Saturday, October 27, 2018

If You Knew Me, You Would Say Much Worse

"An ISIS-inspired terrorist plowed into a group of seven bicyclists in Tajikistan on July 29, killing four of them. Two of the four killed were Americans, Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan, both 29, who had quit their jobs to embark on a biking tour of the world in July of 2017. Friends told the media that the couple wanted to meet new people and see new places, and that they had a strong belief in the goodness of human nature. 'People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil,' Austin wrote. 'I don't buy it.' He called evil 'a make-believe concept.'"
(WORLD Magazine, September 1, 2018)

Jay and Lauren weren't alone in this belief. In fact, the recent Ligonier Ministry's survey found that over 50% of self-proclaimed evangelicals believe "Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature."

If the oil light in your car goes on, you can cover it up with a piece of tape, but your engine will eventually explode. If the doctor says 'cancer,' it doesn't really matter how fine you feel, you can only ignore it for so long.

And you can fervently believe that people are 'good by nature,' but the terrorists will still be plowing over bicyclists.

We live in a world where I have to make five-year-olds practice hiding in a closet in case someone wants to shoot them at school. And then I have to turn right around and do scheduling gymnastics so that one of those same five-year-olds isn't left alone in a room with an adult during her piano lesson. The closet seems safe, until it's not.

I'd like to divide the world into heroes and villains, with me as a hero, of course. I'd like to think that I would run into the burning building or offer to scuba dive (if I knew how to scuba dive) into the caves to save the young boys. It's true there is something in human nature that rises to the occasion when the world needs a hero. Except, we're kind of confused on what a hero is. A lot of Americans thought the guys who dropped bombs on Japan were heroes, but the Japanese thought otherwise. For that matter, a lot of people thought those guys who flew planes into buildings were pretty heroic as well.

Apparently the definition of heroism is pretty murky.

It is, however, a whole lot easier to see the evil out there than it is to see it in here. I mean, I would never kidnap a child to be a slave or rip open a pregnant woman or use human skin in science experiments. I would never machete my neighbor's head or toss a disabled baby into a field or prostitute myself. I am, after all, a good person.

That is, as long as I am well-fed, well-rested, and feeling safe, fulfilled, and relaxed.

So if I figuratively bite someone's head off when I am feeling the least bit tired, anxious, hungry, or stressed, what makes me think I wouldn't be capable of the atrocities that revolt me? After all, I am of the same blood and bones as the the people who did (or do) commit such things.

Why then are we so very reluctant to acknowledge the sinful nature of mankind? Pick up a history book--any history book--and see how many times the oppressed, when given the opportunity, become the oppressors. Is it power that corrupts? Or is it possible that the corruption is already inside of us, just waiting for the right set of circumstances? That's them, not me, we tell ourselves. But why? Why do we think we are any different?

And therein lies the heart of the matter. If we acknowledge the depravity of them, we must therefore acknowledge the depravity within. It's much easier to just believe that we are all 'good by nature.' Because I know I'm really not that different from other people. So if I believe they're good, then I can believe the same about myself.

We would rather cover up the oil light or ignore the cancer than believe the truth.

So we remain so hopeful. I'm only grumpy when I don't have my coffee. My life will be better as long as I ignore the toxic people in it. Surely my child wouldn't be capable of that, right? Surely that horrible thing won't happen to my family, my city, my country....right? Surely we just need to lock up the bad guys, and then we'll all be safe and happy.

But these days, we all know what happens next. As soon as we set our sights on the next "model of goodness"--be he pastor or doctor or judge or actor--it's just a matter of time before we find him down in the mud.

When will we learn? Why is it so hard to just admit that even though we may not be as evil as we could be all of the time, all of us are capable of far more evil than we want to admit?

Or maybe it's because of the severity of the solution. It's one thing to stop at Walmart and buy five quarts of oil, it's another thing when the doctor says, "You have a good chance of surviving, but it'll take a year of chemo." So when God tells us that the solution to our sin is found in surrendering our lives to Jesus, sometimes we would rather just cover up the oil light.

I get why those who want nothing to do with Jesus choose that option. But why....why, why, why do those of us who supposedly have tasted the sweetness of his grace, why do we believe the same way?

Christians should be the ones who understand the depravity of sin, so why do we continue to assume our leaders are above it? Why do we treat our Christian reputation as a crystal glass, something that we must continue to shine and polish and look pretty, while allowing rot to fester within? And when that rot comes to the surface, why do we hide it? Why on earth do we hide it?

