Sometimes I just have a quick thought I feel is worth writing down. Tonight is one of those times.
There are three things wrong with the world.
Thinkers who do not do,
Doers who do not think,
And those who neither think, nor do.
Sometimes I just have a quick thought I feel is worth writing down. Tonight is one of those times.
There are three things wrong with the world.
Thinkers who do not do,
Doers who do not think,
And those who neither think, nor do.
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.
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.
In less than three weeks I leave for Kenya. This will be my first trip to Kenya in about three and a half years. There will be a team of four of us going, two of which have never been to Kenya before. It’s hard to convey to people who have not been there not only what it will be like, but also what we’ll be doing there. It’s the second part, the what we will be doing, that I’d like to talk about today.
I think the best way to start explaining what we are going for is to use the Apostle Paul’s fifth missionary journey as a template. You say you haven’t heard of Paul’s fifth journey? Well, it’s not nearly as well known as his first four. It’s the one where Paul took a group of people to Tarshish, and they painted the walls of a church that didn’t need painting. After that they did some street preaching in a language no one understood, and then handed out flip flops and used shoes. After that, on the last day they went shopping and snorkeling.
This of course did not happen. And I realize that my sarcasm is biting. But I also know that when people read something that is true, the initial reaction is to be angry, but then to think about it. There is nothing wrong with going somewhere to do projects that need to be done, and there’s nothing wrong with having some fun on the last day you’re there. What I find distasteful is that short term missions has gone from an opportunity to build unity within the body of Christ, and to both be a witness to the lost and encourage and strengthen our indigenous brothers and sisters to do the same, and instead has become wholly about us. What is the project? What are we going to paint? What are we going to build? What are we going to do TO or FOR these poor people? The moment we ask these questions we put ourselves on a higher plane in our own minds than those we are going to minister to. There’s a song with the phrase, “the notion that we’re better than them; the ultimate delusional chant.”
Instead, we ought to ask things like, How can we work together so that we can all grow in better community with each other and with God? How can we learn from each other so we will not continue to walk in our own brokenness? When we ask these questions, it suddenly becomes less about projects, and it becomes a lot more about people.
So going back to what we’ll be doing in Kibera, I think it would be best to start with a description of what Kibera is.
Kibera is the largest urban slum in Africa. It’s population is unknown, though estimates range between 250,000 and a million people. The average family lives in a 12 foot by 12 foot shack. There is no trash pick up, and there are no sewers, so sewage runs down every gully and low point of ground. The average wage is $1 a day. Crime and violence are rampant.
In light of this, going in and painting something or doing some kind of project, or even feeding the poor would be the equivalent of putting a bandage on a dead beached whale. The truth is, a large number of the people there are either unemployed or sporadically employed. So if I go in with a team and start working on something that needs to be “improved”, all I’m doing is depriving someone of a paying job.
So what can we do? This is where the “working with” as opposed to the “doing for” is so important. You find the indigenous resources and skills that are already there and figure out how they can be developed with the help of the people who live there every day. You identify community leaders, like pastors, who already have the respect of the people. You find out what their own goals and vision for their community are and do what you can to achieve that. When there is a specific deficit, and only when there is a specific deficit that can’t be filled from within the community do you bring in foreign money and talent.
This doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as saying, “we went to Kenya and fed 1000 poor children”. And this is the reason that I decided to write this blog. One of our new people lamented that when he told people what we were doing, he had a hard time raising support. The response was, “So basically you’re going to Kenya to have a bunch of meetings with people?”
The answer was essentially yes. But we have to go and do what’s ultimately right, and not what makes people feel good about giving. After all, it really isn’t about us.
I remember back in the early 1980’s, there was a boy known as “The bubble boy” who had to permanently live in a plastic bubble. He had a compromised immune system, and any exposure to the outside world could cause him to get sick and die. As I prayed this morning, the Lord brought that analogy to my mind as I thought about missions and service. You see, many of us are living our lives trying to avoid the world. While the boy in the bubble was safe from the world around him, he was relegated to a life of ineffectiveness.
