The book of Acts for today’s Jesus followers: Review of Into the Fray by Matt Mikalatos

Earlier this year, NBC produced a TV show about the book of Acts, called A.D.: The Bible Continues, and it was an eye-opening and enlightening look at what following Jesus looked like in the early days of Christianity.

I thought I would never look at the book of Acts the same way again. And I haven’t. mikalatos_IntoTheFray_wSpine.indd

And with this new book by Matt Mikalatos, Into the Fray, I have another whole new way of looking at. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my review.)

In  Into the Fray, Mikalatos retells some of the stories found in the book of Acts as if they were happening today. Because let’s be honest, how many of us encounter eunuchs today? (This was a particularly enlightening observation for me.) And how easy is it for us to read through these stories set in an ancient culture and walk away unchanged because they don’t seem to apply to us?

Mikalatos is one of the best storytellers around. I’ve recommended his books My Imaginary Jesus and Night of the Living-Dead Christian more times than I can count. He has a way of creatively telling a familiar story in a way that offers fresh challenges.

This book about the book of Acts clears any confusion Jesus followers might have about what the good news actually is and how to tell others about it. But it’s not a book about evangelism or outreach or preaching. It’s a book about transformation and how changed lives can turn the world upside down.

“We never expected our greatest lesson. It was a simple realization: we cannot change the world without being changed ourselves.”

Into the Fray pulls the book of Acts into contemporary culture, and each chapter includes commentary from Mikalatos about context and application of the passage from Acts on which the stories are based.

Fresh insights and relevant stories make this book a valuable study tool and resource for anyone who is engaging with the world around him.

The book of Acts will look new to you like never before.

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The day I thought I might never read another book

Two months now, we’ve been back from Kenya. It’s October, and late July/early August seem so far in the past. I can hardly remember what was happening B.K. (Before Kenya) and life after Kenya has certainly been a shock. Life has changed in some ways and in other ways not at all. I’m over the initial feelings of not knowing what to say, though I still find it hard to express all the experiences and feelings into words that make sense if you’ve never been to Africa. If you have been to Africa, I find it easier to talk to you. (Or if you ask really good questions beyond, “So how was Africa?”)

Short of selling everything we own and moving to Kenya (that’s not our path; not yet), I’m trying to find a way to hold on to something that is slipping away. And maybe the truth is that it’s not slipping away, not exactly, but burrowing deeper into my soul. You can hold a seed in your hand and admire its unique beauty, but unless you put it in the ground and cover it with dirt, you’ll never see its fruit or flower.

This is how it is with Kenya.

Our experience is like a seed that is buried now, but I’m watering it and giving it light. The only way I know to do this is with books and television.

In the weeks that followed our return from Kenya, Phil and I watched the documentary “Long Way Down,” the journey Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman took from the top of Scotland to the tip of South Africa on their motorcycles.  They spent two entire episodes in Kenya, and we watched the whole series. We fell in love with Africa all over again, and not just the pretty parts. The series showed Ewan and Charley visiting humanitarian aid projects and war memorials. It was not a vacation, though they stayed in some beautiful areas.

We also watched an animated movie about zebras, called “Khumba,” with the kids. It was a little bit scary for our sensitive child, but it’s fun to see them take an interest in Kenya now, too. When we go to the library or a book sale, they will often pick out books that have an Africa theme. (And I checked out three books about Kenya and Swahili from the kids’ section of the library on our first visit after we got home.)

I tried to read books during this time. In fact, I had packed my suitcase full of books for all the travel and “down time” (har har–we had almost none). I’m not sure I finished more than one book. And when we returned, I couldn’t bring myself to read. I often read for distraction and I was either a) too tired or b) unwilling to be distracted, and I worried that maybe I would never read another book again.

Even now, fiction has been difficult for me. I’ve read six novels in the past two months, and three of them were set in Kenya. I’ve been more choosy than normal about the stories I read, which is a bit of a curse when you have a stack of books to review on your desk. I’m suspecting that when the new year hits, I’m going to have to scale back on the books I say “yes” to.

