A Quick Thought

Sometimes I just have a quick thought I feel is worth writing down. Tonight is one of those times.

There are three things wrong with the world.

Thinkers who do not do,

Doers who do not think,

And those who neither think, nor do.

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The Beauty of the Hard Places

I had a piece I was going to write tonight, but I decided I’ve written enough about my thoughts lately. My thoughts can get tiring to me sometimes, so I can only imagine what it’s like for other people. So tonight I’m writing a very picture heavy blog featuring some of the amazing places I’ve seen in going to the hard parts of Africa. All photos were taken in South Sudan, Kenya, or Ethiopia. If you ever get a chance to go to these places for whatever reason, they can be utterly heartbreaking yet stunningly beautiful, sometimes at the same time.

Sunrise in Arba Minch, Ethiopia.

A man paddles down the White Nile in South Sudan.

Children in South Sudan with grass fires in the background.

A woman in a remote part of the Borana region of Ethiopia.

The beauty of Yabello, Ethiopia.

The desert near the Ethiopia, Somalia border.

A waterfall on the slopes of Mount Kenya.

A giraffe with downtown Nairobi, Kenya in the background.

Jeldu Gojo in the mountains of central Ethiopia.

A rain storm drenches South-Central Ethiopia.

110 degrees f at the top of Jebel Kujur in South Sudan.

Lightning over Dire Dawa, Ethiopia.

Children watching the massive cattle herds go by in South Sudan.

Morning in Addis Ababa.

Tea plantation in Kimunye, Kenya.

I could have kept posting pictures, as there are simply so many epic places in Africa, but I’ll just have to save some for another blog post.

Generosity

Every time I go to Africa I learn something new. I learn new things about the places and cultures, and about how one country or one region or one tribe is different from another. And whereas when I first went to Africa everything was new and different and very black and white, over the years I’ve begun to understand the subtle nuances of why some things are the way they are. More exciting for me is that in coming to understand more about Africa and the Africans, I’ve come to understand more about myself.

My most recent revelation was on my last trip to Kenya. As a missionary, you grow in your relationships with the people you’re partnering with. As that happens, you begin to learn more not only about their interactions with you, but their interactions with each other. What I learned this time was that, with some notable exceptions, Kenyans are very hospitable people, but not very generous. They are willing to take people into their homes and spend time with them, but when it comes to giving money or volunteering for a cause, it’s a much more difficult proposition.

So I started thinking about that. How do we (missionaries) show a good example of how to be generous? Because we’re generous, right? And it was at that point that I learned the lesson about myself.

In the book of Mark, Jesus is at the temple in Jerusalem, and makes an observation to his disciples.

“Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.”

So how is this different from how we as missionaries act when we go overseas? We go to a foreign places, throw some money around, go home, and congratulate ourselves on how generous and giving we were. We give away used shoes and clothing, undermining the local merchants, and hand out money that creates dependency, ruining Africa one person at a time. Is this generosity? I think not. We give money because for us, relatively speaking, it’s easy to come by. They (the Kenyans) give of their time, because (again, relatively speaking) it’s easy to come by. Neither is really generous when it comes down to it, because, as we learned from the story of the widow’s mite, true generosity is when you give out of your lack.

I’m not saying that giving money is a bad thing, far from it. But what would it look like if we gave not only our money, but invested in meaningful relationships with those we are partnering with. What if we truly gave of our time and emotional reserves and truly bore each other’s burdens as if we were family? This is the model that Jesus set up for us, because we are brothers and sisters in Christ and therefore heirs of the same Kingdom. And that is the example of generosity.

Some people see life as a pie, and there’s only so much pie to go around. When you see life that way, you do all you can to get as much pie as you can, because the pie will soon be gone.

Others see a life of infinite pie. There will always be more pie. As Christians, we need to see life this way. We know the one who makes all the pie, and if we just ask for it with the intention of giving it away, he will give us more. But in order to receive it, there has to be less of us, and more of Jesus. That’s when we’ll see generosity take hold.

