Saturday, January 31, 2015

Comparing Lasagna and Tarantulas

Emily sat in my kitchen last week and watched me make ricotta cheese for lasagna.

"Wow," she said, "I sure wish I could do that."

"Well, first of all, it's ridiculously easy," I told her.  "But second, you wouldn't have been able to learn out in the village.  You are too busy living in a house without running water and killing tarantulas.  Besides, out there you don't even have access to fresh milk or to an oven to make lasagna.  You win the prize for living in Africa."

"Not compared to Michelle," she responded, referring to a new friend of ours.  "In Congo, she had to cook over charcoal, and she gave birth to her first child in Africa.  She wins the prize."

Emily has been my very good friend for 12 years, so this exchange was all light-hearted.  But it led to a deeper conversation.  Why do we always have this tendency to compare?  Why do we always judge our spirituality, or our effectiveness as a mom or wife or housekeeper, by looking around at others?  And why is a harder life necessarily equated with a more spiritual life?

In Africa, we expatriate wives compare each other's living conditions.  In America, maybe it's ministry commitments or school choices.  We make unnecessary martyrs of each other and ourselves, when really we need to just get about the business of obeying God with what He has put in front of us.

To choose to suffer means that there is something wrong; to choose God's will even if it means suffering is a very different thing.  No healthy saint ever chooses suffering; he chooses God's will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.  No saint dare interfere with the discipline of suffering in another saint.  (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest)

Can we simply come to the conclusion that God has called us to different lives, and that we are all gifted differently?  That each of us will have our own good things and hard things in the lives He has called us to?  My measure of success, and my measure of spirituality, is between God and me, not me and Every Other Woman.

Even though I'll always admire Emily's tarantula-killing skills.


Emily and her family stayed with us this week, which is always super special because our friendship goes back to our first year in Tanzania.  We adopted our kids at almost exactly the same time, and they are all best friends.

They also are starting an extremely cool new agriculture project, which you can check out here.

Grace and Caleb have been friends since we brought them home, so I had to throw in my most favorite picture of them, when they were two years old.  

Yesterday:  Caleb and Grace, age 9

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When God Doesn't Show Up

Our dog Frodo ran away while we were on vacation.  Our gardener, Paul, was looking after Frodo while we were gone.  He opened the gate only one time that week.  When he did, Frodo bolted.  This was very uncharacteristic for Frodo, so it totally took Paul by surprise.

Paul was devastated.  He looked awful when we came home.  He spent days looking for Frodo.  We put up fliers and offered a reward.  We prayed God would bring him back.  But now it's been a month, and there's no trace of him.

More bad news came our way.  We've been working for years to adopt a fourth child.  There's an empty place in our family.  We were thrilled when we found a Tanzanian friend familiar with the Social Welfare department who was willing to advocate for us.  Recently he gave us the unfortunate news that even he has not gotten anywhere.  They are steadfastly refusing, even though we've proven a fourth adoption is legal.  There is no one else we can appeal to.  It seems hopeless.  We are coming to grips with the fact that it may not happen.

There's other hard things.  The list is long, but some are at the front of my mind.  It's been exactly one year since Jeremiah died.  We have a sister with a hematoma.  We have close friends who at this moment are standing on a precipice, waiting for God to show up.  If He doesn't, the fall will be disastrous.  Too terrible to think about.

Why didn't God answer our prayers to bring back Frodo?
Why hasn't He given us a fourth child when there are millions of orphans in this country?
Why did he allow Jeremiah to die?

If we lived in a world of random chance, then these events would be understandable.  They wouldn't make sense; they would still make us sad and mad, but we could chalk it all up to the whims of the universe.

But I don't believe in a world of random chance; I believe in an all-powerful God who created everything that is, and I believe He is good and every event has purpose.  Yet when dogs run away and children languish in orphanages and babies fall out of windows, it's easy to wonder about whether that all-powerful, good God actually exists.  Or that He actually cares.

So how do I reconcile my faith in a good God with the horrors of this world?  When I pray and beg and all I get is silence?

All of us, every single person in this world, believe some things on fact and some on faith.  It's up to each of us to discern which parts are worth staking our lives upon.

