Saturday, March 31, 2018

A man who claims to be God rises from the dead.

A man who claims to be God rises from the dead. To our enlightened, scientific, modern minds, it sounds preposterous. But the existence of the universe itself is also preposterous, so somewhere along the way, we have to think outside of what science tells us should happen.

There are times, of course, that I doubt. Having faith does not presuppose the absence of doubt. Was that really an answered prayer or just a coincidence? Are my beliefs just a product of my upbringing? Do I continue to believe simply because I am afraid of the social consequences of unbelief?

Those questions once terrified me, but I have learned to face them head on without fear. God doesn't need defending, and though the water might be murky when it's stirred up, Truth always rises to the surface.

I am just one person out of seven billion on this tiny planet, and each of us brings a different perspective to the table. How can we possibly ever find Truth? There will always be another side to every story. We will never collectively agree. We grasp onto the ideas of One, whether that be Buddha or Gandhi or Oprah, but how can we be sure that their ideas are actually more enlightened than our own? Our personal self is the most real thing to us, which explains why so many end up constructing their own private religions.

So is finding Truth even possible?

Some say no, but no one actually lives that way. It's easy to say Truth doesn't exist until some great evil is committed against you, and then you know, to the core of your being, that somehow there are Great Standards in the universe, and they've been violated.

If Truth does exist, then it has to be outside of ourselves. It can't come from any man, because no man can ever see outside his own perspective. It has to be a supernatural revelation. Anything else is going to be our own construct, or somebody else's. There are just no other options.

There are plenty of so-called supernatural revelations out there, so it comes down to which one to trust. For me, the self-proclaimed deity of Jesus, combined with the historical reliability of his death and resurrection, is why I've thrown my lot in with the Bible. Everything hinges on those events of two thousand years ago. Everything.

Not every question is answered, of course. Can any worldview answer every question? There still is a level where, despite our innate understanding that we are more than just mortal beings, we will never be able to grasp everything. That's where faith comes in.

Some also may argue that we don't know exactly what the Bible does say. I will grant that, on some things. But if we agree that the Bible is a supernatural revelation, if we decide to base our lives on it, then we at least will be heading in the right direction. We may get the interpretation wrong, but the Bible itself is never wrong. There has to be an objective standard.

If we don't like that, then what other options do we have? We can either pick another revelation, or we can rely on our own limited perspective. There are no other options.

A man who claims to be God rises from the dead. It starts as dry philosophical objectivity, but it doesn't end there. Because of the Resurrection, love, hope, forgiveness, grace, purpose and beauty burst forth into the world. They became historical realities, not just feel-good concepts.

And thus, Jesus is worthy of our worship. Which is why I celebrate today.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

How Do I Decide What to Write About?

A reader from Canada asked me to blog about these questions: How do you decide what to write about? How do you know what's okay to say and what is revealing too much? How do you dance between open communication and respecting your co-worker's need for privacy? How do you stay connected with home churches without your children feeling like celebrities?

Great questions. Here are my answers:

How do you decide what to write about?

Sometimes ideas present themselves on their own. I wrote Never Trust a Dead Chicken and The Great Battle of 2016 for Dar es Salaam the same day those things happened. I've written lots of posts after conversations with my friend Alyssa, because she always makes me think. There's been many times when I worry I am going to run out of ideas, but then I never do. These days, though, I do run out of time.

I process my thoughts through writing. I discover new thoughts by writing. I see this blog as a journal of my life, so I want to represent all the pieces. That can be tricky, though, which leads me to the next question....

How do you know what's okay to say and what is revealing too much?

Whew. I wish there was a rule about this one. I don't exactly know. If I'm writing about something sensitive, I usually pass it by Gil, and sometimes my parents or another friend before I post it. There's been several times when Gil has asked me to completely re-write a post because I've said too much or been too harsh, and I really appreciate that. 

I think ultimately my guide is the gospel. If what I say is going to bring more glory to Jesus, then I don't mind people seeing into my soul. 

How do you dance between open communication and respecting your co-worker's need for privacy?