If you’re interested in the three novels I read that were set in Kenya, they were:

  • A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve. (It was okay. Mostly about a newlywed couple who decide to climb Mt. Kenya and whose relationship changes after a tragedy. I’ve never read Shreve, and I’m not sure I will again.)
  • Angel of Mercy by Lurlene McDaniel. (Horrible. A young adult pick when I was in a pinch at a library and needed something to read in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. No offense to any McDaniel fans out there, but I found this totally unrealistic.) circling the sun
  • Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. (Excellent. A fictional look at the life of Beryl Markham, whose name I would not even have known if I hadn’t taken an obsessive interest in Kenya. I will read anything McLain writes.)

I love novels, but lately I’m finding that I need to read non-fiction. The first book I picked at the library after we returned was Out of Africa by Karen Blixen. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the movie, but I was moved by her descriptions of Africa and the surrounding land. It dragged on a bit toward the end.out of africa

And I finished reading Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. I started this book months ago but didn’t think I could finish it. Hard stories of what life is like for women in some of the poorest areas of the world, but when we got back from Kenya, I needed to read it and discover how women are finding opportunities to change their circumstances and the lives of women around them. It was more inspiring than depressing.

I also read Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis. I’m late to this party, but I loved reading about she was called to Uganda as a young woman and began adopting girls who needed a home. Her story was a picture of what amazing things God can do when someone says “yes” wholeheartedly.

And I’ve barely scratched the surface of the list of Africa/poverty-related reading I want to do. Maybe I’ll post some updates like this one occasionally. I never knew there was so much to read and watch about Africa.

What books would you recommend? You can leave them in the comments or meet me over on Goodreads and send your thoughts my way.

This is what ‘yes’ looks like

“Phil, why am I doing this? This is a bad idea.”

My stomach churned. I thought I might need to throw up. Anxiety crept its way up my body, threatening to choke any courage I might have left. I stood at the door, keys in hand while the kids kept up their after-school shenanigans in all parts of the house.

I could stay and eat dinner with my family and do the normal bedtime routine.

Or I could go to the volunteer training I’d signed up for.

Yep. That was the cause of my anxiety. See, to attend this training, I had to drive into the city and find a place to park my van. I had to enter an unfamiliar building and sit with strangers to learn how to help strangers from other countries adapt to life in the United States. And I would have to leave the city in the dark.

For an introvert, this is a deadly combination.

Sonja Guina | via unsplash

Sonja Guina | via unsplash

But I did it. I got in the van and drove into the city. I had a plan for where I was going to park, but when I went to make the turn into the lot, a man was standing in the middle of the sidewalk so I aborted that plan and went down to the next street. Parking in the city, anytime, is stressful for me. I’m never sure if I can park in that spot or how much money to put in the meter and I’m forever afraid of getting a parking ticket or having our car towed.

So, imagine my surprise when I found a spot right next to the building on a side street. That eased my anxiety some.

As I drove by the building trying to find parking, I noticed some people gathering on the front steps. One of them was a man with long hair, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt. After I parked the car, I was afraid to walk around to the front of the building because what if he was homeless. And then I realized how ridiculous that was because I was attending a training to help refugees–who are homeless!

Turns out he was there for the training, too, and if I believed all the western depictions of Jesus were accurate, I’d say upon closer look he looked a little like Jesus, so my anxiety leveled off.

We found our way into the building and entered the room and sat, not talking but looking through papers and a packet of information. Just after the presentation started, about a dozen more people joined us and I was intimidated by the look of some of them. I was in the city, after a work day, and many of them looked hip and chic and business-y. Maybe I was out of place. I’m just a mom, after all.

But then I remembered, again, why we were all there. This wasn’t something any of us had to do, I don’t think. It didn’t matter what else our lives were about. For this one night, we were united in our passion to reach out to others.

I was shocked by what I learned. Facts can be boring sometimes, but these facts represented people and for the first time in my life, I think I actually understand that.

