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Be Like a Tree

Willow Blues on the Ohio, Oil on Canvas, 11×14, painted at Captain’s Quarters in Louisville, KY, by Susan E. Brooks

That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

—Psalms 1:3 (NIV)

            Which season is this? After moving from Kentucky to Mozambique, Africa, it was sometimes difficult to tell. In Mozambique in December, my Christmas candles bent completely over like the Golden Arches in the extreme heat. When it wasn’t raining, the sun beamed into our bedroom at 4:00 a.m., and we woke up soaked in sweat.

Then in June through August, sand storms blew so hard we had to shield our eyes just to walk outside. Though the temperature rarely fell much below fifty degrees, the homes had no heat, so we felt the cold, especially after the sweltering rainy season. Our sense of seasons was off balance, but God knew exactly what season it was, not only for Mozambique, but for our lives.

Seasons of change and unrest come and go, such as the season of the pandemic or the season of civil rights movements. How can we stay rooted and productive when we may not even understand what season it is?

Psalm 1 says we need to be like a tree planted close to the water, which is our Source. Then we will bear fruit in season, even if we may not know what season it is. If we stay close to the life stream, fruit will come naturally at just the right time.

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Mozambican Odyssey, #26: Stuck Between Two Countries

Some of us feel stuck now, waiting for the chance to get on with life. Window to the Soul, Oil Pastel on Pastel Paper, 14 x 11, by Susan E. Brooks

One of the best things about living overseas was having groups from the US come to visit. They brought excitement to our lives, and the groups were generally encouraging and generous to our family. Our kids especially loved the group visits because it meant trips to fun places we didn’t normally go. One of our favorite trips was to a game reserve just across the border in Swaziland.

This rhino used our bumper to sharpen his horn! That was a little nerve-wracking.
The elephants also came very close during the safaris in Swaziland.

I remember one such trip that turned out to be a little too exciting! Mkhaya Game Reserve boasted white rhinos, elephants, and a beautiful setting for a safari ride in close proximity to the animals. A group from Kentucky had arrived, and we loaded them onto a bus for the trip across the border into Swaziland.

At the Mozambican side of the border they checked all of the passports and sent us on across with no problems, but on the Swaziland side we ran into a snag. One of our visitors had a Mexican passport, and they said she would not be allowed to cross. We were stuck between the borders. As much as I wanted to do something to help, I could do nothing but sit and pray. Our leaders negotiated while the rest of us sat on the bus and waited—for hours. The reason they finally let us enter is a mystery to this day.

In some ways, what we are going through now feels like that time when we were forced to wait between two countries in a kind of “no man’s land.” Going back was not an option, and moving forward was not allowed. Now we sit still, mourning the past and fearing the future.

It’s a difficult place, but in these times God can do something new if we remain quiet and listen. Richard Rohr explained it this way:

The very vulnerability and openness of liminal space allows room for something genuinely new to happen. We are empty and receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words. Liminal space is where we are most teachable, often because we are most humbled.*

Eventually, God made a way for us, and we entered the land. In time, we will be able to move into the next phase of our lives, but while in this liminal space, maybe we can look forward with expectancy, “receptive—erased tablets waiting for new words.”*

*Rohr, Richard, “Between Two Worlds,” Center for Action and Contemplation, April 26, 2020, https://cac.org/between-two-worlds-2020-04-26/.

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Mozambican Odyssey, #25: Lessons from a Three-year-old

My son Joseph was quite the story teller at age three. Here he is ready for adventure with his monkey backpack.

On the spur of the moment, I was asked to make a speech in front of hundreds of Mozambicans. I was terrified!

It was our first wedding in Mozambique. As we made our way, asphalt roads turned to dirt, and the people in the villages stopped to stare at us as we bumped along with our three blond kids in the back of the Landrover.

Along the way people in the villages stopped and stared at us. Hero’s Journey, oil pastel portrait, 20 x16 inches by Susan E. Brooks

Finally, we found the church building, and the women welcomed me with kisses on both cheeks. They promptly led us to the platform up front. Oh no! This is not what I was hoping for at all. I was planning to be late and to slide into the back unnoticed—ha! When would I learn I could not hide in Mozambique? We were the only Americans there, and we were seated up front, facing everyone, with a few honored guests.

The ceremony carried on, and they asked Martin to give some advice to the wedding couple. We weren’t ready for that either. It would have been hard enough to think on your feet in front of a large group of people in your own language and culture, but he was asked to speak at the first Mozambican wedding we had ever attended.

