Friday, September 26, 2014

Highlight, Lowlight

Highlight Lowlight is a tradition/game/conversation we try to have daily as a family. We each go around and share the best and worst part of our day. For the kids, it usually sounds like this, "My highlight is I was line leader. My lowlight was someone laughed at me."

Today I'll give you my overall Rwandan Adventure highlight and lowlight, which both happened within the past 24 hours.

Last night was my lowlight when, driving home from a friend's house with Talya in the backseat, I was sideswiped by another (bigger) vehicle. We were both fine and the damage to the car was minimal, but it was just an overwhelming moment of NOW WHAT DO I DO? I've never been in an accident before, much less in a country where I am a foreigner and in a car that I don't own, and in a situation where I am likely to be blamed just by reason of my appearance (Mzungu), and can't communicate with the authorities because of language difficulties.

It got additionally confusing and comical when the police informed me that the other car was a government car ("His Excellency's"). My response was, "The government should drive better, no?" I thought this was hilarious, and the police officer giggled. Looking back, that is a very unwise thing to say in a country that offers no freedom of speech. Yet, God protected me from another driver, a system I didn't understand, and my own foolish words. I came home and the car is at the shop to get the fender put back in place. Where is Van Eck Automotive when you need them?

And then I had my highlight today. I believe I've mentioned chapel groups. Each week at chapel, we break up into discussion groups to chat about the morning's lesson. We keep the same groups, so it is a great opportunity to get to know four of my sixth grade girls. I've been amazed at the opportunities to talk about the gospel both in class and in chapel groups. These kids know the salvation gospel - Jesus died for your sins - but what a privilege to be able to talk about how each of them can be confident in God's love for them and what that means in their 6th grade lives, and in my life.

The last week of the month is set aside for chapel groups to spend more time together. The school provides sodas to set the tone and we planned today at lunch as our time to chat. So fun! Ineza, Laura, Elise and Nicole joined me over cafeteria food and Fanta and I told them we could talk about whatever they wanted. The questions started with what percentage of the world is Christian, which I googled and we discussed what that might mean. That led to their experiences with people of other faiths and Catholocism, which is predominant in Rwanda. It was fun to explore the richness of Catholic theology and a few practices which differ from what we teach at KICS. Then they asked how I met Mr Thomas, which is always a great story to tell to pre-dating adolescents.

It is a highlight to share our life with students - that is why we're here and I'm thankful God is providing opportunities for both me and Ben.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

I Keep Singing Oceans

Oh my gosh, I'm about to be a brat. But, today is Sunday and it's been a great day of worshiping in a church, eating with friends, resting at home, and getting to know new people.

And, earlier this week, I saw this post on Facebook called Stop Singing Oceans. And I skimmed it. So, let's be honest. I SKIMMED it. I didn't finish it and I didn't study it. What I read got me all fired up; it felt judgmental and critical and I started crafting a fine blog critique of blog criticism. And then I called myself a hypocrite and put the thing to bed.

But then, as I walked into church this morning (late), we started singing Oceans. So, of course, it all came back. What I took to be the author's point was that we shouldn't ask God to lead us to place with no borders if we don't mean it. Again, all fairness: maybe that wasn't her point. Maybe in my judgmental high, I missed some irony or a deeper point.

But what washed over me this morning as I re-wrestled with these ideas was thanksgiving. Because, every Sunday morning, I am invited to loudly and with spirit sing songs full of words that are impossible to fully mean. As a wretch, a sinner, at war with my flesh, I am unable to worship God with complete purity of heart. But, we gather together anyway and do it. And I am so thankful that we can do that. That we can enter into a place with God where we can say/sing/pray/recite/responsively read deep words of affirmation of our faith - a faith that I don't always feel, and I don't always mean, and I am terrified of where it will lead, and I still know is Truth.

I can do it with transparency before God because he knows my heart. He knows the things I am holding back. He knows the borders I'm hoping He will let me keep erected. He sees those things and invites me to worship Him anyway. He invites me to sing Amazing Grace even on the mornings when I'm sure I'm less of a wretch than you. He has allowed the great hymns and the contemporary tunes to be authored by sinners and sung by the masses. He asks for our my whole heart, but promises that where my worship is incomplete, insufficient, and inattentive, He intercedes for me with the Father.

So, I can sing Oceans or the Doxology or Holy, Holy, Holy to the LORD GOD ALMIGHTY. And on the Sunday mornings when I do it as a hypocrite (about 4 times a month), He sees what I'm holding back, accepts what I offer and calls me His.