Fifty percent of the world’s refugees are children. Like my own. There are 7-year-olds in this world who feel responsible for the safety of their family. I have a 7-year-old. She feels responsible for her second-grade homework and that’s about it.

Some families are separated for years in their journey to safety. This little office in a small section of Lancaster County in a tiny part of the world helps reunite families. Would I want someone to help me if I hadn’t seen my daughter in six years? This is superhero stuff right here.

When we traveled to Kenya earlier this year, we saw refugees boarding the planes we were on. We weren’t exactly sure at the time that that is what they were, but this training confirmed it. They were boarding planes and leaving countries of strife for resettlement elsewhere, maybe even here.

Did you know that refugees have to repay their travel expenses and they get a bill five months after they have resettled? Could you pay a $2,000 airline bill five months after moving your family to a new country and beginning entry-level work while learning how to pay other monthly bills in a currency unfamiliar to you?

Of the millions of refugees in the world right now, only a small percentage actually resettle in other countries. Most live in refugee tent “cities” for far longer than is planned or is healthy. There are some who have lived this way for decades. In Kenya we met people who had been living in an Internally Displaced People camp for seven years. They no longer had tents, but mud huts are no upgrade when you’ve lost the only life you knew.

Did you also know that refugees seeking resettlement are interviewed about their lives and personal stories and undergo health and security screenings before they are granted permission to resettle? Sometimes this process takes years.

And did you know that ISIS isn’t the biggest fear among Syrian refugees? No, they fear their own government and the corrupt regime of their president who tortures children and kills parents while the kids watch, who bombs houses where mothers sit nursing their children. This is why they leave.

I said “yes” to this training because I need to do something besides read and write and be horrified. I don’t yet know what this will look like, but I know that by the time I got in the van at the end of the night, I wasn’t anxious about anything.

Sometimes “yes” looks like an upset stomach before walking out the door because you don’t know what to expect. And sometimes it turns into stories you can’t ever forget.

What to do when you don’t know what to do

I’m feeling a lot of emotions these days. Some of them generated from the life in front of me–kids who won’t listen, worries about the future, fear about the past–and some from situations that are beyond my control and beyond my geography. I went to Africa this summer. It’s been a month since we came home. And the feelings I’m feeling now are tied to the things I saw there and then.

When I read about the refugee crisis affecting Syria and see the pictures of people longing for a home without violence and fear, I want to turn away. I want to get on with my life. Yet I also want to step in and do something. But even as I sit and read the article, there are people in my own home who are fighting over a toy or asking for food. There are needs out there and there are needs in here and I don’t know how to reconcile the two. Maybe that’s the problem. I’m trying to compartmentalize them. I want the time to take care of my family to be separate from the time I need to care about world issues. Maybe what I need is not reconciliation but some kind of intersection. A way to incorporate my cares for the world with the cares of my family.

Fifteen of us went to Africa and almost all of us, I think, want to fix something about what we saw and experienced. We want to do something. We want to change something. We were changed and that’s significant, but there are so many things to do. How do we choose?

The same day I read about Syria, I read this post, too, and it was an encouraging push to do something, whether it’s for Africa or Syria or my neighborhood. Even if it looks like the wrong thing to others, I can still do something. It’s the first part of that statement that scares me because I don’t like to be wrong. But would I rather be wrong and do something or do nothing because I’m afraid of being wrong?

I’m ready to do something.

I’ve written before that my writing is one way of doing something, and I’m still going to do that. But I want to take it another step forward.

In Kenya, we met people whose lives were disrupted by violence, whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed in a bid for power. They were refugees in their own country.

mud home

Their struggle is real. I looked at their faces and into their eyes. I walked into their dark one-room houses. For one part of one day, I entered the life of someone on the other side of the world, and though I offered prayer and encouragement, the words practically stuck in my throat because they sounded so hollow. Who was I to stand in that woman’s house and pray for provision? What she needed for a more secure house is what I pay monthly in rent. Let that sink in for a minute.

I know I can’t save the world. I’m not going to try. That sounds big and overwhelming.

