Maundy Thursday – a reflection on betrayal.

Today is the day before Good Friday, just over half-way from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. A strange day referred to in the traditional Christan calendar as “Maundy Thursday.” Or, as most kids who grew up in church think it’s called: “Monday-Thursday”

It coincides with the traditional celebration of the Seder Supper – the marking of the beginning of the Jewish Passover. The Passover, of course, is the Jewish feast that remembers their people being saved from the plagues which ravaged Egypt when the Jewish people were slaves.

The Christian celebration of the Seder Meal is an observation of a very specific occurrence of the meal that took place with Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago.

Like all observant Jews, Jesus and his apprentices found a place where they could celebrate this meal together. The image that comes to most minds when we hear “The Last Supper” is the iconic Davinci painting, which depicts this setting, immediately after Jesus has told his close friends, that one of them will betray him.

The tradition of washing feet at a Maundy Thursday service also originates from this Last Supper. It’s taken to be a real and tangible way of expressing that kind of serving love. Jesus washed his disciple’s feet that evening at the Seder Supper, and that’s the kind of attitude and behaviour he wants from those who claim to follow him.

Washing Feet – He Qi

Which I suppose circles back to the origin of the name “Maundy”. It’s a shortened form of the Latin ‘mandatum ‘ or ‘command’ – in reference to a command that Jesus gave to his followers that week. Many hold a view of God as a rule-enforcing party-pooper, and his commands as lists of “thou shalt not’s” for things that we enjoy. (this is not unexpected considering the anger and arrogant self-righteousness that over the centuries has been touted as “Christianity.” This command, however, is quite telling of what the followers of Jesus should actually look like.

The Latin translation of the command is: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34)

Working sketch by DaVinci – imagining Judas on the other side of the table

It’s that kind of love that is so juxtaposed against the betrayal that is seen on that evening of The Last Supper. Jesus, right there in the middle of the Seder meal, tells his 12 closes apprentices that one of them is going to betray him that very night.

“It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot”

Peter, knife in hand, leaning past Judas to speak to John. Judas already has his small purse of money in hand.

Judas, a name we now associate with treason/deceit/treachery was, of course, the one who betrayed him. Judas, who spent several years with Jesus, travelling with him, eating with him, listening to him, working with him, and helping to manage their collective money. Judas heard the words of kindness and forgiveness, saw Jesus give to those who were unkind to him, heal those who didn’t even ask for it, and defend the vulnerable. Jesus who stood up for women, children, widows, orphans, outsiders, foreigners – was now double crossed by someone from inside his inner circle.

Preliminary sketch of Judas for Last Supper

Which is where I feel the sting of betrayal becomes a bit more real this year.

When we found out a couple of days after the attack at our house that a person we thought we could trust, was involved….it stung. Someone who had been with our family since we arrived in Burundi over five years ago, who helped our family, who worked in our house every day, who I practiced my bad Kirundi with, and he tried out rudimentary French & sometimes English. Someone who we tried to help provide for his wife and 4 kids. Someone I had given the benefit of a doubt on several occasions, we had shown grace to, and someone we felt we were generous, kind, and loving to. He was working with the criminals as their inside man and betrayed our family for money. He tipped them off, told them to come while he was in our house, and said he’d make sure the door was unlocked.

That is a lot to take in. Especially when you add it on top of dealing with the physical repercussions, the feeling of lost safety and security, the emotional trauma, the confusion and everything else that goes along with an attack like that. To know that it was, at least in some way, aided by someone inside our house. Someone who knows our family, that sends greetings when I go to visit the kids in Kenya. Someone who knew Susan and the kids would be home at that time. That person intentionally chose to turn on us and at the very least allow that kind of evil to enter our house and cause that kind of damage to us.

To be perfectly honest, i feel like it is the one piece of the whole ordeal that I still haven’t been able to process.

