I am a photographer and missionary based in the United States. My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Inside Weddings, and many other publications.
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When I was a kid, I had an eccentric uncle. He was an inventor, and had a lot of social quirks about him. I think a lot of these quirks came from some of the things he’d had to endure. You see, during World War 2, he’d been a pacifist, and since he would not fight, he was forced instead to do body counts after battle in the European theater.
One day he showed me a belt buckle he’d taken off a dead German soldier. It was pewter colored, and had the swastika in the center of that. Written along the top edge were the words, “Gott mit uns.” (God with us) in German.
Even at that young age, it was a shocking thing to see. How could the Nazis think, or wish, or even say that God was with them?
Well, it’s very easy to look back in history and ask how they could do that, but the fact is, as a church we do the very same thing today, though I will say generally not in such an obvious and glaring way.
I’d like to go to the book of judges where there’s an interesting story. Joshua is moving his armies through Canan, and he looks up and sees a man who he takes to be a foreign envoy.
“And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted his eyes and looked, and behold, a Man stood opposite him with His sword drawn in His hand. And Joshua went to Him and said to Him, “Are You for us or for our adversaries?”
So He said, “No, but as Commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”
And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and said to Him, “What does my Lord say to His servant?”
It’s interesting to me that Joshua asks, “are you for us or against us?” And the angel answers “no”. In other words, you are asking the wrong question. But we ask the same question of God, as if we have any authority to ask it.
The question should be, “Have I found favor in your sight?” Or, “how can I serve you?” Or so many other questions that recognize who is in authority, that being not us. We need to stop asking if God is on our side and start making sure we are on his side.
It is possible to know exactly how to be on God’s side, but it requires commitment and study and being open to what the Holy Spirit would teach us. The bible is full of the commands of God. So many in fact that I wouldn’t know where to start.
The problem is that the American church in particular has given up on knowing what the scriptures say. And one of those scriptures says, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being priest for Me; Because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” Hosea 4:6
You see, without knowledge there is no possibility for wisdom. Without knowledge there is no possibility for discernment. Without knowledge, there is no possibility to know the will or the character of God. In short order we find ourselves making God to be anything we want him to be, so long as he’s on our side, and the next thing you know, we’re wearing belt buckles emblazoned with “Gott mit uns.”
So what do we do about this? Ephesians 4 says, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”
We must put the knowledge of who God is back into the churches, both through the study and memorization of the Word, and also through people who possess knowledge and wisdom and discernment to have the willingness to disciple others.
Jesus didn’t keep his knowledge to himself. He taught large crowds of people, while at the same time walking daily with twelve men that he could train to teach others. This is what we need to get back to.
It’s very easy to read something like this and say, “yes, those people need to do something about this.” But if you are part of the church, this is for You! There aren’t players and those who get to sit on the bench in the Kingdom of God. There are no stadium seats. As it says in the book of Hebrews, “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
This one may get a little long, and I’m going to try not to let it get complicated, but here it goes.
Growing up in the American church, being saved was always about what happens to you when you die. When we read about the kingdom of Heaven in the Bible it was always about pearly gates and meeting God. Furthermore, when we’re doing a class on poverty alleviation and we ask, why did Jesus come to Earth, the answer we inevitably get is the one I would have given growing up. “Jesus came to save me from my sins so that I can go to Heaven.” It’s an incredibly self-centered, egotistical view. This view made it very hard to understand a lot of what the scriptures were trying to tell me. As I’ve been learning, you have to know what you don’t understand before you can begin to understand.
The story of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus with questions is one of those stories. It goes as follows.
Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ”
And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?”
But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”
We learn a number of things from the rich young ruler in this passage. First of all, he’s rich, but he’s also young, which likely means he didn’t earn his wealth, and he grew up rich. We also know that he doesn’t know enough to ask the right question, also because of his wealth and upbringing.
So why did Jesus come? We find that elsewhere in the scriptures. In Luke 4, Jesus begins his ministry.