For me, it starts with the facts:
First, I look around me and I see a Designer's watermark on DNA and leaf-cutter ants and glow-in-the-dark jellyfish.
Next, I look to Jesus, and I am convinced that his resurrection is one of the most verifiable facts of history.  And since it can be verified, then that means I can believe everything Jesus said, and it means I can trust the Bible.
Then, I look into the Bible and I see that it mirrors what really is going on in my soul.  I see that it gives a reliable portrait of history and an honest description of humanity.  It has the ring of Truth.

Finally, I check out the other options.  No other worldview comprehensively explains the simultaneous beauty and evil in this world.  No other worldview offers a solution to humanity's insatiable thirst for redemption.

When challenged as to whether he would leave Jesus, Peter said, Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  I get that.

Since I've got the facts cemented in my soul, then I can layer the faith on top.

I can trust that God is in control.
I can trust that He is good.
I can trust His promises:
....that I can't see everything He sees.
....that sometimes He's got a bigger plan than I can imagine.
....that He knows better than I do.
....that He will work everything out for good.

I can trust that even when it looks like God isn't showing up, that doesn't mean He hasn't.  It just might not fit my time frame or my expectations of what showing up is supposed to look like.

The longer I live my life, and the more I am challenged to live out that faith, the more I am shown that what I believe is True.  My faith (on a foundation of facts) actually transforms into more facts as experience confirms over and over again that what I believe is trustworthy.

And that's why, when faced with lost dogs, or adoptions that won't happen, or a dear friend who still mourns her Jeremiah, I can trust my God in the dark.  Where else would I go?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Our Struggle Is Not Against Flesh and Blood: The Plight of Tanzania's Albinos

(witchdoctor advertisement in Dar es Salaam)

In Tanzania, albinos are regularly kidnapped, murdered, and their body parts used in witchcraft rituals.

It sounds like the plot to a horror movie.  But it's real.

Albinism is rare worldwide, occurring about 1 in 20,000.  However, in Tanzania, for some unknown reason, it occurs much more often--1 in 1400 or maybe even more.  And as you can imagine, in Africa, a person who lacks any skin or hair pigmentation sticks out a whole lot more than in light-skinned countries.

Sticking out is only one of their hardships.  They also struggle with eye problems and a prevalence of skin cancer.  But most horrifying of all, somewhere along the way, some people got an idea from the pit of hell that albino body parts can make you rich or successful or irresistible.

And the West gasps in horror and comes in with its answers.
We need to tell those poor ignorant Africans that albinos are people too!

Except then you find out that albino body parts sell for hundreds of dollars, and corpses are worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Consider that the average income of Tanzanians is less than $1000 a year.  Consider that traditionally, albino murders go up during election years.  So who's paying for these atrocities?  Kind of flies in the face of the "poor ignorant African who just needs to be educated" theory.

In the West, we are all about rationality and science and education, aren't we?  And we think that's the answer to cure All The Problems In the World.  People just need to listen to logic, right?

Maybe instead what we need to do is educate ourselves about worldview in the majority world.  It's true that many Africans aren't educated.  But the reality is, many of them are, and they really don't care about the western version of rationality and science.

They know that animistic spirituality has power.  And they want it.  In America, we decorate with ghosts on Halloween and watch freaky supernatural movies and laugh because it's all just pretend.  After all, isn't that what science has taught us?  Or can we consider the possibility of what Africans have long known...that there actually is power in witchcraft?

A couple of weeks ago, a four-year-old albino girl was kidnapped from her home in the middle of the night.  Enough anger went up that the Tanzanian government decided to solve the problem by banning all witchdoctors.  A literal "witch hunt" will begin next week.

This law will probably have the success of U.S. Prohibition in the 20's.  Or of the New York City ban on soft drinks.  Has a law of a nation ever succeeded in changing the heart of man?

I once saw a video of an organization in Africa who is trying to help communities with the problem of jiggers (bugs that lay eggs in people's feet).  "People think jiggers come through witchcraft," the spokesperson said.  "But we are educating them."  Yeah.  Good luck with that.

Why do you think Ebola spread so fast?  Because west Africans believe that if they don't prepare dead bodies properly, their spirits will come back and haunt them.  You can "educate" about germs and clean hands until you are blue in the face, but it's hard to argue against ghosts. 

I mean, just think about it.  If somebody came to you and earnestly said, "Your seasonal allergies are caused by evil spirits," would you give them the time of day?  Of course not.  Because in the West, we believe everything is Always About Science.  Just as we won't be convinced by their animism, they won't be convinced by our science.

Because they know better.  They are not stupid.  It's not all their imagination.

