A Veterinarian’s Prayer

As many of you know, I was blessed to have the opportunity to study historical theology and biblical exegesis at Wheaton College from 2010 to 2013. I followed that with a research position at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where I was blessed to be able to pursue a PhD in Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine.

As I transitioned from focusing full-time on biblical and theological studies to focusing full-time on veterinary infectious disease research, I felt compelled to articulate the relationship between the two: between what it means to be God’s co-worker (as articulated in passages like 2 Corinthians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; and Romans 8:17) and to be a veterinarian (and, in particular, a veterinary researcher).

I wrote the following prayer as a result of my preliminary thoughts on this topic, to help me begin to articulate some of these ideas, and to enable me to ask God’s help in better realizing and implementing them.

O Lord Jesus Christ, only-begotten Son and Word of God, through whom God the Father created all things, both visible and invisible, Source of Life and Destroyer of Death

Blessed are you who allows me to witness and participate in the beauty of your creation; for every creature that awakens to new life and joyfully sings your praises in a thousand ways; for the birds and beasts that bear the imprint of your love.

In your great mercy and love for mankind, cause me to turn back from thoughts, words, and deeds that defile and afflict your creation; rather, cause me to be your co-worker in caring for and healing the birds and beasts over which you have given mankind stewardship.

You who have said, “apart from me you can do nothing,” grant me the wisdom, patience, understanding, and benevolence to honor the dignity you have bestowed upon my labor as a veterinarian, that by my participation with you in this work you would be glorified, with the Father who is from everlasting, together will your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

The words in italics are taken from the Akathist of Thanksgiving, a beautiful prayer that magnifies the glory of God in the face of suffering, with a focus on the beauty of God’s creation.

I had the privilege of sharing this prayer with a group of veterinarians and veterinary students at Christian Veterinary Mission’s Real Life Real Impact conference in 2017. I spoke about what prayer is, why we do it, and then I discussed the components of my veterinarian’s prayer.

Ultimately, prayer is our sacrificial offering to God, as we see in Psalm 141:2 (140 LXX): “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice,” and in Revelation 8:4: “The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.”

Tertullian put it this way in the third century:

“It is an excellent custom to present, like an opulent offering, a prayer fattened with all that tends to dignify and honor God. For this is the spiritual oblation that has wiped out the ancient sacrifices. . . . We are true worshippers and true priests who, praying in the Spirit, in the spirit offer up prayer, an oblation fitting and acceptable to God, one, indeed, which he has sought, one which he has provided for himself.”

Regarding why we pray, I think it begins with the understanding that we are a “royal priesthood . . . that [we] may proclaim the excellencies of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). This concept of priesthood necessarily involves the concept of mediation. In the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, in an article on the Hebrew word for priest (kohen), Philip Jenson writes:

“Perhaps the central concept of priesthood is mediation between the sphere of the divine and the ordinary world. A priest through his ritual actions and his words facilitates communication across the boundary separating the holy from the profane. The priests represented God to the people in the splendor of their clothing, in their behavior, and in oracles and instruction, while in sacrifice and intercession they represented the people to God.”

Prayer, then, is our offering to God on behalf of all of creation (including, but not limited to, our fellow human beings). Likewise, through prayer we act as God’s co-workers, allowing His grace to work through us via our praise and intercession.

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In my veterinarian’s prayer, I begin with a brief reflection on who God is, which is intimately connected with what God has done. As I’ve said elsewhere, the most important question we can seek to answer is that of Jesus to his disciples: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” (Matthew 22:42). I then give thanks for his call on my life, and for the amazing gift of the invitation to participate with him.

I move on to offer repentance, recognizing that as human beings, we turn away from God and seek to do our own will in contradiction to his will, and in doing so we distance ourselves from the source of existence and life, and draw closer to non-existence and death. As the priests of creation, when we do this, we draw creation farther away from God along with us. Elder Zosima makes the same claim in The Brothers Karamozov:

“But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. For you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth.”

Finally, I ask for wisdom, patience, understanding, and benevolence to enable me to move forward and enter into the invitation to participate with God in the work that I’ve been called to carry out in his name and for his glory.

I found this exercise immensely helpful, and having this prayer to remind me has been an absolute gift. I encourage all who have made it to the end of this post to consider composing a similar prayer, that you might spend some time working through what it means for you, specifically, to be God’s co-worker on earth.

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These of Whom We Speak Are Not Dead

Last Friday, we said goodbye to the body of Betty Coatney, my Pawpaw’s wife of 10 years, whom he married some time after my Mawmaw died. As Charlie and I kissed her cheek for the last time, I couldn’t help but note that it was Charlie’s first time to see (and kiss) a dead body. (We had talked earlier that day about how a dead person’s body looks like it’s asleep, but that the only thing that can wake it up is when Jesus comes back from heaven.)
“Thank you for taking care of our Pawpaw. We love you. We’ll see you when Jesus comes back.”
Yesterday we celebrated the falling asleep of the mother of Jesus (the Dormition of the Theotokos, celebrated on August 15th each year) by attending the Divine Liturgy. As Charlie and I leaned in to kiss the icon of Mary, resting on her bier, I said to him, “See, she’s resting in her coffin, waiting for Jesus to wake her up.” His response: “Like Nana Betty?”
Yes; just like Nana Betty.
I’m so grateful for the Christian understanding and love for the bodies of the deceased. The priest at Holy Apostles, where we usually go when we’re in Tulsa, noted in his homily yesterday the words of St. John of Damascus from the eighth century:
In the Law, anyone who touched a corpse was accounted unclean (Num. 19:11). But these of whom we speak are not dead. Because Life itself and the Author of life was reckoned amongst the dead, we do not call these dead who have fallen asleep in the hope of resurrection and in the faith in Him.
What a gift! That which was once unclean becomes clean! That which we once were right to fear no longer has any hold over us!
Kristen, Charlie, Judah, and I waited graveside as the attendants lowered Betty’s casket and prepared to fill the grave. As I helped Charlie empty a shovel-full of dirt onto the vault, I heard the words that conclude St. John Chrysostom’s most famous Easter homily:
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.

Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it!

He descended into hell and took hell captive!

He embittered it when it tasted His flesh! And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: “Hades was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions“.
It was embittered, for it was abolished!

It was embittered, for it was mocked!

It was embittered, for it was purged!

It was embittered, for it was despoiled!

It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and came upon God!

It took earth and encountered Ηeaven!

It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!
O death, where is thy sting?

O hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is risen, and life reigns!

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the First-fruits of them that have slept.

To Him be glory and might unto the ages of ages.

Amen.

There And Back Again (and There Again Soon)

At the end of May, I had the opportunity to visit Mekelle, Ethiopia, in advance of our move there in the near future. This visit was part of a USDA project hosted by Iowa State University, called the Foreign Agricultural Service Faculty Exchange Program. Each fall, several faculty members from veterinary colleges throughout Africa spend the semester in Ames, Iowa, working with colleagues in their respective areas of interest, with an emphasis on curriculum development and pedagogy. Then, the following spring, their counterparts at Iowa State visit corresponding veterinary colleges in Africa for about a week, to better understand the similarities and differences between Iowa State’s veterinary school and the particular African veterinary school, and to discuss/brainstorm potential collaboration between the two institutions.

Last fall, Iowa State hosted two faculty members from Mekelle University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. One of Iowa State’s faculty members was unfortunately able to make the trip, so I was asked to go in his place, as someone who will be working closely with Mekelle University and who will maintain close contact with Iowa State faculty members. I naturally jumped at the chance, at traveled to Mekelle with Dr. Matt Brewer, assistant professor of parasitology at Iowa State.

It’s a tough trip to make when you’re only staying for a few days. There are now direct flights via Ethiopia Airlines (a quality airline with a solid reputation) from Chicago and Washington, D.C., but for bureaucratic reasons we had fly from Des Moines to Chicago, with a six hour layover, United/Lufthansa to Frankfurt with an 11 hour layover, Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, where we went through customs, discovered and reported missing luggage, and shifted over to the domestic terminal for our flight to Mekelle. We left for the Des Moines airport at about noon on Saturday, and arrived at our hotel in Mekelle at about two pm on Monday.

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Waiting to board our last of four flights, from Addis Ababa to Mekelle.

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Arriving in Mekelle, “The City of Knowledge,” after nearly two days of travel.

 

Mekelle University College of Veterinary Medicine

Our welcome to Mekelle helped us overcome our exhaustion, however, thanks to our veterinary colleagues’ incredible attention and hospitality! We were invited to dinner at the home of Dr. Birhanu Hadush, one of the exchange program’s scholars, where we were treated to a number of delicious, homemade Ethiopian dishes, with lots of injera, and, of course, a coffee ceremony. This hospitality was especially noteworthy because the vet school was hosting a number of visiting veterinary faculty from schools across Ethiopia, as it was exam week for the veterinary students (in which both internal and external examiners gave oral exams) and the school was hosting a National PhD Curriculum Review Workshop to review the college’s new proposed PhD programs (something that I will be heavily involved in!). We are immensely grateful to the leadership at the college for their kind and detailed attention during our visit.

We spent most of the week visiting with colleagues at the vet school, including tours of the college and attendance at a number of students’ exams and the curriculum review workshop. We discussed ways in which Iowa State and Mekelle University might collaborate in the future, as well potential projects and responsibilities that I will take on when we settle in Mekelle. We were also invited to present some of our research at Iowa State in terms of potential future collaboration with Mekelle.

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Discussing the research program at Mekelle University and potential collaboration with ISU.

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Many of our discussions involved amazing Ethiopian cuisine.

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Presenting some of my research on bovine digital dermatitis.

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Dean Berihu Gebrekidan presenting me with welcome gifts from Mekelle University.

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We were able to become familiar with the veterinary college’s campus.

 

 

St. Frumentius Ethiopian Orthodox Seminary

I also made time to visit St. Frumentius Ethiopian Orthodox Seminary and to discuss our plans there, as well. I met with Dean Tesfay Hadera, the Academic Vice Dean Gebre Hawarya, and the Theology Department Head Kase Tafesse. We discussed some of the ways that I might help, especially with biblical languages and exegetical methodology (i.e., the ways and means in which we approach interpreting Scripture). I was extremely encouraged by their enthusiasm and welcoming demeanor, and I’m confident that we’ll find ways to work together when we get to Mekelle.

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With Dean Tesfay Hadera, dean of St. Frumentius Ethiopian Orthodox Seminary.

 

Mekelle and Axum

Our hosts made sure that we took time to see Mekelle and Axum, where the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia was situated, during our visit. It was a great time to visit with our guide, Baruk, a veterinary microbiologist with a strong interest in church history. Naturally, we hit it off. It was so great to see Axum and all of the history I’ve read so much about; I’m excited to share it with those who come to visit us once we’re settled!

 

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At Mekelle’s memorial and museum for those who fought against the communist regime (The Derg) in the ’70’s and ’80’s.

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Exploring the ancient ruins of Axum. These stellae are about 1,700 years old.

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In front of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, home of the ark of the covenant.

 

I’m extremely grateful to have been able to visit Mekelle and touch base with our future hosts and collaborators. We’re definitely working our way around the bases now; God willing, we’ll get to home plate soon!

