Tag Archives: culture

Perhaps A Little Hardship Wouldn’t Be A Bad Thing.

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.

The Importance of Suffering.

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.”

A South Sudanese pastor weeps. “Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.” Ecclesiastes 7:3

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.

The Immortal Hamster

I’ve been back from Ethiopia now for nearly a month. I’ve thought about a lot of things in that time, from the things I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, to the vision I have for what God is doing. It’s very exciting, but also upon returning, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve come back to an American church that is fast asleep. The bible says that “my people perish for lack of knowledge.” Well, without knowledge, you can’t move on to wisdom. And without wisdom, there is no vision. Without vision, we have no purpose. Without purpose, we start chasing all kinds of crazy things, and the church gives up the gospel in exchange for prostituting itself to the world in the hope of finding “cultural relevance.” The bride of Christ is searching the street corners, looking for someone to tell her she’s beautiful.

I often teach a class on missions and poverty alleviation, and one of the questions we open with is, “Why did Jesus come to Earth?” The two most common answers I get are, “So my sins could be forgiven,” and “so I can go to Heaven.” Though both answers are technically correct, they are both tertiary reasons and completely egocentric.

In Luke 4, Jesus himself states why he came. “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.”

Jesus came to restore what was lost, and to put us back into relationship with God. He set in motion a restoration of relationship between God and creation. It wasn’t just so we could be saved from Hell but continue to do what we were already doing. It states right in the beginning of Genesis that men and women were created in God’s image. That being the case, we ought to imitate Christ as he imitates God the Father. If we accept Jesus’ sacrifice without accepting this second part, we have reduced ourselves to God’s immortal pet, his hamster, if you will, existing for God’s amusement but with no purpose, born only to consume.

I believe that this is why the American church is largely devoid of men. Men are designed and built to serve a larger purpose, to take hold of a challenge and to serve a greater purpose than themselves. But if we accept a Christianity that says “I’m saved now. Just sit in the pew on Sunday and listen to a watered down message of meek and mild Jesus,” a great injustice has been done. Do we need to be reminded that Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple with a whip….twice?

Jesus gave us a lot of instructions, most of which we aren’t following. Sure, we follow the ones about keeping ourselves pure…..sometimes, but what about all those ones about going out like sheep among wolves? What about all those instructions about feeding the poor, standing up for the widow, the orphan, and the alien? What about blessing those who curse us, or showing love to our enemies, or were those instructions for somebody else? What about dying to self?

I have to ask these things, because if we say we’re going to be Christ followers, then certainly we should take a cue from Jesus, who “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.” (Philippians 2)

God is looking for men and women of purpose. The Church has got to wake up.

“Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.” (Ephesians 5:14)

To The Ends Of The Earth (All Of It.)

I’ve now been back from Ethiopia for a week. I rolled into town on Saturday night, and had to be at a conference on world missions literally the next morning. That conference ended this morning and now I have a moment to stop and gather my thoughts. I saw a number of encouraging and discouraging things on this last trip to Ethiopia, but fortunately it was mostly the former. Back in 2012 I began to pray that I would see God move, and that prayer has not just been answered, but continues to be answered in ways more profound than I knew I was asking.

My first trip to the Borana region along the borderlands of Ethiopia and Kenya was no exception. It was like no place I’ve been before. I wondered in a previous blog if it would be similar to South Sudan, due to its proximity, and the answer is that it wasn’t similar to South Sudan in either landscape or culture.

I’ve been to eastern Ethiopia a few times now, and whereas that region is dominated mostly by Islam, the southern region is mostly animist or traditional religion. Books and movies tend to have a somewhat romantic vision of animism, but when you actually go and talk to the people living it, you find out just how oppressive it is. I will probably get into the details of that in a later blog, but for now I’d just like to tell a short story about a woman (a girl really) that I interviewed last week, and how it relates to the western church.

My main function in going to the places I do is to tell the story to others when I get back, through photography, video, and writing. Consequently I always have my ears and eyes open for compelling stories when I’m out in the field. As I listen to reports of the indigenous church planters, patterns develop. One of those patterns is one of persecution. It’s almost universal, which is something the western church has a hard time understanding. This again is something for a future blog, and why persecution is not only to be expected, but in some ways is necessary to complete our calling.

So when I hear a story that goes completely against the grain of what’s normal, I take notice. I met a woman who was 24 years old, though honestly she didn’t look over 18. She was both quiet and unassuming, yet at the same time fierce. She had gone out to a village where the gospel of Jesus had not been heard yet, and in six months sixty people had committed their lives to Christ, and 51 had already been baptized. She was not being persecuted, and in fact more people were hungry to hear what she had to say.

