27 May 2012

5 Things: African Sunrises

Longonot Sunrise, Kijabe
September 22, 2010
55mm, 1/40 sec, f8 ISO100

I got up early to photograph a near-simultaneous sunrise/moonset over Mount Longonot.  Unfortunately, the moon was gone a mite too soon for a very good image.  But just a couple of minutes later, I snapped this shot.

Tsavo Sunrise, Tsavo West National Park
April 10, 2011
300mm, 1/400 sec, f5.6, ISO400

Staying at Ngulia Bandas on our trip to Mombasa, I got up early to watch the sunrise from our porch.  While the accommodations are rather dated and run-down (read: mice, lizards and bugs making so much noise in the walls you could barely sleep) the view was perhaps the best we've seen in Kenya - for sunrises especially.  I had a nice long think while watching the sun rise over the African mist.  I blogged about it here.

Whistling Thorn Sunrise, Nyeri
December 11, 2011
125mm, 1/400 sec, f10, ISO200

The best part of this sunrise was photographing with my dad on their visit here.  The Whistling Thorn Acacia grows galls on its branches which provide a home for pinching ants who in turn protect the plant (because three-inch thorns are not enough!)  This image with the dew on the thorns, the warm morning light and the silhouette of Mount Kenya is one of my favorites.  You've really got to view it full-screen to get the effect (just click on the image).

Amboseli Sunrise, Amboseli National Park
April 12, 2012
150mm, 1/400 sec, f4.8, ISO400

This is one of a handful of great sunrise pictures we took on a family safari to Amboseli National Park.  Amboseli is known for is huge herds of elephants.  It's also the park that Heather spent significant amounts of time studying in during college.  I really enjoyed seeing the Kenya Heather saw before we were married.

Mara Topi Sunrise, Maasai Mara National Reserve
April 18, 2012
300mm, 1/125 sec, f5.6 ISO1400

I had a great opportunity to go on a budget photo safari with a couple of staff here at RVA.  One of the guys, Mike, does photography as a side business and it was with him and a couple of his professional photography friends that we got robbed in Nakuru.  This trip, while wet, made up for it.

      The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
      It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
      It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
      Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
      Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
      And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
      And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
      Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

      And for all this, nature is never spent;
      There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
      And though the last lights off the black West went
      Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
      Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
      World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
      ~ Gerard Manley Hopkins

19 May 2012

Camel Hair

Last August, Heather’s brother came out for a visit.  It was a quick stop on his way back to the states from India.  Being a single guy in his late twenties, he has this enviable drive and ability to see opportunities without the obstacles of children, limited time or limited energy. 

Shortly after arriving in Nairobi, he heard about a camel race in Maralal.  We read about it and in a fit of late-twenties bravado decided that kids, time and energy were no obstacles and headed off (about 8 hours North of here) to watch Andrew race in the Tri-camel-on, a run, bike, camel-riding race, kids and all.  Needless to say, it was an unforgettable adventure – one we’ll probably not be repeating.  But there are interesting spiritual lessons in just about everything. 

Toward the end of the trip, we were buying some mementos to remember the occasion.  I bought this ‘calabash’ or milk jug.  It’s a hollowed-out cylinder of wood that probably holds about a half liter.  The guy who sold it said it was used for carrying camel’s milk and was authentic (a typical hawker’s technique and a typically false statement) but this time I chose to believe him.  The reason? He only wanted 50 shillings (60 cents) It’s covered in rancid fat, and smells like sour milk and camel. It stinks to high heaven.  So why is it my favorite purchased trinket to date?

Camels are some of the most obnoxious beasts I’ve ever seen.  Their Kenyan handlers beat them with sticks to get them to do anything.  Probably because camels are incredibly stubborn and they smell so bad no self-respecting person would spend the time necessary to whisper in their ears and get them to be polite, well-mannered beasts of burden.