“That Bwessed Awwangement… That Dweam Wivin a Dweam…”

If you receive our monthly newsletter from Christian Veterinary Mission (and if not, sign up here), you probably know that we celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary by undergoing the wedding ceremony in the Orthodox Church, which is often referred to as being “crowned.” We were blessed to celebrate this occasion on the Feast of Pentecost, May 27, 2018, at All Saints Orthodox Church in Chicago, the parish where Kristen and I joined the Church, and where Charles Maximus was baptized.

This ceremony was a long time coming. Kristen and I were engaged in March 2007, while she was living in Chicago and I was stationed in Vicenza, Italy. We decided to get married in Europe so that we could honeymoon there and I could finalize my move from Vicenza to Chicago, where I was to be stationed at Naval Station Great Lakes. Because we were told that Denmark had the most straightforward marriage laws for non-citizens, we decided to get married in Copenhagen City Hall, and make our way south to Vicenza by train (stopping, of course, at a few places along the way).

In our minds, there was no hesitation about getting married this way. We felt that we could share and celebrate with friends and family at a reception when we got back to the States (which we did), and that the ceremony was, in essence, a legal technicality. For us, the more important ceremony involved sharing our individually written vows and sharing communion (made up of crackers and wine brought up by room service) in our hotel room. Essentially, our substantial ceremony was a private prayer.

Kristen and Johns wedding at Københavns Rådhus

As we began to learn about the Orthodox Church and its approach towards the sacramental nature of our life in Christ, we began to consider when and how we might ask the Church to consecrate our marriage, to make it as fully a sign of Christ and his Church as possible. When I was first learning about the Orthodox Church in Iraq (in 2009), I vividly remember asking the Orthodox chaplain, Fr. Stephan, whether we would have to be married again if we joined the Church. “No,” he replied cheerfully, “but you may well find that you want to be crowned someday, and you may very well have some little ones in tow when you do.” How prophetic his words turned out to be.

Essentially all of our theology of marriage (i.e., our understanding of the nature and τέλος, or purpose, of marriage) can be found in the marriage rite itself. The first prayer of the service contains the following list of requests:

Deacon. In peace let us pray to the Lord.

Choir. Lord, have mercy.

For the servants of God, N. and N., who are now being united to each other in the community of marriage, and for their salvation: ℞

That he will bless this marriage, as he blessed that in Cana of Galilee: ℞

That he will grant unto them chastity, and of the fruit of the womb as is expedient for them: ℞

That he will make them glad with the sight of sons and daughters: ℞

That he will grant unto them the procreation of virtuous offspring, and an upright life: ℞

That he will grant to them and to us all our petitions which are unto salvation: ℞

Pride of place goes first to the salvation of the couple, second to their chastity, and third to their fecundity! Not the typical primary goals we often think of for a married couple!

Subsequent prayers ask God to bless the couple “as thou didst bless Abraham and Sarah” (and numerous other couples); to preserve the couple “as thou didst preserve Jonah in the belly of the whale” (and others in their predicaments), and to

Remember, O Lord our God, thy servant, N., and thy handmaid, N., and bless them. Grant them of the fruit of their bodies, fair children, concord of soul and of body: Exalt them like the cedars of Lebanon, like a luxuriant vine. Give them seed in number like unto the full ears of grain; that, having sufficiency in all things, they may abound in every work that is good and acceptable unto thee. And let them behold their children’s children, like a newly-planted olive-orchard, round about their table; that, obtaining favour in thy sight, they may shine like the stars of heaven, in thee, our God.

The final prayer before the crowning asks God to:

…stretch out now also thy hand from thy holy dwelling-place, and conjoin this thy servant, N., and this thy handmaid, N.; for by thee is the husband united unto the wife. Unite them in one mind: wed them into one flesh, granting unto them of the fruit of the body and the procreation of fair children.

So there’s a pretty clear and self-evident theme here. Kristen explained the significance of the crowning in our June newsletter, but for those who’ve never seen one, I like this (very abbreviated) dramatic portrayal (although ours was in English).

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The Epistle and Gospel passages read during the wedding service are very telling, as well. Near the end of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Paul concludes his comments on the interaction of husbands and wives with the statement:

No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.

As alluded to above, the relationship between marriage and the relationship between Christ and the church is foundational to understanding Christian marriage, and beyond the scope of this post.

The Gospel reading comes from John’s Gospel: the story of the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus performs his first miracle: changing water into wine. One of the wedding prayers states how Jesus, “through thine unutterable gift and manifold goodness didst come to Cana of Galilee, and didst bless the marriage there, that thou mightest make manifest that it is thy will that there should be lawful marriage and the begetting of children.”

Salvation, chastity, fecundity. It should go without saying that Christian marriage is hard. Let there be no doubt about it: Kristen and I struggle and fight for our marriage. The first year was hard. Coming back from Iraq was hard. Having kids while doing a PhD is hard. We fall and get up again, over and over and over. But there is joy as well. There are moments when light shines through (such as being crowned surrounded by our friends at All Saints). And we’re reminded that when we get up, when we ask (and offer) forgiveness, when we sacrifice for one another, we are brought closer to one another, and closer to the One who joined us together unto ages of ages.

Blessed art thou, O Lord, who has crowned us (and continues to crown us) with glory and honor!

The Songs of Ascent

Kristen and I want to thank our friends and family for your prayers this past month, as Charles Maximus had a congenital branchial cleft cyst removed from his neck, which then got infected, requiring a second surgery and an overnight stay in the hospital. It’s a learning experience to have your child undergo general anesthesia; especially as someone who has induced general anesthesia in numerous animals over the years. In any case, Charlie has fully recovered with a virile scar to show for his troubles.