Which of course circles back to the Last Supper.

an early study drawing by DaVinci for what would become The Last Supper

Jesus was very clear that we are to love our enemies – that his command to love others applies not just to those I find easy to get along with, but everyone. That I should love my family members, but also those who betrayed my family and endangered the very lives of my family. Of course, this does not mean there are no consequences for action. This man would never work in our house again. It would take years to regain any semblance of trust – if ever. Forgiveness and love don’t’ mean we blindly ignore reality, and endanger people for the sake of ‘being nice.’

Sorry, but this post does not wrap up in a neat way, with my experiences serving as a clear illustration for a life lesson. I’m sure it does…I”m just not there yet. But here are three thoughts:

  1. I can’t judge people’s motives by their actions. Did he do what he did because of pure, evil malice, or did the criminals search him out and threaten his family if he didn’t help them? Did he come up with the plan, or was he forced to go along and promised no one would get hurt? Those feel like two very different things, and I will never know. It’s way easier to jump to judgement of a person than to accept how nuanced we all are.
  2. I am guilty of betraying Jesus in so many ways over the years of my life that it’s probably helpful for me to have some small sense of what it feels like to be on the other side. Susan suggested I put up a blog post on this as she pointed out this is really the first time we’ve felt this kind of direct, intentional betrayal.
  3. The Seder Supper leads directly into ‘Good Friday’ – the day we remember Jesus’ death. Jesus’ compassion and concern for people like Judas are essentially what got him killed. His claim to be the Son of God was directly tied to the way he treated those around him. He washed Judas’ feet, served him supper, and offered him friendship that very night. That mandatum novum he gave was to love others in the very same way. That’s not fluffy, feel-good ‘love’ – that’s the kind of action that can and will cause you pain. If we put ourselves out there – if we offer kindness, and grace, and forgiveness to others – there are times it will hurt. I don’t think that means we’re doing it wrong – I think sometimes loving others will hurt us – and that’s just the way it is. That’s not masochistic, or self-punishment, it’s simply the reality of the world we live in. This world has pain and sorrow, it has brokenness, sadness and sickness. If we engage fully, we will shoulder some of that, some of that will get wiped on us, and some will be thrown at us. The only way to try to avoid getting hurt by others is to never engage with others. That’s not a price worth paying.

top image: The Last Supper – Andy Warhol 1986

Burundi transport

There are a lot of peculiarities to how people move around this country.

No…scratch that.

There are a lot of peculiarities to how people move around this country.

There are a lot of things that we find peculiar about how people move around this country. Of course, to those who have lived here their whole lives, and whose ancestors have lived here for centuries, it is normal. You walk. Maybe with flip-flops on, but often barefoot. Occasionally ride a bike. There are cars on the road, but the vast majority of those operate like bus lines. They have set routes, and pick up people for fares along the way. Privately owned cars are rare, at least up here in the rural interior. In the capital many upper-middle-class families own cars..but around us, it is very rare indeed.

It feels like what in the west is considered an appropriate matching of a transportation method to a given load – here you have to jump a few levels to get the same capacity. What in Canada goes on a pickup, here is a bicycle. What in Europe is a car, here is a person balancing something on their head. What is an Australian outback road-train with 3 trailers, here is a stubby truck packed to the sky.

procession to a local funeral

Up here in the rural interior, people just walk. For hours. Small children are out every afternoon gathering firewood and water, carrying bundles of sticks and leaky plastic jugs on their heads. The lush green hills here are overlayed with a web of foot-paths cut into the red soil by hundreds of bare feet plodding over them every single day. People themselves, carry things that before I moved here I would never have through people are physically capable of carrying.

Bikes here are what pickup trucks are to north America. No, scratch that.

Bikes here are what pickup trucks are to north America.