The book of James says, “true religion is this, to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unpolluted by the world.”
We spend an awful lot of time on the second part while often ignoring the first part. I think we are often afraid of what will happen if we take the world on for God’s Kingdom. But there is no reason for fear. Hebrews 13 20-21 says, “Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ.” That’s right, we have access to the same power that raised Jesus from the dead and we walk in that victory as more than conquerors.
Jesus showed us the example we should live by in that he was the perfect imitator of The Father. How did he show that? By being a servant.
Are you feeling ineffective? Serve someone.
Feeling beaten down? Serve someone.
Are you feeling like you don’t know your place in the church? Serve someone.
Do you feel called to missions but don’t know how? Serve someone.
Feel like you are still working on you? Serve someone.
The more we take the focus off of ourselves and place it on God, the more he can do with us. And God will take faithfulness with little and give you larger things to be faithful with.
I am back in the land of the internet. I’ve spent the last few days in the Borana region of southern Ethiopia. The Petros Network was invited here just in the last couple years to partner with a largely forgotten people, and I can say that the transformation that I’ve seen happening is truly incredible. Whole villages are changing for the good in tangible ways through the power of the gospel. We look at the people there, and they are so young that your initial thought is that they aren’t capable of changing the world, but thank God, we are being proven wrong again and again.
I will have stories to tell later as I go through the pictures and interviews from this past couple weeks, but for now I have pictures from both Arba Minch and the Borana region. Usually I have a few photos that I know are going to be some of my all time favorites, but this time there are just so many I’m happy with that it’s going to take me a while. Enjoy these for now, and soon I’ll have more.
I’d like to start this post a little differently than usual. I’d like to start by just listing some recent observations I’ve made. They may seem disjointed at first, but hopefully I can bring them all together.
Yesterday I was in the gym. As I looked around the room, everyone in my line of sight was staring at their phones.
Sunday was the Superbowl. Today someone declared to me “We did it!”
A friend of mine from my childhood was furious yesterday because Donald Trump bragged about the great economy but was silent when the market did badly. He proceeded to verbally abuse someone about it on Facebook.
These observations might seem like they have little or nothing to do with each other, but I would argue that they do. I love the line from the movie, The Princess Bride. You don’t even have to know the context to understand it. “Come now, we are men of action. Lies do not become us.”
The very first thing that God tells Adam in the garden is to subdue the earth. Subduing the earth is a really big job, a job for men of action. All throughout history, God has been looking for men of action. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” “Be not only hearers of the word, but doers.” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” There are so many examples that I could not list them all. But at some point, we decided to discontinue being men of action and go with the lie. Which lie was that? That security and living life vicariously through the doers was preferable to taking a risk and being the doer firsthand.
What are people looking at on their phones? They’re seeing what kind of exciting lives people on Instagram are living. They’re seeing what celebrities are doing. They’re checking the sports scores. They’re watching people who are doing or are making the appearance of doing what they wish they were doing.
To the man who watched football and declared, “We did it!” I’m sorry, but you didn’t do anything. You weren’t on the field.
To the man who was so upset about the president bragging about something; why on earth should that bother you? If you’re looking to control something, start with self and don’t abuse other people because you’re upset about what someone you’ve never met is doing.
People are frustrated and fearful because they’ve given up significance. There is no significance in staring at your phone, or any social media. There is no significance in living life as if we’re somehow immortal in our current body if we can just avoid risk. We are supposed to be influencers and subduers. But if we don’t subdue the earth, the earth will subdue us. That’s just the way it works. The decision not to make a decision is still a decision. We are more than conquerors through Christ, unless we just give up. And that is what I fear we have done and just given up.
Jesus told Peter and James, and by transitive property, us, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At some point, we left the nets on the beach. They became weathered and dry rotted and ripped. It’s time to go back and pull those nets back out of the mud. It’s time to repair them, and fix the holes, and start catching men again. Don’t be fooled. You are an influence. It’s just a question of what type of influence you decide to be.
I’d like to finish with a parable out of Matthew. Matthew 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
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.