Today was my first day in Ethiopia. As I said in a previous blog, every country and every culture in Africa is different. Ethiopia has proved no different. The first thing that strikes me is how far this country has come since the Durg, or the military junta, fell from power 25 years ago, after their decade and a half killing spree. You still see the effects of it in some ways, from the desperation in some peoples’ faces to the large number of amputees apparent everywhere you go, to the anger in the voice of the curator of the museum we went to today. Nonetheless there seems to be progress happening, and it looks at first glance like the people are coming back together.
One of the other things I’ve really noticed (because I can’t not notice), is the large number of beggars and the tenacity with which they ply their trade, and yes, it does appear to be a trade here. I have not seen it to this extent elsewhere in Africa, and it seems to be the end, rather than the means to an end. It seems that culturally its acceptable to beg as a profession, and not just something people do out of desperation.
We also traveled to the Merkato, the immense, partially open air market in Addis. We were only able to drive through, and not get out, unfortunately, due to a threat from Al Shabab, the Islamic terrorist group. Nonetheless the sights in the market were incredible and truly memorable. All in all, my impression is that Addis Ababa is quite an exotic place, full of both eye candy and things that are terrible to see, all at the same time.
Tomorrow, we head into the mountains, to Gojo, where our mission will truly start.
One of the most profound music lyrics I’ve heard is from, oddly enough, a song called “American Cheese”. One of the lines is, “And I know that, where the chains of doom are kept, I find my shoes.” I know there are those out there who believe that people are inherently good, and they’re welcome to their opinion. I’ve never taken to the Star Trek version of humanity, that we’ll just keep getting better on our own. I’ve seen too much with my own eyes to believe such fluff. I’m more of the opinion that “Lord of the Flies” had it much more accurately.
If I want to know the potential of what evil is possible in the world, all I really need to do is look in the mirror. I can tell myself, as many do, that I’m not such a bad person. But I know perfectly well that the potential is there. All I need to do is take my focus off of God and place it somewhere else, whether it’s myself, or money, or power (the latter leading back to self anyway.) But that’s the great thing about following Christ. He takes his own perfections, (yes, plural) and in an incredible act of grace and mercy, decides to let me with all of my imperfections, be His representative. I can look in that mirror, look at my face with all the potential for evil, and see the face of Christ instead. All I have to do is make sure my focus is not on me, but on Him. 2 Corinthians 4:7 says, “And we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us;”
As I get ready to go to Ethiopia, the spiritual warfare has already started. God chooses to let cracked, broken pots hold the fullness of His glory. The devil tries to drive wedges into these cracks and make them larger; cracks caused by all our imperfections, whether it be pride, or a lack of faith, or a lack of trust, or fear. I speak of myself with some of these. But the perfection that is Christ is made more full because the larger the cracks, the more opportunity for God’s grace to abound. In the same way, the worse things are, the more opportunity for God to do miracles. In all this, the defeat of the enemy will be all the more bitter because he will be defeated by such imperfection made perfect through Christ. So I must maintain my focus on Christ. When I go to the place where the chains of doom are kept, I don’t want to find my shoes there, and by God’s grace I won’t.
I was sitting in an airport in of all places, Florida, when I saw a man across the room of the waiting area. I knew as soon as I saw him that he was from South Sudan. I was so sure, in fact, that I walked across the room and introduced myself, then asked if he was from South Sudan. He said yes. I asked if he was a Dinka. Affirmative again. I asked if he was heading to Juba. “How you know these things?” he asked.
The fact is that the South Sudanese have such a distinctive look, that if you’ve ever been there, you can’t miss them. But it’s not just the South Sudanese. There are so many distinctive cultures in Africa. In three days I leave for Ethiopia. They have facial features that are totally different from anyone else in Africa. We have friends that adopted children from Ethiopia, and once again, I could tell you from across a crowded room that they’re from Ethiopia even if you didn’t tell me. The point is, people talk about Africa like it’s one place. It’s not though. Africa is dozens of countries, each with its own character, language, customs, and even huge differences in the way people look. Referring to Africa as one place is like saying you know what Mexico is like because you’ve been to Seattle.
