Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A little poem

Showered: A True Story

Clothes washed in a bucket
brown hands, dunked in suds

Again by the afternoon rain
while stretched out on the line

Later drenched with sun
the brightness, the birdsong

Tomorrow awash in clean
holding in warp and weft
smell of rain, warmth of sun
hint of song

Monday, January 9, 2012

2011 Top Ten Reads

I just thought I would review my year of reading... a varied list of books ranging from ecology to theology, poetry to prose, discussions about Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Authors were scholars (both Old Testament and New), Western and some African (from South Africa and Kenya), men and women, mothers, journalists, academics, activists and farmers. I covered some great territory.

A quick glance and I could easily point to the top ten that have stayed with me in one way or another:

Speaking Christian by Marcus Borg
Fatal Embrace by Mark Braverman
Testimony to the Otherwise by Walter Brueggemann
Begging to be Black by Anjte Krog
God is not Christian by Desmond Tutu
The Bible Makes Sense by Walter Brueggemann
Getting Involved with God by Ellen Davis
Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof
A Spirituality for the Road by David Bosch
Mark: The Whole Story by Richard Horsely

(three of the top ten are written on South African soil... something about that place and the people shaped by it speaks to me deeply.)

So more for my own record than anything else, there are the 2011 reads that stick.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Joy in the Moment

Egypt Erupts into Jubilation!
Cairo Celebrates!
Egypt is Free!

These are a small sampling of the headlines tonight, the eve of Egyptian victory against the oppressive rule of Mubarak. Today, all day, we celebrated the crack and crumble of an empire. I watched the celebrations in Cairo and had to catch my breath - it is so deeply compelling to see true joy explode like fireworks.

I sat captivated... because this is what liberation looks like. This is what true jubilee looks like... And what does it feels like? Spontaneous dancing in the streets that days ago were stained with blood and alight with molotov cocktails. Grieving turned into cheering. Flags of freedom waving wildly, like confetti, because joy could not be contained or restrained tonight. When people experience true liberation from the weight of oppression - this is what it looks like. I can feel the vibrations all the way across the sea!

When justice breaks in, when jubilee is made manifest in the face of the empire, there is one response from those freed - exuberant explosions of unfettered joy. It is what I see coming out of Tarir Square in Egypt, and I am mesmerized.

Tonight I turned on the news (again) and had my children sit and watch. I explained, in simple terms, what the celebration was about. "Mama, it looks like a freedom party" my son observed. Indeed, it is a freedom party tonight. And I wanted my children to see what jubilee looks like so that it would whet their appetite and ignite their imaginations for justice and jubilee in the years to come. I wanted them to see that empires do fall, that darkness does collapse and wild goodness does break out and break the hold of tyrants. I wanted them to witness, with their own eyes, that mountains (like Mubarak) can be moved. Jubilee is possible - see!

Some are expressing a good measure of caution about what comes tomorrow. There is fear about who might emerge from the shadows, who will manipulate or exploit the situation, who might hijack democratic longing. There is always fear. But I am choosing to join the celebration tonight, to participate in that freedom party in Cairo from my couch. I am deciding to delve into jubilee - because it does not come around as often as we hunger for it. I want to inhale deeply, to be intoxicated with jubilation...

We often live in the past - grieving what was and curious about what the shattered status quo and shaken stability will mean. We can live in the future, jumping to the worries and legitimate concerns and challenges of tomorrow. But there is something sacred about today, and living in the present moment. There is a call to be attentive to this moment and honor it. I want to experience this jubilation while it is present. That is my choice.

What does the day after jubilee look like? I don't really know. Tomorrow will show me. It will be my opportunity to respond to that moment with discernment. I am not so naive as to think the freedom party gives way to an easy democracy of my liking tomorrow. Deep change is messy, complicated and precarious. Anything can happen in the days ahead. I will be prayerful and hopeful that justice will, in each day or most days, prevail in Egypt.

Tomorrow has enough worries of its own. But for tonight - I choose jubilee.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Year in Review... via Books!

I have read a good deal this year, though not as aggressively as I did last year, I confess. Being stateside for a spell does that to you... slows your reading as you juggle other domestic demands and such. But I still read well and found exposure to new ideas, words of challenge and deep beauty. I thought I'd share some highlights, if only to allow me to savor them once more before closing the door on 2010!

The Best Read of 2010... The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. This text revolutionized (no, not an overstatement) how I understand Holy Week. I was educated, inspired and provoked as I turned every page. Each chapter takes on a day of Holy Week and brings fresh insight to the story we think we know. I see the passion, the cross and the resurrection with new eyes (and a new heart).

Best book I read again... The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. I am a firm believer in reading books again and again. I want to be washed over again by great words and encounter them afresh with each new year. This year I was regaled with my revisit of The Writing Life as I contemplated the task of preaching. She so wonderfully unpacks her art, sharing what it is to be an experienced writer / art maker. She both describes and demonstrates the best of her craft. Well worth re-reading again...