I've become a lot more careful about this the longer I have been writing, but I probably still don't always get it right. I recognize that I am okay with being a whole lot more public about my life than many others are, and I want to respect that. 

I try to be completely anonymous about the people I am writing about, and if not, I ask them ahead of time. For example, when I wrote When Her House Was Scheduled for DemolitionWhen Plan B is God's Best and When the American Church Fails Its Missionaries, I wrote with the explicit permission of the people I was writing about. In fact, I sent them an early draft and asked them to edit it (which they did). I also asked Nikky for permission to write her story.

These days, I'm also trying to be a lot more careful about what pictures I post, especially of other people's children. Since I am now a principal, I'm a lot more concerned about how I represent my students. This is hard, because I think HOPAC kids are the cutest in the world and I would love for you to see them! (In fact, if you are a HOPAC parent and don't mind if I post pictures of your kids, please let me know.)

This is why these days, you'll see mostly group shots or lots of pictures of the backs of kids' heads.

How do you stay connected with the home churches without your children feeling like celebrities?

This is pretty much impossible, even if I didn't blog. I don't know if there's any way around MK's not feeling like celebrities in their home churches.

What's harder for me is the desire to show that we are not a perfect family, yet remember that my kids' don't need their struggles out there for the world to see. I've felt this a lot more as they've gotten older. So if my pictures and stories about them make it seem like we are a perfect family, well, that's certainly not true. I want you to see my imperfections, but for now, I will usually avoid telling you about theirs. (Though sometimes I make exceptions.)

I am always open to new ideas! If you have something you would like me to write about, don't hesitate to let me know.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Let Me Introduce You to My Staff

Book Character Day at Haven of Peace Academy. I can't think of a better way to introduce you to the extraordinary people I get to work with every day.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Sometimes the Starfish Story Doesn't Work

We all know the story, right?

Call me skeptical, but I wonder, why didn't the young woman run and go get her friends? Why didn't she call some sort of wildlife society to help her? Was she really the only person who cared about starfish? And what if, inadvertently, her starfish-saving effort was actually killing them as they fell upon the rocks?

Yeah, I know. That's not what the story is about.

The heart behind the story is that we can't help everyone, but we can help some. That is inspiring. And we should be inspired--because no one can change the world, but we can all make a difference.

But....what if the starfish-saving girl had wonderful intentions, but she actually could have made a bigger difference if she had a better strategy?

I created a lot of controversy with my last post about Christmas shoeboxes. One of the things I heard several times was, Sure, the boxes might not be effective for every child, but it doesn't matter as long as they make a difference in the lives of some.

I love the creativity of Christians in South Korea, who send tracts, flash drives, and Bible literature into North Korea attached to balloons with hope that they will bring the gospel to some. And that's awesome--because there aren't many other options for sending hope into that desperate country.

But what if, one day, the walls around North Korea come down? The country finally opens up to anyone who wants to enter. Would it still make sense to send in balloons? Of course not. Because there would be far more effective and strategic ways to get the gospel to North Koreans.

Think of it this way: What if an American church decided to try the same idea? They think, Hey, everyone knows someone who became a follower of Jesus by reading a tract. So the church spends thousands of dollars to purchase millions of tracts, charter a plane, and dump them over major cities in America.

It would create a huge mess. It would make a whole lot of people really irritated with Christians and probably turn them off to ever wanting to hear the gospel. But as long as some people get saved, should we dismiss the nay-sayers? Or....should we ask if this is an effective strategy to share the gospel with Americans? Would it be the best use of that money?

And this is where OCC shoeboxes come in. Because yes, of course, I am quite certain that there are some whose lives are forever changed because they received a shoebox. God can use whatever means he chooses to bring people to himself, and I have no doubt that has included shoeboxes.

But we are God's stewards. Shouldn't we be looking for the most effective, most strategic use of the money, time, and opportunities he has given us?

Should we be satisfied with just reaching some when actually we could use our resources more strategically to reach many?

If you were able to read any of the comment threads on my post or on Facebook, you will have seen dozens of eyewitness stories of OCC boxes. True, a few of them are positive. This is the best one: "We did use the 'Greater Story' books in Romanian as a discipleship tool over 3 months in almost 30 very poor households, and most stayed with it."