Yeah, there's germs and genetics.  But Evil is real too.  It has power.
Have we forgotten?
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Education isn't what is going to protect the lives of albinos.  Nor is banning witchdoctors.  Instead, Africans need to be transformed by the One who has crushed Evil's head, and allow His Reality to change their Reality.  Because that's where the real power comes from, and with it, hope, courage, and love for others, which are all things witchdoctors can never offer.

And maybe, for us Westerners on the other end of the spectrum, who are always convinced that it's just about science and education, we need to open our eyes to the Reality that there's Something More out there than our eyes can see.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

5 Reflections From Being on the List Nobody Wants to Be On

Last year we were #49 and this year we are #33.

But this isn't the Top 40 chart. This isn't a list you want to move up.

Every year, Open Doors publishes a list of the top 50 countries in the world where Christians are persecuted.  It's not a list you want to be on.

And Tanzania is #33, out of 196 countries in the world.

North Korea is #1 and Nigeria is #10.  Surprisingly, countries like Algeria, Columbia, Kuwait, and Turkey are lower on the list than Tanzania.  African countries in general are moving up on the list.

As I reflect on living in a country on this list, here is what I've learned:

1.  Government religious freedom doesn't always mean community religious freedom.  We are in Tanzania on missionary visas.  Our ministry has a website.  We don't have to be careful about Christian terminology in emails.  Yet in the past couple of years in Tanzania, there have been reports of pastors being beheaded, churches bombed or burned, Christians murdered, and rioting.

2.  Westerners are ridiculously privileged, even when living abroad in countries on The List.  Of course, anyone, anywhere in the world, can find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and the target of a terrorist attack.  But the truth is, it's not the missionaries who are bearing the brunt of persecution, it's the nationals.  And though there are some exceptions (such as in North Korea), deportation is usually the worst that would happen to a missionary who is "found out" in one of these countries.  I stand in awe of my suffering brothers and sisters around the world.  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Not, "blessed are those with good jobs and health insurance."  Blessed are those who are persecuted.  What are we missing out on?

3.  I don't want to be associated with televangelists or abortion-doctor murderers, so therefore I'm not going to associate every Muslim with a terrorist.  I see the faces of my Muslim friends and their children who are attending school side-by-side with my children, and I feel their pain for what is being done in the name of Islam.

4. God is present, even in these dark places.  In Tanzania, the place where the most persecution is taking place is on the island of Zanzibar.  Ironically, it's my favorite place to visit in Tanzania, and one of the most beautiful places I've ever experienced.  Gil recently went to language school there, and captured it's stunning beauty.  In the center of the main city of Zanzibar is a church established by David Livingstone.  It was built on top of a former slave trade market, which Livingstone helped to abolish.  Redemption is there....waiting....until the gospel once again breaks forth.

5.  It's so easy to become complacent, even when living in a country where persecution is happening.  For a while, everyone was so concerned about Saeed Abedini, who is imprisoned in Iran.  Then, it was the Christians in Iraq.  Now it's the Nigerians.  It's like we give God a whole 10 days of fervent prayer for a situation, and when He doesn't answer within that time frame, we shrug our shoulders and life goes on.  When the media forgets, so do we.  Here I am, living in a country where persecution is actively happening, and yet even I forget to continue to pray.

If only we demonstrated in prayer the same perseverance that these brothers and sisters demonstrate in beatings, imprisonment, and torture.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Everyone Needs a Little Grace in Their Lives

It's shocking to come to the realization that your daughter has something important to teach you.

Friday afternoon, Grace was in the kitchen with me, making her birthday cake for her party on Saturday.  I was making dinner.

Lily pulled over a stool (as always).  "Not this time, Lily," I said.  "This is Grace's turn because it's for her birthday.  You can help next time."

"It's okay, Mommy," Grace said.  "I want her to help."  And she immediately set Lily to work.

A few minutes later, Josiah pulled up a stool.  Once again, she graciously included him.  Everybody had a job.  She was calm.  She was patient.  She was kind.

And I was humbled by my nine-year-old.  My kids love helping in the kitchen, but I get easily frazzled.  I usually can only handle one at a time.  Sometimes I can't handle even one.  Sometimes I don't have the patience.  Sometimes I have a hard time letting go of things I want done right.

Yet my daughter is an includer.  There is always room for one more, as far as she is concerned.  She is the best big sister I have ever seen.  She has never once shunned her siblings (who are not always so easy to get along with).  She is a peacemaker.  She is almost always cheerful.

