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.

Thanksgiving

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).

Who Do We Think We Are?

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Kristen and John at Niagara Falls in October 2009, when John was on leave after returning from Iraq (and after having dragged Kristen to a monastery for their first week together).

This entry will be shorter than previous ones, because we don’t really want to talk about ourselves all that much (at least on the blog; I (John) could talk about myself all day). However, we do want to explain how we came to desire to work overseas, and why we’ve decided to pursue this goal.

Kristen’s Story

When I was 17, an evangelist came to the Stillwater Church of Christ and shared his experience as a long-term missionary in China.  I was so moved and impressed by the work he was doing, I contemplated packing my bags and moving to China the next day.  Years later (in 2011), I went on a short-term trip to Haiti.  It was my first experience with extreme poverty and I really didn’t know what to expect, but by the time my trip came to an end I didn’t want to leave.  Many of the people I met were still displaced from the effects of the 2010 earthquake but the amount of love and joy they had for each other and for me was inspiring and overwhelming.

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Kristen in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2010.

As Christians, we are called to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to care for and love the sick and the suffering, to try to live a life worthy of His sacrifice.  While that can, and should, be lived out in our own communities and neighborhoods, there is also a need in communities that don’t have the resources we have been blessed with here.  God calls each of us in different ways and John and I feel there has been a desire and a willingness placed on our hearts for Ethiopia.

John’s Story

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John at the ziggurat in Ur (of the Chaldees) in southern Iraq, the birthplace of Abraham (2009).

My first encounter with some sort of development work involved two short-term spring break trips with the Church of Christ University Center in Stillwater, OK (also, by the way, where Kristen and I met). One trip was to Impact Houston Church of Christ, which has an amazing inner city ministry; the other was a work project in Saltillo, Mexico. These trips made me aware of the possibility of development work as ministry.

At the same time, I was able to attend one of Christian Veterinary Fellowship’s Real Life Real Impact weekends, where I learned about the kind of work that Christian Veterinary Mission did around the world. At the time, I recognized that I wasn’t mature enough (both in my faith, and simply as a person) to pursue development work long term. However, my decision to join the Army Veterinary Corps was heavily influenced by my desire to use the skills and knowledge I had obtained to serve others. I was seeking to share Christ’s love through veterinary medicine in whatever capacity I could at the time.

While in the Army, I did some work in Bosnia, the Congo, Liberia, Tanzania, and Uganda, which served to strengthen my resolve to find some way to pursue development work in the future.  I was deployed to Iraq in 2008-09, and it was there that my life changed drastically. I can say that in hindsight, but at the time, I would have said that Iraq was inconsequential: I wasn’t a combatant, and because the Army had become so risk-averse by 2008, I really didn’t have that much to do. I had a lot of time to read, though; and (much more importantly), I had a lot of time to pray. This is where I discovered the Orthodox Church (something we plan to write about in more detail in a future post), but in many ways, it’s where I discovered my absolute dependence on Christ, and where my desire to drop everything to serve him really sprang to life.

Everything since then has been an effort to discern how Kristen and I can use what we’ve been given to know Christ and to love others in such a way that we can look back and know that we made the most of what we were given.

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John and Kristen on their wedding day (May 29, 2008) in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Why Christian Veterinary Mission?

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I’m a little behind on posting this week, because Charles Maximus’s godmother got married in Chicago this weekend, and Charlie was the ring bearer. Congratulations to Jen and Garrett Ledesma; many years!

Thanks to all who have been showing their support as we prepare for next year: those who have been praying, those who have made very generous contributions, and those who have contacted us to encourage us, followed us, and provided us with their contact information!

Today, I want to write about our sending agency (I’ll explain this term below): Christian Veterinary Mission (CVM). I want to explain who they are, what they do, and why we chose to partner with them.

What is Christian Veterinary Mission?

Christian Veterinary Mission was founded in 1976 by Dr. Leroy Dorminy, a veterinarian from Georgia. At the Baptist World Alliance in Stockholm, Sweden in July 1975, Dr. Dorminy met a woman from Africa who, when asked how Christians in the developed world can help in developing countries, responded, “what we need is for you to come and teach us your skills that we might do for ourselves.”

Dr. Dorminy then approached his denomination’s foreign mission board, but was turned away, in part because they simply didn’t know what to do with a veterinarian! As a result, he became convinced that there was a real need for an organization that understood the veterinary profession and what veterinarians can offer in the way of sharing Christ’s love in developing countries.