Bikes here are more like what pickup trucks are designed for in North America.

if you need to get to the hospital, but can’t walk, the rack of a bicycle is the usual choice

In North America, I would guess that a very significant percentage of these huge, durable, expensive trucks rarely (some never) carry heavy loads in them that really push the capacity of the frame. Here, if you see only one person on a bicycle it’s pretty safe to assume that they are going to pick up something/someone, or they are returning from having delivered their cargo. Bikes are brought into service to transport items that you think simply would pop the tires and tear the bike frame in half.

in case you’re wondering how they can stop a bike loaded with 100’s of kilo’s of cargo when they start to approach 60-80km/h (which they do) there is a often a secondary brake system like this bike. A simple foot lever connected to a car-tire rubber block that rubs against the inside of the rim.
a typical funeral procession up here – a coffin on the back of a bicycle – everyone else walking

Once you move up to a small car, you start to see some real loads. The Toyota PROBOX probably is the country’s beast-of-burden of choice. A small Corolla wagon it routinely is seen holding 7-10 passengers and hundreds of kilos of cargo shoved in the back. They are also routinely seen with dangerously overloaded frames scraping the ramshackle speed bumps that are common on the national highways here.

A not uncommon sight closer to the city – a Toyota Probox serving as a hearse – with a coffin and still more than the designed number of passengers
sometimes even we call our vehicles into service for other-than-designed uses – like using the bench seat in the Land Cruiser as an ambulance bed.

The speed bumps in themselves can be a bit of a chore to deal with, even if you don’t have twice the manufactures max load weight onboard. There are several speed bumps that we frequent, which have had the cement broken off, and now have pieces of rebar sticking up like a tire-spike to prevent you from leaving the Disneyland parking lot through the entrance without paying. If you don’t know they’re there, you would probably skewer your tire like a goat kabob. Now that I think of it, the consistency of a warm tire and the flesh of a local goat on a thin bamboo skewer are probably not that different from each other.

flat tire on a deserted 5-hour drive in the middle of nowhere Tanzania- en route to a game park

Trucks are loaded up with goods that sure seem like they will make the trick flip over – which they occasionally do. Now that I think about it, one of the reasons they can get away with staking vertically the way they do, is that you never drive under anything. There is not a single bridge, overpass, railway trestle, on-ramp in the entire country. There is simply no man-made passage that another road drives under. OK, that’s not entirely true – as of a few months ago, there is a pedestrian bridge over what is essentially ‘main-street’ in downtown Bujumbura. When it was finished pictures of it were shared by proud city-dwellers on social media, as it was a first for that kind of engineering.

The other thing about trucks is that it seems crazy here to let their pulling capacity go to waste. If they are going to be driving up the hill anyway…having a few hundred extra kilos really doesn’t make a difference. And a free ride up the hill sure beats paying for a seat in a taxi, and a free drag up the hill sure beats peddling yourself.

Some of our kids (including two engineers) trying to fit in and ride like everyone else

I suppose once we move up to air travel the differences become less about what can be carried (although I have seen some pretty bold interpretations of “carry on bag” here) -and more about the absence of it. There is only one paved runway in the country – the single runway at the airport in Bujumbura. Flying is a complete luxury that only a tiny sliver of the population would ever dream of experiencing.

RIP Air Burundi: 1975-1996, 1999-2009 The lone jet of the fleet, retired well over a decade ago, sitting just off the runway at the airport circa 2018

When we moved here 5 years ago there were several weekly flights to Brussels, flights to Dubai, Turkish announced it was about to start flying to Istanbul, and there were multiple flights a day to Kigali, Nairobi and Addis Ababa. As of now, there is one flight to Brussels a week, and a single daily flight to Kigali, one to Addis, and at one point only one to Nairobi – but back to two or three a day now. (this was, of course, before COVID-19 completely shut down our airport and all the others in the region)

I must admit, living here has shown me two things about how things get transported around a society.

First, the timid nature we tend to have about transporting things. We honestly way under-estimate what a vehicle can carry – whether that be a car, a bicycle, or the human body.

sometimes when you combine all of this, on windy mountain roads, you get a fuel truck spun out, stuck blocking the road, and you try to sneak vehicle through. Like the blue truck above that 40 guys had to rock back and forth to get it unhooked from the bumper of the fuel truck as there wasn’t quite room. but …it made it.