However, the majority of stories are entirely different. Here's a sampling:

"The Christmas boxes came to the Central African Republic a few years ago. The people who wanted to receive the boxes had to pay the equivalent of $2 to receive a box. Rumors were widely spread that some boxes contained tickets to the US and/or the names of people in the US who wanted to adopt children....Nearly all the things in the boxes could have been bought locally."

"We are in West Africa and we have not heard one positive story about OCC from here. My heart sinks when I see the boxes arrive in our area. Just this week I had to explain what play dough was and 'no you can't eat it'. Then a deodorant stick 'no it's not medicine for dry skin'. Then roasted salted sunflower seeds 'no you can't plant them.'"

"As a missionary in Zambia, I saw the boxes come in April and kids physically fighting over the items. Kids came out of nowhere to clamor for and/or steal the items to sell on the streets. It was hard for me to see the kids I had been working with receive these packages and have other street kids come and harm them for the items."

"You can buy them off the street corners in East Africa."

"I have had contact with a co-worker who related that the men who unloaded the truck that came to their region were 'paid' in boxes. I found that horribly disheartening."

"I am a missionary in Panama and I see this all the time not just with OCC but any kind of 'gift' giving. We have tried to come into some villages and once they see we are not coming to bring them something the dynamics change and they just wait for the next missionary to come."

"I did see someone handing out boxes from a truck once and it was sheer mayhem. I will quote a local girl: 'Why do North Americans think a toothbrush, a pencil or a toy will make us happy. They pat me on the head and it's sad. I would love to have a conversation with them, laugh about life, cry about how hard life is. Pray together. But a little toy?? It's cheap and easy.'"

"Zambia here - the amount of corruption surrounding OCC here is appalling. As our local pastors have said, 'The national team has built an empire off of this 'ministry' ... but I guess we don't have to deal with it this year since they blacklisted our entire province for whistle blowing."

"In Tanzania we saw shipping containers full of these shoe boxes; they were completely unpractical for the tribe they had been sent to. A huge waste of time and money. In Namibia you can buy a shoebox at the mall over Christmas."

"This, in Ghana: One of our pastor friends spent half of his monthly salary to 'buy' boxes for his ministry. He divides and organizes the items in all the boxes and hands the items out to his church children (or whoever he wants--our children enjoyed some Starbursts from those boxes) throughout the year. Women from town "buy" the boxes to resell the items at market. To my knowledge, the Bible lessons are not utilized. Whoever can buy gets the boxes."

"Where I am in Uganda, the boxes are delivered between March and May. One of the staff workers at the Bible college I was helping at offered me Nerds and a stuffed bear, both from a shoebox she had purchased from her church (she is 'well-to-do'). My understanding from her was that her church in town had received the boxes in May and were charging everyone a small fee. Members of the church would then purchase the boxes and give the gifts to their children."

"The money paid by the families was supposedly for the extra distance for the boxes to be trucked to the south of Madagascar. Those who had received the boxes were then approached by other people outside the church who wanted to buy them and sell the items at the markets. Friends in a nearby village asked me to explain what some of the items were. Didn’t know what lip gloss was. The plastic toys were found half buried and broken in the sand around their huts. Toothbrushes and toothpaste are seldom used and not replaced when those received in the shoeboxes had run out."

"I know I've seen and heard of the negative impact in 3 of the places I've lived, and I haven't yet seen good fruit."

"Our church received shoeboxes several times, and as pastors, my husband and I didn't get any of the discipleship material that is mentioned."

"In the country we serve in (Niger, west Africa) our local churches usually receive the shoeboxes in April. Often close to Easter. As far as I know (and we have served there since 2008) we have never seen any gospel literature or discipleship programmes."


Friends, I'm not saying that Samaritan's Purse is evil or that OCC is never a good option. This isn't just about OCC shoeboxes. I'm using OCC as an example because it's one of the most popular charities in developed countries. But really, all of these thoughts could be applied to any charity or gift-giving effort--even in America.

There is a bigger picture here, and there are more important questions we must ask.