So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
“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.” Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
This is vastly different from what I was taught. Yes, the Kingdom of Heaven is a place we will see in the future, but it is also now. You see, a kingdom is a place where the authority of the king rules, and as long as we walk in the authority of the king, the Kingdom of Heaven is now and it resides wherever we are. So when the rich young ruler asks “how can I obtain eternal life?” he is doing what we so often do and asking “how can I obtain the benefits of salvation later without doing what’s required of me to bring about God’s Kingdom now?
But what does being rich have to do with any of this? The obvious answer I was always given was that his riches were more important to him than following God. And yes, that’s true, but it’s a simplistic and simple answer, and it misses so much. And once again, it comes from the perspective that Heaven is a place we go to and not a Kingdom that is here and now.
For the rest of the answer, let’s go back to why Jesus said he came. “Preach to the poor, heal the brokenhearted, free the captives, sight to the blind, set at liberty those who are oppressed.” The rich, (and let’s face it, if we’re Americans there’s a very good chance we’re rich by historical or global standards). As I was saying, the rich know nothing or very little of being poor, or brokenhearted or captive or blind or oppressed. Here’s the problem, the rich THINK they understand these things, but all of these concepts are only known second or third hand. I see this in Facebook posts and hear it in conversations all the time. Listening to white Americans discuss poverty and oppression is like listening to a couple of lifelong vegans discuss what would make beef wellington taste better. They might think they know, but they just don’t.
Covid has been hard on many people in many ways. But as Christians, especially Christians in the richest nation on earth, we have been given an opportunity to partake in some of the poverty and suffering that our brothers and sisters overseas see on a daily basis, and in so doing begin to understand what we do not. Yes, you read that right. I said opportunity. If we are truly to be effective in the gospel, we must be imitators of Christ. As it says in Philippians 2
“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”
If Jesus had to make himself of no reputation and make himself a servant, how much more us? How much better can we be a servant if we truly understand the struggles and the needs of those we are to serve?
As I’ve written in a previous blog, the only thing worse than going through a trial is going through a trial from which I learn nothing. Covid has been a wake up call for the church. I just pray we don’t hit the snooze, roll over, and go back to sleep. Let’s use this opportunity to be more like we were created to be.
When I go overseas to Africa or elsewhere, one of the universal factors I see is trials and suffering. A pastor friend of mine once talked about when he went to teach some pastors in Africa, and when asked what they wanted to learn about, they wanted to be taught how to stand up under suffering and difficulty. My pastor friend at that point felt unqualified to speak on that subject. And this is what got me thinking.
I’ve been in church my entire life. I’ve heard sermons on Christ’s suffering, and lots of sermons on how God will carry you through suffering. But the attitude towards suffering by the preacher, and until the last few years by myself as well, was that suffering was an arms length transaction. That it was not normal or God’s will or something that we should consider as an integral part of our faith.
But then I started noticing some passages in the bible that rarely if ever get preached on, and a lot of things began to make sense to me. The first idea that I had to put away was that Christ did all the hard work and therefore my work is easy. On the contrary, although Jesus provided his own life for our salvation, he also provided the example by which we should live. He became the perfect imitation of God the Father so that we by imitation of Jesus would imitate the Father. Essentially we imitate the Father through transitive property. In the book of John it says, “44Then Jesus cried out and said, “He who believes in Me, believes not in Me but in Him who sent Me. 45And he who sees Me sees Him who sent Me. 46I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness. 47And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day. 49For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. 50And I know that His command is everlasting life. Therefore, whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak.”
Ok, so Jesus is the perfect imitation of the Father, but how did he become this. It’s easy to say Jesus was born as God, but he was also born as man, so something had to happen along the way. After all, the fall from perfection for man came through Adam by a choice that he made, so Jesus’ perfect imitation of the Father had to come as a choice as well. But when did this happen?