A Week in Kibera.

Recently I got back from spending a week in Kenya, most of it in the Kibera slum of Nairobi. It had been 3 1/2 years since I’d been to Kenya, and I was eager to see how our friends were doing. Though we’d been in contact with many of them, it’s much better to be able to physically see how people are doing than to just be told. Plus it’s the unspoken things that really tell the stories.

Some things had changed. More of the roads in Kibera are now paved, keeping down a bit of the mud and dust, but the trash problem has not gotten any better. Many of the children in the daycare are new, but that’s to be expected, as children get older and start going to school and are replaced by younger ones.

What didn’t change was the absolute beauty of the people in Kibera. As I came from a nation where material things are so important to people, but unhappiness and loss of purpose is rampant, I am reminded that there is as much blessing in not having what you don’t need as there is in having what you do need. The words of Proverbs 30 are brought to mind.

“Two things I ask of You—

do not refuse me before I die:

Keep falsehood and deceitful words far from me.

Give me neither poverty nor riches;

feed me with the bread that is my portion.

Otherwise, I may have too much

and deny You, saying, “Who is the LORD?”

Or I may become poor and steal,

profaning the name of my God.”

Before we think we have it better, look at the joy on the faces of the people of Kibera and remind ourselves that joy doesn’t come from what is outside.

The gods of the Western World

I’ve been back from Kibera for a week now. Though I was able to formulate a lot of my thoughts while still there, how to put them down was another matter.

I think I’m going to start with the premise that the largest deficit and therefore the largest detriment to missions coming from the Western world is a lack of humility. Without getting into too much detail, this is what we saw when we went into Kibera.

In Hebrews 1, we find that “God…has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power,”

In reading this we find that Jesus upholds all things. Yes, I know there is still sin in the world, and that is why God’s Kingdom is both here and coming at the same time. But when we realize this fact, what we discover is that no matter where we go, God is already there working. Frequently as missionaries it is not so much our job to come in with a new plan, but rather to walk into a place prayerfully with our eyes and ears wide open to discover what it is that God is already doing. It takes an awful lot of hubris to think that God isn’t there until you show up.

If we don’t do this, we find what we unfortunately did when we went into Kibera, and is summed up in the book, “When Helping Hurts”, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. It reads, ““The god-complexes of the materially non-poor are also a direct extension of the modern worldview. In a universe without God, the heroes are those who are best able to use their reason to master the material world. In other words, the materially non-poor are the victors in the modern worldview, the gods who have mastered the universe and who can use their superior intelligence and the material possessions they have produced to save mere mortals, namely the materially poor.”

When we go into a poor community thinking we know it all, we are ultimately going to do damage. Western missionaries had come in and put a plan together without consulting the indigenous leadership, then pulled the funding they had been giving when they didn’t go along with it. Their plan was to pull everyone out of Kibera to a place where they felt they could more easily sustain themselves. Though this sounds like a good plan on the surface, it did not take into account the vision and mission that the people living there already had; that being to reach the community around them. They were being asked to abandon their own countrymen who needed them. Imagine what Africa would look like if Western missionaries came into every community and removed the leadership. If you want to see REAL poverty and suffering, that’s the way to do it in short order.

Summing up, we need to be very careful when we come into indigenous communities with our grand plans. Often they are just that…. ours.

Kibera, Kenya.

Just a short post today, as I’m still in the field in Kenya. we came back to check on some friends we haven’t seen in three and a half years. I’m happy to report that they are doing well. The daycare that Pastor Obedi and has wife Helen run under very difficult circumstances is also doing well.

I’m looking forward to what the future brings for them and those kids, and I’ll be writing about some of that in the future. But for tonight I’m just going to post some pictures from the last couple days.

The Worn Out Passport

In two days I leave for Kenya. I’m not even sure how many times I’ve been either to or through Kenya, but it’s been over three years since I was there. Too long, frankly. My focus the past several years has been Ethiopia, but I’m being brought back to Nairobi, and I’m expecting God to do great things.