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Dr. Leroy Dorminy (photo courtesy of cvmusa.org).

Due to the need for experienced, professional guidance in terms of supporting those placed overseas, CVM became a part of CRISTA ministries in 1978. CRISTA’s mission is “to love God by serving people – meeting practical and spiritual needs—so that those we serve will be built up in love, united in faith and maturing in Christ.”

What Does CVM Do?

As they explain on their website, “CVM’s mission is to challenge, empower and facilitate veterinary professionals to serve others by living out their Christian faith.” Another way that CVM states its mission is “to share the love of Christ through veterinary medicine.”

CVM thus functions as a sending agency for those in the veterinary profession. One website describes a sending agency as one that “specializes in the care and service of ‘people on mission’ . . . experts in all the challenges and details of a person going into itinerant ministry, and can provide excellent financial services, mailing and database services, fund raising training, donor communication training and support, connections and resources from many other related people and organizations, and more.”

Today, CVM functions as the sending agency for more than fifty veterinarians (and their families) in North, Central, and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia; all of whom raise their own support, as we are doing. In addition, CVM has student and professional ministries in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. I (John) was introduced to CVM through its student ministry while in vet school.

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A map showing the location of many current CVM field staff. The map is interactive here.

Why We’re Raising Support

Before I explain why we chose CVM, I want to explain some of the reasons why we decided to raise support rather than find other funding options.

  • We want to create a community of supporters, who will come alongside us in our work through prayer, financial contributions, and interaction (both on social media and through visits). Raising financial support requires us to do the work of connecting with our supporters by keeping you up updated and involved. It also allows you, when you contribute your time to our work (and money counts here, because you have spent time earning that money) to truly be a part of the work we’re doing.
  • We don’t want to take salaries away from other potential employees. Were I to take a salary from the veterinary school, for example, that’s one less Ethiopian veterinarian or microbiologist that the vet school can hire.
  • We would like to do this work for as long as we’re able, without interruption. I intend to explore a number of funding opportunities, such as grants, once we’re in Mekelle and I’m able to help people determine their priorities and goals. Those sorts of opportunities will fund projects to benefit the groups I’m working with. But grants are typically short term, and if we were dependent on them for our continual funding, we would have to spend valuable time identifying, applying for, and being subject to the terms and conditions of the grants (assuming we’re awarded them).
  • We want our work to be sustainable, and to endure after we leave. If we’re taking a salary, we’re obliged to do the work required by those paying us. Our intention, however, is to come alongside those already doing that work, and offer our experience, knowledge, and skills, to enable them to excel long after we’re gone.

Why We Chose CVM

There are three basic reasons that we chose to work with CVM: their history of financial accountability, their experience with veterinarians and with Ethiopia, and their reputation for caring for their field staff.

CVM and CRISTA Ministries have an outstanding reputation for financial accountability. They have a four-star rating on Charity Navigator (which rates them according to financial health, accountability, and transparency), and are accredited by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. It was important to us that our supporters have peace of mind that your donations are being used appropriately and effectively at all levels. All donations to CVM are tax deductible.

CVM has a 40+ year history of supporting veterinarians, especially those seeking to share their expertise in developing countries. By working with CVM, we have access to a community that knows the pitfalls to avoid as a vet in a developing country, as well as what works.

The same can be said about living as a veterinarian in Ethiopia. CVM’s Africa Regional Director and his family spent nearly three decades in Ethiopia; other veterinarians have worked there, or work there currently. They understand the unique cultural and logistical challenges associated with navigating Ethiopia.

Finally, CVM has a reputation for caring for its field staff. This has been a constant refrain as I’ve gotten to know current and former members of CVM’s team. We’ve even experienced it ourselves, as we had some medical issues that required I leave the first CVM event we attended a couple of days early; the prayer, expressions of concern and support, and follow-up were incredible. We feel comfortable knowing that CVM’s members take care of one another, and live out the call to function as brothers and sisters in Christ.

There are a number of organizations with whom we considered partnering, and of course, other groups have a number of skill sets offered by CVM (and in a few cases, advantages that CVM is not able to offer). However, we are confident that we are in good hands with CVM, and we look forward to a fruitful partnership.

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Charles Maximus at the rehearsal for his nouna’s wedding at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago.

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