan was an independent nation, I had the opportunity to visit this vast land. I flew in from Arua in northern Uganda, but before arriving at our destination of Mundri in the state of Western Equatoria, we stopped at Yambio (it’s capital) and Maradi. Unlike what I expected – in my mind Sudan would be dry and barren – the morning flights revealed a land lush green and bursting with agricultural potential.

It’s people demonstrated tremendous potential as well.  In touring a Theologicial College while I was there – picture a shell of a building abandoned by 2 decades of war – I met Pastor Paul, the principal of the college who was feverishly working to revive what had once been an influential learning center of Christian education. He had a master’s degree that he’d obtained in South Korea and which required him to learn both Hebrew and Greek! His wife and young children lived in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. He would stay in Mundri for 2 months and then return to his family for s short time, only to come back to his calling at the seminary. And if that weren’t sobering enough, he was supplementing his income by teaching at a college in Khartoum, where he was a graduate. I don’t know how he managed all these commitments, but hearing his story  was a humbling example of “the cost of discipleship.”

I also met an Episcopal Bishop of the local episcopal diocese. He and his wife had recently returned to South Sudan after many years away – also determined to re-build what would become a new nation, even if it meant leaving their children in school in Uganda.

These examples of South Sudanese willing to make incredible sacrifices to develop their land still resonate with me 3 years on.

From all accounts the first year of independence has been tough. The practical reality of life day-to-day has not really changed much for ordinary people.  And at the political levels, there is still a border dispute with Sudan to the north, unresolved issues related to oil, and rumors of vast corruption.

But I have to say I remain optimistic for this fledgling nation. The most important resource of any country are its people and if the few South Sudanese that I encountered – there were others besides these 2 mentioned here – are any indication, they are ready to work hard and sacrifice for the greater good, to build a nation that will make them and others proud.

This year as they turn 1, let’s at least applaud them for their efforts.