Aside from our adventures in and out of the hospital, the last month has been essentially more of the same – I (John) am still seeking to complete my work by the end of July; Kristen is taking care of the boys and working through the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course. We continue to prepare for August, when we intend to leave Ames for Oklahoma and begin to raise support full time in order to be able to move to Ethiopia as soon as possible.

In the meantime, while the Western Church celebrates Easter this weekend, in the Eastern Church, we begin Holy Week this weekend, celebrating the resurrection of Lazarus on Saturday and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday*. In any case, the period that we call Great Lent ended Friday (March 30).

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Grumpy Orthodox Cat tells it like it is.

One aspect of our Lenten devotions that has had an especially profound impact on me this Lent has been our weekly (at least) reading of the Ascent Psalms. Psalms 120-134 consist of a series of short psalms that are believed to have been written upon the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon. These psalms serve as a series of meditations that simultaneously address two types of ascent in their original context: first, and most naturally, the ascent of those climbing Zion in order to reach the newly-restored temple in Jerusalem. Secondarily, it addresses the ascent associated with returning to Israel following their exile in Babylon.

The first of these psalms, Psalm 120 (or 119 in the Greek), reads:

An ode of the Ascents

1 In my affliction I cried out to the Lord, and he heard me:

2 Rescue my soul, O Lord, from unjust lips, from a treacherous tongue.

3 What must be given to thee, what must be added to thee against this treacherous tongue?

4 The warrior’s arrows sharpened with hot coals from the desert.

5 Ah my God! My exile never ends, so long have I dwelt in the tents of Kedar,

6 So long has my soul been exiled.

7 I kept on being peaceful with those hating peace, when I spoke with them they kept on hating me for no cause.

Donald Sheehan’s translation, from the Greek.

Notice how verses 5 and 6 are translated here: “Ah my God! My exile never ends, so long have I dwelt in the tents of Kedar/So long has my soul been exiled.” These are psalms meant to be sung while climbing out of the pit; while returning home from exile; while approaching the Lord in order to make offerings to him, to glorify him, to praise him, and to seek succor from him. These themes of return from exile are found throughout:

“I was delighted in those who had said to me: We shall go to the Lord’s house” (122:1)

“Our soul has escaped like a sparrow from a hunter’s snare, the snare has been shattered and we have escaped” (124:7)

“Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion; he who dwells in Jerusalem shall be forever unshaken” (125:1)

“When the Lord had brought back the captives of Zion, we became like those who are given great comfort” (126:1)

And so on.

During Lent, we read these psalms at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. This is an incredibly beautiful and powerful service, but it can be easy to miss the profundity of what is happening. During the weekdays of Lent, communion can only be given from a “presanctified” host – that is, the Eucharist must have been prepared beforehand, at the previous Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. During the Presanctified Liturgy, a number of actions are taken by clergy to prepare this presanctified host for communion; the Ascent Psalms are read while this is happening.

We read these psalms, then, as a community, in preparation for Holy Communion during Great Lent. We read these psalms as we ascend to the Lord, as we seek to return to him from the exile of our rebellion. We read these psalms and are filled with joy, because the Lord is welcoming us back from this self-imposed exile: he’s welcoming us home, to Zion, to Jerusalem, whose “temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”


*The reasons for this difference between East and West are somewhat complicated (and unfortunate). Essentially, both agree that the date for Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. However, many of the Eastern churches have not adopted the Gregorian calendar for their liturgical observances, so that there is a 13 day difference between the date for the spring equinox. In addition, the date for the full moons was established based on problematic predictions made centuries ago, rather than on astronomically correct observances. These differences account for different calculations between East and West for Easter Sunday every year, despite the fact that both use the same foundational criteria to make the calculations.

By the Waters of Babylon…

We keep moving forward; right now, in the cold and the snow, that movement seems somewhat intractable. But we do our best to move forward, diligently and prudently.

The first weekend of February was a blessing. Iowa State University’s Christian Veterinary Fellowship hosted this years North Central Real Life Real Impact retreat, where the CVF groups at nearby veterinary schools (and vet tech and pre-vet schools, as well) gather to talk about what it means to share the vocation of Christian and of veterinarian, and of how to live that combined calling faithfully. I was given the opportunity to give a talk I called “What It Means to Be a Veterinary Theologian (which, BTW, you already are).” I led discussions about what we mean when we use the terms theology and theologian; how we might grow and improve as theologians; and how we might think about and work towards theologies of veterinary medicine. In addition Kristen and I got to meet a number of wonderful people, some of whom live and work here in the mid-west, and some who serve overseas. It was a real gift to be able to connect with and learn from these folks.

While the writing of the thesis progresses, I’ve got a number of tasks to keep me busy/distracted. Over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve collected a number of samples (mostly skin biopsies and environmental samples) that I have shoved into the back of our -80* freezer, always aware in the back of my mind that near the end I’d have to break them out and extract DNA from all of them. Well, the end is nigh, and last week and this week have been dedicated to that task. Thank God for podcasts and audiobooks.

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My view last week and this week.

 

In preparation for Lent, the Sunday before last the Church read the parable of the prodigal son, which is perhaps my favorite of Jesus’s parables. It’s so rich, and there is so much that could be said about it. In terms of Lent, however, the most helpful aspect of this parable is the prodigal son’s desire for his true home. As Schmemann writes:

I received from God wonderful riches: first of all life and the possibility to enjoy it, to fill it with meaning, love, and knowledge; then – in Baptism – the new life of Christ Himself, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the peace and the joy of the eternal Kingdom. I received the knowledge of God, and in Him the knowledge of everything else and the power to be a son of God. And all this I have lost, all this I am losing all the time, not only in particular “sins” and “transgressions,” but in the sin of all sins: the deviation of my love from God, preferring the “far country” to the beautiful home of the Father…

And, as I remember, I find in myself the desire to return and the power to return “. . . I shall return to the compassionate Father crying with tears: Receive me as one of Thy servants . . .”

