Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Missionaries are Supposed to Suffer....So Am I Allowed to Eat Lobster?

I'm going to let you in on one of missionaries' biggest secrets:  They are terrified to tell you about their vacations.

(Noooooo!!!  I can hear my missionary friends protesting.  Not that!  Write about anything but that!!!)  Sorry friends.  I've got this reputation of revealing to the world what missionaries aren't telling you.

Some of our good friends just went to the States on home assignment.  Their son had just graduated from high school and some of his best friends now live in Europe. Since their flights took them through Europe, they extended their time there to three weeks.  They had a wonderful time, but they made sure to write and explain to their supporters that they stayed with friends the entire time, and never paid for any hotels.  

Other missionary friends spent a few weeks in Europe the traditional way, in low-key hotels and touristy sight-seeing.  They had saved up for this trip during their entire marriage and they figured that doing it on their way home from Africa would make good financial sense.  I was excited for my friends and encouraged them to post lots of pictures on Facebook.  "I don't know," my friend told me.  "If we do post pictures, we'll have to only allow certain people to see them.  I'm afraid of what people will think."

Another missionary friend's mother paid for the two of them to take a Mediterranean cruise.  When she told me, she made sure I knew it was top-top secret.  I think only two or three other people ever knew about it--before or after.

This past weekend, we spent four nights at a beach house about two hours away.  The house is a bit rustic, with no hot water and only solar lighting, but it's beautiful, and perched on the most amazing beach I have ever experienced.  The owner of the house included a seafood dinner for free, with more lobster than we could ever stuff ourselves with.  Eat away, I told my kids.  You might never get it again in your childhood.  This is the kind of place where the beauty and serenity fills your soul and makes you a better person.

And it costs less than staying at a cheap motel in the States.

See?  I had to throw that in there.

I'll say it again:  Missionaries are terrified to tell you about their vacations.  (Pastors too, just in case you were wondering.)

After all, missionaries are supposed to suffer.  And how dare we raise support from people's sacrificial giving and then use it for a vacation?

The struggle is real, folks.  We are afraid of your criticism or disappointment.  And for good reason, since we've all heard stories of missionaries who lost support as soon as people found out about their vacation.

I understand that this is a tricky issue--because it's a heart issue.  I'm sure there are missionaries who make selfish or unhealthy financial decisions--just like lots of other Christians.  I am all about accountability, and godly priorities, and fighting against our instinct to make comfort or wealth an idol.  But if it's acceptable for other Christians to take vacations, if they are living generously, wisely, and with a heavenly mindset, then why can't missionaries do so as well?

After all, doesn't all of our money belong to God, no matter how we acquire it?

So go out and ask your favorite missionaries to tell you about their vacations.  Assure them that you won't judge.  Be happy for them, just like you would be for your other friends.  Because honestly?  I am excited to share these pictures.  This kind of beach is one of the major perks of living in Tanzania.  We had a wonderful time, and it's fun to share it with you.

This little sweetie just joined her new family a week previously.  What a joy to see her delirious delight in the ocean!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

You Can Lock Up a Few Evil People, but You Can't Lock Up Everyone

photo by Gil Medina

Sometimes I click on a link out of morbid curiosity.  9 Much-Needed Reminders That Humans are Inherently Good.  Seriously?  I thought.  I've got to read this.

The article assures us that even though terrible things are happening in the world, we can take heart because humans are wired for empathy, kindness, unselfishness, romance, and hugs.  And dogs like us, so we must be pretty amazing.

Well, that's reassuring.

I sigh and think, Only in America.  I guarantee that if you ask anyone in Rwanda, Cambodia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, or South Sudan if humans are inherently good, they'll laugh in your face.  Except maybe not because they are too busy crying, running for their lives, or languishing in prison.

I know it feels good to believe in the goodness of humanity.  And of course, humans are capable of incredible acts of self-sacrifice, courage, and kindness, and it is exemplary to aspire to those ideals.  We were made in the image of God, and vestiges of Eden--of who we were meant to be--are still evident in our friendships, our parenting, our service.

But the belief that mankind is inherently good?  Really?  How many acts of terrorism, genocide, child slavery, albino murders, or rape does our world need to experience before we abandon that belief?

The problem is that we keep thinking that everything would be okay if we could just stop the bad people.  We conveniently forget that we are bad people too.  

Germans stood by passively while the ashes of six million Jews floated over their heads.  Rwandans picked up machetes and hacked to death the neighbors they had lived by for generations.  Freed American slaves used their freedom to colonize Liberia and oppress the indigenous people.