Apparently, the tradition was to have family and friends give advice to the couple. Martin looked uncomfortable, so they tried to find someone who spoke English to translate. Finally, they found a young man with a little English, and Martin came up with an analogy, using the example of a triangle showing that as a couple moves closer to God, they also move closer to each other.

I was breathing a sigh of relief for Martin, when I realized they were asking me to do the same. Panic! Even the horrified look on my face didn’t persuade them to withdraw the request. I had to stand up in front of a church full of Mozambicans, and I had no idea what I would say. At least I had the young man standing next to me to translate. But then Martin had to choose that moment to brag on my Portuguese to the minister, and they took my translator away!

I couldn’t believe it. I was standing alone up on a platform with hundreds of strangers staring at me. In my panic, I forgot how to conjugate my Portuguese. The people were laughing at me, and so I laughed, and just stood there dumbfounded for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, I managed to give some advice in poorly spoken Portuguese. I advised them to pray together and stay together for always. I survived, and the wedding went on.

Sometimes I wonder how the world just keeps moving on, paying no attention to my crises. Probably I should be stronger as a result of all of that. Certainly people have survived worse. Will I ever learn not to be afraid of speaking in front of crowds? I don’t know.

My little son Joseph used to tell “ranger stories,” in which he, as a ranger, would face all kinds of foes–lions, gorillas, etc., and his stories always had the chipper refrain, “But I didn’t die!”

Maybe I need to learn from three-year-old Joseph. I didn’t die, so it’s all right. Martin, on the other hand, nearly died when I got him home after opening his mouth about my Portuguese! But he didn’t die either. Don’t y’all worry.

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Secrets from Our International Travel: The Most Embarrassing Stories

Young Girl Wearing a Capulana, Oil Pastel on Paper, 24 x 18, by Susan E. Brooks

I found it amusing that we had a shortage of toilet paper in the spring of 2020, and it reminded me of funny and embarrassing events from our travels. In an effort to make you laugh, I thought I’d share a few TP hacks I learned from our overseas adventures.

The Capulana Shuffle

First, we have the Capulana Shuffle. The young lady in the pastel above is wearing a capulana. Fortunately, for women in Mozambique, there were these big rectangles of brightly printed fabrics that were inexpensive and available everywhere, called capulanas. Women and girls used these as skirts, table cloths, picnic blankets, dresses for little girls, towels, baby carriers, and the list goes on.

While traveling in remote areas in Africa, I was taught by the veteran missionary wives that one can do the “capulana shuffle” if there’s no toilet around. So you tie the capulana around your waist, over your normal clothes, and you go outside where you can’t be seen, and squat, keeping your capulana around you as a shield while you do your business, and you use whatever biodegradable wipe you have or can find as your toilet paper, just make sure you don’t use poison ivy leaves, as has happened to somebody I know. I was never very good at the capulana shuffle, I confess.

Another hack I learned from our African travels is this: You could also dig a big hole in your backyard, about 2 x 4 feet, and pretty deep. You put two wooden slats across the hole for squatting, some kind of wall around it, and carefully do your business there, again using any biodegradable wipe you can come up with, but be careful, people have been known to lose their underwear forever in this type of outhouse situation. Just sayin’.

And with these hacks you can use any paper substitute instead of TP. In Mozambique, Martin learned this the hard way. He worked so hard to learn to preach in Portuguese, and when he did preach, he had to print off his sermons word-for-word, so that he could have the Portuguese in front of him.

One Sunday, after delivering a 10 or 11 page sermon, one of the Mozambican church leaders asked if he could have Martin’s sermon notes. He was flattered, thinking they wanted to study his sermon and remember the inspiring Bible verses he had shared.

A little later, Martin and his friend and coworker, Don Hulsey, traveled to visit that church leader at his home. After a trip to the outhouse, Don let Martin know that his sermon was shoved onto a nail in the outhouse, being used as toilet paper. Thinking there was surely some mistake, Martin checked it out for himself. There it was, all of his hard work and inspiration, being torn to pieces, strip by strip, and put “where the sun don’t shine.”

The Middle Eastern Watering Can
Some places where we’ve traveled, such as Cyprus, do not need toilet paper because they use water—no, not a bidet, but a much less expensive option, the watering can.

You can just place the watering can that you use to water your flowers, filled with water, beside the toilet, and rinse off with that. There you go. I honestly have never done this. I’ve just seen the cans in the bathrooms, so you are on your own as to how to dry off, etc.

The Portugal Plumbing Predicament

Back in 1999, we spent 6 months in Portugal, studying Portuguese, because it was the official language of Mozambique. Portugal was beautiful, with mosaic tiles, historical monuments, and castles everywhere, and we loved our time there in many ways, but they had plumbing issues.

