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Thursday, December 29, 2011

1001 Arabian Nights

Well, it was more like 2 nights, and they were in Africa, not Arabia, but it's a good story nonetheless.

I had just finished a 7-month stay near Livingstone, Zambia, working with Overland Missions, and I was looking forward to getting home to Wisconsin and relaxing for the holidays. It was a busy several weeks leading up to the day I left and I was flying on a buddy pass so I was hopeful I would get upgraded to business class and get to rest while flying in style and luxury from Johannesburg to Atlanta. That ended up not happening at all.

I left Livingstone on Sunday, December 18, and had an uneventful flight to Johannesburg, apart from a unexpected excess baggage fee. I got my bags and went to check in with Delta airlines for my flight from there to Atlanta and then on to Madison. I was flying on a buddy pass from a long-time employee of Delta and I was confident that my priority on the standby list would clinch me a seat on the flight and I would get home quickly. My friend had looked up the available seats and I was even confident that I would get upgraded to business class. The flight didn't leave until 8:20 pm and I checked in around 5:00 pm.

Immediately, the lady at the desk said that the flight was full and I had to return at 7:00 with all the other standby passengers to see who they would let on the flight. Okay, I didn't see this coming but I'm still pretty sure I'll make it on. My buddy has been working for Delta since 1969, I've got top priority, I'm golden. Next thing the lady says is that I'm only allowed one bag, not two like I had flown with previously. The good news is that I can avoid the $200 excess baggage fee by packing my two bags into one and transferring 10 pounds of weight into my carryon. Great, now I've got to spread all my belongings out on the floor of the Joburg airport and try to cram it all back in. Never fear, I'm an engineer and I'm good at Tetris so I'll find a solution.

I returned to the check-in desk at 6:45 filled with pride at my accomplishment of successfully repacking my bags and avoiding a ludicrously large baggage fee. To my surprise there were about 20 other people in the standby line waiting to hear about whether or not they also would make it home for the holidays. Nevertheless, I remained confident that my super-duper high seniority buddy pass would save the day and I would triumphantly leave all these lower priority chumps behind.

As I waited, I began to chat with some of the other standby passengers to pass the time. I soon heard about a girl also on a buddy pass who had been waiting in Joburg for 4 nights now and that there were several other people in line who had been rejected before as well. It started to look a little like there was a chance I wouldn't get on the flight tonight. I spied a girl wearing a shirt with some Portuguese writing on it and, because of my history of going to Brazil and studying Portuguese, I asked her what the significance of it was. Turns out the shirt is from a missionary school in Mozambique where she had just spent the last 3 months as a student. Even more surprising is that she had been ministry partners with a guy who had just previously been in Overland's missions school and I had been his instructor and we had spent some time together. Crazy small world. The girl's name was Kat and lo and behold, she was the one who had been stuck here for 4 nights, and on her first trip outside the USA no less.

An airline employee came out around 7:20 and regretfully informed us that there would be no standby or buddy pass passengers getting on the flight tonight. Crap, now what do I do?  I would try again tomorrow but I was exhausted, I had no place to stay tonight, and I really hate haggling for taxi fare to get to whatever backpacker lodge I would end up at. I asked Kat what she had done for the last 4 nights and she gave me a recommendation of a lodge as well as the phone number for a friend of the ministry she had worked with who might be able to host me at his house. I called the number and sure enough, the guy lives a mere 6 miles from the airport and would gladly give me a place to stay. He hosts stuck missionaries all the time and had a whole empty bedroom I could stay in. Glory hallelujah! I had a place to sleep and someone to pick me up.

The bed was amazing, the house was amazing, the family was amazing, and it turned out to be the best possible way to pass a night and day stuck in a foreign city. I was so thankful for Sarel and his family for hosting me. Sarel dropped me off at the airport on Monday and we were both hopeful that I would get on the plane this time. Again I checked in with time to spare and was told to come back at 7 just like yesterday.

I saw a lot of familiar faces in the standby line and I got to chatting with Kat while we waited for the verdict about available seats. Even earlier than yesterday, the same airline employee came out and expressed his deep regret that again there would be no standby or buddy pass passengers on tonight's flight and most likely not on any flight out of Joburg until after New Years. So not cool. It was a ruling passed down from the upper management in Atlanta because they could make money on shipping excess cargo instead of filling empty seats with people they weren't making money on. No way to change it. The only silver lining is that we had the option to purchase our seats and then we would be guaranteed a seat.

Well, I hadn't planned for this in my budget and Kat was in an even worse position since she had no excess support raised to buy a ticket home. After mulling it over, talking to the ticket counter, and having a good cry (not by me, mind you), we decided to go back to Sarel's together and sort it out.