That's them, we think.  Not me.  I would never do that.  Sure, it's easy to believe I am a decent person when my stomach is full, the electricity is working, and my children are healthy.  But all I have to do is look at myself when I've lost a night of sleep or have a bad headache, and that beast inside me rises from its slumber and turns me into a person I don't want to be.  I wonder sometimes, what would that beast look like if I lived under the shadow of violence, if I couldn't feed my children, if terror had scraped away my desire for self-sacrifice?  Or what if a powerful but evil leader promised to make all my problems go away?  What would I be capable of?

I do believe that it is healing and inspiring to look for the good and the beautiful in people and in this world.  It's there.  But believing that somehow the goodness of humanity will one day rise up and save us all?  Just not going to happen.  You can lock up a few evil people, but you can't lock up everyone.  

We are presented with three options:  suicide, hope in humanity, or hope in God.  Everyone has that choice, and everyone chooses.  There are no other options.

photo by Gil Medina

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Back-to-School Shopping, Tanzania Style

First of all, let me assure you that Dar es Salaam does have some modern, sorta-kinda-like-Target department stores.  But we try to avoid shopping there whenever possible, partly because they are way expensive and partly because how you spend can be just as important as how you give. 

The boys needed shoes and Lily needed a backpack.  So we headed to the local market instead, which sets up on Fridays and is one of our favorite places to shop.    

Josiah always makes a beeline for the soccer jerseys.  

Contrary to popular belief, African countries do have shoes.  These are imported from China.

These are handmade from recycled tires.

And these are good quality used shoes from American and British thrift stores.  Trust me, Africa has plenty of shoes.   

African countries actually have plenty of, um, other necessities.  "Donate your bra to Africa" might be an actual thing (Google it), but please....don't actually send it.  They've already got plenty.

Thankfully, we were not shopping for bras this time, but backpacks.  

Personally, this is my favorite part of the market.  Tanzanian avocados put Californian avocados to shame.  No offense.

And we had success!  Josiah and Johnny got super cool basketball shoes, Lily got her backpack, and Grace some new clothes and soccer cleats (which she negotiated for by herself!).

Monday, July 11, 2016

Anarchy is Loosed Upon the World

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats, 1919

We watch the news with horror.  We can't keep up with the tragedy.  It's too much, too much.  Too much pain; too much devastation.

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

We can't change our profile pictures fast enough before the next tragedy occurs.  Nazarite?  Paris?  Orlando?  Baghdad?  Istanbul?  Gorilla?  Black lives matter?  or is it Blue lives?  There are two many things to care about; too many things that tear at our hearts and give us whiplash from trying so hard to keep up.  Sometimes it's easier to just pull the covers over our heads.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed.

And all of those things don't even scratch the surface of the problems within the four walls of our own personal universe--a child's bad choices, money that won't stretch, conflicts between two that share the same space, that strange lump, that broken washing machine--or those problems within the confines of our own minds--that secret sin, that devastating fear, that sense of failure that hangs on like a bad cough.

It's hard enough facing the problems in our own small spaces; it seems too much to face the problems out there.  Especially when the problems out there start creeping into our own space like termites that eat through the walls.

Yet, there is nothing new under the sun.  Yeats' poem was written after World War I--before Hitler murdered six million, before the atomic bombs, before Stalin starved seven million, before Pol Pot slaughtered two million, before Rwandans axed one million of their neighbors, before, before, before.

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.  And yet after, it only got worse.

There is nothing new under the sun.  But for two centuries, some Americans--some--were given the gift of a life that was different than the trajectory of history.  A life that really was peaceful and prosperous and free.  The Great American experiment worked for a lot of people, for a long time.  But for those of us who grew up in that American Dream, who rode our bikes with abandon down our streets, where violence, racism, and poverty were "out there" for other people--not for us--that Dream seemed as permanent as the sturdy oak trees in our front yards.  There was no reason to question whether it would last.

What we didn't realize, growing up in that Dream World, is how unique our experience was--in the world, in history, even in much of America.  Our history classes focused on "western civilization"...which seemed to find its pinnacle in the life we were living right now.  We had reached the top, and there was no reason to believe that we would fall from it.

Or so we thought.

Really though, has the world actually gotten worse?  Or just our world?  
I don't think the world is getting worse.  I just think my American Dream generation is coming to grips with the reality of life.  That blip on the screen that was the American Dream was really just an illusion, for a time covering up the deeper, sinister parts of human our society, and in ourselves.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

And here we are now.  Facing terribly disturbing leadership in our own country, facing deep fissures in our unity that will no longer allow to be plastered over, facing the loss of our religious freedom, facing dire financial collapse, facing outside threats to our safety like circling hyenas.

