Good morning, Africa!

Okay, that doesn’t quite have the ring of Good morning, Vietnam! but that’s okay.

I’ve never been this far south in my life, or even on this continent. The city of Maseru, in the Kingdom of Lesotho (pronounced luh-SOO-too) is situated at 29.31 degrees south latitude. This tiny country–a bit smaller than Maryland–is landlocked and entirely surrounded by South Africa. I’m here with a team putting on a retreat for the people working with Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). They’re the ones who fly to remote places, bringing needed medical supplies, transporting doctors and patients, supplying missionaries and so on. Some people living in the mountains might be five days walking from a doctor, but you can fly across the country about an hour.

Here’s a little language lesson: The country is Lesotho. The people are the Basotho (buh-SOO-too), but one person is a Mosotho. And the language is Sesotho. With me so far? To greet someone, say, “Lumela” (pronounced Dumela–with a D!), which means hello. Or say, “Khotso” (HO-tso–without a K sound), which literally means “peace.” Got all that? Good. I’m not sure I do!

Statistics paint a bleak picture of Lesotho. Of the 2,000,000 people live here, 40% of them are living below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day. Major employers here in Maseru include garment factories that provide low-wage jobs and are typically Chinese-owned (which has led to some racial tensions). The HIV infection rate is around 24%. Life expectancy is 42 years for both men and women (according to a 2006 figure).

But life is more than statistics. The scenery is striking; rocky, dry, and dusty, but striking. From what I can tell, mountains seem to rim the country. Roads through Maseru seem to be in good shape. We passed two shopping malls on the way from the airport to my host family’s home. Plenty of young people were walking home in their school uniforms. We also saw plenty of police presence, and the MAF worker who picked me up said that corruption is an issue.

Today our team met in person for the first time to prepare for the retreat beginning tomorrow. Till now, we’ve been getting ready long-distance, since we come from different parts of the U.S. and I’ve been in France. There’s one other musician here on the team, Richard. We had a great time in the afternoon getting songs ready and figuring out each other’s playing styles. We were getting a groove going pretty easily, so I think it’s going to be a good time.

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One last story for now: when my flight touched down in Lesotho, the flight attendant gave the usual speech about waiting to get our luggage till we’d finished taxiing, thanked us for flying with South African Airways, wished us a pleasant stay, and then added something I’ve never heard a flight attendant ever say: “God bless.”

Getting out of Paris

This could’ve been a lot worse…
Travels usually come with a bit of the unexpected. That’s part of the reason to travel, right? Well, today I got trapped in my hotel room when the lock got jammed and wouldn’t allow the door to open. It seemed a bit ridiculous to call down and tell them I was stuck, but it took two guys nearly thirty minutes to finally get the lock disassembled so I could get out.

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Aftermath of getting set free!

Actually, I’m not staying at a regular hotel. It’s a small, family-run winery with guest rooms in the Alsatian village of Colmar. I’m not sure how old the building is, but by the look of the wooden beams and worn plaster, it seems like it’s been here a while. (One of the buildings I saw nearby this morning had an addition dated from 1613.)

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Wine making equipment. My room is on the floor with the three windows.

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Looking down on the courtyard.

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Sometimes you have to dodge the tractor to get in.

The room was a bargain, both because it doesn’t include regular maid service and because the toilet’s down the hall. That’s how I discovered my predicament—I was just stepping out to take care of some necessary business when I realized I was dangerously close to being caught up in a bad plot straight out of Mr. Bean. I even looked out my window to see how far down it was in case my situation became desperate. I’m grateful it only took them half-an-hour to let me out—and I’m really glad it didn’t happen in the middle of the night!

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Looking out my window–not a great escape option

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Mission accomplished: brand new door lock

France, German style
This week the girls and I have France covered: I’m in Alsace in the east, Carolyn is in the Loire Valley in the center of the country, and Evelyn is in the Basque region on the coast near Spain.

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At their school, because around a third of the student population is new each year, each class goes on a weeklong field trip at the beginning of the year; the idea is that by the time they get back, they’ve all gotten to know each other and there aren’t any “new kids.” Since they were going to be gone for the week, I decided to take the opportunity to check out this region that’s passed back and forth between France and Germany over the years. Lots of half-timbered buildings, sausages, spätzle, pretzels, and plenty of German-speaking tourists give the area a much different feel than Paris.

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The back of the Customs House.

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“Petite Venice”

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“Maison des Têtes” (House of Heads)

Mediterranean retreat
This marks the second week in France when I’ll be overnight somewhere other than Paris. Last week was the first: I went to the Mediterranean town of Sète for a retreat for Covenant missionaries serving in Europe. I was asked to lead the times of worship each day.

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It was my second year at this retreat; last year it was held in a tiny village in the hills above Turin, Italy. It was one of the highlights of my year, so I was grateful to be invited back again this year.

When something is so perfect, the danger is that nothing else will live up to it, that past glories will eclipse what God is doing now. Thankfully, I didn’t consciously have any such expectations going into this year’s retreat. And as it turned out, things were very different from last year.

While the Mediterranean was lovely, we were staying at a much larger facility with all sorts of vacationers all around; last year we pretty much had the small retreat center to ourselves and the village was way, way, way off the beaten track. We had more cows and sheep for neighbors than people. So last year it was easy to go for prayer walks through the sleepy town and up into the forest among ruins of ancient stone dwellings and find time alone with God. I had some profound times of prayer on those walks last year. But this time we were in a tourist area with people getting to the water for the last gasp of summer. Even so, I managed to get out by myself and have some times alone with the surf breaking on the rocks.

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This year, I also came into the retreat with a deeper appreciation for what missionaries go through to minister in a cross-cultural setting. I’ve experienced more of what it’s like to not be able to communicate like you want to. I’m learning what it’s like to adapt to a new culture and how it can be difficult to know how ordinary, everyday things work (I still don’t understand half the functions on our washer/dryer and I haven’t managed to set up my voicemail—since the interface is in French). I’m still dealing with the aftermath of having surgery and dealing with paperwork I can’t read completely. My preconceptions and expectations about what language fluency means have been broadened as I’ve developed a deeper and more nuanced view of what learning another language really looks like. All of this has given me more compassion and flat-out awe for what missionaries deal with. And I think it made me a better worship leader for them.

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On our free afternoon some of us visited the medieval city of Carcassonne. 

It’s been such an honor to be among such wonderful people serving with all their hearts and facing all sorts of challenges and situations that I’m just beginning to understand and appreciate a bit more now by living in France. It’s been great to be welcomed into their midst. They’ve asked me to return again for their next retreat in August—back in the same little Italian village we were at last year. I’m already looking forward to it.