Best recommendation... Cold Tangerines by Shauna Neiquist. I did not get many book recommendations this year, come to think of it. But one that stands out... this lovely gem recommended by Sarah Gonski. This is a book as fresh as its title... it is colorful, crisp and chock full of grace-filled stories from an everyday life. This read was like a little pick-me-up! (Thanks, Sarah!)

Most Beautiful Read... An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. Here is the problem, I read this book in 2009. But here is the fact - it is the first book that comes to mind when I think of a beautiful read, and it apparently casts a long shadow! I would say that if pressed for the raving beauty of 2010, it would be Leaving Church (also penned by Barbara Brown Taylor). She is just a lush, lovely, luminous communicator. She honors words, she hones them, she allows them to serve the truth in revealing ways. A master...

Best book on preaching... The Word Militant by Walter Brueggemann. I read a handful of books on preaching this year in preparation for teaching a homiletics class. Let me tell you, it is not easy to find a good book on preaching. The best of the best... The Word Militant, a collection of essays Brueggemann has written over the years on the theology and practice of preaching. This is the book seminaries should assign as required reading to all preaching students! This is the book on the depth and task of preaching that I had been longing for, not just a 'how to' book or a public speaking book baptized with Bible verses, but a book truly about the theology of preaching. It is masterful, as one would expect from such a skilled preacher, scholar and prophet. If you preach... read this!

Best book written by an African author... TIE! Made for Goodness by Desmond Tutu and A Change of Tongue by Antjie Krog. This year the South Africans have taken me by force... the force of their words and ideas! Desmond Tutu has a way of communicating grace with levity, leaving you lighter and richer. He reminds us to begin in Genesis 1 - where we are made for goodness. Let that be the root of our identity... goodness. Antjie Krog is a powerhouse of a poet - she shares stories in such unique (post-modern, some have said) way, and with such intimacy, piercing depth and beauty. She helps us see the utter complexity of post-apartheid South Africa, a place not given to easy answers, quick justice or simple descriptions. The beauty of her words match the beauty of the country...

The book read in one sitting... A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. This is the only book I read all in one sitting, over the collection of dark hours late in the night while laying in my bed in Bujumbura. (Thank God for a Kindle and a book light!) There is something magical about the memory - reading into the night under a mosquito net, feeling the cool breeze coming in off of Lake Tangayika.

Most read author... Walter Brueggemann. None can equal him. He is scholar, poet, prophet and preacher. He is and Old Testament scholar but well versed in the New Testament and how to weave the two together. He is wry, witty and whimsical. Some books are steeped in academic language, others are more accessible and all are written with such precise and stunning language. I appreciate both his theological and rhetorical background - this is why he is such an inspired educator and communicator. Without doubt, I am most influenced by his thinking in recent years. I am a better follower of Jesus for it! I read many of his books (I did last year, and the year before and I already have a few more on my nightstand ready for reading in 2011...). This is not a testament to my reading... but to his writing, he is so dang prolific!

Worst read of 2010... Who Gets to Narrate the World by Robert Webber. It has to be said, every year there is at least one dud. This was my regret... wasting money, time and energy on this book. All I will say is that doing theology from a posture of fear and anger is not helpful. Not helpful at all. This was my only regret this year, as far as books go!

Honorable mentions... The Greatest Prayer by John Dominic Crossan, The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan and Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf. I highly recommend all three!

The List (I know I am missing some, but this is close to complete!)
* indicates a re-read

Telling God's Story, John Wright
Telling the Truth, Fredrich Beuchner*
Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor
Tribes, Seth Godin
The Witness of Preaching, Thomas Long
The Writing Life, Annie Dillard*
A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink
The Last Week, Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan
Then Comes the Poet, Walter Brueggemann
The Word Militant, Walter Brueggemann
Living Reminder, Henri Nouwen*
When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor*
Who Gets to Narrate the World, Robert Webber
Cold Tangerines, Shauna Neiquist
A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren
Divine Presence Amid Violence, Walter Brueggemann
Whose Religion is Christianity, Lamin Sanneh
The Challenge for Africa, Wangari Maathai
An Unsettling God, Walter Brueggemann
Serve God, Save the Planet, J.M. Sleeth
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller
A Change of Tongue, Antjie Krog
The Observation Deck, Naomi Epel
The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan
Made for Goodness, Desmond Tutu
Holy Trinity, Perfect Community, Leondardo Boff
Jesus and Non-violence, Walter Wink
Free of Charge, Miroslav Volf
Finding the Way Home, Dennis Maloney
Food Matters, Mark Bittman
Dialogue: The Art of Thinking, William Isaacs
The Art of Biblical Narrative, Robert Alter*
Covenant Economics, R. Horsley
Economy of Grace, Katherine Tanner
The Naked Now, Richard Rohr
The Greatest Prayer, John Domonic Crossan
The First Christmas, Marcus Borg & John Domonic Crossan
Out of Babylon, Walter Brueggemann

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fixated on Fireless Cookers

I have been fixated on fireless cookers ever since I learned about them from a friend in Mombasa this past May. I spoke about them so much that Claude threatened to start calling me Kelley 'fireless cooker' Johnson! The concept is simple: an insulted basket that allows the residual heat of the cooking vessel to complete the cooking off the fire and in the basket.