We have the answer! We have the answer! We've been able to give the Sunday School answer since we were five years old: "Jesus died for our sins," and yet we don't live like it! 

If Jesus died for our sins, then we have nothing to hide. When sin comes to the surface, we have no reputations to protect. We have no one to blame. We have no excuses. We don't need them! We can acknowledge with sincere gravity that our nature is evil....and that's why Jesus died.

We don't minimize the consequences, because we recognize that evil is real and we must advocate for justice. But we also always have hope of redemption. As much as we push for consequences, we don't force the sinners to grovel forever in the mud, because we know there is hope in Jesus for any sinner.

Of course, grace feels scandalous. What? There's grace available even for those monsters? Won't that allow them to just keep doing it? But Paul anticipated that argument in Romans 6: Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Swimming in a sea of grace doesn't mean that we have license to revel in sin. We root out sin--in ourselves, in our churches. Not as a means of controlling people. Not as a witch hunt; not in order to beat others over the head with it. But because we know it's there. And we can't deal with it by denying it's existence.

What we often forget about these truths is that there is incredible, extraordinary freedom in understanding both sin and grace. The more I understand my sinful nature, the more I am living in reality. I am not surprised by how other people act or how I act. I am not disillusioned by what others are capable of.  I have freedom from shame. Freedom from the fear of discovery. Freedom from the weight of what other people think of me.

L.E Maxwell wrote, "The next time someone reproves you, just say, 'You don't know half the truth. If you knew me you would say much worse.' This may help you into harmony with the Cross. It will at least be the truth."

Sin and grace are symbiotic. The more we are aware of our sin, the more heavily we sink into grace. The more we sink into grace, the more we hate our sin. And that's what gives us the catalyst for true change.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I'm found, was blind but now I see.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Adoption Story of Zawadi, the Parents Who Waited for Her, and the God of Miracles

Zawadi arrived at Forever Angels Baby Home in Mwanza, Northern Tanzania, when she was a year old. Forever Angels is only licensed to care for children until they are five years old; so in 2011, when Zawadi was five, she was one of the oldest children there, and she pretty much ruled the roost. Bilingual, affectionate, sassy, and charming, Zawadi won the hearts of everyone she met. Mwanza is a city of half a million people, and to this day, it’s astonishing how many of them know Zawadi.

Forever Angels works hard at family reunification for the kids in their care, and many do eventually go back with family. Many others get adopted, because the orphanage has an excellent reputation for being extremely high-quality and having impeccable integrity. This meant that the kids there were used to their playmates constantly disappearing. But it also meant that Zawadi, being smart and precocious, was old enough to understand that she was being left behind. In fact, quite often she would hound Amy Hathaway, the Forever Angels director, “When do I get a Mom and Dad? You need to find me some parents.”

And families had tried. But for one reason or another, it had never worked out.

In 2011, Gil and I were approved to adopt a little girl from Forever Angels. Based on profiles, we had already selected two-year-old Lily to be our third child. But the social worker wanted me to meet her first, so I flew up to Mwanza in April that year.

Lily (age 2) and Zawadi (age 5) at Forever Angels
I was only there for a day and a half. But it was enough time to know with confidence that Lily was the one for us. But I also met Zawadi. Just like everyone who met her, she made an impression on me. And my heart yearned for a family for her. I later found out that she had demanded from Amy Hathaway, “Why does Lily get adopted and not me? She is two and I am five.”

I got back home to Dar es Salaam on a Friday. And Friday evenings were when we hosted youth group at our house. And Ben and Lauren were some of the friends who helped us.

Ben and Lauren are as close to family as we’ve got in Tanzania. Part of the same mission, working at the same school, often attending the same church and Bible study, vacationing together every year. We’ve traveled together to Kenya, South Africa, and Slovenia. Gil and Lauren have coached soccer together. Ben is the director at Haven of Peace Academy, and thus is now my boss. Our lives have been inextricably linked in work, church, rest, and play for over a decade. My kids have always called them aunt and uncle.

Ben and Josiah
That Friday night, Lauren and I sat on the hard tile floor in a corner of my living room, talking above the din of thirty teenagers. She wanted to hear everything about Lily and Forever Angels and my trip. So I told her. And I included Zawadi.