When I bring this report home, the church is of course elated. It is, after all, good news. But then I started to think about it, and the broader issues of what this means.

You see, Jesus told us to go, figuratively speaking, to Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth, teaching all he commanded and making disciples. When we hear stories over and over again of persecution and people falling away because they are physically attacked, or rejected by their families, or they’re fired from their jobs, it’s easy for us to tell ourselves this is why we haven’t fulfilled this command. But when I meet a woman that goes to a new village and has huge success with no persecution, the truth comes out; the truth that there was a village out there that was hungry for the gospel, the the only reason they didn’t receive it was because in 2000 years since the instructions had been given, no one had bothered to go.

The good news is that it’s never to late to change our priorities, but how many have been lost in the interim? While we send 40% of our short term missionaries to Mexico, a nation with a sizable church presence capable of doing their own work, we virtually ignore the thousands of people groups that have never once heard the gospel. Oswald Smith said, “No one has the right to hear the gospel twice when there are those who haven’t heard it once.” I agree with him. We go repeatedly to the places that are easy and saturated, while ignoring the places that are hard. But awareness and faithfulness are everything. Now that we are aware, let us be faithful to do the job that we have been given.

I’m not putting up a picture of the girl I spoke of, but I am posting a few other pictures from the southern region of Ethiopia.

He Prepares A Table For Me…

I’ve had a number of things on my mind lately that I’d like to write about, but I decided tonight to go back to the basics and tell a story of my travels. Specifically I’m going back four years to my last journey to South Sudan. At the time, South Sudan was the second most dangerous country in the world, and was quickly devolving to number one, which is where it currently stands. I’d like to be able to give reasons for why this is the case, but that would take volumes to describe. This being a blog, I fully expect to lose almost everyone if I go over 1000 words. If you’d like to know more about the how and why of the situation in South Sudan, feel free to look back through the archives where I write about it at length.

Staying put in South Sudan is not so bad. And if you have the opportunity to take a small plane where you need to go, you can avoid most of the danger, minus that of actually flying in poorly maintained small Russian planes.

The problem is when you have to travel the roads, and this is what we had to do. There was a village we had neglected to visit the last time we were there, and it was necessary to go and visit this time, despite the fact that the situation had gotten worse in the last six months since we’d been in country. The problem was two-fold. The first issue was what are known as “black snakes”. These are not literal snakes, though those exist as well, but rather armed bandits that wait along the road with Kalashnikovs for an easy looking target or a vehicle that has gotten separated. They then stop the vehicle and in the best case they only rob you. This is an ever present danger of road travel in South Sudan.

The other, more pressing problem was that of the White Army. An army of mostly children and teenagers from the Nuer tribe, they rub ashes on their faces as an insect repellent, hence the “white” moniker. They had been emboldened by the renegade vice-president and occasional war-lord of South Sudan, Riek Machar, to attack and raid villages of their cattle. The village we were visiting was directly in their path, and the only road back was in their territory. So to say the least, we were concerned about our road travel, especially since it would be nearing darkness as we were returning.

Many seemingly daunting or hopeless situations are punctuated by the simple phrase, “but God.” This one was no different. Normally I avoid soldiers in developing nations as much as possible, especially in South Sudan, where loyalties change at the drop of a hat. As Sung Tzu so famously wrote in “The Art of War”, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

As we turned out of the village along the Nile onto the rutted dirt road, a cattle truck full of SPLA soldiers was passing. We hung back a bit, but drove within sight of the truck the entire way back. Their presence offered a deterrent to any would-be attackers for the whole journey. As I thought about it later, a couple of things came to mind. Part of Psalm 23 was one of them.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil;

For You are with me;

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;”

The table prepared came in the form of a cattle truck full of soldiers, and I was thankful for it. I managed to snap this clandestine picture as we drove.

sudan-2943sm

The Settlers, Part One

Recently I was looking at a group I follow on Instagram. It’s an organization that puts together short term missions trips for which people can get involved. They put up a map showing all of the planned trips for the year. There were a lot of them, and they were certainly going to be very busy. But one thing stood out immediately, and that was the blank parts of the map, places where there were no trips planned. The entire Middle-East was missing. North and Central Africa were missing. Central Asia was missing. In short, the planned trips were all to places where the gospel has already been heavily preached. All or nearly all where there is a significantly large indigenous church presence to take up the job for which we’re sending short term missionaries.