In our apartment building, and I think in most places in the country, we were not allowed to flush toilet paper. Portugal was quite modern with flush toilets, but you had to have a trash can lined with a plastic bag beside every toilet, and that was where you put the TP.

So if you run out of TP, just get a trash can, preferably with one of those lids you can open with your foot, and put your used paper there. It doesn’t have to be toilet paper. Any paper will do if you’re not flushing it—you can even ask your pastor for his sermon printouts.

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Mozambican Odyssey, #24: Cholera epidemic, Corona, and Grief is a wolf

“Grief is like a wolf we keep locked in the basement.”– Shelby Forsythia,* Artwork by Susan E. Brooks, 24 x 18, oil pastel on paper.

As I think about our time in Mozambique and what we’re going through now with the corona virus, I remember the cholera epidemic that we experienced back then. There was no internet, we hardly had television, and what newspapers we had, were all in Portuguese, so it was a struggle to read them. One huge difference between that and this Covid thing is that you can’t deny it or get away from hearing about it.

In Mozambique, it was not unusual to see toddlers carrying babies on their backs.

But somehow, back in the late 1990’s, we learned that there was a cholera epidemic in Maputo, Mozambique; and many people were dying, including children.

It was terrifying for us, and there was very little we could do. So many people living around us didn’t have running water or flush toilets; and neither did they have clean drinking water, so they were getting it through their water, if they didn’t boil it. I remember we printed up some flyers to pass out explaining the importance of boiling water and washing hands.

Other than that, we felt that all we could do or should do, was stay home and keep our kids healthy and away from the epidemic. I remember feeling frustrated with some cross-cultural workers, who were not medical professionals, who went around as if they were invincible, in the name of trying to help, but maybe spreading the disease, and putting all of our children and ourselves at risk.

It’s always hard when the thing to do is to do nothing, but it’s not about us, it’s about the community, and our friends and family around the world, getting through this.

This time has felt so sad and overwhelming for me, and I know others are suffering more than I am. We need to allow ourselves to grieve during this time. I came across this good advice in a devotion earlier this week:

revealing your feeling is the beginning of healing, so simply acknowledging or naming our disappointment to God is an important move. This is especially important because many of us, if we don’t bring our disappointment to God, will blame our disappointment on God, thus alienating ourselves from our best hope of comfort and strength. . . .  
—Brian McLaren
**

In this time of crisis, go ahead and let the wolf of grief out of the basement. It’s okay to cry, and please, talk to someone. Let’s not alienate ourselves from our best hope, but rather pour out our disappointments to Him, and find comfort and strength.

*Quote from Shelby Forsythia was heard on The Robcast, by Rob Bell **Quote from Brian McLaren was from Richard Rohr’s email devotions this week

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Mozambican Odyssey, #23: Malaria, Corona, and House calls

Joseph always took care of his little sister.

From my journal written in 1996, Maputo, Mozambique:

A couple of weeks ago Joseph, our 6-year-old got a mosquito bite on his leg and it started bleeding a little. He got quiet and tears started to form in his eyes.

“What’s wrong, Joseph?” we asked.

“People die from mosquito bites here. Does this mean I am going to die?” our little son asked.

Wow. How much stress are we putting the kids through? Is it worth it? This is so hard.

We assured Joseph that one mosquito bite was not a death sentence. But as his mom, I worried, because I knew there was a remote chance that any of us could get malaria and die before we left Mozambique. I lived with a constant, low level dread and fear that I might not return to Kentucky with all 5 of us, that one of us might die of malaria.

Thousands of African children die of malaria every year. Oil Pastel on paper, 24 x 18, by Susan E. Brooks.

Malaria was a real risk, but every mosquito bite didn’t mean certain death. We were able to use mosquito nets, and we sprayed the kids with repellent, and we had access to treatment and medical facilities if we needed it; but Joseph was not totally wrong to be concerned. Malaria killed many children in Mozambique every year, and it still does.

Yesterday I was caring for my granddaughters, ages 4 and 6, when they decided it would be hilarious to jump up and down in the bathtub full of water to see how slippery it would be. I found myself panicking, thinking,

“I don’t want to have to take you to the emergency room for stitches in the middle of this crisis! What if they don’t have room for you?”

We are probably not there yet, but if we’re not careful, we could be soon. Now is the time to do something about it. Please “hunker down” with your family and do what’s necessary to protect the elderly and our children, who will not die from Coronavirus, but they may fall in the bathtub and need attention in the emergency room!

My granddaughters, demonstrating how not to act during the coronavirus outbreak.