Secondly, safety and security always come at a cost. It’s more expensive (in fuel, time etc.) to take two trips instead of one dangerously over-loaded one. It’s cheaper (in the immediate term) to buy a small car and pack it with 2-3 people per seat-belt (if they were even still there, or ever used) than a larger car. It costs more, even in terms of time, to walk up the mountain than to jump on the back of a truck and ride up the highway clinging to the back of a load from the brewery in Buja to the interior. However, when you simply do not have the resources to afford the safer way, it’s not an option.

Safety truly is a luxury of the rich.

Last One Standing (?)

{NOTE: I really did not feel that what the world needs now is yet another post about COVID-19. However, we are in a bit of a unique situation here, and felt it’s worth sharing}

So it appears that as of today, Burundi is one of the only countries in the world to have no confirmed cases of COVID-19.

In some ways, it feels like we’re the village in the French comic book Asterix, the only village in the known world not to have been conquered by the invading Roman powers.

We’re that little village way up there on the left under the magnifying glass – the only ones left.

There are several obvious reasons why Burundi would be slower to get hit than many others. There is limited international travel compared to a lot of other places, most of the population never travels very far from home (rarely more than a 1/2 day walk), and especially since the violence around the last election we have been essentially socially distancing from the rest of the world to some degree for five years now. This partially explains why many places in Africa have been weeks behind other parts of the world when looking at the spread of this virus. According to officials here, there have been several tests conducted so far, all of them negative.

Our hospital admin has been busy trying to prepare for the imminent arrival of the virus. Hand washing, eliminating group gatherings, and additional protective protocols have been put in place however they can be. Outside of our hospital, people are still gathering in huge groups, crowded churches are still crowded, schools are still in session. This includes public school here in Kibuye where there are routinely over 100 kids in a room, and often 3-5 kids at a desk, and one single water tap outside the outhouses for the 1,000+ kids. Public transport is still 20+ people crammed inside a Toyota mini-van, though handwashing stations are now set up at the main bus station in the capital.

So in a way, it’s tempting to feel like we’re on the beach, and we see the tsunami coming. And there are others on the beach looking the other way.

It’s tempting to look around and feel like we know what’s coming. But that’s not entirely true. The truth is this may very well look different here than in other places.

In one way, the entire concept of flattening the curve seems odd here. The premise in other places is to reduce the concurrent number of sick people to keep that figure below the capacity of the health system to care for them. To know what flattening the curve means, many other countries have been running tens of thousands of tests, and the resulting positive results show what the repercussions could be for the medical system. Here even if we had those kinds of results, I’m not sure they’d provide a lot of actionable info.

The estimates seem to be that the US health care system had at least 65,000 ventilators for 330 million people or around 5,000 people per machine going into this pandemic. Clearly, this isn’t the only indicator of the capacity of the system, but it’s a significant one. So if the transmission is slowed enough that no more than than one in ~5,000 people need a ventilator at a time (obviously ignoring localized demand and a lot of other factors) then the system should be able to cope reasonably well, at least from a basic equipment standpoint.

Here we’re looking at over a million to one. We’ve heard there are 10 ventilators in the country, all in the capital, for well over 10 million people. At least 9 million people live outside of the capital. There is no flattening of a curve that can make the number of concurrently sick people stay below that number. The population here is young, but it also has a high level of malnutrition, lots of TB, annual epidemics of malaria, and other factors that are not going to make it easy for most people to fight off the worst of this disease.

If watching this virus sweep through some of the wealthiest countries in the world shows anything, it’s that the illusion of control that most western societies hold so dear is finally showing itself to truly be an illusion. Here, I think there is a wider acceptance that we, as individuals and society, do not have the ability to control what happens to us. I don’t sense that an event that rocks society to its core is as unfathomable here as it was in the West a few months ago.