Even in the first century, the Apostle Paul talked about this. Romans 15:20 says, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”

The problem is this; when Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations, going to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the Earth, we weren’t all supposed to go to the same place. God was looking for pioneers. He was looking for people who would do the hard work, going into hostile, uncomfortable places. That’s what pioneers do. But at some point the settlers came in. Settlers are people who see that the wolves have been killed, the land has been cleared, and the railroad has been constructed. Settlers want to do something worthwhile but don’t like risk. In short, settlers build on someone else’s work. They not only settle the land, they settle for second best.

What we have to realize is that the Great Commission was never about us. It was not about feeling like we’re doing something worthwhile. It was not about being or looking busy, or having a life-changing experience. Sometimes these things happen. It’s good to have a life-changing experience and have a heart change. But it’s more important to be obedient. When Jesus said to go to the uttermost parts of the Earth, he meant the uttermost parts, and not just the convenient and easily accessible parts of Mexico. When we go to these places, we often go to places where we are not needed, and local ministries often find themselves taken from critical work in their own communities to accommodate our insatiable need to feel like we got something done. In cases like this, it’s better to have just stayed home. I don’t want to sound harsh, but the more quickly we figure out that missions is not about us, the more quickly we can fulfill the actual commission we were given.

So the next time an opportunity comes up to get involved in missions, ask yourself, “Am I a pioneer or a settler? Am I doing the best God has called me to, or am I settling for second best?”

The Difference Between Liberation And Eviction.

The past week or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about the harder aspects of some of the things I’ve seen over the past several years. I’ve been thinking about things like poverty and setting the captives free. I’ve been particularly thinking about why some people and some cultures have been successful at dealing with theses things and why some have gone down tragic roads, when from the outside it looked like many of them had similar origins.

These are particularly hard subjects to understand for the western mind, because we live in a culture where we get most of our information about poverty and oppression from movies and a media that sees these subjects as sufficiently distant from personal experience to understand them in the kind of visceral way that people in South Sudan or the Congo would.

We believe in a number of things that, though possibly politically correct, when tested turn out to be factually false. We believe things like; poverty is mostly a problem of lack of resources, or that all oppressed people are naturally angelic, or that if people could just have oppression removed they would thrive. We believe these things because they are the subject of so many feel good stories. I would like to believe them to, but my experiences in parts of Africa have taught me that even though these things can happen, life is usually far more complicated and usually much messier than this.

My time in South Sudan was a huge eye opener for me. The South Sudanese were oppressed horribly by the Northern Sudanese for decades, in ways that for brevity I’m not going to get into. I first went to South Sudan in 2010, right before they achieved independence from the North. I saw the hope and the excitement on people’s faces as they prepared for the vote that would free them from their oppressors. Surely this was the Hollywood story everyone wanted and expected to see. Not quite.

Over the next three years, I went back three more times, and got to personally see the situation devolve into chaos. The South Sudanese went from fighting against the Northern oppressors to fighting against each other. If you’d like to read more about that, you can go back into some of my blog posts from 2013 and 2014 particularly. So what happened?

To say I can explain all of the aspects of this in a single blog post would be naive and foolish, because it’s an incredibly complex subject, and entire books could be written about it. So I’m going to focus on just a small part.

I want to start by drawing some parallels between the situation in South Sudan and the written account we have of another oppressed culture that was freed from its captors around 3400 years ago. I’m speaking of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt as written in the book of Exodus. There are many things written that can give us insight into the kind of things that happen when an enslaved culture is freed, particularly if you know what you’re looking for. The great thing about Exodus is that is quite comprehensive, and conveys a complete timeline.

One of the things that many Westerners don’t have a grasp of is the mental, emotional, cultural, and spiritual damage that is caused by institutionalized oppression, particularly slavery. This can manifest in people as hopelessness, a feeling of powerlessness, depression, and sometimes even paranoia. The end result is that when an opportunity comes for people to be free, they often don’t take it. Oppressed people often choose the miserable security of keeping your head down and staying alive than taking a chance at freedom. This is evident in Exodus 6:9. Moses is interceding on behalf of his people, and he goes to give them instruction. Their response is in Exodus 6:9. “So Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel; but they did not heed Moses, because of anguish of spirit and cruel bondage.”