And here’s another option if you’re in the Louisville area and need healthcare. That smart, sensitive little son in the picture has grown up to be a nurse practitioner in a medical practice that sends out nurse practitioners to your home. They are now accepting new patients. Here’s a number to call them if you need medical help, but don’t want to risk going to the doctor’s office or the hospital. Call 502-327-9100 to set up your appointment.

More than ever, we need to care for each other; and for now, for most of us, that looks like staying home and not hoarding hand sanitizer. Joseph’s group has already had to ask the community to help by donating cleaning supplies from their homes, because their medical personnel were running short. Let’s trust God to provide for the future, stay home, and wash with soap and water.

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Mozambican Odyssey, #22: When Our Son was attacked

When I write it like that, it sounds so terrible, and it was, but it could have been a lot worse.

Our son Kirk was 12 when he was attacked in Maputo, Mozambique.

Over our Thanksgiving holiday we had traveled to Nelspruit, South Africa, for our Christmas shopping because there was very little in Mozambique that was suitable or affordable at that time. We all chose some items that seemed special to us; and Kirk, our 12-year-old, had picked out a nice wrist watch.

When we returned to Maputo, Mozambique, Kirk was wearing his watch and enjoying it. After school one day, he and a friend were jogging around the school, just running around the block for fun and exercise.

Our kids attended an international school located in downtown Maputo, run by a mission agency from the states. We all loved the small school, and the staff became some of our closest friends for life.

As the boys were running, a local boy ran after Kirk and grabbed his arm. Kirk’s friend ran on to the school for help. The boy pulled at Kirk’s necklace and burned his hand with a cigarette, as he stole our son’s new watch. His main Christmas present was stolen, and worse, he was traumatized by being grabbed and burned.

He rushed into the school to tell us all about it, breathless and teary-eyed. I was glad he wasn’t hurt worse, “and he seems to be okay,” I wrote in my diary back in 1997.

I guess he was okay, but traumatic experiences can have a profound effect, and I still wonder if we should have done something more for him.

As I think about it, I wonder about so many children in the world who have had traumatic experiences so much worse than what happened to Kirk. Not to minimize what happened to him, but the fact is that countless refugees around the world have overcome incredible trauma, and a few of these courageous, beautiful overcomers have come to our city, Louisville, KY, to find a safe home.

Kentucky Refugee Ministries is an organization that helps resettle refugees that arrive in our home town. How can you help? Come to the opening reception to my solo show at KORE Gallery on April 11 from 6 – 8:30pm to learn more about Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM). You will have opportunity to donate to KRM, and a percentage of all artwork sold that night will be donated to KRM. KORE Gallery is located at 942 East Kentucky St., Hope Mills Building, Louisville, KY 40204. Hope to see you there!

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Mozambican Odyssey, #21: A fever Of unknown Origin

This is my husband Martin, reading to our granddaughter Dorothy. Oil pastel on paper, 24 x 18″ by Susan E. Brooks

Realizing that your husband, your high school sweetheart, father of your children, and best friend for life, could die at any moment, has a clarifying effect. All of the unimportant pressures you were concerned about—job, money, paperwork, laundry piled up, appointments, and deadlines— disappear from your consciousness and you are focused on one thing: Is he going to be all right?

Missionary friends brought us food and took care of our children, while I just sat in the small clinic beside my husband’s bed, praying that he would be okay.

After a trip to the villages in the north of Mozambique, Martin became very ill. It came on suddenly. He could barely get out of bed. We took him into town to see a Nigerian friend who was a doctor. The doctor immediately put him on an IV and did blood tests which showed a raging infection.

We still don’t know, but we think it was from something he had eaten while spending a week out in the villages. There he was, all hooked up to an IV in this clinic that seemed to have very little besides beds for the sick, IV equipment, and a metal chair for me. The doctor didn’t have the medicine he needed on hand, so I sat with Martin, and waited.

We spent two nights in the clinic. Cecil Byrd, our friend and teammate, drove all over town to different pharmacies asking for the medicine that was needed. He eventually found the drug the doctor wanted. That drug seemed to do the trick, and we were back to our compound with the kids and the team after a couple of days.

When we returned home, we called our doctor back in Kentucky to discuss the illness, which had been diagnosed as “a fever of unknown origin.” When we told him the name of the medicine given to Martin, he said that it was no longer used in the US because it kills too many people!

Nevertheless, Martin was better. God kept him from dying from the illness and from the sometimes lethal drug that was administered. We didn’t know exactly how he got sick or how he got better—still don’t, but God healed my husband.