One of my favorite things about this Sunday, in which we contemplate our return from our self-imposed exile, is that the Church also include Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion. . . . How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let me right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy . . . 

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An icon of the Babylonian exiles and King David, referencing Psalm 137.

 

This past Sunday goes by two names: Last Judgment Sunday, and/or Meat Fare Sunday (which in Latin is Carni Vale, and why carnivale is celebrated all over the world). This is the last day that we are able to eat meat until Easter Sunday. The Gospel reading is Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus explains that those who take care of the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and prisoner, will inherit the kingdom, while those who do not will be dismissed from his presence. What I take away from this is the personal aspect of what we’re commanded to do. We are to care for individuals, not some abstract. In doing so, we find Jesus in those individuals, and are brought closer to him through them.

Living In and Through Sacred Time

At this time, John has begun writing his thesis, and wrapping up the last bit of data collection on the last (and, naturally, most challenging) chapter of said thesis. And of course, mechanical issues have arisen with our anaerobic chamber so that this data will not present itself willingly.

Kristen continues to heroically wrangle children who have clearly inherited their mom’s looks (praise God) and their dad’s temperament (Lord, have mercy). Charles Maximus will undergo outpatient surgery on February 28 to remove a branchial cleft cyst, which is a small pocket of cells on his neck that he has had since birth. The vet school has a program that provides small children with Josh, a stuffed Golden Retriever, who comes with a children’s book that explains the process of undergoing surgery at a level that small children can understand and (hopefully) be comforted.

We’re putting together a small book that will provide a visual outline of our work – who we are, what we hope to do in Mekelle (and why), how we hope to do it, and how others can partner with us and help us accomplish this vision. I fully expect that those reading this will see this presentation in the near future.

As we fulfill our duties in preparation for our move to Mekelle, we take joy and solace in the calendar’s reminder of those events that have already occurred in salvation history that we are called to relive and participate in on a cyclical basis. I can’t express how deeply participation in the calendar has helped me know Christ in unique and truly life-changing ways.

Two events this week stand out.

First, today (February 2) is exactly forty days after Christmas, and thus the day that the Torah requires firstborn sons be presented to the Lord in his Temple in Jerusalem. This event is recorded in Luke 2:22-40, in which St. Simeon, who was told he would see the Messiah before he dies, takes Jesus in his arms and proclaims:

Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have beheld your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all people. A light to enlighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of your people Israel.

This morning I read two prophecies of this event in the Minor Prophets, which simply amazed me. The first was Haggai 2:1-9, in which Haggai is encouraging the Israelites to get off their butts and rebuild the temple now that they’ve returned from the exile in Babylon:

For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake the nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. . . . The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of  hosts.

In Malachi 3:1, we read, “And the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”

Ours is a God who keeps his promises.

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The icon of the Meeting of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple. Mary hands Jesus to Simeon, as Joseph and Anna look on.

The second event marks this week as the week of the Publican and the Pharisee, in preparation for Great Lent. This story, found in Luke 18:9-14, was read this past Sunday, as it is always read annually on the third Sunday before Great Lent.  Here, a Pharisee is praying, thanking God that he’s not like other, less pious people (because he fasts, tithes etc.), while a tax-collector stands quietly, beating his breast, and praying over and over, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus finished this story: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one how humbles himself will be exalted.”

As we prepare for this great Fast (in which prayer and giving to the poor are amplified, and we eat no animal products, and less of everything else), we read this story to remind us that ascetic endeavor (or any other good thing we can do) avails us nothing without humility; that is, reliance on the mercy of God. Last week, with Zacchaeus, we saw that the first step towards our on-going reorientation toward and return to Jesus is our desire to see him; this week, we see that genuine and radical humility comes next. We also begin using the service book that leads us up to Pascha (Easter), which we call the Triodion. During morning prayers, we begin (and continue throughout Lent) singing:

Open unto me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life: for my spirit goes early to the temple of your holiness, coming in the temple of my body, wholly polluted. But because you are compassionate, purify me by the compassion of your mercies.

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The icon of the Publican and the Pharisee.

Prelims, Zacchaeus, and Lent

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I found this goat in an acacia tree in the Afar Region of Ethiopia. It reminds us of Zacchaeus.

 

It’s been a tough (but edifying) couple of months! In a nutshell:

  • Kristen and the boys enjoyed an extended stay with family and friends in Oklahoma from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. This was in part because the car we bought in November was totaled by a deer the day after Thanksgiving (no people were hurt, thank God). We replaced the car once John joined everyone in Oklahoma for Christmas, and the replacement has been serving us well.
  • Charlie became quite accustomed to lots of sweets, TV (especially Dinosaur Train), and getting his way while in Oklahoma.
  • Judah has two mandibular incisors, and has decided he’s not such a big fan of sleeping through the night.
  • Kristen recently enrolled in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, which is a a fifteen week course designed around four vantage points or “perspectives” — Biblical, Historical, Cultural and Strategic. Each one highlights different aspects of God’s global purpose. This is a highly recommended course for those looking to live and minister overseas.
  • I (John) spent most of the last two months preparing for my preliminary oral exam (prelim), which I passed on January 17th! This allows me to write, submit, and defend (this July) my PhD thesis, which addresses the control, prevention, and treatment of bovine digital dermatitis, a major cause of lameness in cattle. In my PhD program (Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine), the prelim is somewhat unique. Essentially, I was required to design and write an innovative research proposal that I then presented to my PhD committee (five veterinary researchers at ISU), at which point the committee asked whatever they wanted in order to determine my level of knowledge regarding veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine. My research proposal involved surveillance of brucellosis in Ethiopian livestock, a topic of great interest in the Ethiopian veterinary community, and at Mekelle University in particular. Preparation for the prelim was much more stressful than the actual exam, but everything went well.

