Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Witchdoctor's Goats and Halloween

There's a herd of goats that lives on the main road by our house.  I see them every day, often eating scraps of grass that manage to poke through the hard-packed dirt, or sleeping under the broken-down bus by the police station.

I never thought much about these goats, since farm animals tend to be everywhere in this city, comfortably cohabiting with the five million people who share this space.

One day, the students in our theological training program told us the story of those goats.

Have you ever noticed that those goats don't have a herder?  

Well, no, I guess you're right.  I have never seen a herder with those goats.

Those goats used to be owned by a witchdoctor.  The witchdoctor died.  But he put a curse on the goats so that no one will steal them.  So now, no one will touch them, even though he is dead.  At night, a "little person" comes and takes care of the goats.  

Even after living here twelve years, there are still times when our jaws drop to the ground.  This was one of them.

Uhhh....what is a "little person?"

Those who have seen "little people" insist that they look like a miniature person.  They are some sort of supernatural beings who do evil and cause problems.  

And who, apparently, take care of the goats of a dead witchdoctor.

Remember, now, that this was not told to us by ten-year-old girls at a sleepover.  This was a group of grown-up, very sharp, theological students.

Shortly after we learned about the Witchdoctor's Goats, we invited one of our students over for dinner.  She is a middle-aged, widowed woman who is quite educated and has lived many years abroad.  She agreed to come for dinner, but asked if she could also bring her 20-something college-student daughter with her.  Of course!  we said.  We would love to meet your daughter.  

Yeah, she doesn't like to be home alone at night.  She is afraid of the "little people."

Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

I once read that Tanzanians are the most superstitious people in Africa.  And the implications are far-reaching--for government, for the safety of albinos, and even for football teams.  But I think I can safely say that this worldview reflects many people groups on the majority of the earth.

It's easy for us educated, enlightened Americans to scoff at such stories.  Seriously?  Witchdoctors?  Curses?  Little people?

In fact, we scoff so much at these stories that we go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum.  Instead, we decorate our houses with witches and ghosts and spiderwebs and fake blood and guts and we say This is all pretend!  Aren't we funny?  Isn't this so much fun?

It's like we're trying to convince ourselves that evil and an afterlife and the supernatural don't even exist.  In fact, sometimes I think we try so hard to make it all just for fun because we know we really aren't kidding anyone.  Because as much as we pontificate about science and materialism and objective reality, we all know that there are a lot of questions that science can't answer.

We might think that everyone knows the supernatural doesn't really exist.  Except, not everyone.  The rest of the world just doesn't kid themselves.  They are quite confident that evil and spirits and witchdoctors are real and they have power, and if you gave them a minute they could prove it to you.  Which is perhaps why Halloween is only celebrated as a "fun" day in countries that are supposedly "enlightened" by science.

Hey, I get that participating in innocent Halloween activities might be a really great way to build family memories and get to know your neighbors.  I'm all for that--go for it.  But in the midst of that, let's remind our kids and ourselves that supernatural evil is not pretend and really not something to celebrate.

Africans may have a misplaced fear--and they need to find the confidence that Jesus has the ultimate authority.  Americans, however, have a misplaced confidence--and a legitimate fear of unseen things might not be so bad.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

African Christians Can Teach Us About Elections

"You know how in Tanzania, Christians pray and fast over our presidential elections and sometimes those of neighboring countries?  Yeah, I don't know how common this is in the U.S. but to be honest maybe a series of week-long overnight African-style prayers are needed for this year's election."

-Facebook post by Sia Kwimbere, former HOPAC student and now a Cornell graduate

America, welcome to the politics of the rest of the world.

You may be thinking, "How on earth is this happening?" while the beleaguered citizens of most of the earth are thinking, "How did you avoid this happening for as long as you did?"

Corruption, manipulation, violence, narcissistic candidates, propaganda, bullying....all are common features even in supposed "democratic" elections worldwide.  The United States (even with all its faults) has been a beacon of freedom and virtue for the rest of the world.  Until now....when this election isn't looking much different from much less developed countries.

And the world is watching.  Just yesterday I was at my tailor's little closet-sized shop, ordering a dress, when I heard the radio news blasting about Trump.  In Swahili.  The world is watching.

This self-governing thing doesn't work so well when your only choices are people you would never want to live next to, work with, or ask to look after your dog--let alone run your country.  It's like we're all standing on the edge of a black pit, and the only choice we get is the direction we jump in.  I think I'd rather just be pushed.

I voted last night, and today I drove our ballots over to the U.S. embassy.  I could say that my part is done.  Or is it?