All of this has added a lot to my picture of John the Baptist.  A guy in the desert eating locusts and honey is one thing.  Wearing camel hair is quite another.  The stuff really smells bad.  It’s really itchy too.  I’m sure John didn’t have one of those fancy camel-hair sport coats.  I have no idea how they make camel hair look like that, either.  I’d think it impossible.

It’s always been interesting to me to think about John wandering the wilderness.  I always pictured this rough-looking character physically hardened by the wilderness but with a soft, teaching heart.  The kind of guy I’d get along with really well. The whole camel hair thing makes things a little different.  I’m pretty sure that by most reasonable people’s standards, he was a raving lunatic.  I think he even yelled at people.  Not, “Hey, guys… The Judgment is near, so maybe you ought to think about repenting. I can even baptize you, if you’d like…” but something more forceful – and probably not even polite.

The other day, I was reading John 3.  It begins with a perfectly reasonable, respectable man asking about the Kingdom of God.  Jesus explains and this man, Nicodemas, can’t comprehend.  Then Jesus goes out to baptize followers and sees John the Baptist there.  John speaks wisdom regarding the very things that so confused Nicodemas – the intelligent, wise, perfectly respectable man.  The scary part?  I’m more like Nicodemas.  I’d be more likely to listen to somebody like Nicodemas. Calm, confident, and well spoken. He knows all the rules and can explain complex theological issues quickly and clearly. But inside, he’s spiritually confused.  I’d most likely stay as far from the socially outcast, raving-lunatic truth-in-camel hair as I could.  Mostly on account of the smell.

It’s this culturally-governed religious construct I’ve been wrestling with lately.  The empty one that values regular baths over obedience.

"He must become greater; I must become less."  John 3:30

17 May 2012

5 Rules for Driving in Kenya

We bought a car a little less than a year ago and while learning to drive on the wrong side of the road, signal with the right hand, shift with the left, etc... seemed intimidating, it was actually fairly easy.  The more interesting part is learning Kenya's rules of the road, so to speak.  Here are 5 rules for driving in Kenya:

1: The Law of Inertia.  The Law of Inertia states that the vehicle with the greatest Inertia has the right of way.  Most drivers in Kenya have an uncanny ability to precisely calculate in split seconds the exact moment of inertia of any two vehicles.  We have a fairly large car, and it's a good thing, too - if we drove a compact car, we'd still be stuck in Nairobi traffic on that trip to town last week. This rule's corollary? Stop lights don't mean anything.  Somebody somewhere decided stoplights at roundabouts would be a good idea... but nobody knows how to use them.  If traffic is bad, a couple of policemen with radios will stand in the roundabout directing traffic; watch the police, not the lights.  If traffic is good, please default to The Law of Inertia. The color of light is irrelevant.

2: Flashing headlights.  Contrary to driving in the States where headlights are primarily used to see at night, headlights here are used to bully and intimidate.  Example:  A Matatu (12 passenger van used as a taxi) struggling to pass another Matatu up a steep grade will continue to drive into oncoming traffic while rapidly flashing its lights.  This means, "get on the shoulder, I'm coming through." (Never mind that the shoulder is a good 18 inches below the road surface.)  A nervy driver can call this bluff.  Generally, a vehicle in the wrong lane will yield in deference to The Law of Inertia.  Of course if somebody in your lane approaches with momentum on their side, you'd better yield.

3: Hurry in Africa.  Whoever said there's no hurry in Africa never spent time driving in Kenya.  There is an unstated rule in Kenya that if there is a vehicle driving in front of you, YOU MUST OVERTAKE IT regardless of relative speed, road conditions, proximity of blind corners, or oncoming traffic.  Most oncoming hazards can be forced off the road by flashing your lights - if your inertia is greatest and that's the whole point, anyway.  The more inertia the better.