1. A woman can cook beans on the open fire for about 45 minutes, then put the pot into a fireless cooker and let it sit, unattended, for another 3 or 4 hours. The heat present in the pot, insulted in the basket, will finish the cooking process. So instead of the women sitting over the pot of beans on the fire for 4 or 5 hours, minding the fire and trying to keep the children out of the flames... she can reduce her active cooking time to 45 minutes and free the other hours for herself. She can use those additional hours to work on other things, to mind the children, or whatever else needs her attention that day. It frees her time.

2. But there is another huge advantage to fireless cookers in a rural setting - it reduces the amount of firewood or charcoal used in daily cooking. This means that women will spend less time foraging for firewood. It means they will cut down fewer trees to make charcoal. They will spend less money on fuel for the fire. It saves household time, money and energy.

3. In addition, the use of a fireless cooker means that people will cut down fewer trees for charcoal production or firewood, thus preserving their natural habitat. The land can stay in tact when fewer trees are used as fuel. So this fireless cooker is also a tool to help steward the environment where the families live. It preserves the land.

So I have been fixated on this idea, and convinced it would help our families in Matara. Claude agreed to let me try some prototypes this summer to see if there would be any traction with the concept here. So when our friends from Texas came to town, it was a perfect opportunity to go to Matara and make our first batch of fireless cookers with inexpensive and locally available materials.

We went with the basics - baskets, fabric, raw cotton, string, heavy needles and the instructions. I confess, I did get colorful fabric. It is the most inexpensive variety of the kind, but I just think that everyone appreciates the simple aesthetics of color and patterns in their kitchen! So the Batwa ladies and our Texas friends sat together and began to construct fireless cookers. They were lovely...

By the time we were nearing the end of the process, a crowd had gathered around us. The other women and all the men from the village wondered what were were making! I explained, with the help of a translator, that these baskets could keep food warm for a very long time off the fire. (I was told you begin here... then progress to the 'cooking with residual heat' in the next phase of instruction.) Right away a man blurted out a question, 'Does this mean the food will be warm when I come in from the field?' Yes! All the men cheered together! Already the idea was exciting to the men who wanted hot food on the table no matter what time they got home. (For the women, this means they can keep dinner warm in the basket, and not have to start yet another fire to reheat the food when he returns...)

But there was a slight problem... we discovered that all their pots were larger than the baskets and none of the pots had lids. So we had to go back to the city, get smaller pots with lids, and get them to Matara soon. Poor Claude got no rest until the pots were delivered to Matara!

Just this week the pots arrived and the women started testing the fireless cookers right away. When Claude was there yesterday one lady showed him her basket - with a pot inside. She cooked sweet potatoes the day before and they were still warm the next afternoon! Even with the cold night air in Matara, the insulated basket kept the sweet potatoes warm! It works!!! As you can imagine, all the women want their own fireless cooker now.

I don't get to do much in Matara, really. Claude overseas the community development work with the families day in and day out with his team (an agricultural engineer, social worker, occasional construction supervisor). I am the story-teller. But this was one idea I was so sure could help the women of Matara, could help the households and preserve the natural resources. So to see it come to life, with the help of my friends, makes me feel like I have contributed something tangible to the well-being of our friends in Matara. It is small, but it makes me smile to think that even I can offer something.

fabric, bags of raw cotton and some scissors to begin...

lining the basket with cotton, tufting it into place...

the first three fireless cookers we made together...

Saturday, June 5, 2010


Habits are interesting things... we all have them, but not the same ones. I have many a friend who cannot start the day without coffee in hand. I am not sure if it is the mental jolt they get from the routine of making the coffee - the sound of grinding the dark roasted beans, the aroma emerging like a potent perfume and the taste on the tongue - or, if it is the physical properties of coffee that really make it a morning must. But either way, they seem quite wayward and weary without it! Others, fewer to be sure, need a morning run to properly start the day. (I have never been in this habit!) Some people find morning devotions mandatory to set the day off in the right direction. And as long as I have know these friends, their habits remain as fixed as the north star. The day invariable begins with a cup of hot coffee, a brisk run, some quiet time.