I'm watching from a distance, so all I see are the Grand Pronouncements from evangelicals on social media.  I don't know the kind of conversations Americans are having in real life.  The truth is though that most of us really don't have any idea what to do.  Isn't that right?  But in the midst of all of the squabbling and desperation and impossible choices, I wonder if God's people are doing much praying.  We're so used to governing ourselves that we see ourselves as needing to fix it all.  Ourselves as the answer.  And that's pretty exhausting.  And pointless.

But doesn't God like putting us in a position where we have no idea what to do?

The good part about losing faith in our government is that it increases our faith in God.  At least, it should.  I think that's why--as Sia described above--that Africans do so much praying come election time.  They tend to be a whole lot more familiar than we are with things like fasting and all-night prayer meetings.  They know there isn't much hope for their countries aside from God's intervention.  Seems true for America too right now.  Maybe we've got something to learn from them about that kind of desperate dependence on God.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Johnny is Five

From Josiah to Johnny on his fifth birthday:

You're the best!  Johnny, I'm glad you're my bro.  I also LOVE you with all my heart.  You make my life way better!

That pretty much sums up how all of us feel about Johnny.  This little guy makes all of us laugh hysterically.  He is happy and easy-going and enthusiastic about everything.  He has the most fantastic lisp that I probably should start worrying about now that he is five....but I love it too much to care.

Once when watching the sunrise with Dad, Johnny exclaimed, I see the orange thing!  Gil responded, Do you know what else that is called?  A pause.  Johnny tried, A circle?

For months he couldn't remember the word for "breakfast."  He would come into the kitchen every day and instead would come up with creative descriptions.  What are we eating for dinner in the morning?  What are we eating for when I wake up?  

One day Gil transformed Lily's old pink bike into a cool red Spiderman bike and all day long Johnny repeated to Gil, I love you so much, Daddy.  I love you so much.

Out of the blue Johnny said to me recently, Mommy, when I was at my Baby Home, I prayed for you to come get me.  

I mean, seriously.  Who couldn't love a kid like this?  I think he might be contemplating taking over the world one day.  He turns us all into piles of goo so we would let him get away with it.

He loves learning letters and can now write the names of everyone in the family.  He can do puzzles for hours.  He loves anything mechanical, especially cars and planes.  He grew four inches in one year.  Four.

Johnny has been looking forward to turning five years old for at least the past nine months, so he was pretty darn excited that the day finally came.  And we were all pretty happy to celebrate with him.  As Josiah said best, Johnny makes our lives way better!

I'm pretty sure these super cool firework candles are illegal in America.  But then again, this entire water park would be illegal in America too, so let's just not worry about it.  

Monday, October 10, 2016

Please Go See "Queen of Katwe"

Yes, it's a classic underdog story that's been done maybe too many times.  Yes, the ending is predictable and makes you feel all gooey inside.  But the setting--a slum in Uganda--is not anything I've seen before on screen.  The actors are all African or of African decent.  And the main character--Phiona--is phenomenally played by an ordinary Ugandan girl who grew up very similarly to Phiona herself--selling corn on the street.  In fact, I read today that "The second time Madina Nalwanga saw a film inside a theater, she was the star of it."

Sure, this may be a Stand-Up-and-Cheer movie, but it also doesn't sugarcoat.

As I watched "The Queen of Katwe" this afternoon, I kept thinking--Yes, this is what many parts of Africa really look like.  I've been in markets just like that.  Yes, many really do live in shacks like Phiona's family.  Yes, many young girls feel their only way out of that life is by selling themselves to men.  Yes, flooding in the slums really is that bad.  Yes, hospitals often operate without anesthetic.  Yes, there really is that kind of income disparity in Africa.  Yes.  Yes.  People need to see this.  

I try to explain East Africa to you with my words and my pictures.  This movie does it so much better.  Please, go see this movie.  We took all our kids.  It was a little intense; the girls cried.  I cried.  There's a few things in this movie that some parents might not want their young children to see, so please check sources like this one before deciding if your kids can handle it.  We are pretty protective with our kids when it comes to movies.  But you know what?  I'm not going to protect them from the devastation of what poverty looks like.  That's something they need to see.  So do I.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

When the American Church Fails Its Missionaries

Here are some people you need to meet:  

Omega and Julie Edwards have lived in Tanzania for two years.  Omega is a medical doctor who gave up a lucrative career to train medical workers and church planters in East Africa.  They are some of the most generous, humble, and faithful people I know.

The Edwards family has been in the States since April, trying to raise financial partnerships to return.  Though they enjoy ministering to their community in California, they were hoping to come back to Tanzania in August for the start of the school year, but the funding wasn't there.  So they sent their 9th grade daughter here ahead of them.  Now it's October.  Though they are so grateful for their financial supporters, they still only have 81% of what they need.  When Omega returns, he will join the leadership of our team in Tanzania.  We really need him.  They are ready for their life to start here again.  They desperately want to be reunited with their daughter.  Yet still, they wait.  The funding has still not come in.  