Facing what the rest of the world has always faced.  We can watch a lot of sitcoms; we can go on happy vacations; we can eat lots of good food; we can enjoy the best of America, but we can no longer tell ourselves that everything will be okay.

How do we then live?

We swallow the red pill and see the Matrix for what it really is.  We go backstage at Disneyland and see where they dump the trash.  Many, of course, have lived there all along.  We acknowledge how living only in our Dream World has hurt them; how we have failed to listen to their pleas.  We repent of our trust in that world to bring us happiness.  

There is still a way to find joy, of course.  We need not live our lives under a storm cloud.  Babies are born and marriages are celebrated even in times of war.  Sunsets fill our souls and the stars give us strength.  Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion is the best line in "Steel Magnolias."  Brokenhearted joy is what John Piper calls it.  We bravely face the wretchedness in ourselves and in our society--even while we watch it crumble--but we remember that we hold the true source of Hope.  

The Christian life was meant to be lived in the widening gyre.  It's what we were created for.  It's what we are called to do.  It's what Jesus meant when he said to pick up our cross and follow him, why he told us that his peace is not the same as what the world gives, why he said that the most important thing is to abide in him.  It's why he told us that we would have trouble in this world, but to take heart because he has overcome it.

Things fall apart, but we do hear the falconer.  As we are faced with this new reality, which really is just peeling back the veil and seeing reality as it has always been, let us remember that we do hear the falconer.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Poverty Over the Fence

A few years ago, we took the entire HOPAC secondary school to see an exclusive premier of "The Hunger Games."  Of course, since we had to make it educational, we required them to participate in discussion groups afterwards.

Our students were shocked--shocked, I tell you--when we told them that they were the Capitol.  Of course, they wanted to identify with Katniss and District 12.  Everyone wants to be the underdog; who would ever want to be the Capitol?  Until we reminded them that they were attending one of the top five schools in Tanzania, that their families have vast wealth (even the missionary kids) in comparison to the rest of the world, and they were absolutely obsessed with entertainment.

Like it or not, we are the Capitol.

When I read The Hunger Games series, I was simultaneously reading Martin Meredith's The Fate of Africa.  I remember being struck by the irony of the descriptions of South Africa during apartheid, and how similar it sounded to Panem.  Not only were black Africans oppressed and deprived in every way, they were forcibly confined to very specific areas and unable to travel, thus making it much harder for them to unite against the ruling minority white population.

Photographer Johnny Miller recently released a stunning series of aerial photographs of South Africa, dramatically showing the income disparity that is blatantly apparent, even decades after apartheid ended.

The following pictures all came from here and can also be found here.

I have a number of South African friends, and one told me that while growing up during apartheid, they never even saw the shanty towns.  The white population was so carefully shielded from them that they didn't even realize they existed, making it easy to live their lives in guilt-free bliss.  Yet for some of them, all they needed to do was peek over the hedge or cross the road.  But it was easier to just not know.

Most of my readers live lifestyles like those on the left sides of these pictures.  Would anything in your perspective or way of life change if you knew that just over your back fence, there were thousands of people living in one-room shacks, with no electricity or running water?

It's easy to see these pictures and be angry at what happened in South Africa.  And indeed, everything about apartheid should be condemned.  The poverty of those on the right was and in many ways, still is, racially motivated and intentional.

But the truth is, are we really that different?  If you think you would live your life differently knowing there were oppressed, impoverished people right next door to you, then why does it matter that they are a continent away?  They still exist.  They still are there.  Even if you don't see them, they still exist.  Or is it just easier to forget about them when all you can see for miles is neatly manicured suburbs?

We may root for Katniss, but we are the Capitol.

Some of you who have been reading this blog for a while might get sick of me constantly bringing this up.  But I can't help it, because I am surrounded by poverty.  I see it, literally, everywhere I look.  Over my fence.  As I leave my driveway.  As I go almost everywhere.  Dar es Salaam is different from South Africa in that there has been very little city planning.  Nice houses are intertwined with slums, almost anywhere you look.  There is no forgetting.

I must admit that many times, I want to forget.  It's too hard.  I want to pretend it's not there; I want to live in a blissful dream-world where everyone has indoor plumbing and enough to eat.  But it hits me smack in the face every day, and I must deal with it.  I must think hard.  Pray hard.  Look for ways to understand.  Look for ways to give generously.  More importantly, look for ways to create opportunity.