If a ministry is helping some, but in the process causing damage to a lot more, shouldn't we be paying attention?

Is the ministry taking into account cultural and worldview differences, or is it a 'once-size-fits-all' approach?

Is the ministry looking towards development--helping people make their own lives better--or just a temporary band-aid? Is it meeting an actual need or an assumed need? 


One person asked me what kind of things people should send to Tanzania as alternatives to shoeboxes. My response was Nothing

Please don't send stuff to Tanzania. Tanzania has a huge amount of untapped natural resources. Tanzania doesn't need stuff. If you want to invest financially in Tanzania, invest in training. Job training, pastoral training, agricultural training, or children's education

This is a matter of stewardship. Those of us from America or other developed countries are the richest people in the world--in finances, education, and opportunity. We absolutely are called to be generous. But we also must be wise in how we use the resources God has given us.

Find your few starfish to invest in, because everyone can make a difference in the lives of a few. They will probably not be people across the world, but right in your own community. Then, together, let's be strategic about the best ways to help all of them.

Grace, a couple of years ago. Don't worry, she put them back.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Opening Up Christmas Shoeboxes: What Do They Look Like On the Other Side?

I love the hearts of Americans when it comes to generosity at Christmas. I love that there are hundreds of thousands of people who take the time, the money, and the care to pick out special gifts for millions of needy children around the world. Operation Christmas Child (OCC) shoeboxes really encapsulate the kindness of Americans at Christmas. And for Christians, Hope. Because many people who fill shoeboxes every November are praying and hoping that the child who receives their box will also receive the gospel.

And that's awesome.

I also recognize how important this ministry is to many American churches and families. It's a great tradition to do with your kids. It's fun. And the stories that Samaritan's Purse produces are compelling. The OCC boxes are a great way for the ministry to raise money (and Samaritan's Purse has some really great projects, including the new hospital at my beloved ELWA in Liberia).

I, too, loved the shoebox idea.

My first up-close-and-personal experience with Christmas shoeboxes came in 2005, just a couple years after we had moved to Tanzania. Gil and I had recently jumped in headfirst with doing youth ministry at Haven of Peace Academy. We decided that it would be good for our teens to visit an orphanage in December and bring Christmas shoeboxes for the kids.

So on one Saturday morning, all of our teens overloaded our kitchen table with bucketloads of soap, candy, pencils and other trinkets, and we filled over 100 containers with these gifts. Then we loaded up into vans and took off for the orphanage. Everyone was excited. We couldn't wait to see the joy on the kids' faces.

Shortly after arriving, the orphanage manager gave all of us a tour of the orphanage. Right away, I started to realize that maybe our shoebox idea wasn't so great after all. The kids at the orphanage had no personal possessions. They all shared clothes. They shared beds. I realized they wouldn't even have a place to keep the gifts we were giving them.

We played a bunch of games with the kids, and gave everyone cookies and punch. The boys played soccer and the girls painted nails, and there were lots of big smiles all around. Before we left, we sat all the kids down on mats and handed out the boxes. But the kids showed no excitement--no response at all. In fact, they didn't even open the boxes until we did it for them. Then they just stared blandly at the gifts.

We didn't take many pictures because there wasn't any excitement.
One of the missionary moms who had helped chaperone this event pulled me aside. "We've done a lot of work at orphanages," she told me. "The reason these kids aren't excited is probably because they've never owned anything. Once we leave, this stuff will most likely be collected up by the managers. Some of it might be used by the kids, but most of it will probably be sold by the adults."

She was right. We should have just stuck with the games and the snacks and not wasted our money on gifts. It was a hard, good lesson. 

You could write that off as just one bad experience. We didn't do it again, but at the time, I didn't want to cast judgment on the OCC concept as a whole.


As the years went on, I started to become more uneasy about OCC. I would see my American friends posting pictures on Facebook of the boxes they had so carefully and generously filled. On one hand, I was really proud of them for how they were showing love to the world's children. But on the other hand, I started to think about the people in poverty I know personally. 

I started thinking, I really hope the shoeboxes don't get sent here.

