“Too many bags on the carousel”. She was not speaking as a literalist and her words struck a poetic resonance.
A few years ago I wanted to do a bit of “exit through the gift stalls” shopping at the Green Street Market in the centre of Cape Town. My hosts were working (African oxymoron alert) with a “street kids” project – hence my visit. They prudently opted for coffee having been there done that and bought the trinkets. So it was just my little backpack and I perusing the typical tourist-focussed fare. I purchased well-crafted bracelets and a handful of the ubiquitous little wooden animals that would slip into the luggage without breaking the baggage allowance. Mission accomplished, I joined my relaxed friends at the café. It was then that I discovered my camera was no longer in the pocket of my backpack. I felt sick inside.
All those photographs lost, including the magnificent views from the top of Table Mountain, a proud record of my once in a lifetime solo ascent. Never put your camera in the easily accessible back pocket of your day bag. Basic error. When will I ever learn?
The discovery of the loss cast a spoiling shadow over our excursion. We did other tourist things that day but I was kicking myself throughout. Eventually, as we drove back, a strange kind of humour bounced around inside the little rental car – wisecracking attempts to inflate the mood that had been punctured so stupidly. We saw a helicopter in the distance. It must be the tourist police chasing down Green Street pickpockets in illegal possession of a hot camera. It was odd though that the helicopter hovered right above where my friends were staying.
When we got back I made two discoveries in quick succession. My camera was on the floor. It must have fallen out of the pocket as I hurriedly swung the little back pack over my shoulder when we left in the morning. And there was a reason for the helicopter, which had now landed on the beach. A 10-year-old boy, caught in a notorious riptide, had drowned. It was a day out for his church. His parents wailed. Paramedics tried in vain for 60 minutes to resuscitate the lifeless body. Desperate tear-strewn prayers went unanswered. Now I felt a different kind of sickness. The revelatory kind that in the imposed silence quickens the soul to a reality infinitely bigger than the one we can scratch and snap. All that emotional attachment to my phoney loss and the real loss at the church beach picnic. When will I ever learn?
Too many bags on my carousel. This has been a season of packing up. A myopic attention to practicalities has necessitated many boxes and bags. I trust that my children will one day be grateful for the blinkered work accomplished in the last few weeks. Extreme decluttering has revealed the lamentable price of my subscription to the era of consumer hoarding.
A sister has a helpful policy as she assists me in the clear-out. She says: “I’m going to ask you a question. ‘Are we going to keep this or get rid of it?’ And you are going to say ‘We’re going to get rid of it’!”
And so piece by piece my stuff finds its way perhaps to the unfortunate charity shop (By the way, the technique for dropping off stuff at the charity shop is to run in, drop it, run out and drive away at speed before they chase after you shouting ‘who buys this?!’). Or perhaps to the (wastefully devoid of scavengers) tidy tip for recycling or (perilously) into the hands of someone else. Some things I felt compelled to keep. And my regrettable possession by the petty and the temporal spins around in ludicrous contrast to the realities of East Africa. In the middle of it all, I learn that a million Southern Sudanese refugees have crossed the border into northern Uganda, the drought persists, there are queues for water in Gulu and food is short. When will I ever learn?
There is a translation of Isaiah 53, which I am told is one of the trickier passages in Hebrew in the First Testament and so challenging to interpret. This version writes: “He was despised and the most frail of human beings, a man of great suffering and acquainted with weakness… Yet it was our weaknesses that he carried, our great suffering that he bore.” (Isaiah 53:3-4)
And the commentator (John Goldingay*) writes that the servant in this scripture has no need to make amends for anything he has done. It is people who have turned to other gods, trusted in politics rather than God, and let those with power and resources take advantage of those without power and resources. This servant has no extra baggage yet he punishingly carries ours without complaint. “This vision of what God might achieve through his servant helped the Second Testament to understand what Jesus was about and to understand the church’s vocation.”
This tells me there is something in the vocation to mission about suffering weakness without complaint. The good news is the Servant will never find my baggage too heavy. And if I am willing to sever my attachment to it, he is willing to take it. I have been training with the Church Mission Society, not quite in the centre of the City of Oxford, but I heard it said of that city that the old honey stone walls drip “you’re not good enough” whispers. No, I am not, nor will I ever be. I am not a “saving lives” rescue helicopter. But if I allow the Servant to live in me, there is a discovery to be made about sharing each other’s loads without complaint. I have much to learn and much to receive in Gulu.
My training concluded with a commissioning service. A heartfelt thank you to all those who travelled for the grand occasion. Former mission partner Andrew Wheeler challenged the notion of packing someone off to mission – “parting, ending and sending” - and instead observed “an entering into Malcolm’s calling in a certain way. There is a desire in our hearts to understand it, to share in it and to learn from it”. This means much more than the financial support for which I also offer heartfelt thanks. I covet your prayers. I welcome your insights into the transformations this journey will elicit. I look forward to a shared ascent.
The separation, loss and change of this strange liminal space I have inhabited lately has been material and emotional. Many of you know my dear mother died in March of this year. Just one of the ways I miss her is that I could share trivial bits of news with her: “Must tell mother that – oh!” And it does mean that there is one less bag on the carousel. And before the literalists say: “that’s no way to talk about your mother!” in the grand scheme of things I can start the next chapter without anxiety about a frail parent. And some might say: “what a typically servant-hearted thing for a loving mother to do.”
And so there are literal bags and boxes packed, sealed and labelled and there are metaphorical bags as well – still circulating on my steadily spinning carousel. Too many. When will I ever learn? Will the books be of any real practical use in the culture of Northern Uganda? Will I get a Tax Identification Number (TIN) in time to collect my freight? There’s a flight booking to confirm. There’s yet another visit to the travel nurse for yet another jab.
There’s a last minute hitch with a crucial former arrangement. There are still proper “goodbyes” to be said. There is real embarrassment about the circumstantial delays. There is anxiety about the patience I helplessly require of my hosts. There is increasing dependence.
And the prophet Isaiah reminds me there is a Servant who bears my weakness. These are my songs of assent to mission. It is certainly not all minor key twelve bar blues lament nor fast food Euro-pop but not yet triumphant odes to joy.
Thanks for reading this!