But I can look at my life and consider what I have and what I can give. And I can do the next right thing.

In Kenya we also met a man who heard about the need in the valley, who knew that there were people living in tents in an unfamiliar place. He went there to see what he could do. They asked him to preach, and even though he wasn’t a preacher, he started preaching on Sundays for them. They met under an acacia tree. They became known as the tree church.

That was years ago. We worshipped with the people of the tree church in a building in the refugee camp when we were in Kenya. Because this man wanted to do something and then actually did it, there is a church building where people come for miles to give thanks to God for their very lives. Because this man went where he felt led, the children can count on one good meal every week. And he dreams of more things he can do, with God’s help, for the people.

So, I will take my one step forward. And I will let God take it from there.

It is a small step. Tiny really. But it’s something.

And I’d rather do something than nothing.

Today, I sent off a volunteer application to work with a local organization that helps resettle refugees in our area. This is not even a humble brag because it feels like nothing, but it’s something I was thinking about before Kenya and it has only grown stronger in my heart and mind.

That’s my “yes” today. Yours might look different.

And click here for an excellent resource if you want to do something to help Syrian refugees but don’t know what to do.

In search of the lion (part one)

We rose before the sun, our mission for the day–wildlife. The early bird might catch the worm, but the early risers on safari day might catch sight of a big cat, an iconic image of Africa.

Our hands put together sandwiches and other lunch fixings for the day, even if our eyes weren’t totally open or our minds fully awake. We boarded two vans that would drive us the nearly two hours to Lake Nakuru National Park. It was Tuesday, the second to last day of our trip. Our hearts were full of feelings, our minds full of memories and our bodies full of aches and pains from painting and hiking.

By the time we left, darkness was not far from lifting. Still, some of us slept on the way there. The time for seeing would come later. Sleep was necessary now.

We pulled into the game park, eyes open wide now, alert and expectant because this was not a zoo and animals could be anywhere.

First, we encountered ostriches.

I forget how big animals are in the wild

I forget how big animals are in the wild

And then baboons. Monkeys ran rampant at the park. It’s a bit terrifying at times.

Honk if you love monkeys

Honk if you love monkeys

And fascinating. They’re not exactly scared of vehicles, so they’re just going about their business. We would see large groups of baboons  sitting or traveling along the roads. We all fell a little in love with the mamas and babies, but baboons are a nuisance, generally, so best not to coo too much.

I’m not sure I can forget the sight of zebra on the side of the road, both in the park and on the way there. Like we would see horses or cows grazing in fields, Kenya’s fields are full of zebra.

Why did the zebra cross the road?

Why did the zebra cross the road?

A safari like this is not a passive experience, even though someone else is driving. We traveled in pop-top vans so that we could stand up and see out without ever leaving the vehicle. I can’t lie. This was my favorite part of the trip. Outside. Nature. Wildlife. A cool breeze in my face. I soaked up every minute of it and didn’t want it to end.

I promise you, I'm having a good time. I'm just terrible at selfies.

I promise you, I’m having a good time. I’m just terrible at selfies.

Our missionary friends told us where to look to spot a cat in a tree. Low, horizontal branches are ideal for leopards, they said, so our eyes searched the trees on either side of us, desperate for a beautiful and terrifying glimpse of a cat in a tree.

It’s hard work, your eyes ever searching the land around you for a chance to see something that doesn’t necessarily want to be seen. My eyes grew tired of squinting. I didn’t have a pair of sunglasses on me during the entire trip to Kenya. The gentle hum and lull of the van nearly put me to sleep. My eyes were inches from closing when we happened upon a tower of giraffes. (I looked that up–that’s really what a group of giraffes are called!)

No words

No words

They were so close to the vans.

Beautiful

Beautiful

Magnificent. Graceful. Amazing. Whatever word you come up with to describe them, it’s not enough.

We stayed in the giraffe grove for a while, sighing and taking pictures and pinching ourselves. Were we really seeing this? Gorgeous.