I must, because I can't ignore it.  But really, none of us should.

To whom much has been given, much will be required.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

This July 4th, I'm Thankful For My Blue Passport

We have some good friends here who are citizens of Zimbabwe, a country to the south of Tanzania.  Our friends are of European decent, whose ancestors colonized Zimbabwe generations ago.

I am also of European decent, and my ancestors colonized north America generations ago.  However, my colonizing ancestors brought with them European diseases that wiped out 90% of the native American population, whereas the colonizing ancestors of my Zimbabwean friends were held in check by African diseases.  Which meant that even though their ancestors established a government in a foreign land (just like in North America), they never became the majority population.  (Okay, so I know it's not actually that simple and is certainly quite ugly, but the comparison is interesting.)

Our Zimbabwean friends, like us from America, bear no responsibility for their ancestors' choices, and yet reap the consequences, whether good or bad.  Unfortunately, Zimbabwe has now been ruled by a tyrant for almost 4 decades, and the country that used to be called "the breadbasket of Africa" has had a complete economic collapse.  So our friends, descended from ancestors much like our own, are left with citizenship from a country that they dearly love, but has nothing left to offer them.  Their children have no hope of attending university or finding jobs in their own country.   They are, in many ways, exiles.  How differently their story of colonialism has ended.

We celebrated the 4th of July yesterday at a friend's house who threw a big bash and invited people of any nationality.  It felt normal, though, to celebrate America's independence with non-Americans, since that's what America has always been about.  And even though the United States still has deep-seated problems with racism and immigration, it has still been the most open country in the world to outsiders.   Every year, even though only several students in HOPAC's graduating class are American, the majority of our students attend university in the States.  America consistently seeks after international students and offers them the best scholarships--hands down.  I've sat in the U.S. embassy in Tanzania and listened to visa interviews.  Everyone wants to go to America.  And a lot of the time, America says yes.

Living here has helped me to have a greater appreciation of my blue American passport.  Unlike many countries in the world, I was able to acquire a passport with no trouble at all.  Unlike other countries, my country allows me to freely come and go.  By giving my children that blue passport, my girls will be given the opportunity to go to college (unlike many in Pakistan or Afghanistan); my sons will not be automatically conscripted into the military (unlike Israel, South Korea, or dozens of others).

It was a fabulous party, but I felt sad yesterday, did you?  These days, it's hard to know what's in store for our country.  Could we be heading in the same direction as Zimbabwe?  Living overseas has often increased my frustration with America, but also my appreciation.  It's never been perfect, but we sure have a whole lot more than most of the world--in opportunity, freedom, and possessions.  I am apprehensive for America's future.  But for now, I'm still thankful for that blue passport.

A kid with a kid.  

Gil with one of the pastors in our program.

Bet you didn't drink out of coconuts at your 4th of July celebration.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Missionaries are supposed to suffer....So am I allowed to buy an air conditioner?

It was a very exciting email.  The editor of A Life Overseas had contacted me, asking me to be a monthly contributor to their missions website.  I had previously had two guest posts published on this site, but I didn't see myself as an equal to the other writers, many of whom have published books.  So it was indeed an honor to be asked.  And now my name is there--listed with all those other wonderful missions writers.

So, of course, I'll be sharing my "A Life Overseas" posts with you, my favorite readers, since it is your encouragement that keeps me writing.  The posts for this site are aimed at overseas Christian workers, but there's often a lot there for anyone.  So....[drum roll]....Presenting my first official post as a monthly contributor to "A Life Overseas!"

Missionaries are supposed to suffer....So am I allowed to buy an air conditioner?  

"When you’re standing there on the center of that church stage, surrounded by hundreds of people praying for you, plane tickets in hand, earthly possessions packed into bags exactly 49.9 pounds each, you feel ready to suffer.  Yes!  I am ready to abandon it all!

And then you arrive in your long-awaited country and you realize that in order to host the youth group, you’re going to need a big living room.  And in order to get the translation work done, you need electricity, which means you need a generator.  And in order to learn the language, you’ll need to hire someone to wash your dishes and help with childcare.
Suddenly, you find yourself living in a bigger house than you lived in your home country, but you are ashamed to put pictures of it on Facebook.  You don’t want to admit to your supporters that you spent $1000 on a generator, and heaven forbid people find out that you aren’t doing your own ironing.
Apparently, if you suffer more, you are a better missionary.  Or more godly.  Probably both."
Click here to read the whole article.