We got the word out to friends and family that there was an immediate need for cash to purchase our tickets and we started looking for the cheapest flights home. I didn't realize it until later, but my email appeal for help with airfare looked strikingly like those you get from a con artist petitioning you for aid using a hacked email account. Oops. Nevertheless, close friends and family and even people I have never met started to give toward bringing the two of us home for Christmas. By the next morning, we had enough from donations and from an advance on my airline budget section of my savings account to purchase our seats. Praise God for his provision through the Body of Christ!

We again returned to the airport after I had spent 2 nights in Joburg and Kat had spent 6 nights and we boarded the plane home. It had been a trying experience for us both but it turned out really well in the end. We were able to have several spiritual conversations with people we met while stuck there, Kat and I had some great conversations about ministry and leadership, we saw a beautiful picture of the unity of the global Church, and we saw God at work in provision and orchestration of unpredictable events in some pretty incredible ways.

I ended up arriving in Madison on Wednesday morning the 21st and Kat arrived in Portland later that same day.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

what just happened

I just finished watching the movie "The Tourist" and I couldn't help but think of what an odd parallel it is to my life at the moment. In the movie, Johnny Depp plays an Average Joe from Madison, Wisconsin, who finds himself in completely unexpected circumstances on a foreign continent. Sound familiar? That's basically been my life since May, minus the whole falling in love with Angelina Jolie part.

There are some days that I just sit and think, "What on earth am I doing here?" I'm just a kid from southeastern Wisconsin living in a community of random people from all over the world on the edge of the wild African bush and I'm trying to get work done in a foreign culture with far fewer resources than I'm accustomed to. I'm pretty sure that normal people don't willingly put themselves in situations like that and chose to stay for months on end.

On the other hand, there are days where I think that I have the best job in the world. I've been blessed with the opportunity to leave Wisconsin and travel the world. I live and work with fantastic people who love God and come from fascinating places and backgrounds. I get to live in an epic location with a backyard that most people back home would never even dream of seeing just once. I get to wrench on and drive all sorts of interesting vehicles and equipment that I otherwise would have never even touched. I get to build and fabricate stuff that immediately gets put into use in ministry right when I finish it. I get to experience and learn from a culture completely different from my own and develop life skills that I couldn't pick up any other way. I don't even have an idea of what "normal" looks like anymore.

God blesses those who love him so extravagantly that it's mind blowing. The choice to follow him wholeheartedly opens the door to abundant, adventurous, unexpected, satisfying life that is beyond anything we can think or imagine. No two lives are identical in the details of course, because we are all individually hand-crafted for a unique purpose by a loving maker who has his eye on each one of us just as if we were the only person on the planet. Every one of us has our own personality, calling, provision, and pathway given to us by a wise father and king who continues to pour out new blessing and revelation in ever-increasing quality and quantity as we walk hand in hand with him toward nothing other than himself.

Sometimes I don't have much fun in the things God brings me through. Sometimes it's really difficult, but I've noticed that he's always there through it all as well as waiting at the end. Sometimes I'm so excited with the way that he is working that I can't imagine how life could possibly get any better. But there's always something new, and it never fails to get better and better.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Emergency truck repair

As I was working in the shop on our Toyota work truck, I was interrupted by someone with the message that one of our expedition drivers had just called the office from Zimbabwe saying that there is a problem with the truck and they can't make it to their destination. This message was the beginning of another one of our epic truck repair stories.

I dropped what I was doing and called Joe, the driver of the expedition to Zimbabwe who had just called me. As I waited for him to pick up, I wondered what the problem could be since he was driving Maverick, one of our most reliable trucks, and his team had just left the base that same morning. Turns out that the input shaft bearing on the rear axle of the truck had failed, causing a horrible noise, a fluid leak, and impending irreparable damage to the differential. After discussing the problem with Ciaran, we had Joe slowly drive the truck back to the base after removing some drivetrain parts to prevent further damage. The most interesting part was that the truck broke down right at a campsite where there was a South African missions team holding a conference and our expedition team could set up camp there and do some ministry while Joe drove the truck back to the base.

We have two identical Mercedez-Benz 1017 expedition trucks in our fleet. Maverick is the one that Joe had for his expedition and Gobi is the one we've been working on trying to get back on the road after its 4-year hiatus. Our plan to fix Maverick was to take the axle that we purchased just two weeks ago in Zimbabwe that was intended for Gobi and swap it out with Maverick's damaged axle. Fortunately we hadn't installed it yet but we had done all the prep work so everything was already set up. As soon as Joe pulled into the warehouse just before 10 PM last night, we had a team of guys hard at work getting the damaged axle out and the new one in. After overcoming several unexpected obstacles that increased our workload, we finally finished the axle swap around 5 AM and Joe took the truck back to Zimbabwe a couple hours later to finish the two-week long expedition.