One of the songs that I kinda hate, but still holds so much meaning for me is "Here I am to worship." The tune kind of gets to me, but the sentence, "Here I am to say that you're my God," feels like exactly what worship should be. Me saying that over and over again. Sometimes I don't have a lot to bring, but I can always say that with confidence and joy.

So, we have found a church that we are enjoying. It's called Christian Life Assembly. It's a fairly diverse congregation, but *feels* mostly African, which is something we were desiring. Today's sermon was a beautiful, truthful, deep, artful exploration of the gospel (Galatians 3:3) throughout Scripture. We are hoping to join a neighborhood cell group soon and get to know some more people. We just had a great dinner with one of the pastors and his family.

Disclaimer: Ben hasn't read this post and the opinions expressed herein are mine alone. (Susie)

Friday, September 12, 2014

A brain update and a pretty picture (not of my brain)

I had a brain MRI last week and it has yet to have been reviewed by my dr in the states but a few docs here have peeked at it and have given us the thumbs up. So, we pray thanks, breathe faith, and take another step into the future. 

Also, we are on a staff retreat right now in a beautiful place called Kibuye. I mean, these forested hills overlooking a lake look more like my lake George than my preconceived notions of Africa. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Baby, Baby

In no particular order, here is my firstborn through the years:

Gosh, I love him. He gets better every day. He's smart and funny and interesting. He loves to learn and read and ask questions. He is kind to others, and helpful to me. He has weathered this change with courage. He's nine and the older he gets, the less I find myself hoping it slows down, and the more eager I am to see who he's becoming. Happy birthday Simon - use your powers for good!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Diversity and the commitment to my discomfort

I read this article yesterday. Actually, I skimmed it. Then, I threw my iPad at Ben, and ordered him to read it and report on his thoughts. The sentences I skimmed in a hurry made a huge impact on me. I was fascinated by the principle presented on pursuing diversity, even though, it kind of seems obvious. If diversity is a priority in my life, ministry, organization (what have you), than I will be committed to my own discomfort. I will prioritize my dissatisfaction, and I will not whine when I experience it. I will offer up my preferences to Jesus for another who is different than me, and I will do it in praise.

I read this from the standpoint of someone whose main ministry responsibilities outside of the home have involved conference planning (heavy on musical worship, prayer and Bible teaching). I have worked on teams where we have put A LOT of thought into reflecting and encouraging diversity - in a context that is not super diverse. The context is important, because reflecting diversity is easy (I would imagine) if you have it. For instance, if I was to put together promotional materials for KICS, it would be a natural thing requiring no effort in photoshop to reflect diversity in our student body. It's just there. Showing it and celebrating it are easy. In my last ministry assignment, there wasn't a lot of diversity to reflect, but we had a desire to encourage it, and facilitate it. Of course, there was a tiny bit of ethnic diversity in our conference rooms, and honoring and respecting those brave souls (because, it takes courage, people, to be the glaringly invisible one in the room every day at your job) and their backgrounds, cultures and preferences was important.

I also think about this issue from my current situation - a minority in a foreign country. This situation also requires complex distinctions, because in my current context, minority does not equal marginalized. I'm an ethnic minority, but my relative wealth still grants me a power and privilege that are likened to the white privilege I bore at home. (Pause for a conversation on intersectionality....) In my Rwandaful world, there is a community of ex-pats that is the most dangerous size: small enough to know everyone in it and large enough to adequately meet my social needs (taking away the need to burst the bubble and interact with people who come from a background significantly different than my own).

My point is, there or here, living a life that reflects and encourages diversity requires intentionality.

So, this church, East End Fellowship in Richmond Virginia, has a rule:
When we gather together to worship on Sundays, everyone should be happy with no more than 75% of what is happening during the worship service. Why such a strange rule? Because we realize that in our culturally diverse congregation, if you are happy and comfortable with more than 75% of what is going on, it most likely means that your personal cultural preferences are being dominantly expressed. So we’ve decided that no one cultural form will be dominant and everyone will be equally unhappy with the worship!
What if I approached my conference planning with that goal in mind? What if I scanned the post-event evaluations with an eye toward holding myself accountable to that? What if our emcee informed the group at each session that each person in the room would only be happy with 75% of the night - in deference to another?

In church. What if I ran away from a church that scored an A+ on my comfortability scale? What if I sought out a church that made me roll my eyes a minimum of five times a service or squirm in my seat - but where I looked around and my brother and sisters had their hands raised in Allelujahs?
What kind of bravery would it take to intentionally fall short of people's expectations - a whole 25% of the time?