It was a turning point in the safari, I think. We had been seeing some amazing sights along the way, but there was an undercurrent of anticipation. We wanted to see some of the good stuff. (As if it all wasn’t good. I personally need a lesson in gratitude and appreciation.)

I’m a big fan of water, looking at it, at least, and I was not expecting Kenya to have so much of it. Africa, in general, brings to mind heat and sand and desert. But central Africa is lush and rich in natural beauty, water included. In fact, the lake for which this park is named, Lake Nakuru, is currently flooded, which has affected the migration of flamingoes and has diverted the roads throughout the park. Flooding. In Africa. Who’d have thought?

Our missionary friends had never seen this waterfall flowing

Our missionary friends had never seen this waterfall flowing

We lunched with the flamingoes as if this was an ordinary day in the park by the lake.

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It’s not as though we found animals around every bend, but every turn, every dirt road led us somewhere that was brimming with possibility. Would it be around the next turn that we saw a lion? What about a rhinoceros? My eyes roamed the fields and the trees, unwilling to miss any possibility, even if the chances were slim.

Each time we passed another touring van, the drivers would stop and exchange a few words, pointing each other in the right direction because no grouping of animals stays in the same place all the time.

This was how we found the rhinos.

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We received a tip from another tour group who told our drivers where a group had been spotted. (Google tells me a group of rhinos is called a “crash.” Seriously? Oh, my word.)

As the day wore on, our chances of seeing a big cat dwindled. No cats had been seen by any group in the park that day. Early mornings are often when the big cats feast on a kill, and while we saw vultures hovering, there was no way for us to get to that spot to see if perhaps a lion was eating a carcass.

We stopped at the lodge in the park, an expensive resort-like place, to use bathrooms and take a break. Our drivers, remember, had been driving constantly all day. Bless them. They were doing a paid job, but still, it was a demanding job. And they both did it well.

At the lodge, they told us they had heard the roar of a lion they day before. I cannot even imagine what that sounds like. The vultures were almost certainly circling over a kill, but it was inaccessible to us.

It was likely our search for the lion would turn up empty.

To be continued…

Africa changed nothing–and everything

Backs on the grass, faces to the sky, we counted stars as the music from an Irish band on the stage a couple dozen yards away filled our ears.

“There’s one!” “And another!”

We so seldom look at the night sky. By the time the sun sets, we’re usually inside, ready for bed, at least the little ones, and we live close enough to the city that stars are sometimes a luxury.

The half moon shone brightly, illuminating a plane in a way I’d never seen before.

And my thoughts drifted to Africa.

We saw the stars in Kenya, close enough to touch. We looked up one night on our way from one place to another and paused because we couldn’t number them and they seemed so near. We looked for familiar constellations in a different spot in the sky. “Look for the southern cross,” we were told because it’s not something you can see in our part of the world. I think we might have seen the Milky Way, too.

As I lay in the grass in Pennsylvania looking at the same sky from a different perspective, I marveled at how a person could see things so differently but still be on the same planet.

We say that sometimes, when people are disagreeing with us or can’t seem to see what we see.

“Are you from another planet?” “What planet are you on?”

It’s the wrong question because we’re all walking this same earth, but what we see from where we are is just so very different.

The same week we returned from Africa, I yelled at my kids over something that wasn’t important. I was tired, probably, and still trying to process all that happened, and we were adjusting to each other again.

But none of those are excuses. I beat myself up for freaking out at them.

Didn’t Africa change me at all?

It’s been almost three weeks since we’ve been back and I know the answer to that now.

It did. And it didn’t.

I didn’t go to Africa and come back a different person. I’m still the same body, mind and spirit.

But I did come back with a different perspective. Like seeing the stars from a different spot on the earth, I’m seeing my life and God and faith from a different angle.

Fundamentally, though, I’m still the same. Africa wasn’t like a magic potion that automatically made me more patient or compassionate and head-over-heels in love with my kids every minute of the day. There are still roots of sin and selfishness, things that didn’t die just because I left the continent.

Expecting Africa to change everything about me in one trip is an unrealistic expectation. I know that now.