Rebecca Laarman is the academic counselor at Haven of Peace Academy.  Her job is to help juniors and seniors transition to college, but in reality she does so much more than that.  She is a mentor, friend, and advocate for these students.  She invests countless hours of her own time every week answering text messages, listening to, and discipling these young people.  The students adore her and her impact on them cannot be minimized.  This is Rebecca's fourth year at HOPAC, and she wants to stay longer, but she's not sure she will be able to.  Despite her persistent prayers and effort, Rebecca has never been able to raise adequate financial support.

These stories are far too common.  There are many others I could list here, like Marc and Gretchen Driesenga, who teach Bible and disciple students at HOPAC--and also are not sure whether they can continue in their ministry due to funding.  The stories could be repeated among missionaries all over the world.

I have been praying fervently for these friends, and many others like them.  I have seen firsthand how committed, driven, and strategic they are.  They need to be here.  They need to stay here.  But that can only happen with enough financial support.

Which is why I was particularly depressed to read a new study that came out this week on American church spending.  The study reports that 'only 52% of churches spend 10% or more of their current church budget on ministry beyond their own congregation.'

Included in that 10% (which, remember, is only half of American churches to begin with) are soup kitchens, harvest festivals, community outreach....and foreign missions.  I'm not a math person....but could we safely estimate this means that American churches overall devote maybe 2-5% of their budgets to overseas missionaries?

Friends, this is sad.  And pathetic.  And one day, I believe, we will be held responsible.

The United States makes up less than 5% of the world's population.   Yet Americans hold 41.2% of the world's wealth.  90% of Americans qualify as either upper-middle income or high income on a global scale.

Ninety percent.

Americans are expected to spend 8.4 billion dollars on Halloween this year.  8.4 billion dollars.  Let that sink in.

Yet even though 27% of Americans call themselves evangelical, Rebecca and the Edwards family can't get the funding to stay in Tanzania.

I am dismayed today.  But I am not angry at you personally.  Every month I see the list of people and churches who have sacrificially given to our ministry and I know how humbly dependent we are on them.  We are eternally grateful to those who support us financially.  I personally know several families--who are certainly reading this blog--who are living a lifestyle far below their salary...for the sake of the gospel.  That could be you too.  I am not pointing fingers.

But I do know that corporately, as a nation of the wealthiest Christian churches in the world, God will hold us in judgement for our inability to get missionaries to the field faster and keep them there longer.  Something is wrong.  Something needs to change.

Let me be real with you:  It's tough for missionaries to talk about this.  I don't know a single missionary who says, "I love support raising!"  It's hard.  It's humiliating.  It's exhausting.  The only reason I have the courage to write this today is because I am advocating for my friends and not for myself.  It's just so discouraging to see so many missionaries worn out from the stress of living far below their budget, or just giving up completely because of finances.  These are people who want to be here.  It's hard enough to find godly and strategic overseas missionaries--can't we trust our Church to keep them there?

I unequivocally believe that not every Christian is called work cross-culturally.  But every Christian is called to participate in the Great Commission.  God has granted the United States unprecedented wealth and resources.  It is our responsibility to stand with those who are sent out.  To whom much has been given, much will be required.  

Please, American Church, I believe you can do better than this.  Find a way.

For more about the Edwards family, click here or go here to donate (account #2016).
For more about Rebecca or how to donate to her ministry, click here.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

God Would Never Ask Me to Sacrifice My Kids....Right?

Documented incidents include Christians being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges and trampled under-foot.

I know so little of sacrifice.  

A new report was recently published about the life of Christians in North Korea, and all of the incredibly creative ways that regime has invented to humiliate, torture, imprison, rape, and murder anyone who dares pick up a Bible.  

But the scariest part of that report?

A policy of guilt by association applies, meaning that the relatives of Christians are also detained regardless of whether they share the Christian belief.

Did you get that?

The cost of following Jesus in North Korea is not just your job, not just your well-being, not just your freedom....but your whole family.  Your mom, your brother, your children can be put in a prison camp, raped, or run over by a steamroller because you chose Jesus.  

It's incomprehensible.  Unfathomable.

I know so little of sacrifice.  

Sure, I can tell myself that I have chosen to live in a country with medical care that is vastly inferior than we would have in America.  Sometimes it is scary to raise kids here.  But I also am still American, with my full-coverage medical insurance that allows my children to be medically evacuated if it ever comes to that.  Sure, I worry, but I know the risk is low.  

Besides....God would never ask me to sacrifice my kids....right?

Yet I worship the same God who has asked exactly that of the North Korean Christians. I stand under the same sky, breathe the same air, and have the same kind of soul as they do.   Who am I to think that he wouldn't ask the same of me?  