More importantly, what if I trusted Jesus to transform my rolling eyes into thank offerings and my squirms into dancing?

My Jesus calls me to a life of self-sacrifice, and I willingly offer that to him in so many areas, but I cling to my preference on worship. Hymns! I demand. With their original melody! Stop changing the tunes! If you don't know what the words mean, google them, don't change them! How can you sing Glory Hallelujah with your hands in your lap? Why the repetition? I cry out, like it's for justice instead of vain preference.

What if I made a decision to be "equally unhappy" for the sake of another - and it led to us both being more deeply satisfied? What if I applied that "rule" - 25% of mine for more of yours - to my finances, my time, my marriage, my parenting?

Happy Sunday from Team Thomas!

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Rwanda has a very interesting take on community service. The last Saturday of every month is called umuganda, and the city shuts down for the morning for neighbors to come together to work for the betterment of the area. We still are learning about how this works. We first experienced umuganda in 2010 when we were here for our adoption. We had limited time to complete some important errands and got up early one Saturday morning to learn that we couldn't leave the hotel until noon. 
This morning is umuganda. With no construction work being done across the street, no buses or Moto taxis running, no shops doing business, the quiet feels almost noisy. 
I think the way it works is that each community plans a group activity and makes an announcement of the plans in the morning. We asked Eddie to scope the situation last night and he thought the official umuganda activity was maybe not intended for families. Mzungus are not specifically expected to participate, but we do want to be a part of our community as much as possible. 
So, after breakfast, we headed out our gate armed with bags to pick up trash. Kigali is relatively litter-free. 
There are some interesting official and unofficial laws that keep this city clean and orderly. (Plastic shopping bags are illegal here.) 
Yet, in 10 minutes the six of us collected 4 grocery bags of bottles, wrappers, parts of shoes, and other assorted items. 
A few roaming locals were definitely surprised to see us out there. With the gate and our car, a normal but unfortunate barrier exists between us and the rest of our world. 
What are your thoughts? I think the idea of umuganda is both inspiring and beautiful but the compulsory part is new to me. I can't help but think it would never fly in America where we hold individualism so close to our hearts. But what would our cities look like if we were compelled to take responsibility for them together? If we were all required to spend three hours a week picking up trash? We'd at least probably litter less. 
(Behold, the fruits of our labor)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

It's different here.

What's it like here in Rwanda? It's different than America. There are big differences - differences that I can't even explain in this format. But, mostly, there are a million small differences.
It's helpful for me to think through and reflect on that stuff at times, but it's also dangerous. Comparing can lead to perspective, but comparing can also lead to dissatisfaction or arrogance. Despite what my snarky, sarcastic (negative) tone might imply, I am much more prone to self-satisfaction than to dissatisfaction.  I love it here. The weather. The beauty. The school. The friends. The newness.
Let's discuss some of the differences.

We have help.
We have two workers - Eddie who is our night guard and also performs various outdoor duties. Eddie might be one of my top 25 people in the world (I think that number safely leaves room for family at the top). So far, he has hauled one guy off to jail who was trying to climb our wall during the night, he has made countless runs for Vitalo (my beverage of choice), he's killed a chameleon/iguana/lizard thing, he opens our gate when visitors stop by, and he's currently replacing all of the screens on our home windows so the mosquitos can't get it in. He smiles when I try out the two phrases I know in Kinyarwanda. He's fixed the netting around the trampoline so the kids won't get hurt. I don't know when he sleeps.

Imaculee helps me inside the house. She cleans. Everything. Daily. I mean, really. It's not even necessary to have a bathroom cleaned every day. Or your bed made. Or your exercise clothes ironed. But she does it. She also cooks for us a couple of times a week.

Having help is a wonderful thing, and I have to admit, I am ashamed at how necessary it feels to have someone clean up after us. But, I'm not comfortable with it. Nor do I really wish to be, I think. I CAN do these jobs, and in my home culture, it would fall on me and Ben to do them. Yes, we are providing jobs for people who need them, but that isn't satisfying to the deepest part of my heart that cringes at the idea that someone else is cleaning my toilet. Yes, we are kind and fair with our workers (more so than other potential employers MIGHT be), but still. It is not right. It is not wrong. It is also not comfortable. And, no thank you, I don't want advice on how to be comfortable or uncomfortable with it. It is the nature of our new life. And I am thankful for these people who are always around and who help us learn.

We also have a babysitter, Grace. Grace is a 19-year-old American third-cultue kid who comes on the three mornings a week I teach at KICS to watch Annie. She also babysits once a week for date nights.  Grace is an answer to prayer. She lives near to us and I can count on her to be on time when I need to get to school. Being a grown TCK, I love having her as an influence on my budding TCKs.