This also marks a milestone for me. For the first time I’ve completely used up a passport. On the front you can still read “passport”, but the eagle has been totally worn off. More importantly, I have only one blank page left inside, and that will be filled some time on Monday at Kenyan immigration. I still have three years left before it expires, but I’m going to have to renew it when I get back because I’ll no longer be able to go anywhere that requires a visa, which is mostly where I go.

This passport has taken me a lot of places. Some were for missions, some for work, and some strictly for fun. Since renewing it, I’ve been to or received a stamp or visa in my passport from South Sudan, Kenya, The Bahamas, St Kitts and Nevis, Ethiopia, The Dominican Republic, Mexico, Turkey, Belize, South Africa, Honduras, and Switzerland. Some of them have been several times.

Which brings me to a conversation that frequently starts when people ask me about what I’m doing when I travel. It usually ends with, “I wish I could do something like that, but I……”, and then there’s usually a reason why they can’t go and serve. I think people genuinely have a desire to go and build God’s Kingdom, or as Jesus put it,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

The problem is that people either don’t know how to start, or feel that if they go and serve, everything else will fall apart because they’re already stretched to time or money or resources. Well to the second part I would say that we serve an infinite God, and one of his promises is in Matthew 6, the entirety of which is a great chapter on serving, but specifically,

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”

But to the other part, that people simply don’t know where to start, I tell them two things. First, serve locally. Find out what people are already doing and help. Or if you see a need, be part of the solution. Let the Holy Spirit guide you on what you should do, and don’t worry about the small stuff. (Most things are small stuff.) The second thing is to go and get your passport if you want to serve overseas. Before you know it, your passport will be worn out too.

The Mountain Goat and the Muskrat.

In the north there was a forest full of animals. Now there was a trapper that frequented that forest, and would put out spring traps or what most people would call bear traps along the trails through the forest. He was indiscriminate in the kind of animals he would catch, and some of them were very large and could work themselves out of the trap on occasion, so he began to put locks on his traps, so that once they snapped shut, it would take a key to open it back up again. Over the years of trapping, he had lost a number of keys as they dropped out of his pockets, but it didn’t matter, because there was only one kind of key to open the trap, so he wasn’t concerned.

One night a mountain goat was walking along the trail. It was a powerful animal with clean white fur, and a large set of curved horns. The mountain goat had come down into the forested valley to find something to eat. In the darkness it put its back foot into the trap, and with a rusty clank it snapped shut. Startled by the noise as much as the pain, the goat jumped into the air but was pulled immediately back to the ground by the chain. The goat struggled and writhed on the ground trying to escape. As it did so, it rolled in the mud until its white coat turned a dirty brown and its horns became entangled in the brush. The fur on its ankle turned red from the blood that dripped from where the teeth of the trap angrily bit.

For what seemed like an eternity, the mountain goat lay there suffering, praying that the dawn would not come, when the hunter would return to check the traps. Eventually a lynx came by. It was a pretentious and selfish creature that liked to rely on itself. It too had an old, healed scar on one paw from a trap, but another animal had managed to let it out before the hunter came back.

The mountain goat lifted its head enough to see the lynx, and asked desperately, “Please, do you have a key to let me out? The hunter will be back at dawn.” The lynx, feeling dirty just looking at the mountain goat, began to lick itself and said. “I have a key, but you are much too filthy for me to come near. You are a strong animal. Perhaps if you could clean yourself up a bit first, I’d be able to come near enough to help you.”

“I am strong,” said the goat, “but as you can see, my horns are my strength, and they have only caused me to become more caught, so my strength is in fact my weakness.”

“Well, I feel sorry for you,” said the lynx, “but I simply can’t help you.” And the lynx moved on.