But shouldn’t something have changed?

And what about Africa? Did we change anything by being there?

Two days into our Kenya trip, but we didn’t know about it until afterward, our pastor, who was on the trip with us, received an e-mail from someone who didn’t identify themselves criticizing our decision to raise $30,000 for a mission trip to a boarding school for missionary kids in Africa. Weren’t we wasting our money? the person asked.

It’s a valid question (although I have to question the timing, and my years in journalism have made me unsympathetic to anonymous opinions and criticisms). You can read our pastor’s full response here. Here’s the heart of it, though:

We have concluded, however, that it is vital for first world citizens to get out of their comfort zones and see the world with their own eyes. The impact is much greater than simply watching video or seeing pictures. Are there other local, less expensive means to achieve the same result? Possibly. Perhaps I was totally wrong for facilitating this trip. But I also watched God provide for this trip in miraculous ways. He has the ability to fund this trip as well as the needs of the people in Kenya. Sometimes he uses a trip like this to open our eyes, rend our hearts, so that we can be the means to raise the money for the needs in a place like Kenya.

I think most of us on the trip would agree that we didn’t change Kenya, but Kenya changed us.

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 And I don’t know about the rest of the team, but I’m still discovering how Kenya changed me.

I wrote about how my lungs are different after hiking a volcano, and that holds. I took a lap at the park with the kids this week and I’ve never been able to walk the entire loop without gasping for breath. I wasn’t even winded after two laps.

But it’s more than that.

I find myself talking to strangers more. In Kenya, life is more relational than transactional. I’m a task-oriented person by nature, but just before we left for Kenya, I was convicted about this. How I elevate convenience over people. (That’s another blog post, maybe, for another day.) In Kenya, it’s rude to not ask about people’s families or make conversation before getting to the point. Even while shopping at the local shops, negotiating a price is seen as a relational act, not something to be offended by.

In the weeks since we’ve been home, I hear myself making small talk with people I would have passed by, like the people offering food samples at Costco. Usually I just want to get in and get out, especially if a crowd is gathering, but I’ve made tiny bits of conversation. At the concert in the park the other day, I addressed a couple behind us when we moved our blanket back so the kids could dance in front of us instead of behind us.

“It’s for your safety,” I said. “They get a little wild.”

“They look pretty harmless,” the woman said. “We have two grandkids, so we know.”

It was not an important exchange, but it was human connection. I need more of that, and Kenya helped spark that change.

Whatever happened in Kenya, it’s far more important that I was changed than that we left a mark on Kenya. That sounds selfish, but if I’m changed because of my experience in Kenya, then I can effect more change. If all I did was paint a dorm and hand out some T-shirts to some kids who need clothes, then the impact will only last until the paint peels and the shirts wear out.

The view while painting

The view while painting

Maybe going to Africa looks like it changed nothing, but maybe over time, it will have changed everything.

These are the shoes that remind me what I can do

I woke up sad this morning because I feel like I’m losing Africa already, and we haven’t been home two weeks yet. I opened the bag of Kenyan coffee and inhaled, as if breathing in the coffee aroma could somehow take me back.

I’ve told you how reluctant I am to start talking about Africa. But talk about it I must. In just a few weeks our team will share with our church and other friends about our trip, so keeping it to ourselves won’t be an option. And maybe talking about it will help me not to feel so sad.

The week before we left for Kenya, I bought these shoes for $8 at a thrift store.

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My only other pair of sneakers are gleaming white (from disuse, not because they’re new) and we were told to be prepared for the things we brought to get dirty and possibly ruined. The dirt we walked on was brownish red and everything eventually turns that color over time. These shoes were unrecognizable the day we hiked the volcano.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

A couple of good pairs of walking shoes are what I needed. I got these because they fit and were in relatively good shape, and I thought maybe I could leave them behind when we were done. I almost did, but I’m glad I didn’t.