At this point, we have our noses to the grindstone, and we’re doing what we can to prepare for the move to Mekelle. Once I finish my PhD (in July, God-willing), our plan is to dedicate all of our time to meeting with potential supporters in order to raise the support we need to move. Our goal is to have the support raised to enable to move during late fall or early winter of 2018/19. All donations and support that we receive before that time go toward our start-up/travel expenses.

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The boys checking out one of Charlie’s favorite Christmas gifts.

 

As we continue to work towards these goals, we can’t help but feel stuck in a sort of limbo, of waiting until the next big thing. At times like these we remain grateful for the way in which our church shapes time to enable us to focus on the most truly meaningful cycles and narratives – those that allow us to participate in salvation history. Our church does Pascha/Easter big (the Feast of Feasts!), and we prepare accordingly. In fact, there are three layers of preparation for the annual celebration of Christ’s victory over death – Holy Week, Great Lent, and the four weeks prior to Lent.

The first event that occurs in preparation for Great Lent (which, in turn, prepares us for Pascha), occurred during the Divine Liturgy this past Sunday. The Gospel reading for this service is Luke 19:1-10 – the story of Zacchaeus. Here, we encounter a man who made his living by collecting taxes for the Roman government (collecting more than was required in order to provide himself with income). However, this man had heard that Jesus, a well-known teacher and healer, was passing through his town, and he so desired to see this Jesus that he (being short) climbed a tree in order to do so. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann says in his wonderful book on Great Lent,

…the theme of this first announcement is desire. Man follows his desire. One can even say that man is desire, and this fundamental psychological truth about human nature is acknowledge by the Gospel: “Where your treasure is, ” says Christ,”there shall your heart be.” A strong desire overcomes the natural limitations of man;  when he passionately desires something he does things of which “normally” he is incapable. Being “short,” he overcomes and transcends himself. The only question, therefore, is whether we desire the right things. . . .

Zacchaeus desired the “right thing”; he wanted to see and approach Christ. He is the first symbol of repentance, for repentance begins as the rediscovery of the deep nature of all desire: the desire for God and His righteousness, for the true life.

Interestingly, Luke doesn’t tell us that climbing the tree results in Zacchaeus seeing Jesus; rather, he tells us that Jesus “looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.'” Thus, Zacchaeus’s desire leads to being seen by Jesus; as Schmemann says, “it ‘forces’ Christ’s attention; it brings Christ to [Zacchaeus’s] home.”

Finally, it is noteworthy that Zacchaeus climbed a tree, with no regard for his own dignity, in order to see Jesus, who would climb his own tree, with no regard for his own dignity, for the life of the world two weeks later. We who desire to see Christ are called to take up our cross and follow him, regardless of the cost.

As we prepare for Great Lent, may we all, in our desire to see Christ, be seen by him, and thus be changed.

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Thanksgiving and Fasting During Advent

This week, Kristen suggested we talk about what Thanksgiving has come to mean for our family over the last few years. To do so requires that we begin with Advent.

Advent/The Nativity Fast

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Charlie examining the icon of the Nativity, and of St. Nicholas.

“Advent” is taken from the Latin word adventum that can be glossed as “arrival,” or, better, “approach.” It refers to the time in which we prepare for Jesus’s approach in terms of his birth on Christmas. Now, unlike the West, the lands in which most members of the Orthodox Church live today have relatively few historical ties to the Latin language. For this reason, many theological and liturgical words with Latin roots are referred to differently by Orthodox Christians. Thus, the time spent in preparation for Christmas (or, in Orthodox speak, The Feast of the Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ) is commonly referred to as the Nativity Fast. Of course, we Orthodox Christians who live in the West do use a number of terms that are traditionally associated with Western Christianity, like Lent, Transfiguration, Dormition, etc.

While our (Western) family tends to refer to this season as Advent, we can’t help but acknowledge that a defining characteristic of the Orthodox observance is fasting (hence the name, Nativity Fast). For the forty days prior to Christmas (beginning on November 15), the standard practice for Orthodox Christians is to abstain from eating anything that comes from an animal with a backbone (e.g., meat, dairy, eggs) for the entire forty days, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to abstain from olive oil and wine, as well. In addition, portion sizes are to be decreased. The money saved from fasting is to be given to the poor. Naturally, time spent in prayer and contemplation of the birth of Jesus is increased.

This sort of fasting also occurs during Lent (in preparation for Pascha, or Easter), in preparation for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in June, in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition of Mary in August, and nearly every Wednesday and Friday of the year.

It would be misleading for me to claim that my family (and, in particular, me – John) is diligent in our fasting. I will say that we are diligent in our intentions, and in resuming the fast when we fail to keep it for whatever reason. We have come to appreciate that a significant part of the value of the fasts is the humility learned by failure alongside the desire for perseverance. In addition, how a family fasts, and how that will differ for members of the family, varies based on a number of things – pregnant and nursing mothers, infants, and very young children (among others) are exempt from the expectation of fasting, and children are weaned into fasting. Orthodox Christians are encouraged to discuss the fasts with spiritual advisors (typically their parish priest) to determine how best to keep the fasts in their own unique contexts.

The reasons for fasting are numerous, and beyond the scope of this post. The most straightforward explanation for the Nativity Fast is that Christmas is likened to a second Easter (or Pascha), in the sense that Christ’s incarnation is the necessary antecedent of his death and resurrection (Fr. Alexander Schmemann coined the phrase “Winter Pascha” to describe the Nativity). And just as Lent precedes Pascha (being the period in which the Church prays and fasts as a community in preparation for receiving initiates into the Church on Easter), the Nativity Fast precedes the Nativity.