The thing that got me thinking about this were some verses in the book of Hebrews that I’d never known about until recently. I’d read them of course, but never paid attention I guess. I’d certainly never heard anyone preach on them. The first verse is Hebrews 2:10 “For it was fitting for Him, (speaking of God the Father) for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” The second verse is in the same chapter, verse 17. “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.”
Ok, so wait a second. How could Jesus, being perfect, be perfected? I mean, he’s already perfect, right? The answer to that comes in the book of Matthew, right at the beginning of Jesus ministry.
“Matthew 4:1 “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. 3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 7 Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not [a]tempt the Lord your God.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” 11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.
So how many times have we read this and not really thought about it? Jesus and the devil were out in the desert and Jesus proved he knew the scripture better than the devil did. Right? But I never asked the deeper questions about it, like; What was the point of all this? or If Jesus was God and perfect then what was the point of tempting him? Or “Why did Jesus fast for 40 days?”
There are all kinds of conclusions I’ve come up with, but I’m only going to touch on a few here. The first is that, just as Adam had to make a choice, and one that he ultimately failed, it was at this point that Jesus had to make a choice. Jesus being born both God and man, he had the choice of will to go down either path. It was at this point, while under the self-imposed suffering of fasting and the temptation of the devil, that he made the choice to become the perfect imitation of the Father. After all, it doesn’t do any good for the devil to tempt someone with something for which they have no desire. But where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded and so became the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
Which leads to my second point and the one that more directly applies to us. And that is that perfection that is not tested through trial is not perfection. If Jesus himself was not perfected without suffering, how much more must we, who were born in a fallen state, suffer trials and affliction in order to imitate Christ?
Am I suggesting that we need to seek out trials and afflictions and be sad and mope about all the time in order to be a better imitator of Christ? No. There is a season and a time for everything. Our problem is that we have largely told ourselves that suffering is not part of the Christian walk. This is a lie. Not only is trials and suffering a part of the Christian walk, it is essential to gaining wisdom, to denying self, and to being effective in ministry. I looked for a good verse to illustrate this, but they were frankly too numerous to pick just one. Some notable places to look though are in the book of 1st Peter and the first chapter of James. The early apostles had a much better understanding of suffering, and in very few cases did they ask that those trials be removed, but rather that they would grow and gain wisdom from them. This is exactly what I find when I go to the hard places in the world. Pastors don’t ask us to pray that their trials would be removed, but rather that they would be given the strength and the faith to stand up under trial. They understand that every trial is an opportunity to be more like Christ, that the miraculous salvation that he gave would then be played out to the lost nations and peoples around them. They understand that when they stand up under trials and persecution, the lost people around them see that God has done a work in them. They become imitators of Christ in his suffering and in so doing, they become the face of Christ to the nations around them.
James chapter 1 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds. Because the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” Lacking NOTHING it says. Immediately after this it says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” So when we go through trial, we are not told to ask that the trial end, because as it says above, “perseverance must finish its work,” but rather, that we are to ask for wisdom. This is the choice we have, to avoid suffering (though in practice this is not really possible), or to use the suffering and trials that come as an opportunity to gain wisdom, become more like Christ, and to fulfill the purpose for which we were placed on this earth. The only thing worse than having to bear a trial is to bear a trial for which I learn nothing.
I know this is not an easy message today, but it is an essential one for the Christian walk. For those who feel they are trying to stand up under a weight they feel they can’t bear, first of all, understand that it is not for nothing. Ask God for wisdom, both in dealing with it but also in what is to be learned from it. Also understand that you’re not alone. There is nothing you’re going through the Christ didn’t also suffer through. I’d like to finish with a story about the apostle Paul. This is one of the only passages I can think of where someone asks that a trial be removed. The apostle Paul says that he had a “thorn in his side”. Now what this was we don’t know. It could have been a recurring sin he had to deal with, it could have been a sickness, it could have been something else. The point is that it was something that tormented him. Paul asked God on several occasions to remove it from him, but the answer Paul received was different from what he asked for. The answer Paul got was, “My grace is sufficient for you, because my strength is made perfect in your weakness.” It is Paul’s acceptance of this answer that is even more telling, because he understands what it means, and his reply is this; “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
When I was a kid, I grew up in a church where we didn’t dance, didn’t smoke, didn’t gamble, didn’t go to movies, didn’t listen to rock music, didn’t didn’t didn’t. There was a long list of things that we didn’t do. In fact, in the denomination we were in, I think it could be said that we were known far more for what we didn’t do than for what we did.