I've posted a short video about the job on my Youtube channel here

Saturday, July 30, 2011


By far the best thing about living here at the Zambia base is the people. With staff, volunteers, interns, AMT students, expedition members, guest speakers, and random visitors, there are so many interesting people to get to know. They come from all over the world, from all kinds of backgrounds, and stay for varying lengths of time and each person brings a unique contribution to our community here.

I almost find that I see myself in some of the young people that pass through the base. My journey to this point in my life has brought me through different seasons of ministry, community, work, education, and transition. I can look back and see how my understanding, vision, and direction has changed through my experiences in each of these seasons and now I can see that same journey being carried out in the lives of those around me here.

No matter who stays here for how long, they arrive with a set of assumptions, perspectives, hopes, plans, worries, and anticipations unique to themselves. Perhaps by the end of their time with us, some of these mindsets will have changed as a result of God's work in them as they work with us. Some people are only here for a week or two, a seemingly short amount of time but still more than enough for God to work lasting change in their hearts and minds if they willing. Like in my own journey, these short term trips can implant in someone a thought or desire that remains with them long after their flights have carried them back to their home and old life. They might find that the old way of living doesn't seem to fit anymore and they must make an outward change based on the heart change that was undergone while overseas. This longing, this desire deep inside that was awakened by God through extraordinary circumstances abroad continues to grow within a person until they are compelled to act on it as an answer to the whisper in their ear that there is more out there. There is more that can be learned. There is more to discover. There are more people to meet. There is more work to be done. There is brokenness to be mended. There is justice to bring. There is hope to be made known. There is love to show.

Some people leave here with a new direction. They find what God wanted them to seek after and they will never be the same. Some people come back to Overland Missions as an intern or staff while others continue on to other ministries. Some work and live abroad as a result of this newly found calling while others take what they've found and carry it back home to their ministry there. Sometimes I am blessed with being an instrument of change in someone's live. Sometimes I stand by and get to watch the change happen. Sometimes I see nothing at all.

In my time here so far this year, there have been several expedition teams come and go and the AMT students have now graduated and completed their course. It's been fascinating to see the difference in some of their lives that God has brought about in this relatively short amount of time. I can never know the full extent of their individual metamorphoses, but I know that a willing heart that is open to the leading and continued workings of the Holy Spirit can carry someone to new and glorious depths and heights of intimacy with God and through unexpected and exciting adventures, responsibilities, and duties. Whether the new path of a person's life carries them back home or forward into uncharted territory, it doesn't really matter as long as it's always on a course set straight at the heart of God.

Friday, June 24, 2011


We as Christians are always asking God to reveal more of himself to us and give us a greater understanding of who he is.  We ask basically the same thing through prayer and the songs we sing, and we are taught about knowing more of God from people who "know more" than we do.  Well, during morning worship the other day, I asked God to give me a better understanding of who he is and what that means for our relationship.  The next day he gave me an answer.  Here is that answer.

It was 8:30am and people were finishing breakfast and gathering for morning worship as usual.  It was still a bit chilly so we were outside the main entrance of the main center and I stood near my usual spot on the edge of the main circle of people in a patch of warm sunlight. I had had a couple simple thoughts rolling around my head for the last few minutes but now that I was taking time to be quiet and focus on God, these thoughts were amplified until they took up my entire focus and I didn't want to break my train of thought by singing with everyone else. I had simply been reminded somehow about how a Christ follower is called a friend of God (Isaiah 41:8, John 15:15) and I couldn't stop meditating on that thought.  It wasn't a new thought to me, but I'm pretty sure that God wanted to unpack it and make me look at it again more closely.

I thought about what my friends and I did when we were kids.  We would go fishing, explore in the woods, ride our bikes, build tree forts, play football, build things with Legos and destroy them, and a multitude of other insanely fun activities. What if my friendship with Jesus was like that? What if every morning, as soon as I woke up, I would run over to his house as fast as I could and bang on his door to ask, "Can Jesus come out to play?"  Of course he would smile real big and say, "I was hoping you would come over today." Then we would go out and have more fun than I could possibly imagine. Every day would be a new exciting adventure. Jesus would always know where we should go for the best fishing, where to find the coolest new discoveries as we explored, and he would always know how to make every new day the best day of my life.

As I thought about all of this, I couldn't control myself.  All I could do under this enormously simple and intimate thought was just stand there, perfectly still in the morning sun, in my red Carhartt sweatshirt with the hood up and my head down and let my tears make mud of the Zambian dust as they rolled off my face.  I couldn't sing, I couldn't dance, all I could do for the next 30 minutes was just be there and joyfully weep as I thought over and over again of how much fun it would be to just go play.