I thought about how Christmas is celebrated in churches in Tanzania. Christmas is a day of joy, and everyone gets together for special food. But children receive new clothes on Christmas--not toys. Children aren't sad that they didn't get any toys, because they don't expect them.

So I started to wonder: Do we want children to expect toys at Christmas? Has that tradition produced good fruit within our own culture? Is that a Christmas tradition that Americans want to export to the rest of the world?

I also started to wonder about how OCC boxes affect the local economy of the communities where they are sent. As you may have noticed from my story, we were able to fill 100 boxes with goodies that we purchased locally. Which makes me ask the question: If OCC boxes are really changing lives, is there really a need to ship these trinkets around the world? Couldn't they be purchased and assembled locally and support local economies? Wouldn't that be a better way to help those in poverty?

But the most important question I've had to ask myself is this:

What happens when the life-transforming gospel of Jesus Christ is associated with dollar-store trinkets from America?

Every year, Samaritan's Purse puts out promotional videos and articles that share the impact of OCC distribution to churches and ministries around the world. This last Christmas, one of those videos got personal for us.

At the end of November, Samaritan's Purse posted a video about a church planter in Tanzania who uses the shoeboxes to help him plant churches. The corresponding article is titled, "Operation Christmas Child Gifts Help Build the Church in Tanzania." (I encourage you to watch/read it before you read on.)

We don't know the man featured in this video and article. But we do know lots of Tanzanian church planters. So an (American) co-worker on our missionary team sent the link to a Tanzanian friend who is the leader of a growing, vibrant church planting movement all throughout Tanzania. Our co-worker asked him to watch the video and give his thoughts on it.

Here's how this courageous Tanzanian church planter responded. This man is biblical, influential, and is highly respected by everyone who knows him. These are his exact words. 

"1) First, we don't see in the Bible this model of 'gift giving' being used for disciple-making and planting churches.

2) The question I am asking myself is, 'If the shoeboxes gift are removed will there still be church planting?' I DOUBT IT! Then, this is not a church planting model.

3) I am also questioning about its reproducibility. Will the said 'members' of that church in Kitomondo do the church plant without the shoebox gifts? In my experience and stories I have heard, this model of mission outreach and church planting has never been effective, sustainable or reproducible. It has also produced a wrong view towards the Gospel, and causes other church planters who go to villages without gifts to be rejected or ridiculed.

4) This 'attraction' method of bringing people to the church has always given birth to 'church members' and not 'true disciples' of Jesus Christ.

5) I feel lots of damage is associated with this gift giving approach to missions, for it creates attachment to wrong things. Pastor Marco [from the video] says, 'I just need shoeboxes.' To me this is seriously dangerous. I deeply feel that WE NEED THE HOLY SPIRIT and only Him. While gifts may give us access to difficult places, they should not be the substitutes of the Holy Spirit. The gospel still needs to be presented in the power of the Holy Spirit. If it necessitates gifts to be given, they should be locally found and reproduced and not imported from America.  

6) Our experience in reaching unreached peoples has taught us a lot on gift giving. In some places, we haven't been well-received because the missionaries who went there before us presented gifts....and we have no gifts. When those missionaries left, their 'converts' also returned back to their old faith and were waiting for the next gift presenters. 

My advice always to Western missionaries is not to come to Africa with their strategies, not even strategies they saw working elsewhere. They have to come empty-handed, with the Holy Spirit, live among the unreached peoples, learn from them, asking the Holy Spirit what he wants done in these places. Western missionaries working cross-culturally need to stop and learn first. Otherwise, they are making it hard for us (who cannot have the shoeboxes) to do mission work."


This church planter's words hit me hard, and they are the main reason why I decided to write about this subject. It's one thing for American missionaries to question the strategy of OCC shoeboxes, because we don't always know what we are talking about. It's a totally different story when a Tanzanian church planter asks Americans to reconsider the ways we are trying to help their ministries. I need to pay attention. All of us do.

Most likely there are some places in the world--perhaps areas that are already more westernized or developed--where OCC boxes might help more than hurt. But truthfully, don't all of us--even those who minister in America--have something to learn from this Tanzanian church planter's words?  