A bit later, the mountain goat heard some flapping. It was a raven, and like the lynx before it, there was an old scar on its leg. Now the raven loved to collect things and had actually stolen a key from the hunter. The mountain goat could see this, because the raven had made an elaborate headdress from the key and other bits of things it had stolen or found at other times. There were bits of metal and wire, and colorful pieces of lichen and plastic mixed in. It was gaudy and ridiculous, but the raven was very proud of it.

“Please,” said the goat, “I see you have a key. Could you please let me out of this trap before the hunter comes back?”

“Yes, I have a key,” said the raven, “but I’m afraid I can’t give it to you. You see, I worked very hard for all of the things in my headdress, and I’m very proud of it. With these things I am very rich and the key is the centerpiece. I simply can’t give it to you. But good luck to you.” With that, the raven flew off.

The mountain goat began to give up hope, and could see a faint glow through the trees. As a bit of purple began to replace the black in the sky, a third animal came by. This time it was an arctic fox. Like the other animals, it too had an old scar, though this one had begun to bleed again. The fox was also missing an eye from an injury it received walking around in the dark. Like the mountain goat, it had writhed around and gotten covered in mud and blood. But instead of getting cleaned up after being freed, the fox had just found and old campfire pit and rolled in the ashes to cover the brown and red of the mud and blood in its fur. The filth and injury was still apparent to the mountain goat, but the fox had convinced itself that it was spotless and whole.

The mountain goat didn’t put much hope in getting help from the fox, but decided to ask for help anyway. “Please,” the goat asked, “do you have a key to open this trap? The morning is coming soon and the trapper will return.”

The fox, who saw himself wise in the ways of things answered. “Sorry, I used to have a key, but at some point I misplaced it. But it’s ok. That’s a very beautiful ornament you stepped in,” (referring to the trap). I accept you just the way you are. Keep that ornament with honor and don’t ever let anyone tell you there’s anything wrong with wearing it.” With that, the fox trotted off, all the while bumping into things because of its lack of depth perception and leaving drops of blood from its unhealed wound.

Orange and red began to creep into the colors of the sky, and a few birds began to call in anticipation of the coming day. The mountain goat closed its eyes, ready to accept its fate.

As it lay there on the edge of exhausted sleep, the mountain goat woke to some rustling. Out of the corner of its eye, the goat spied a muskrat. This gave the goat no hope at all. The muskrat was a dirty and dim witted animal. It was not wise in the ways of things, it wasn’t strong, and it wasn’t rich. Like the other animals, this one had a scar, though this one was recent and had not yet healed well and was still bleeding. The mountain goat laid its head back down, nit bothering to ask for help.

“Perhaps I can help,” said the muskrat.

“I doubt it,” responded the mountain goat.

Without arguing, the muskrat scurried over and placed a key in the lock. “I was stuck like you once, but someone used this key to get me out. Then they gave it to me and told me to pass it on, so when I saw you, it seemed the right thing to do.”

The rusty lock grudgingly opened, and the mountain goat pulled its leg free. Unfortunately, its horns were still caught. But though the muskrat was not a strong animal, what it did have was teeth. It made short work of the brambles and branches and soon the mountain goat could move its head. But the the muskrat went further.

“I know you are a noble animal,” it said, “and all of this mud doesn’t suit you. You were created for better things than this. I don’t have much but what I do have I can give to you. My fur has oil in it. Who knows, maybe it will help.”

The muskrat began to rub its fur against the mountain goat. When it got too dirty, it would shake vigorously until mud flew in every direction. When it rubbed against the goat’s wound, the bleeding began to stop and the pain felt better. But amazingly, as the mountain goat became cleaner, the blood from it’s wound began to wash the dirt off the muskrat, and the goat’s now fluffy fleece began to clot the blood in the muskrat’s wound. They found that as one helped the other, they were both made whole. And the muskrat found that even though he was already free, his healing came in looking outside of himself.

Matthew 25:40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

James 4:17 Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.

2 Corinthians 12:9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Proverbs 27:17 As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.