The other thing that strikes me is what people THINK they know about this place or the other. When I show people pictures of Nairobi, Kenya, one of the reactions I get is, “That’s in Africa? It looks so modern.” Well, yes. It’s a modern city. When I go to South Sudan, a lot of people just don’t have enough of a frame of reference to even know what to think. I get everything from, “Do you want to borrow a bullet-proof vest?” to “Are you bringing your wife and kids along?” For Ethiopia, most people only know what they remember from the late 1980s, when kids carried UNICEF boxes around on halloween to collect pennies for the kids effected by civil war and famine. I’m frequently getting comments like, “Oh, dear God. Please be careful!” The other one I get is, “Don’t get ebola.” There’s a whole other blog post about that comment, so I won’t get into that one now.
I haven’t been to Ethiopia yet, but I do know enough about it to know that a lot has changed in the last 25 years. If not for peoples’ perceptions, Ethiopia would probably be a top tourist destination. There are a lot of natural, cultural and historic sights to see. Frankly I’m both thrilled and honored to be able to go, and to use the gifts God has given me to help other missionaries already working there. Shortly I’ll be able to send back my thoughts and pictures about Ethiopia. I will be with the Petros Network, where they will be training 250 new pastors to go to villages where there is no church. They will also be doing medical, widow, and orphan missions. Here’s a link to their page about what they do.
I will only have internet on the first and last days in Ethiopia, so there will be a gap in my blog posts, but please feel free to subscribe if you’d like to hear more about this trip, as well as others, and about what God is doing in Africa.
Lately I’ve been enjoying watching House Hunters International on Netflix. I enjoy watching people going to countries where I’ve never been so I can see what houses are like and what the standard of living is, as well as what you get for your money. On the flip side, I’m a bit embarrassed almost every time I watch it, and specifically when it’s an American moving overseas. Most of these people are moving to Europe, which for the most part has an extremely high standard of living. I’m embarrassed at how inflexible and entitled the people are who are searching for a home. Do you really need three bathrooms for a family of four? How much time do you spend in there anyway? I really hope the people on the show are not representative of Americans in general, but I suspect that to some extent they are.
A couple months ago, a friend of mine put up a picture of some homes in South Sudan similar to the ones above. The caption said something along the lines of, “75% of people in South Sudan live in huts such as the one above.” It was simply an informational statement, but the first respondent said, “That’s so sad.” Why on earth is that sad? Is it because it doesn’t have a heated toilet seat and a copy of Cosmo on the tank? Now there’s something to be said for running water, but think of all the advantages. First of all, just look at the scene above. It doesn’t come much more beautiful than that. The homes keep the heat of the day out with their thick thatching. There’s no mortgage over your head, and no bank to be a slave to. When the roof leaks, repairs are easy. What do we need in life? A roof over our heads, clean water, enough food, good health, safety for us and our children, a means to make a living. These are the essentials. Everything else can either be considered a blessing or excess. Many of these things are severely lacking in South Sudan, but the fact that they are living in mud and grass huts is not something to look down on or pity someone for. What they have and what we lack is simplicity.
Hebrews 13:5 says,
“5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,
“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
Philippians 4:12 says, 12 I have known both to be abased, and I have known to abound; in everything and in all things I have been initiated, both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want.
Unfortunately it seems that we only know how to abound and to be full. What we don’t see is the slavery we inevitably must live under in that condition. I say this because most of us don’t actually abound. We live in debt to the bank or the mortgage company that holds the note on our “abounding”. Proverbs 22:7 says, “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is slave to the lender.” How much better would it be if we lived simply, without the slavery that comes with maintaining an impossibly high standard of living? How much more time could we spend with our children? How much weight would be off our shoulders if we didn’t have a thirty year mortgage and a second mortgage, and two car payments? How much more could we give? How much more could we do? It is a documented fact that over half of Americans right now would be unable to pay the bills if they missed one paycheck. Is that what it means to be rich? I think not. Simplicity allows us to focus on the things that are important. Simplicity allows us to take the focus off of ourselves. Simplicity is what allows us to survive in both abasement and in abounding. It makes us more flexible, and it allows us to connect with people better. It allows us to be free of our voracious appetite for more and more stuff. We should not pity people for living in huts, but they should pity many of us. I think it’s time to change our standards and to reassess what is important. Stuff, when it comes in excess is not a blessing, but a curse.
I’m not even sure where to start today, and I’m going to apologize in advance for what may seem a disjointed blog. I am attempting to take many seemingly unrelated events and bring them together.