Her friends came over for her party yesterday, and she made the cake, and she planned the games.  But my proudest moment came when all the girls were dancing, and two of the shyer ones sat on the side.  Grace ran over, grabbed their hands, and pulled them into the group.  I had tears in my eyes.  She always includes.

Of course, she too has areas in her life where she needs God's grace.  But her genuine love for people, and her patience and friendliness, is where she is the example for me.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Two Young Men, One Shirt

Every time I drive to town, I see them.  Young men, standing on the streets and sidewalks, walking amongst the cars stuck in traffic, peddling their wares.

They sell cell phone cords, blow-up toys, packs of gum, cashew nuts, handkerchiefs, fried termites, bags of apples.  A couple times we've even seen a guy with a full aquarium on his head--fish, water, and all.

On this particular day, I noticed one young man in particular.  He was selling boxes of tissues, but it was his shirt that stood out to me.  The light changed before I could get a picture, but when I came home, I did a search to see if I could find an image of that same shirt.

Lo and behold, you can find anything on Google.  This was his shirt:

I also discovered that there are a number of varieties of this particular slogan.

Oh, the irony.

This guy very likely has no idea what his shirt says.  If he was educated enough to know English, he wouldn't be selling boxes of tissues for a living.  

He will never own a car.  He will never go to high school, because only about 7% of Tanzanians get that privilege.  He probably makes the equivalent of a dollar or two in profit every day, after standing 12 hours in the equator sun, selling his boxes of tissues.

We'll never know what his "talents" really are, because he will have no opportunity to develop them.  He's never even dared to have a "vision," because he is locked in a worldview that tells him that Africans are poor and will always be poor.  

But one thing I know for sure:  He most certainly does "give a shit."  He most certainly does care about the status of his life.  Who on earth is satisfied with a life selling tissues on the side of the road? 

This young man bought this shirt, I'm sure, from a pile of T-shirts in an open air market.  These shirts were shipped over from America, cast-offs from U.S. thrift stores, and he probably paid about 25 cents for it.

So then I thought about the young man (assume with me for a moment) who purchased this shirt for $19.99 in America, and wore it with pride.  I'm sure he thought it was funny.  

Funny as he barely passed his classes at his (free) high school.
Funny as he decided to "find himself" before starting his (heavily subsidized) college education. 
Funny as he sat on his mother's couch, eating his mother's food, playing video games after he came home from his part-time job at age 25.
Funny as he spent his weekends and his wages on partying.

These two young men, on two opposite sides of the world, couldn't be more different.  
One who has every opportunity at his fingertips, and is squandering it.  
The other who would give his right arm for that opportunity, and will probably never get it.  

From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Please Get Me Out of This Tropical Paradise

This is what it looks like about two miles from my house.  I know, I know.  There are many people who are freezing their noses off and would give anything to be in a place like this right now.

I guess the grass is always greener, eh?  

Instead, we dream about places like this:

Mountains, fog, cool air, fire places, and no sweating!

Once a year, the week after Christmas, that's where we go.  It's our Christmas present to ourselves, since there's nothing we want to buy anyway.  

It's a seven hour drive into the mountains.  A thrill goes through us as we start climbing elevation and we roll down the windows and breathe that non-humid air.  We bust out our jeans and hoodies (for the only time all year).  We drink hot chocolate.  We revel in the joy of wearing socks.

The guys (and sometimes the rest of us) spend hours in board game marathons.  The kids spend hours playing outside on the boulders.  I glue my Kindle to myself.  There's long deep conversations with friends.  It's bliss.  

(Between these three guys, they brought 75 games with them.  Not kidding.)

On market day, Mark and Alyssa started an annual tradition with the kids.  Each kid gets 1000 shillings (about 75 cents) and is given the task of finding the most random item at the market.  Since the market is full of cast offs from U.S. thrift stores, it's always an adventure.

The winner was this baby shirt.  If you want to take the time to read it, you'll understand why it won.  Seriously?  Who puts "chew the fat" and "forest bath" on a baby shirt?

Lily came home with this particular item.  Why exactly it has so many holes is beyond us.  So we decided to stick two children in it.  

And we danced in the new year.

At midnight, we wished a happy birthday to this new nine-year-old.  

Per tradition, Daddy made Grace a treasure hunt for her birthday.