The Food.
One of things people wonder about living in a new country is the food. I've found that people associate foreign with weird and spicy and Africa with rice and beans. As a mom to four American children, I've had to develop new routines for planning, procuring, and preparing food. It's that tricky balance of leading them to embrace things that are different, while still realizing that they are kid and need to eat something.

So, there's lots of fruit. We are in a tropical location, so it's easy to get pineapple, mango, and tiny sweet bananas. Our two Rwandan favorites are tree tomatoes (Japanese plum) and passion fruit. The things we miss are strawberries, blueberries, and grapes. Imaculee usually buys our fruits and veggies at the market. These things seem a lot cheaper to me than they were in the States, obviously, because they are grown here.

Grocery shopping. Imaculee does our market shopping, but I shop for meats and dairy products at one of several grocery stores. It's not kroger. It feels about the size of a Trader Joe's. And the selection is similar too in scope, but obviously the specifics defer. I can get fresh meat (but not so fresh that I can hear moo-ing in the background), sometimes fresh milk, yogurt, and gouda cheese.

So, the challenge is finding a rhythm to shopping. The grocery stores are rather spread out and tend to carry the same things. So, either all the stores have fresh milk or none of them do. (By fresh, I mean the kind that has an expiration date). All the stores have vanilla yogurt or none of them do. Today, strawberry yogurt was what was available, so that's what I bought. Yes, I could make my own yogurt. Maybe I will, thanks.

Our staples have had to change. We can get cereal, but the familiar kinds are pricey, so we usually eat yogurt or oatmeal for breakfast. We can get peanut butter easily, and deli ham, so sandwiches are what the kids get for lunch.

Remember back when everyone's blog was full of pictures of what they bought at the grocery store and boasting about the deals? Well, here's my version of that. This is what I bought at the German Butchery today. (If you assume that the German Butchery is a butcher shop operated by Germans, you would be in good company (with me) but incorrect. It's kind of a chain here.)
Clockwise, starting with the brown bag on the left:
2 kilos of chicken legs: about $12
1/2 kilo beef fillet: about $5
strawberry yogurt: $1.16
Temmy's Sweet Flakes: $3.63
Honey: $6.53
Rwandan Peanut Butter: $3.19
1 bag of sugar: $2.03
a tin of popcorn kernels: $2.18
Nutella: $6.53

I passed on the cheddar and feta cheese because I thought it was too pricey for something relatively unnecessary. 
So, for a little over $40, I bought meat to get us through the next couple of dinners, some goodies for breakfast and lunches and snacks. And I'm sure I'll be back at the store tomorrow. Because we don't have wide aisles, huge carts, and a minivan with automatic doors, it is difficult to do a week's worth of shopping at one time. Yes, some people do. They're much better adjusted than I. But, I'm happy and at peace with my temporary system.

Ex-pats handle it all differently. Some shop around for the best prices at the different stores. I tend to buy what I need wherever I'm at. Just like I didn't coupon in the States, I'm not spending time on the price comparisons here. We also try to look out for each other. Today a friend found (shredded!!!) mozzarella cheese and pepperonis at a store I rarely go to, and she picked me up some. Therefore, pizza will be in our future.

Rwandan food is not spicy. We brought in our luggage a wide array of hot sauce, sririacha sauce, tabasco, buffalo wing sauce, etc. Ben is hanging in there, much as I did when we lived in India.

A lot of people have asked about Charlie. He is in pre-K, which isn't offered at KICS, so he just started at a school called First Impressions. He swears he hates it, but he seems happy. One thing I love about it is that it seems to be the most "Rwandan" setting our family has been in. I haven't seen a white kid at the school. At KICS and at church and around town, we are certainly in the minority (from a complexion standpoint), but there are foreigners like us everywhere. 

Charlie's first day of school.

School is about the same here. The kids are happy.  A few (blessed!) differences for us: no uniforms. less homework. two recesses!

Well, it's not deep, but I find these types of details interesting and it's fun to introduce you a bit more specifically to our Rwandaful life. 

Oh, I did decide to teach 6th grade Bible at KICS, at least for a couple of months until their teacher returns from maternity leave. I'm enjoying the students and imparting my excitement (if not my knowledge) about the Bible. Please pray for them to grow closer to Jesus and for Mrs. Hanlon and her baby in the States.

And, you guys, thanks for your support. Ben is shining in his new job, and I love having a front row seat. Not many people (I know of one other) can love hundreds of kids so well, but still have room in his heart for four favorites.