We started painting the boys’ dorm on Thursday of our trip. (If you look close enough, you can see a spot of ginger brown paint on the toe of one shoe. This was my color all week long. Ask me about the adventures of Ginger Brown sometime.) Long hours of sanding, taping and painting were ours for three solid days. On the second work day, we decided to start the morning, after breakfast, with a walk to clear our lungs of the fumes and clear our minds for the work ahead.

One group took the second half of the campus tour; another group took on Killer Hill, the steepest hill on campus. That morning I was struggling emotionally and my lungs were heaving with even the smallest trips up the stairs. We were at 7,000 or so feet above sea level and I’m not in the best of shape physically. I opted for the Killer Hill group, even though it meant I was the only female. And the least fit. (Our group included teenage boys who apparently have super-human strength all the time.)

About halfway up Killer Hill (I wish I had a picture to show you what I’m talking about here), I was sure I’d made a mistake in coming. I was lagging behind on an unfamiliar campus, and though we were all headed in the same direction, I was afraid of being left to myself. (Phil and I were at odds with each other as well that morning, so there was not a lot of compassionate care between us.) Our leader and missionary friend Lamar stopped us to catch our breath. I felt like the only one heaving and gasping for breath, and I nearly turned around. But where would I have gone? No one was back at the dorm and I’m not sure I could have found my way.

I took deep breaths and let myself rest and then we continued onward and upward. I could see the top of the hill, and I put one foot in front of the other. I was determined to make it. Sometimes, I am stubborn. And I needed to cure my emotional state with a physical challenge. Sometimes, this is the only way.

We made it to the top. Me, gasping and heaving. I lowered myself onto a retaining wall to rest up. The view over campus was–well, I was about to say “breath-taking” but it was the walk up the hill that took my breath away, not the view. Already on the side of a mountain, we could see the valley below from wherever we were. It wasn’t the view, really, that struck me, but the physical challenge.

The path leveled out and we finished our walk, and my mood improved enough to carry on with the work I had started the previous day. Later, as I climbed the stairs to our room, I noticed that I wasn’t out of breath anymore. Even taking the stairs at a quick pace, I could breathe normally.

Was I acclimating? Or had I pushed my lungs past their limits and somehow increased their capacity for air? (Tell me if there’s science to back this up. I want to know.)

Three days later, I found myself at the base of a dormant volcano, about to start an hours-long climb to the top. As I huffed my way up Killer Hill, I told myself it was practice for the volcano. But as I looked at the challenge ahead of me, I wondered if I’d made a mistake not going to the tea farm with a few members of our group.

The view of Mt. Longonot before we began our hike

The view of Mt. Longonot before we began our hike

I was confident, sort of, because we had done this before. Phil and I hiked a mountain in the Smokies on our honeymoon. But that was nearly a decade and at least 20 pounds ago, pre-children. What in the world was I thinking?

As we ascended, I would ask that question a lot. We took our time, and watched large groups of Kenyan schoolchildren scamper up the mountain ahead of us. Partway up we would have the opportunity to stop, rest and decide if we were continuing on. My goal was to make it at least to that banta–a shelter-like pavilion. I could see it the whole time we hiked.

The path was dry and a bit barren but reminded me of the Bible. I could almost see Jesus and his followers walking paths like these, telling stories along the way, as much to teach as to take their minds off the climb.

A glance over our shoulders showed us beautiful views of the surrounding land. One of our team was certain we’d found the place where Mufasa died in The Lion King. When we looked hard enough, we could see the profile of giraffes near the river bed.

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I can’t get over the trees in Africa.

We’d been hiking for an hour or more when we reached the place of rest. We had scrambled over some rocks to reach this point, and our guide and missionary friend Lamar assured us that this was the hardest part of the climb, harder even than summitting.

I believed him, and decided that I would regret it if I didn’t try to make it to the top. When might I get another chance to say I’d been on the rim of a volcano? My breathing was labored, but not in the same way as it had been when I was adjusting to the altitude. I felt like I would if we were on a vigorous hike in Pennsylvania–challenged and winded and maybe a little bit affected by the altitude. I did yawn a lot on the hike to the top, not because I was tired or bored but in need of oxygen.