I read an African economist the other day saying that stay-at-home orders are essentially irrelevant in many societies in Africa where the majority of the population are sustenance farmers. If you work for one day to be able to feed your family that day, staying at home is not an option. Tending your rice and bean crops is not something that can be done remotely. Working from home when you have neither internet connection, nor a computer, nor electricity is something completely different than in the west. When your work is entirely you showing up and conducting some kind of physical work on-site, it’s a bit harder to do that over a Skype call.

Also if we were to lose the ability to go to the store it would be essentially meaningless here in Kibuye. There are a few ladies with vegetable stands along the road outside the hospital, but that’s about it. There is a larger market down on the main road – but again everything outside. There will be no run on the stores because no one has the disposable wealth to make a run on them, even if there were stores. And also, there is nothing pre-packaged or manufactured that people could offer up to be sold en masse. The day’s vegetables are sold that day, bought that day, and eaten that day for most people. Not much really is going to change that. This is significantly different in Bujumbura – as there are some stores, restaurants, imported goods, packaged things, disposable income, and people who could do work remotely. But up here, that really isn’t the case.

These are people who know how to live in difficult situations. They know resilience. They know creative problem-solving. And, unfortunately, they know sorrow and loss of life on a large scale.

I don’t claim to have any idea what it will look like here when numbers of cases start to look more similar to other countries. But my guess is that if we get to that place, some of the impacts we are now seeing elsewhere will have greater consequences, some less – but like everywhere it will not be pretty.

One only gets through this by working together – so hopefully here, that can make a difference.


It feels strange to write about an event like what took place in our house on February 22. In one way, the essence of writing is distilling down something – an idea, an event, a person, a theory- into words that are a clear summary of that thing. How does one clearly reduce an event like that into something coherent?

So, more than usual, this post is a very personal reflection – on where I’m at – as we’re all moving through this at our own pace and in our own way. Read this merely as a snapshot of where I am now – not where I should be, or where I will be, or where I want to be – but what I’m thinking and feeling today.

Yesterday was exactly one month since we were the victims of a violent armed robbery in our home, and to answer the question many have asked us – “how does it feel now?” – the only answer is … still kind of surreal.

One thing that has surprised me about being back in our house is that it has not created as many of the triggering events I was worried about, although they do happen. For me, at least, the most frequent thought, and strongest emotion is a reoccurring sense of …. ‘really?’

As in: “Did I really get stabbed here in my kitchen, exactly where I’m now standing to make myself a pour-over coffee?”

“Is that pink bookshelf in the girls’ bedroom, really the last thing I saw before I passed out as I was being beaten?”

I am not trying in any way to be flippant about what happened, or to shock, but that is how it feels right now. I am fully aware that these phrases are bizarre even to read, and that in itself is part of the surreal nature of all this.

There were still specific markers of various kinds that reminded us of what happened when we got back. The bloodstains that got missed in the cleanup before we left. The map in the girls’ room that was torn down as they were looking for a safe that doesn’t exist.

Then there are the things that are still just as they always have been, but now have drastically different memories associated with them.
That place on the living room floor. That spot in the hallway. That cupboard in the office. They don’t look any different than they ever did, and they are the same, but they’re not.

It’s hard to make sense of an event like this. One month out, it seems one of the hardest parts of the whole thing is to keep walking away from the mental game that one loses every time: trying to make sense of it in my own mind.

As my mind struggles to make sense, there is a stream of questions that ultimately have no answers (or more accurately, no answers that I will ever have).

How does someone plan and scheme an armed attack with the express intent to steal money that has been donated to build up and support the community? How do you plan out a professional hit like that, and get the target so wrong, looking for money that’s not even there? How do we deal with the sting of knowing someone we know and trusted was involved in targeting our family? How does someone turn so quickly to beat another human being with a loaded machine gun to get some money -just some money? How is smashing someone’s foot with a hammer even something that anyone can do to another human being?

We were told in our counselling that searching for explanations is one of the ways we can fall into a trap of self-blame, looking for ways that we could have prevented it from happening.