In America right now, the sentiment seems to be exactly the opposite.  We sacrifice for our kids, but we wouldn't think of sacrificing them.  We start college accounts when they are babies.  We go to every soccer game; we work two jobs to send them to private school; our lives revolve around their extracurricular activities.  I get this.  I feel this, even from here.  I want the best for my kids too.

But what if our kids' activities become so important that we have no time for ministry?  No time to get to know our neighbors?  No time even for church?  What if God called my children to be missionaries...in Congo...in Iraq...in North Korea?  What if I was convicted that the college money would be better spent showing a dying neighbor that Jesus loves him?  Would I resist....or obey?

I realize it's a hard balance.  I'm not saying we go back to the old days when fathers would leave their families for years at a time in the name of ministry.  I know of missionaries who waited to work in highly dangerous countries until their children were grown.  I have supported many missionary friends who left Tanzania due to the needs of their children.  It goes without saying that Christians are to put a high priority on ensuring their children are safe, educated, and loved.  

Yet when do we hit the point where we love our children more than Jesus?  Where we tell him, You can have anything, Lord, just not my kids?

I really don't know where that line is.  It might not be the same for each person and it might not be the same in each situation.  But judging from the example of my North Korean brothers and sisters, I must come to the conclusion that God does sometimes ask us to sacrifice our children for the sake of the gospel.

After all, the greatest treasure in the universe came from the sacrifice of a Son.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

What I Wish I Could Hear From a Politician

I keep waiting for a political candidate who talks about sacrifice.  You know, like, In order to get our country out of debt, or fight terrorism, or get rid of racism, or care for refugees, we are all going to need self-sacrifice.  It's going to be hard, but we can do it together.  

But I never hear it.

Instead, all I hear about is what we're going to get.  How our lives will be better--even great--if I vote for that person.  Apparently no one wants to vote for someone who says that our lives might get harder before they can get better.

Why am I surprised?  The notion of self-sacrifice seems to have disappeared from the list of American virtues.  The average credit card debt in America is $15,000.  Divorce is easy and abortion is easier.  My body; my choice.  Personal satisfaction reigns king.  Follow your heart.  You deserve it.  You are worth it.  Have it your way.  Finding yourself seems to be the chief goal of growing up.

Of course, each person is different and redemption can be found even in the worst choices.  I am painting our culture with broad strokes and I am not casting condemnation on your individual story.  But the truth is that we as a country have lost the notion of self-sacrifice.

We have taken what should be seen as privileges and turned them into rights.  I have the right for my children to succeed.  I have the right to be safe.  I have the right to be heard.  I have the right for you to treat me the way I want to be treated.  I have the right to be happy.  

We've had those privileges for so long that we consider them owed to us.  So when we realize we might lose them, we are horrified.  Suddenly all of our choices become about self-protection.  How we spend.  How we save.  How we plan for the future.  How we vote.

But what Christians have forgotten is that we were never supposed to be about self-protection.  We are always supposed to be about self-sacrifice.

Fear is never supposed to define us.  But unfortunately our culture has told us for such a long time that this life is about us, that we panic at the notion of losing it.  Have we forgotten that this is the antithesis of who Christians should be?

Deny yourself.

To live is Christ; to die is gain.

Do not look only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  

Love your neighbor as yourself.  

There's nothing in Scripture that tells us that we need to do everything we can to protect our assets.  Or even our freedom.

America was founded on Christian principles, which was great for liberty but is now confusing for Christians.   If our government is "we the people," then we are the government.  Which means that we are directly responsible for looking after our collective safety and freedom.  The problem comes when my focus comes off of society as a whole--others focused--and instead becomes about me.  

Of course, as a people--even as Christians--we are going to disagree about what is best for our society.  But that is not the point.  The point is that we are failing our country--and our God--when we are dominated by self-interest.  Our country will never thrive that way.  And our faith will disintegrate.

Which is why I am disheartened when I see Americans shunning refugees in the name of self-protection.  Celebrating abortion in the name of self-fulfillment.  Tolerating racism because of self-absorption, or fighting it with self-destruction.  Glorifying politicians who promise self-indulgence.

I have despaired over the state of my country.  And I must admit I don't have a lot of hope for its future.  You can call me a pessimist, and I would love to be proven wrong.  Maybe if enough Americans start once again valuing self-sacrifice will we have a chance to change.

But I can guarantee one thing.  We as Christians will fail--as citizens of America and of heaven--if we do not step away from our fear long enough to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus.  Yes, what we have had in America is great, but we need to hold to it loosely.  Yes, politics is important and we should seek the good of all people.  But at the end of the day, our loyalty is to Jesus--who specialized in self-sacrifice.  So if that costs us all things, then so be it.