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Charles Maximus at four months (left) and Judah Severus at four months (right).

We are commonly asked how, as Orthodox Christians who fast from November 15 to December 24, we celebrate (or do we even celebrate?) Thanksgiving. The Nativity Fast had been around for some time (to say the least!) before Orthodox immigrants to the U.S. encountered this holiday and the traditions (i.e., foods) associated with it. Since there are a number of Orthodox hierarchies in the U.S., this issue is handled slightly differently, depending on the hierarchy. For the most part, there is either an explicit dispensation granted, or a more implicit understanding that the intents and purposes of fasting are commensurate with those of the Thanksgiving meal (when celebrated appropriately), and that the meal is therefore acceptable.

Orthodox Christians see obvious and significant value in celebrating, as President Lincoln stated in 1863, “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” The core of Orthodox worship is Holy Communion; another term for this is Eucharist, from the Greek εὐχαριστία (eucharistia, “thanksgiving”). The verbal form, εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō, “to give thanks”) is used in the earliest reference to the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “When he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me'” (1 Corinthians 11:24).

The heart of Orthodox worship, then, is participation with Christ in the offering of thanks to God for his body, broken for us. And this, of course, extends to offering thanks for all that God has given us, a practice that I, for one, could stand to be much better at doing. A helpful reflection that has had a significant effect on me is to imagine what I would lose if God were to take away everything for which I had not given thanks.

Another practice that has developed in many American Orthodox communities and/or families is gathering to pray and sing a hymn entitled “Glory to God for All Things,” or the Akathist of Thanksgiving. An akathist (taken from a Greek word indicating that it is to be sung while standing) is a hymn that takes a specific form, sort of like a sonnet. This particular akathist was written by Metropolitan Tryphon of Turkestan in 1934, during the height of the Communist persecution. It is often attributed to Archpriest Gregory Petroff, who died in a Soviet prison camp in 1940; the image of someone praying this in the gulag is incredibly powerful.

Here is a recording of this hymn being sung, and here is the text in full. A few highlights:

How glorious You are in the springtime, when every creature awakens to new life and joyfully sings Your praises with a thousand tongues! You are the source of life, the destroyer of death. By the light of the moon, nightingales sing, and the valleys and hills lie like wedding-garments, white as snow. All the earth is Your promised bride awaiting her spotless Husband. If the grass of the field is like this, how gloriously shall we be transfigured in the Second Coming, after the Resurrection! How splendid our bodies, how spotless our souls!

Glory to You for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature.
Glory to You for the numberless creatures around us.
Glory to you for the depths of Your wisdom–the whole world a living sign of it.
Glory to You: On my knees, I kiss the traces of Your unseen hand.
Glory to You, enlightening us with the clarity of eternal life.
Glory to You for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

How near You are in the day of sickness. You Yourself visit the sick. You Yourself bend over the sufferer’s bed; his heart speaks to You. In the throes of sorrow and suffering, You bring peace; You bring unexpected consolation. You are the Comforter. You are the Love which watches over and heals us. To You we sing the song: Alleluia!

What sort of praise can I give You? I have never heard the song of the cherubim, a joy reserved for the spirits above. But I know the praises that nature sings to You. In winter, I have beheld how silently in the moonlight the whole earth offers You prayer, clad in its white mantle of snow, sparkling like diamonds. I have seen how the rising sun rejoices in You, how the song of the birds is a chorus of praise to You. I have heard the mysterious murmurings of the forests about You, and the winds singing Your praise as they stir the waters. I have understood how the choirs of stars proclaim Your glory as they move forever in the depths of infinite space. What is my poor worship? All nature obeys You, I do not. Yet while I live, I see Your love, I long to thank You, pray to You, and call upon Your Name:

Glory to You, giving us light.
Glory to You, loving us with love so deep, divine, and infinite.
Glory to You, blessing us with light, and with the host of angels and saints.
Glory to You, Father All-Holy, promising us a share in Your Kingdom.
Glory to You, Holy Spirit, Life-giving Sun of the world to come.
Glory to You for all things, holy and most merciful Trinity.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

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Charlie and Judah on Charlie’s birthday (one day after Judah’s birthday).

Camel Diseases and Human Health in the Horn of Africa

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Our translator very thoughtfully marked this camel for me.

In this post we want to discuss one aspect of the veterinary component of the work we hope to participate in when we move to Ethiopia. When we discuss our desire to help Ethiopians (and share the love of Christ) through veterinary medicine, many folks in the U.S. (understandably) haven’t considered the value that people in developing countries place on their livestock, and on the veterinary infrastructure (or lack thereof) that is necessary to enable their livestock to be productive. Even fewer have considered the role of livestock species that are uncommon in America or the West.

A couple of years ago, I (John) got to help my boss write a review article for CAB Reviews (part of the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International), which we titled “The impact of camel disease on human welfare in East Africa.” We’d like to share some of the more interesting (in our humble opinion) information from this article here, to show how significant veterinary medicine can be for people who have extremely limited access to veterinarians and veterinary technology.

Introduction

We begin by describing how half to two-thirds of the 27 million camels in the world are in East Africa (i.e., Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia), where their ability to adapt to extremely harsh environments is highly prized. In East Africa, (dromedary, or one-humped) camels are used for meat, milk, transportation, market/wealth reserve, prestige, hide, and labour. We discuss how 75% of the world’s camels are found in the world’s Least Developed Countries, and are thus often neglected in terms of research into improved production methods and veterinary diagnostics and treatments. When we conducted interviews with pastoralists to better understand their livestock priorities and concerns, camels were ranked the most important species more than 95% of the time.