I don’t want to go through that ever again, but there is something about the clarity that comes in the face of death that can help us savor life. Life is a glorious gift. Yes, it is filled with suffering, but also with joy. Some days I have no choice but to grieve, but most days, I can embrace life and choose joy. Today, I choose joy because my best friend still lives, and God is with us, even if we are diagnosed with “a fever of unknown origin.”

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Mozambican Odyssey, #20: Swaziland Safari

African Queen, Oil Pastel on Paper, 24 x 18, by Susan E. Brooks

Safari in Swaziland

Swaziland is a fascinating mixture of African traditions and western civilization. As we drove into the country, we saw a man in full tribal feathers walking along the road, carrying a brief case while talking on a cell phone. So cool! I wish we Americans were more like that. I want to wear a hoop skirt and a feather hat while talking on my cell phone.

Swaziland is a small country that is landlocked between the southeastern border of Mozambique and the country of South Africa. We heard that one could go to Swaziland and have an overnight safari for a reasonable price. A sweet friend offered to keep the kids while we went away for a night, so we decided to go for it.

The safari was in a white rhino reserve. We rode around in an open Landrover jeep, seeing elephants, large lizards, colorful birds, and of course, rhinos. At one point, a rhino came up and started sharpening his horn on the front bumper of our jeep! Granted, maybe the rhinos in this reserve were slightly tame, but still—this guy could have easily flipped us over. He could have hooked that big horn under the bumper, and we would have gone flying out. We sat still, holding our breath until he finished the sharpening and went on his way. That was a bit scary.

After a short afternoon safari and some supper, they took us to our accommodations for the night. Picture an Arab princess tent—not sure that even exists—but it was luxurious. Inside the huge tent was a soft, comfortable bed with a proper frame, covered with a thick white comforter, situated on a wooden floor with a table beside it. This tent also had a private flush toilet and shower inside. We were warm and cozy through the night, and in the morning they brought hot tea and toast to the bedside table. I could live in that tent!

The best time, however, was when we all gathered around an open fire where they cooked all of our meals. That was an African tradition that I loved. That night we gathered around the fire and discussed witchdoctor stories and local fables about the rabbit, the hippo, and the elephant. The rabbit was always the clever one. I asked our African guide about the practice of sitting around the fire at night. He said,

“The grandmothers used to tell stories around the fire, but now there are no more stories. Now we go in and watch TV, and I have to get away and go find some quiet.”

How sad for us, East and West, that the TV has taken the place of story-telling around the fire or around the dinner table. Maybe we can choose to be different. Maybe with our families and friends we can sit together, facing each other, sharing a meal and sharing our stories. Maybe we could learn a lot from the African grandmothers.

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Mozambican Odyssey, #19: Baptism in Mozambique

Joseph was baptized while we were in Mozambique. Baptism in Mozambique, 24×18, Oil pastel, by Susan E. Brooks

Baptism in Mozambique 

On March 23, 1997, my husband Martin was very happy to baptize my son Joseph in the baptistry on the mission property in Maputo, Mozambique.  The baptistry was a concrete box that we filled with water just outside the church.  Joseph was seven, but quite intelligent and mature for his age.  He was also small for his age, so in some ways he reminded me of a little drowned rat when Martin held him up, dripping with the baptismal waters, but he was a lot cuter than a rat.

He is the only one of our three who was baptized in Mozambique, Africa, and it was so different from any baptism I’ve ever seen in the US.  We were outdoors, and local children and were pressing in around all sides, so excited to watch the event.  There was no stage, and no safe distance between the spectators and the baptism.  There we were, all smashed together, a vibrating mass of humanity, with a man and his son in the middle, and the little boy saying I want to follow God and have a new beginning.  In his seven years he probably had not done much to be forgiven of, having always been a kind, sensitive child who looked after his little sister and adored his older brother, and never complained, even when his mom accidentally gave him chili powder toast instead of cinnamon toast.

Whether he was too young or not, whether we did everything right or not as we tried to raise our kids, I don’t know—I doubt it.  But I do believe God’s mercy is great and that He will honor our trying.  I think He will honor your trying too, because His grace is big enough to cover us all, and He knows we are made out of dirt.

Just a bunch of dirtbags trying to get by, and yet there is also something divine about humanity.  We are made in the image of the divine at least, and I saw that day, dripping with water, sparkling in the African sun, one of God’s kids declaring his love for his Creator, and all of the glorious God-made people pressing in close enough to touch him, and I think that’s as it should be.  We need to press in close at times, and open our eyes to the glory of God in each other, and celebrate the sacred moments when we get a chance.