“If only I would have ….. “

If we can complete that sentence with something, even though we logically know it is nonsensical, it somehow makes things feel more acceptable. Partially this helps because we have tricked ourselves into thinking that we have control. The temptation is to find some path of hypotheticals to walk down that feels less chaotic. “If I can figure out what I did wrong, I can now change that, and this will never happen to us again.”

Which of course is wrong – in every aspect. I could not have stopped it, and I cannot prevent it.

I do not have that kind of control, period.

There are things we can’t understand, there are things that are hard to comprehend, and there are things we don’t want to make sense of.

I can’t understand the origins of the universe.

It’s really hard for me to makes sense of the right direction to take for our family right now in a time of unprecedented uncertainty in a country with a history of instability and violence.

What I don’t want to accept is the faith I hold teaches, very clearly, that while some actions have greater consequences (for good or evil) – there is no person who lives up to a standard of non-evil. If I claim to follow the teachings of Jesus, I have to accept that the things I do (and don’t do) and my thoughts, my anger, my jealously, make me just as unworthy of God’s love as the men who beat me in my daughters’ bedroom, and the guy who stabbed me in my kitchen. I am no closer to living up to God’s standards on my own than they are.

That’s something that in my core I don’t want to accept because it’s hard.

But it’s true.

The other reason why walking down a path that we hope leads to comprehension is hard is that the why’s of the event become very difficult very quickly.

The line of questions that get to the very bedrock of our lives very quickly are the ones that start with: Why would God …

Why would God allow this to happen?

Why didn’t God stop it?

Why… God?

Those are not trivial questions and they do not have easy answers.

I’ve heard it said that what we are truly made of – not just what we want others to think of us – comes spilling out like if you bump a cup that is full to the brim. Once the cup of your life is hit, you can’t help but have the real you splash out for everyone to see.

For me, one of the most beautifully redeeming things that came out of this entire event was finding out that while we were separated, Susan and the kids were not panicking, they were not freaking out, not frantically trying to take care of themselves. Although they were scared, they held it together. And despite everything that was going on, everyone’s first concern was for the others. And everyone’s first reflex was to pray.

I have vivid memories of lying on the floor of our hallway, the nurse who was at our house for supper was cutting off my pant-leg to get to the wound on my leg, and right there next to me was Susan and the two kids who were home – quietly sitting, praying. The attackers had just fled our house, but we had no idea if they were coming back, or were really gone, or were heading to another house in our community. My family, sitting there, was quietly yet confidently praying for my wounds, for the protection of our friends and neighbours, and for the very men who had just done this to us.

There is nothing I’ve ever been through that makes me more proud to be a husband to Susan and a father to my kids than when I saw what spilled out of them when they were hit so hard they simply couldn’t hide what’s inside.

So even the answers to the why’s may not be easy – they are in some ways simple.

“I don’t know – and I never will – and that’s how life works when you’re a human.”

The Old Testament book of Job is a story about a man who suffers terrible personal loss – his family, his livelihood, his own health. Eventually, he succumbs to the temptation of questioning God, his goodness, and his control.

God essentially replies by saying: Were you there when I created light? Did you help make the earth? Do you understand all the creatures of the world? Do you have control over weather patterns? Did you arrange the stars in the universe?

At one point God says: “Do you presume to tell me what I’m doing wrong?
    Are you calling me a sinner so you can be a saint? “

Eventually Job answers God:

“I’m convinced: You can do anything and everything.
    Nothing and no one can upset your plans.
You asked, ‘Who is this muddying the water,
    ignorantly confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes?’
I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me,
    made small talk about wonders way over my head.”

I think that’s where I’ve landed. I don’t have answers to the why’s and I think I am now OK with that. If I don’t accept the fact that there are things in life I don’t understand then I’m assuming my own omniscient power. The only other way forward is to accept that I don’t understand everything, that I never will, and I am fine with that because I trust that God – who has proven to be loving and kind – says that he does.