The journey to the top was a different kind of challenging. Steeper, although the path was clearer. And by this time, the school children were on their way down, so we had to stop sometimes and move to the side, lest we get run into. This was also entertaining, though, because a group of white people climbing a mountain in Kenya is as much a sight as the mountain itself. We often shook hands with a dozen children or high-fived them on the way down. One even declared as he walked past, “I am from Washington. I am a black American.” (President Obama’s visit to Kenya was just a week past at this time.)

I was the straggler again, only this time, there were four of us in the final group that ascended the mountain. We stopped often. Every few steps, it seemed at times. A couple of times I thought I might pass out right there on the mountainside. Phil wouldn’t let me sit down. He pushed me mentally to keep going. Lamar said I could do it and it didn’t matter how long it took. Victoria said she needed to rest, too, and I shouldn’t feel bad about needing to catch my breath.

The closer we got to the top, the harder the climb. Earlier in the week, we had talked about mountaintop experiences and how this trip to Kenya might be one, the kind you don’t want to come down from. And I thought of this as we climbed, how much we crave the mountaintop experience, the high of accomplishment, but easily forget how hard it is to get there in the first place.

We set small goals. “Just to the next curve and then we’ll stop.” “We’ll make it to that tree right there. Ready?” Until finally there was just one more stretch to the top. I gave it everything I had. All I could see ahead of me was sky and then suddenly, I was there. At the top. On the rim of a volcano. I raised my arms in victory and exhaustion. (I also may have peed myself a little. Sweat, pee, it’s hard to tell at that point.)

How many feet is that?

How many feet is that?

Inside the crater was a lush forest of green. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was beautiful and worth every labored breath and calf strain.

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We don’t even look happy here, but trust me, on the inside, I’m elated.

We rested on the rim for what felt like hours, and there are more stories for others to tell of climbing into the crater and reaching the crater floor. We walked a little ways around the rim, but I was content to have made it to the top.

Comparatively, the trip to the base was a breeze. It was easier to run/jog and let gravity carry you, and I felt all kinds of free as I careened down the mountainside.

I just hiked to the top of a volcano. I kept telling myself in case later I wouldn’t believe it. I was amazed at what my body–my almost middle-aged, out-of-shape body–could do. It could do far more than I give it credit for.

When we packed up the next night for our trip home, I decided to bring the shoes with me, as a reminder of what I could do. Earlier this year, I set myself a goal to lose some weight and as of leaving for Kenya, I’m fairly certain I had gained weight. Hiking the volcano and walking up Killer Hill reminded me that my body is strong and capable of more than I allow it and that it is possible to push past my endurance and survive.

Now that we’re back, I find that the work my body did in Kenya hasn’t disappeared. The kids and I have taken several walks–the same ones we took earlier in the summer–and I can breathe normally for the duration, even if I am walking at a faster pace or up a hill. I am by no means a star athlete now because I climbed a volcano. But I feel like a warrior. Or at least, a warrior in training.

I can’t wait to get into a rhythm of physical activity and see what my body can do. (After school starts next week, I aim to be active daily.) And it’s not just for the physical benefit but the mental and spiritual as well. Maybe I’ll save those applications for another post.

I didn’t expect to come home from Kenya with a renewed sense of my physical capabilities. But it’s one of the clearest and most amazing takeaways I had from the whole trip.

And just to add to my own sense of warrior-ness, I looked up the altitude of the mountain we climbed in the Smokies and compared it to the one in Kenya. I was almost 2,000 feet higher in Kenya than in Tennessee. (That shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. And it makes me feel like I could take on another mountain. And another.)

2015-08-05 13.15.45Days before we hiked it, we could see Longonot in the distance, from our room. It was my first view of Kenya when I woke up Wednesday morning. It was impressive to gaze at from miles away.

After we hiked it, I took this picture to remember that we had seen it up close. We had, in a way, conquered it.

I’m grateful to have learned something about myself in a place I didn’t expect it.