Later on there are a series of events that happen that as I read them, made me initially think about these parallels. The Israelites have been set free and are crossing the desert when it dawns on the Egyptians that they’ve lost their free labor. The Egyptians send out their army to retake the Israelites. As the cloud of dust rises on the horizon from the Egyptian army, there is a record of what the Israelites say, and it is surprisingly fatalistic and even has a hint of longing for the land in which they were enslaved.

Exodus 14:11 Then they said to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you so dealt with us, to bring us up out of Egypt?

Exodus 14:12 Is this not the word that we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than that we should die in the wilderness.”

And in another situation, later on, Exodus 16:3, And the children of Israel said to them, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Their response is puzzling until you realize one thing, and this is the key. Moses interceded on the Israelites behalf because it was God’s will that they should be freed. For many of the Israelites, they were content with the security of the situation, miserable as it was. After God sent the plagues, the Israelites became a stench in the nostrils of Pharaoh, and there was no longer a choice to stay. This is why it’s so important when we’re working with oppressed people to allow them ways to empower themselves. Many of the Israelites were not so much liberated as evicted from Egypt, and it’s when we realize this that their responses suddenly make sense. The Israelites continue to act like slaves even though they are physically free people for the next forty years. Moses was able to take the Israelites out of slavery, but he was unable to remove the slave from the Israelites. In fact, it is not until the next generation grew up, a generation that never knew what it was like to be a slave, that they are able to enter the promised land, because you can not build a nation with people that are still slaves in their heart.

This is what I found in South Sudan. A nation that knew nothing but oppression and slavery and warfare, and doing what each person needs to do to survive on a daily basis, has walked into freedom with the same attitude. Whereas the common enemy used to be the North, now the common enemy is every man’s neighbor. No one has a plan for the future, because people are still living to survive the current moment. I understand that it is hard to change an entire way of thinking and living, but I hope and pray that the South Sudanese don’t have to wander in the desert for forty years until a generation is raised up that know how to live in freedom.

We Were Created To Split Mountains

A tree growing in the desert.

I remember as a teenager, there was a book in our school library titled, “Nuclear War, What’s In It For Me?” Clearly it was satire, but the title made me think. My blog is usually geared toward a western audience and all of the Western pre-conceptions and paradigms about the way we think the world is and what life should be. We think the title I mentioned is ridiculous, but with how many other things can we replace “Nuclear War” and it makes perfect sense to us?  “Marriage, What’s in it for Me?”  “Faith, What’s in it for Me?”  Most of what we do and think about comes back to, “What’s in it for me?”.  It seeps into the way we think about everything. Life is about money, and comfort, and prosperity.  Life is about……..me. Even the verses we like to quote are about us. Jeremiah 29:11 is one of our favorite verses to quote. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

The context and the preceding verse is conveniently omitted. This was the situation when Jeremiah prophesied those words; Israel had been carried into exile in Babylon. Their kingdom was gone, and their freedom gone along with it. They were aliens in a land not their own, and subjects of a pagan king. They longed to go back home, and false prophets were telling people that they would go home soon. Jeremiah had something entirely different to say, and it was something that came straight from God.

“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Israel was complaining and asking “Why has this happened to us? When will God deliver us?” This sounds a lot like us whenever we face adversity, or when our life doesn’t look the way we want it to. We quote the verse about God wanting to prosper us, and fail to realize that He didn’t place us here for ourselves; that it’s not about us. I especially like the last part. “Seek peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”  They weren’t to pray for judgement out of spite for carrying them into exile. They were to be agents of positive change where God had put them, even thought they didn’t want to be there.

Have you ever seen a tree growing on bare rock in the desert? Often it will grow where a seed found a small crack, and will start putting down a tap root that eventually splits the rock. Here’s the thing about that tree. It doesn’t complain that it was planted in such a bad place. It doesn’t envy other trees that were planted closer to water, or in a better climate. It quietly takes in sunlight and whatever water God gives it, and uses those resources in the fullest possible way for where it lives. As it splits that rock, more soil gets trapped in the crack allowing other small plants to grow there. Sometimes it reaches water that was hidden or trapped beneath the rock, and it’s able to flourish and provides shade for animals and less heat tolerant plants. Eventually, over centuries, the entire landscape can change, and if enough plants grow, even the climate changes and the desert can disappear. If a tree growing on a rock can do this, how much more are we called to as beings created in the image of God?

We were not placed here for us. We were placed here to make a difference in others, and consequently a difference in the world around us. Don’t moan about your situation and ask that God immediately remove you from the situation you’re in. Pray for the people and places around you, because if those around you prosper, so will you.