Isaiah 5:21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!

James 3:13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom.

James 2:1-4 My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 2 For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in [a]fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

James 2:14-17 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Revelation 3:17-18 Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked— 18 I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.

Romans 5:10  For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

Back to Kibera.

In just a couple of weeks, I head back to Kibera, Kenya. A group of four men will be going to minister in the largest urban slum in Africa. We’ll be going back to catch up with some good friends we haven’t seen in a long time.

It occurred to me today that I used to post a lot more pictures than I have been lately. I am a professional photographer, after all. So for those following my journey, here are some pictures from previous trips to see Pastor Obedi and His wife Helen in Kibera.

Kibera and Paul’s Fifth Missionary Journey

In less than three weeks I leave for Kenya. This will be my first trip to Kenya in about three and a half years. There will be a team of four of us going, two of which have never been to Kenya before. It’s hard to convey to people who have not been there not only what it will be like, but also what we’ll be doing there. It’s the second part, the what we will be doing, that I’d like to talk about today.

I think the best way to start explaining what we are going for is to use the Apostle Paul’s fifth missionary journey as a template. You say you haven’t heard of Paul’s fifth journey? Well, it’s not nearly as well known as his first four. It’s the one where Paul took a group of people to Tarshish, and they painted the walls of a church that didn’t need painting. After that they did some street preaching in a language no one understood, and then handed out flip flops and used shoes. After that, on the last day they went shopping and snorkeling.

This of course did not happen. And I realize that my sarcasm is biting. But I also know that when people read something that is true, the initial reaction is to be angry, but then to think about it. There is nothing wrong with going somewhere to do projects that need to be done, and there’s nothing wrong with having some fun on the last day you’re there. What I find distasteful is that short term missions has gone from an opportunity to build unity within the body of Christ, and to both be a witness to the lost and encourage and strengthen our indigenous brothers and sisters to do the same, and instead has become wholly about us. What is the project? What are we going to paint? What are we going to build? What are we going to do TO or FOR these poor people? The moment we ask these questions we put ourselves on a higher plane in our own minds than those we are going to minister to. There’s a song with the phrase, “the notion that we’re better than them; the ultimate delusional chant.”

Instead, we ought to ask things like, How can we work together so that we can all grow in better community with each other and with God? How can we learn from each other so we will not continue to walk in our own brokenness? When we ask these questions, it suddenly becomes less about projects, and it becomes a lot more about people.

So going back to what we’ll be doing in Kibera, I think it would be best to start with a description of what Kibera is.

Kibera is the largest urban slum in Africa. It’s population is unknown, though estimates range between 250,000 and a million people. The average family lives in a 12 foot by 12 foot shack. There is no trash pick up, and there are no sewers, so sewage runs down every gully and low point of ground. The average wage is $1 a day. Crime and violence are rampant.

In light of this, going in and painting something or doing some kind of project, or even feeding the poor would be the equivalent of putting a bandage on a dead beached whale. The truth is, a large number of the people there are either unemployed or sporadically employed. So if I go in with a team and start working on something that needs to be “improved”, all I’m doing is depriving someone of a paying job.

So what can we do? This is where the “working with” as opposed to the “doing for” is so important. You find the indigenous resources and skills that are already there and figure out how they can be developed with the help of the people who live there every day. You identify community leaders, like pastors, who already have the respect of the people. You find out what their own goals and vision for their community are and do what you can to achieve that. When there is a specific deficit, and only when there is a specific deficit that can’t be filled from within the community do you bring in foreign money and talent.

This doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as saying, “we went to Kenya and fed 1000 poor children”. And this is the reason that I decided to write this blog. One of our new people lamented that when he told people what we were doing, he had a hard time raising support. The response was, “So basically you’re going to Kenya to have a bunch of meetings with people?”

The answer was essentially yes. But we have to go and do what’s ultimately right, and not what makes people feel good about giving. After all, it really isn’t about us.