Be encouraged, dear reader, by your friendship with Christ. If you have chosen to give your life to Jesus and be his disciple, then you are his friend and he lives with you and in you. He is the friend that sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24) and he likes you and enjoys your presence. So, knock on the door to your heart and ask Jesus to come out and play. You'll have so much fun.  It'll be the best day of your life.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Natural Causes

After scratching our heads and doing a thorough check over the truck that had brake problems last week, Ciaran and I found the cause.  There is a fitting in the air lines for the rear brakes that is supposed to vent pressurized air when the brake pedal is released, therefore allowing the brakes to stop stopping the truck.  Turns out that this vent had been completely blocked by the nest of a mud wasp.  All it took was a screwdriver and some WD40 to clear the mud nest and allow the air to escape and the brakes worked perfectly.

A 15,000 pound truck had literally been brought to a screeching halt by an insect about thirty-five million times smaller than it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Grocery shopping gone wrong

There's a lot of people on the base these days and the pantry gets emptied pretty quickly as a result.  Groceries are fairly expensive here in Zambia so we try to send a truck to Namibia every month or so to buy groceries in bulk in order to save money.  Even though it's about 100 miles to Katima Mulilo, Namibia, from Livingstone it's well worth it to send a truck to buy 1,500 pounds of groceries since it's so much cheaper.  So, even though it's a routine event to buy groceries in another country, this time it turned out to be very different.

I and 8 other people got up before 5AM last Friday the 10th to cross the border early and make it back before it closed at 6PM so we wouldn't be forced to spend the night in Namibia.  We made it to the border just fine but as we were getting our passports stamped we realized that we were missing a vital piece of paperwork for the truck.  The paperwork that we had with us had expired and the current papers had been accidentally left at the office back at the base, much to far away to turn back to pick up.  Our driver eventually ended up working it out with the border officers to let us across on the expired paperwork since we were only going for the day but we still lost about 2 hours in the process.
Waiting at the border crossing

We arrived in Katima around noon, much later than we had planned, and we only had until about 4 to get all of our shopping done before we had to head back to the border crossing.  We all had different things to get so we split up and met again for lunch.  I ended up going to 4 hardware stores, 2 auto parts stores, and a supermarket and still didn't find everything I needed while the others split up between 3 grocery stores and a couple other locations.

We finished our shopping and made it back to the border crossing around 5:30.  The sun had just gone down and it was starting to cool off so we had to bundle up for the long ride home.  There were 6 of us in the back of the canvas-topped truck all huddled together under blankets and in sleeping bags just waiting out the drive.  Things were going really well until the brakes failed.  It was the kind of brake failure where the rear brakes stuck and never released, kind of like when someone forgets to take off the parking brake and then drives around all day.  Anyway, the smell of the hot brakes made us pull over and assess the situation.  So there we were, tired from getting up early and shopping all day, cold from the ride in the back of the truck, it's dark since the sun had long since gone down, and we're on the side of the road with seized brakes about 25 miles from anything and about 2 hours away from the base.  Luckily, everyone was in a kind of goofy mood at this point and we weren't going to starve since we had just bought $5,000 worth of groceries.

I poked around under the truck inspecting the brakes and Jack, our driver, made some phone calls to the guys at the base as we tried to work out a solution.  Things got worse when we tried to re-start the truck and realized that the batteries had died.  After flagging down about 10 vehicles that didn't have jumper cables an 18-wheeler stopped for us and loaned us two batteries to get us going again.  While we were hooking up the batteries, we fixed the brakes by doing some adjustments to the rear brake mechanism.  The borrowed batteries got us started right up so we thanked the truckers by offering them a case of peanut butter and we were on our way again.

We eventually got back to the base around 2AM after dealing with the continually dropping temperature, towing a broken down mini-bus, and having to roll-start the truck down a hill in downtown Livingstone.  The day just would not end, and our "routine" grocery run had turned into a 22-hour marathon of crazy African events.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Hit the ground running

So after about 6 months of being back in the States, I've returned to Zambia.  It feels good to be back.  It's not the same type of feeling like when I was here previously for volunteering or training, when everything felt new and uncharted, it's a feeling of familiarity, relief, and settling in to something I've been prepared for and have been preparing for for a long time.

I got to the base around mid-afternoon and I started right in with the swing of life on the base.  In the morning, I'll join Ciaran in the daily meeting with our workers, I'll be at the weekly staff meeting, and I'll head into town with a few people to run some errands.  There will be plenty to do this week and I'm scheduled to teach the Diesel Mechanics course to the Advanced Missions Training (AMT) students next week.  We also had a special time of worship tonight over at Jake's house which he and his wife and kids moved in to just yesterday.  About 20 of us walked the 500 yards out to his place on the edge of our land and had a beautiful time of refreshing, intimate worship just sitting in the living room with two guys on guitars.

It feels good to be back.

Also, even though I'm in Africa, I still get to watch the NHL playoffs. :)