You know what else we didn’t do? We didn’t listen to Jesus instructions about what we ARE supposed to do. Things like free the captives, make disciples, feed the hungry, heal the sick, declare the perfect and glorious day of The Lord. You see, we were so busy running away from Hell that we weren’t being obedient to follow Christ, and to be an imitator of him.
No one wants to know what you don’t do. What people are looking at, whether you know it or not, is what you DO. In the book of James it says,
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 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? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!”
No amount of running from hell will lead you to Christ. Seek Jesus and be an imitator of him, and hell will fall by the wayside. We are called to so much more.
Six and a half years ago, I left South Sudan and thought I might never return. This Spring I have the opportunity to go back. South Sudan can be very hard, and if I’m honest, it’s not something I particularly look forward to. But I also know what I’ve been created for, and it’s not for a list of things not to do. I was created to be the imitation of Christ, and if he would leave the 99 to go after the 1 lost, so will I.
Even though it wasn’t until I became an adult that I started entering races, I’ve always been into endurance sports. Even as a kid, I would go out into the school field behind my house and just see how long I could run. When I became an adult, I got into mountain biking and started racing in that sport. Later I started running marathons, half-marathons, and triathlons. At the peak of my obsession with it, I did a race where I had to bike for twelve hours, then run for twelve hours, unsupported. I ended up biking 105 miles, then running (walking really by that point) another 15.5 miles. I looked physically different when I was done from when I started the race.
But in the past few years, I’ve either had schedule issues get in the way, or had overuse injuries, or just gotten bored with the tedium that can come when you run for two hours at a time. So about two years ago, I started lifting weights just to mix things up a bit. As I lifted more, I started enjoying it more. As I enjoyed it more, I started lifting heavier weights. But as I lifted heavier and heavier weights and built up muscle, I also started to weigh more. And as I got heavier, my endurance for running got worse. Now I’m not complaining, because I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, but I’m also quite a bit slower than I was before.
As my mind is want to do in its obsession to find correlations, I found a metaphor in the above story. There are two verses that came to mind.
The first is Hebrews 12:1 and 2, which says, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The second verses are in 2nd Corinthians 12. They say, “And He (The Lord) 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. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
A lot of times we think that God is looking for strong, perfect people to serve him. On the contrary, he only asks us to run the race put before us with perseverance. The strength is up to him. He even says to put aside every weight. I’ve always read this to mean that we should put away sin and unhealthy and unhelpful habits, which is of course what the verse explicitly says. But when we tie this in 2nd Corinthians, it becomes apparent that our own strength can be a weight that slows us down as well.
Let me explain a bit. When we are weak, or poor, or sick, or inexperienced, or any other form of weakness, we find that we need to fully rely on God to run the race he’s set before us. As we become stronger, though we may find it easier to run the race using our own strength, often we end up straying from what God has called us to do, and so end up going the wrong way. We lose the intimacy of our relationship with God because, instead of fully relying on him for everything, we take control of some of the aspects of the race because we feel we can do it ourselves. It is a difficult pit not to fall into.
I am not suggesting we should not become stronger or more capable. These things should be a natural outgrowth of a life of serving. But we must not lose our humility and forget the lowly places we came from. We need to serve God with every capacity that he gives us while at the same time realizing that every ounce of it comes from him, and without him we are nothing. We must wake up every morning and declare to God, “more of You and less of me”.
Let me not stand before God some day and have him say to me, “I could have done so much more with you if there had just been less of you.” I pray that my own strength would not be something that slows me down.
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.
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.
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.
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.