A year ago, I was just leaving for South Sudan. Little did I know at that time that a series of events would transpire that would touch so many lives. My fourth trip to South Sudan set off one of the most difficult times of my life. I’m not going to get into the details of it, but after coming back, I found myself, along with two other couples who had traveled with me, in the impossible situation of being rendered completely ineffective in our ministry. The option was always there to stay where we were, to remain in effect comfortable and useless. We chose not to do that though, and shortly thereafter we were in a brand new church, with vision for what might be, but with no tools in our hands.
Let’s move across the world to Kenya around 1992, where a boy named Jimmy had just watched his sister die of starvation in his mother’s arms. That event caused his mother to go and find help for the family….any help. She found Compassion International, and was able to get Jimmy sponsored by a twenty year old man who was a new Christian. His sponsorship made it possible for Jimmy to have enough food and to get an education, which eventually led him to a college education at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Realizing by that age what that sponsorship had meant in his own life, he decided to stand in the gap and sponsored a child in Haiti so that that child wouldn’t have to go through the same thing he did. His experience with Compassion International also brought him to a conference called Catalyst in 2009, where he told of his experiences, and then, to his surprise, to meet the man who had sponsored him all those years. I have a link below to the video of that event. I will warn you. Have tissues ready if you’re going to watch it. It’s one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen. Two thousand more children were sponsored that night.
Let’s move to summer of 2014, where one of the couples who moved churches with us was at an arts conference in Atlanta. They met another Kenyan there named Njenga who was also promoting Compassion International. This couple had a heart to do missions in Kenya, specifically the slums of Kibera, which is one of the most difficult places I’ve been. So they asked Njenga who they should talk to about getting into Kibera, and he connected them with Jimmy. Our friends wanted to introduce their two teenage boys to missions, so they planned a trip to Kenya. There they met with Jimmy, who took them into the slums of Kibera and showed them that even though lots of organizations say they have a presence in Kibera, most come and take a look at what is happening once a year and other than that have no actual presence there. Jimmy chose to live in the slum for four months even though he didn’t have to, and spent that time looking for who was being faithful with the little they had. He found that parents would leave for the entire day to go and find help or to go work, and their children were either completely unattended or left in what I hesitate to call a daycare, where they were not held or attended to. So he searched for people in the slum who had a heart for the children. One day, he made an unscheduled stop at a place that was not on his list. Jimmy walked into a daycare run by a pastor named Obedi and his wife. As Jimmy walked through the door, Obedi had one small child in each arm and was praying over both of them. He knew at this point that this was the man he needed to work with. He was loving on those children, and being faithful before anyone showed up, before anyone had offered him a dime.
Four weeks after our friends visited Kenya, I had the chance to meet Njenga and Jimmy and Obedi in Nairobi. I always have a full schedule in September, but this year I didn’t, so I figured God was telling me it was time to take a trip. I had planned a trip with my wife for our twentieth anniversary. So I asked her where she wanted to go. We could have gone anywhere. But despite the fact that she had never left the North American continent, she said she wanted to go to Kenya. I’m still not sure how that answer came about.
So here is where it all comes together. Jimmy is getting married next week in the United States. He was able to come to our church and speak to our congregation. He’s spoken to 35 churches in the past, and none have offered to partner with him with his vision for children in the slums of Kenya. It so happened that my pastor and some of the staff were at Catalyst in 2009 and saw Jimmy speak, but until this week they didn’t know that he was the same man invited to come speak at our church. I watched today as a church came together in a single vision to advance God’s kingdom; to do what God said is holy and acceptable in his sight, to “help the widows and orphans in their distress.” I watched people put themselves aside, to offer themselves, their time, and their finances in an incredible way. He put the right people in the right place at the right time.
Had that initial difficult situation not happened, or if our friends had chosen to just stay comfortable, this never would have happened. Had Jimmy’s sister not died and his mother went for help, this never would have happened. If Jimmy didn’t go to school in the United States, this never would have happened. There is now the chance to help literally thousands of people in places so poor, most Americans literally have no comprehension of it. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This is not just idle words. God took difficult and terrible situations and used them for His good and for our good. The first team will be going to Kenya in January of this coming year. I leave for Ethiopia in two weeks. God took the work we were doing in South Sudan and is now expanding it to all of East Africa. To think, I wondered if my time doing missions work was over. I’ve heard the question asked, “what is God’s reward for faithfulness in doing His work”? The answer is more work, and I am great with that. I have not even begun to list the “coincidences” that brought all this together, or the ones I can’t talk about. I am certain that there are many others that I am unaware of. The point is, there are no coincidences with God. I have never been so excited to see what He is doing as I am now.