4: The turn signal.  Kenyan drivers have a great idea for turn signal communication.  It goes like this:  If you're following close behind another car, the slower vehicle will put on their right turn signal, meaning either, "I'm pulling out to pass (sometimes)" or "I'm turning right (rarely)" or (most frequently) "stay behind me, there's traffic up ahead."  In any case, you want to stay behind.  Conversely,  A left turn signal means, "I'm turning left" (sometimes) or, "All's clear, go right on by." (most of the time). These are great ways to communicate - in theory.  The problem?  Half the time, the left turn signal means something like, "I turned left about 30 minutes ago," or worse, "Watch out, my hazards are on because my headlights are not and it's dark.  (Never mind that my hazards don't work properly, it's surely better than nothing!)"

5: Police checkpoints.  Police don't sit in cars here.  They stand by the side of the road in bright yellow coats staring ominously into oncoming traffic.  If they lift their hand and make eye contact with you, you've been pulled over.  The trick is to watch for eye contact.  I have no idea how this shakes out in court.

And a Bonus Rule:

6: Rocks in the Road.  All vehicles are supposed to carry warning triangles.  In case of accident or breakdown, you're to place them 50 meters before and after the vehicle.  That's the law.  But nobody follows it.  When a truck breaks down or has a flat, they park the truck in the middle of the lane.*  The warning?  First some branches in the road followed by rocks increasing in size.  You'd better slow down and be careful because as often as not, there is a man lying under the vehicle with his legs hanging out into oncoming traffic. The kicker is that weeks after the ailing vehicle has been moved, the rocks are still there - beware!

*Nobody pulls off onto the shoulder because there is usually a large drop-off to reach it.  Abrupt shoulder doesn't have the proper connotation.  Interestingly, they just spent several months reconstructing the shoulder on the road into Nairobi.  They meticulously graded and packed it flat.  It felt like a nice safe road for about two weeks.  Then they dumped boulders all over the shoulder to keep vehicles from driving on it. Now a quick exit to the shoulder would most definitely mean death to your car... not to mention risk of your own life and limb.

08 May 2012

Being Best

The other day we played the annual staff vs. JV rugby game.  It’s full-contact mud and blood rugby.  This year, I came out relatively unscathed (much better than last year’s detached lower lip and broken nose). 

Photo by Scott Myhre: Read their blog here.
A friend took this picture and put it on Facebook.  Another posted the following comment: “Oh my, not competitive or anything, are you?”  From the picture, it’s pretty evident I am.  Certainly, there are others who are much more ruthlessly competitive, but still, I try very hard to win.  It doesn’t have to be a bad thing - except for me, it usually is.

I spend lots of time thinking about how I can get back in shape, become an honored teacher, write the best blog… be the best missionary. We are commanded to be diligent; to do our best whatever we do but generally speaking, I’m more likely to ignore a faltering relationship with God than to slack in my public responsibilities.

Pastors get sucked into carefully managing their image.  Worship leaders pour their energies into cultivating a certain mood. Missionaries obsess over their personal contributions to the great commission. 

It’s not a new struggle.  Christ was constantly calling out the Pharisees for their self-righteous (read shallow) worship.  These guys weren’t thinking in terms of eternity but instead watching the court of public opinion - obsessed with being best.  I do the same: 

How many complements are there after I speak in chapel? How many compliments about how well I played in a rugby game or a soccer match?  How many kids say I’m their favorite teacher?  How many people looked at my last blog post? Do people think I’m a righteous man?  Do people think I’m a decent missionary?

I suddenly find myself floundering on the borders of faith with doubts and questions. I’m spiritually stagnant, regardless of how frantically I’m working.  The measuring stick is no longer righteousness… it’s my view of others.  And they inevitably appear just a little more holy, more spiritual, more faithful…  always better than me at something.

In terms of eternity, my measuring stick is perfection. Holiness.  And that’s an alarming and comforting fact.  Alarming because there’s no way I’m getting there.  Comforting because if perfection’s the mark, there’s got to be help.

My challenge: stop asking myself, “How can I do better?” And start asking God, “Am I being obedient?”

We’re not called to be awesome, just obedient.