Other overseas workers have written about similar concerns, including some that are up close and personal. I recently started a discussion about OCC (which turned quite lively!) on the Facebook page for A Life Overseas. Unfortunately, there were very few readers (who live internationally) who could point to any specific benefits they had seen from OCC. 

Friends, remember that I am sharing this as one who had to learn this (and many other things) the hard way. Gil and I have made a lot of mistakes in this country that has so graciously put up with us. We are forever learning. I hope you'll be willing to learn with us.

There's lots of time to mull this over before next Christmas. And if you are wondering about alternatives, click herehere, or here. If you want to help your own kids become poverty fighters, click here for some ideas. Please, don't stop caring about spreading the gospel to the world's children.

*Follow up post here: Sometimes the Starfish Story Doesn't Work: Read about eye-witness Shoebox stories from around the world. And ask the question with me: Should we be satisfied with just reaching some when we could use our resources more strategically to reach many? 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Darkness, Prayer, and Entitlement

The power was out all day.

By the time we got home in the afternoon, our back-up battery system had been depleted. The generator was out of fuel. The air was stifling; the sweat trickled down my back even while standing still.

At bedtime, the kids started loudly complaining. It's too hot to sleep without fans! But as I fumbled for a headlamp, I too was equally grumpy. The air was perfectly still and a sauna descended on the house. What do you want me to do about it? I hollered back. You're just going to have to deal with it. Go stick your head in the shower and then go back to bed!

I've got such entitled kids, I grumbled to myself.

But then I prayed, Please make the power come back on. I don't want to lose a night of sleep!

And I realized I have the same entitled attitude.

I thought of my friend who I had just talked to earlier that week. Her philandering husband had disappeared and stopped sending her money, leaving her alone to provide for the kids. She lives a couple miles away from me, in the same city with the same stifling March air. She has no indoor plumbing (she hauls water every day) or rarely the money for electricity. With tears in her eyes, she told me that she had no money for food. Only flour was in the house.

There's no welfare here. Or food stamps. There's no safety net.

I can't imagine. The idea of going home and telling my children that I have no food to give them is utterly incomprehensible to me.

If we wanted to, Gil or I could have gone out that night in the dark and bought more fuel for the generator. If we wanted to, we could have run it all night. It's expensive, but we could have afforded it. We just didn't want the inconvenience.

So when I find myself praying for the power to come back on, I must question my view of God. Is he there to fulfill all my wishes? And if so, then what about my friend, with not only no generator or electricity, but also no running water and no food? She is praying to the same God as I.

I gave my friend some groceries and am helping her think of longer-term solutions. But life for her will most likely always be brutally hard, right on the edge between survival and extinction.

Up until recently, right next-door to Haven of Peace Academy was a rock quarry. All day long, trucks would bring in boulders, and dozens of people would spend all day pounding those boulders into gravel. All day, every day.

HOPAC's soccer field is on the edge of campus, and often while watching my kids play their soccer matches--healthy, strong, well-educated and in their matching jerseys--the background noise would be the pounding of rocks.

I don't mean to give a single-sided view of Tanzania, because as I've written before, not everyone is poor. And most certainly, those who do have so much less than me have a great deal to teach me. But every day, I live my comfortable, educated, charmed life right alongside those who wonder how they will feed their children.

And I wonder how then I should live. And how I should pray. And what will be revealed on that Day, when all the charm and comfort is stripped away, and when we are all shown to be who we really are.

The power came back on at 9:00 that night, and we all had a good night's sleep. But it was the darkness which showed me my soul.

Grace is 12 and Lily is 9

I am waaay behind on these pictures, but considering both girls' parties were late, and we managed to celebrate four birthdays for four kids in four months, I'm still pretty proud of us.

Grace had her party at the HOPAC pool with her class, and since her Daddy is the game-planner-extraordinaire, it was fabulous fun. Belly flop contests, floating watermelon races, and Shital's red chicken for everyone.

Lily said she wanted a "movie party," to which we said a whole-hearted AMEN....because what else is easier than a movie party?