The video below is eight minutes, but believe me, well worth it.
On my third trip to South Sudan, half way through the trip, someone gave me a patch of the flag of South Sudan. I thought it was pretty cool. They had one for everyone who came on that trip. I proudly sewed the patch (let’s be honest, my wife sewed it) on my camera bag. It’s the bag that carries all my camera gear and enough clothing and other items that if my other bag didn’t show up, I could still get through ten days in Africa.
Ten years ago, I was working for an insurance company. I could never have imagined that the gift God gave me for photography would take me to such incredible places, to meet such incredible people. I’ve met people who I’m sure will be lifelong friends in countries one of which didn’t even exist ten years ago. I am truly grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given.
Later this month, I leave for Ethiopia with the Petros Network, the same people that gave me the South Sudan patch when I met them in 2013. This time I’ll be with them, and I’m looking forward to all that this trip brings. I have no idea what to expect. I’ll be traveling alone until I get to the capital, Addis Ababa. Once I get there, I’ll have a night in the capital, then travel about four hours, I’m told, west into the mountains. I’m working on being able to stay with a local family once I get there. Many of the soul-capturing pictures of people happen when you’re just sitting outside in the village, and I can’t get that from a hotel. This trip is a completely blank slate, and as Kenya was for my wife, at this point all I have are preconceptions. I have preconceptions of what the people are like, preconceptions of the food, preconceptions of the landscape. I’ve tried googling images of where I’m going, but virtually nothing comes up, and that is very unusual. I’m both nervous and excited.
So with that, I’ve now sewn the third patch on my bag. I only sew patches onto the bag that the bag has been to. So I now have South Sudan, Kenya, and one clean patch, Ethiopia.
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I’ve been pondering this blog for about a week now, and I’m glad I pondered for a while and didn’t write, because an article came to my attention during that time that drove a lot of my point home. The article appeared on slate.com, and was titled, I kid you not, “In Medicine We Trust, Should We Worry That So Many of the Doctors Treating Ebola In Africa Are Missionaries?” I’m putting a link to it here, for those who care to read it, and it is an interesting read.
My purpose in this blog is not to harp on the opinions of Atheists. I frankly have no right to do that, since I would be out of line in thinking that Atheists should act or think like anything except Atheists. Rather, my purpose in bringing up the article is to bring clarity to the way Atheists think, and why they think it. The author of the article, in his words, is a bit uncomfortable with the above situation, namely that it is almost exclusively Christian missionary doctors who are on the ground treating those with ebola. Which begs the question, “Why would anyone be uncomfortable with that?” The author gives a number of reasons, and I think he’s very thoughtful about it. But I think only an outsider looking in can cut to the heart of the reason why he’s uncomfortable. In order to be an Atheist, he has to, and has, convinced himself that there is no value in religion. The fact that these people, (as he puts it), who don’t profit personally from their work, and risk their lives to help others, proves that his previous premise is wrong, and therefore, causes dissonance in his worldview.
I’ve seen the same thing in my travels. The more dangerous the place, the more likely it is that it’s Christians who are there helping. By the time you get to South Sudan, whether the organization you are working with is officially Christian or secular, the people working there to help others are almost as a rule Christian. Now I’m not saying Atheists don’t like to help others, but the fact is that very few of them are willing to risk their lives to help others, being that what happens to them if they get killed is at the very least, uncertain.
Again, though. This is not about Atheists. This blog is about Christians, specifically Christians who’s actions are so like Christ that they would cause an Atheist to question his worldview. Let’s flash over to the west, America specifically and myself included, where it literally costs us nothing to be a Christian. The attitudes I’ve seen in this country, even from those professing to be Christians is sometimes truly staggering. Attitudes like, “They have no business going over there. If they get ebola, they’re getting what they deserve.” I’m not joking. I honestly can’t understand the thought process, except to say that for every person willing to do something, there’s another person who’s willing to do nothing except pee on the first person’s shoe.