Adaptation to Extreme Environments

As drought and water shortages increase in the Horn of Africa, the camel’s ability to withstand these challenges (especially as compared to other livestock species) increases the potential value of these animals in this region. Camels can lose up to 30% of their body’s water (~3x that of other domestic animals) and survive. They also have unique mechanisms (including their kidneys, the shape of their red blood cells, and the shape of their bodies in general) that decrease water loss and enable rapid rehydration. Whereas a cow will naturally lose 8-11 gallons of water per day, a camel will lose about 1/3 of one gallon of water per day. In addition, camels are able to withstand extreme heat due to the shape of their bodies and special blood vessels in their noses.

If you want an idea of how harsh the Ethiopian environment can be, check out these photos of the Danakil Depression (and the camels there!).

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The harsh landscape in the Horn of Africa.

Reproduction and Calf Viability

Camels take a relatively long time to reproduce. Fertility rates in the Horn of Africa are around 40%, and gestation is 13 months. If everything goes well, a healthy cow (female camel) will have a calf about once every 28 months. There are a huge number of diseases that cause infertility or loss of prenatal calves in camels, such as pasteurellosis and trypanosomiasis. Losses may be as high as 40%. Once born, camels, like cattle, need “first milk,” or colostrum, from their mothers to protect them from infection until their own immune systems are developed. Many who make a living by herding (i.e. pastoralists), however, told us that they prevent the calves from drinking colostrum, because they believe that the colostrum itself makes the calves sick. Thus calf deaths are extremely common; the number we often heard was 50%. Probably 3/4 of these are caused be calf diarrhea – E. coli, Salmonella, rotavirus, etc.

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Acacia thorns are often used as corrals, here keeping the calves from wandering and protecting them from predators, like hyenas.

Diseases Affecting Production in General

In addition to reproductive diseases, there are many diseases that “cause wasting, weakness, decreased milk production, and in some cases, death. They also decrease in value from an economic/market perspective. These animals thus fail to serve their intended purpose, which is ultimately to benefit the welfare of the people who care for them. Diseases that affect overall health include (but are not limited to) trypanosomiasis, infectious respiratory disease, paratuberculosis (Johne’s disease), Camel Sudden Death Syndrome, intestinal parasite infestations, and ectoparasite (i.e., tick) infestations.”

Uses for Camels in East Africa

Food

Studies have shown that camel milk often makes up 30-50% of the nutritional needs of pastoralists in East Africa. One year old children in this region can receive up to 2/3 of their required mean energy and 100% of their protein from camel milk. Camels in the Horn of Africa produce an average of 11 to 13 pounds of milk per day (higher than cattle in the same region). Lactation lasts between 9 and 18 months. The milk has unique antimicrobial properties, and has lower somatic cell counts than that found in cattle. Mastitis is therefore an extremely significant disease for these camels (and, unfortunately, extremely common). In addition, the fact that the milk is commonly consumed raw is a cause for concern, as there are a large number of food-borne illnesses caused by drinking raw milk (i.e., brucellosis, tuberculosis, salmonellosis, etc.).

The risks of raw milk comes to my mind frequently when I work with camels, because there is a tradition that those who are about to work a herd will come together and share a bowl of fresh milk before getting started. It is considered impolite to decline, but I have found that if I make sure I have a big milk mustache, even if I only sip a little, my hosts are satisfied.

Camels are also slaughtered for their meat, which has a much lower fat content (and is much tougher) than beef. The hump, which consists of fibrous fat, is considered a delicacy in many pastoral areas. As with any slaughtered animal, there are a number of  potential food-borne illnesses associated with camel meat, including salmonellosis, campylobacter infections, toxoplasmosis, and echinococcosis.

Conditions at slaughterhouses are vastly different, as well. A colleague and I visited a camel slaughterhouse at one point, accompanied by the slaughterhouse’s veterinary inspector. We didn’t know quite what to expect, and when men with machetes started hacking at the camels’ hamstrings so they would lay down before being slaughtered, our eyes widened and our jaws dropped. The inspector noticed, and asked, quite innocently, “Is this not how you do it in America?”

 

Camel milk and meat. Note the fat from the hump on the upper left side of the plate.

Transportation

Another use for camels is for hauling goods, milk, water, or, in the case of many pastoralists, for relocating one’s entire home when in search of better pasture. In northern Ethiopia, many people won’t drink camel milk or eat the meat for religious reasons, but have found the camel’s capacity for transportation to be immensely useful. Camels are well-known for hauling salt out of the Danakil Depression in north-eastern Ethiopia.

Economic and Cultural/Societal Resource

Camel herds function as the wealth reserve (and therefore as a measure of cultural prestige) for many in the Horn of Africa, especially pastoralists. The Horn of Africa exports enormous numbers of animals (~$600 million per year) to the Arabian Peninsula, especially around Ramadan. Diseases in the Horn of Africa will occasionally lead to an export ban, which has enormous consequences for those who depend on this trade to make a living.

Zoonoses

We wrap up the article with a discussion of diseases that are shared between humans and camels, including brucellosis, Rift Valley Fever, Q Fever, rabies, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). All of these present serious health risks for the people that care for and come into contact with camels.

Conclusion

Hopefully this post has shown that “the camel is of immense value to many in East Africa, and especially to the pastoralist peoples who live there. This animal, which gets so little notice in most of the world, gives food, provides transportation, income and a sense of self-worth to these people.” Hopefully it also shows the role that a veterinarian can potentially play in East Africa, and how one can love others using their veterinary training and skills.

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Me and a friend.