My habits have never been as solid. Other than the obvious hygienic habits (who can feel awake until they have brushed their teeth?), I don't have a set series of activities. That is not to say that I don't have routines, I just don't keep the same ones for years on end! What seems to be predictable is that my routines are bound to turn like the seasons.

Right now my morning ritual involves making a cup of rooibos tea. Selecting a certain pen to write in my journal. Looking over to the mountains of Congo... some sort of visual anchor, I imagine. And then I locate myself by reading email that has come during the night, reading recent FB posts from friends, scanning the headlines in the New York Times and CNN. But it was not always so... for a while I had no desire for tea in the morning. For another set of months I could not see the mountains, the haze was so thick. Even time with the journal fell out of fashion for a spell. And I am alright with that.

I have observed over the years that what works best for me are gentle habits that suit the season of life. These habits are open to a nudge in another direction, be it from my internal or external environment. I don't have tyrannical rituals that demand I obey, enslaving me to one and only one way to begin my day. My habits don't bully me each morning, threatening a bruising if I don't play their way. My habits have always been kind, flexible and sensitive to the world in and around me. I appreciate that about my habits. I am glad they are somewhat organic. They lend me ample structure to start any given day, but are responsive to the seasons that come. So I embrace my semi-organic rituals!

What I know is that my morning ritual will be in place... until it needs to give way to something else. And so I can count on habits changing as I, myself, am ever changing - growing, I hope!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Some Space Required

I have been living in Burundi for a year now. This has become a space for me to try some new things, learn some lessons and even confront some personal unpleasantries, to be candid. As I've shared previously, one thing that has changed rather naturally here is my diet. We began last year with a family routine that included meat on the dinner table about 4 times a week. But then last summer the electricity in the city started to be off more than on, and this presented some challenges for preserving meat and ensuring its freshness. So we ended up eating less meat - none at home and even little elsewhere. We also had a change in house help, and the new person cannot cook tender beef, but he can cook succulent fish. So we began eating fish a few times a week instead. Here we are a year later, and we now are pretty much a meatless household. It just happened in this context, and I am learning that I can eat less meat and still feel healthy and even happy! This space has given me the chance to try something new and learn that it fits me.

I was thinking this week about space, and how you cannot underestimate the unexpected things that can happen when given a bit of undefined space. Last summer we had a couple of friends living with us here in Bujumbura. Here, of all places, they decided to start learning Spanish together. Not Kirundi or French, which are in operation here, but Spanish for their return to Arizona. Every night they would be hold up in their room making flash cards, conjugating verbs and working toward an authentic accent. What happened in that bedroom in Burundi that sparked their interest to learn Spanish with such dedication? I still do not really know. But I can say that they have continued in their linguistic efforts and will be living in Spain this year. Something happened when they had this space to explore something new and try it on. And as a result of taking advantage of that space, they are onto a new adventure!

Another friend came to Burundi and found space to exhale from a toxic relationship, to find space to imagine a life lived differently, to muster enough courage to make a decision and find a bit of healing in the process. We had no expectation for her visit, other to enjoy her presence. But in a place with little expectation there seemed to be an abundance of freedom to explore new possibilities for a new future.

So this has me thinking about space...

I recall, without academic clarity, an image from my seminary days. My Hebrew professor was exegeting an Old Testament text about intercessory prayer. And the concrete image the Hebrew language employed to describe intercessory prayer was one of creating physical space. The picture, she explained, was of a person hemmed in on every side by trouble and hardship, a person with no room to move. The action of intercession, according to the Hebraic language, was making space around the person, pushing back the things that constricted the supplicant, so that there was room to move, to breathe, to exhale. So when we intercede for others, we are asking God to create space around them, to give them space to move free from external pressures. Maybe it is a prayer that allows them just enough space to reach out to God. But while I cannot recall the text or actual word, I have never forgotten that powerful image. When we pray for another, we are making space for them.

And what I am discovering about space is that it is a creative, constructive and cathartic place. Somehow there is space where things within you can unfold. Maybe the space allows new potential to surface, to emerge like green buds sprouting from the dark soil of life. Maybe, as it has been for me, space allows you to try some new habits and see if it fits. There is a non-judgmental place where you can experiment, discover and investigate things you might never try at home. I don't know... I just know that I seem to need lots of space and I definitely benefit from it!

Friends have told Claude and I that we have a way of 'creating space.' We have no idea how we do it, really. We just show up and invite others to do the same. We set a table, put out some food, and are often surprised at what happens when we gather.

So is space a zone we inhabit or a gift we give to others? Is it both? It seems to be hard to define and yet so crucial for those of us longing for transformation. We need space to move, to explore, to try new things and heal from old hurts. Maybe we need to go somewhere for such space, maybe we need to find someone to be that space for us. But I don't think I am the only one who needs space in my life!