Let’s see what Jesus had to say about this in Matthew 25. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. And you people had no business doing that, and if you got ebola, you got what you deserved.” Of course that’s not how the ending goes, any more than the following. “Then He will say on His left, For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. In fact, you didn’t do anything I asked of you. You took my free gift of salvation, then looked out for number one, and number one wasn’t Me. Great is your reward in Heaven.” If I heard that, I would have to assume I was being mocked. But that is how we often act, if not so explicitly. We go to churches that require nothing of us, and so that is what we give. We chase after consumerism and self, addictions, pleasure, and convince ourselves that we’re not bad people. And no, maybe we’re not bad people, but maybe also we don’t look enough like Christ to make an Atheist question his worldview. I hear people say that their faith is a private thing. If we follow Christ and our life looks like His, then how can it possibly be a private thing? Now we can say we’re saved not by works but by faith all day, but the fact is that if that salvation means anything at all, there should be some resemblance between us and Christ. Maybe if we stopped thinking about ourselves and all our stuff, we wouldn’t live in such fear as a society. You can’t fear losing what you’ve already given up, and that goes double for your life. The book of James says, “True religion that God our Father accepts is this, to look after widows and orphans in their distress, and to keep yourself from being polluted by the world.” Is this our religion, or is our religion a bowl of waxed fruit, or a couch you can’t sit on? Is our religion just a pretty (so we tell ourselves) thing, but others know that it’s a useless thing that collects dust, and everyone knows that it’s fake?
Now before you say that I’m saying everybody should go and be a missionary to ebola patients in Liberia, I’m not. Not everyone is called to do that, but everyone is called to do something. Our mission field may not be Liberia or South Sudan or Afghanistan. It might be the single mom down the street or the prisoner in the local jail. When God called Moses, he made all kinds of excuses for why he couldn’t do anything. “I stutter. I’m just a shepherd.” Etc. etc. etc. God said to Moses, “What do you have in your hand?” “A staff”, Moses replied. God told him to throw it on the ground and it became a snake. God told him to pick it up again and it again became a staff. I would challenge each person to ask themselves, “What is in your hand?” What skills and talents do you have? Even if we’re just holding a stick, God can use it if we’re willing. What gifts has God given us that we aren’t using? Why aren’t we using it? It’s time to put the excuses away and start living the life that Christ called us to. He has called us to a triumphant life in Him, and not a life of fear. I pray that He will forgive me for failing in this, and I know He will. But I on the other hand will pledge to daily give Him less reason to have to forgive me.
To close this, I’d like to quote Emperor Julian, the fourth century Roman emperor, who in writing to one of the pagan priests said the following. “Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans (Christians) devote themselves to works of charity . . . These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agape . . .” Julian’s dying words were, “You have won, Galilean.”
I’ve put off writing this post for quite a while as I’ve attempted to ruminate over what I experienced on our recent trip to Kenya. One of the main reasons we went to Kenya was to visit Faith, the child we’ve sponsored through Compassion International for the past two years. We’ve involved our children in giving to the family, and we lift them up every day in prayer for their needs. But unless and until we actually go visit, all we have a preconceptions based on, well……. Some people get all their ideas about Africa from watching “The gods must be crazy”. In other words, we really had no idea what to expect.
Every month we give our $38. Sometimes we’re given the opportunity to give a special gift, at Christmas or on a birthday. But what is it really for?
To be honest, I had no expectations for the day. I simply wanted to observe. Our sponsor child is only seven years old, and as such, I really don’t think I had any expectations from her. What I didn’t expect, and what I was very excited to see, is the network of people that surround Faith in an effort to make sure she thrives. From her teacher to her case worker to the pastor to the administrative staff in Nairobi and Embu, everyone there is there to make sure she doesn’t fall through the cracks. When Faith wasn’t showing up to school, someone was there to check up on her and find out that she had no transportation to get there, and they did something about it. It’s good to know we’re not simply throwing money at a problem.
As I mentioned, Faith is only seven years old, so she was very quiet and reserved, and she really had no idea who we were. Scary white people, I think, was about the extent of it. But her family understood what was going on. Faith’s grandmother, in particular, couldn’t believe people would come all the way from the United States just to see how they were doing. We were able to find out more about the family. We knew that Faith had an older sister, but we didn’t know that she had Down’s Syndrome. We also didn’t know she had a baby brother. Faith also showed us the goat we got for her last Christmas. Frankly, I had forgotten we got her a goat. Now the family has milk, and I obviously didn’t miss the money since I completely forgot about it.
All in all, it was a tremendous experience, and I know that if (when) we visit in the future, Faith will have a better understanding of who these foreigners are and why they’re there. As far as Compassion International goes, it’s awesome to see that they are using a very small amount of money and doing tremendous things with it. If you’ve ever wanted to help out in a third world country, please consider them. Their website is http://www.compassion.com