Unbeknownst to me, Lauren went home that night and with Ben, looked up Zawadi’s profile on the Forever Angels website. That was all it took. They couldn’t get her out of their minds. On Sunday, they sent us a text. “Can we come over and talk to you about adoption?”

That was the beginning.

Ben and Lauren began the process to be approved to adopt in Tanzania. But a couple of months into it, they were told that another family was also trying to adopt Zawadi, and that this other family was farther along in the process. Crestfallen, Ben and Lauren decided to keep going anyway, just in case the other family fell through.

Their adoption homestudy process beat the record for taking the longest of anyone I knew. Despite their best efforts, their passive-aggressive social worker managed to drag it out for an entire year. And right around the time they were finally approved to adopt, the other family had to pull out. The path was cleared for Ben and Lauren.

Shortly after, they flew to Mwanza to meet Zawadi. Zawadi, now six and living with a foster family, figured out pretty quickly that these people could be her potential parents. Being a rather precocious child, and knowing how the adoption process works, Zawadi took it upon herself to sit down at the computer and write her own letter to her social worker, print it, sign it, and seal it in an envelope. It read, “Ples can loren and ben be my mom and dad.”

It was love all around. Everything seemed perfect. Until it wasn’t.

As Ben and Lauren started navigating the process to bring Zawadi home, the hurdles got bigger with every ensuing step. There was a reason the other family gave up trying to adopt her: Zawadi’s history was complicated. Unprecedented among adoption cases in Tanzania. And there came a point a year later--Zawadi was then 7 years old--that the social welfare department said that she was unadoptable. That she would never be adopted.

However, Zawadi’s prospects were grim. Her foster family would be leaving Tanzania shortly, and she would have to permanently go back to an orphanage. There were no other good options for her. Ben and Lauren were undaunted. They offered to bring Zawadi home anyway. Whether she could be adopted or not, they were prepared to be her parents for her whole life. Even if that meant they could never leave Tanzania.

So at seven years old, just one day before she would start second grade at Haven of Peace Academy, Zawadi finally came home to her forever family. Ben and Lauren became Dad and Mom, even though they knew it might never be official.

But Ben and Lauren knew that they loved Zawadi, that God had brought her to them, and that adoption would be best for her. So even though they had been told adoption would be impossible, they knew they would always work towards that end.

If they had thought it was hard just to bring Zawadi home, they had no idea what they were getting themselves into by trying to get her adopted. They began an epic adventure that brought them to the farthest reaches of Tanzania, to tiny villages on long, bumpy bus rides. It had them in contact with more doctors, social workers, and friends of friends of friends than they could count. They got documents signed and re-signed. They managed to track down obscure officials to get more documents signed. It was as if the authorities kept trying to put them off by making them do one more impossible task, but they would figure out a way to do it anyway.

More than once, they were given hope that Zawadi’s adoption would really happen, and we rejoiced with them for a few blissful days, only to be then told that it unequivocally never would. More than once, they were told it was impossible. There was even one person, who, for some unknown reason other than pure spite, did everything in her power to prevent the adoption from moving forward. And it worked.

Lauren and Jesca
While on one of their many adventures to adopt Zawadi, Ben and Lauren found another little girl named Jesca. And when I say, “found her,” I mean it quite literally. They didn’t just pick her out among many faces in an orphanage, because she wasn’t in an orphanage. She was an orphan who had slid through the cracks and was forgotten by the world. And since Ben and Lauren seemed to be making a habit of working on difficult adoptions, they decided to pursue her too.

After two years of more traveling and phone calls and collecting documents, they brought home Jesca. And after another year, they successfully adopted her. But Zawadi’s case was still impossible.

Ben and Lauren kept at it relentlessly. They kept jumping through hoops and exploring new avenues, and they didn’t give up. But it was never easy and sometimes just plain awful. For years and years, they never traveled to the States as a family. Occasionally one of them would go home for a few weeks, but for five years, they never got a real furlough and they never visited home together. Friends would volunteer to host Zawadi, but they were insistent--she was their daughter, and they would not leave her alone in Tanzania.

The stress of demanding jobs, the uncertainty of Zawadi’s adoption (and therefore their future), and never getting a furlough took its toll. As a close friend and co-worker, I had the privilege of walking alongside them. Many, many times, we agonized in prayer. When there was particularly disappointing news, we wept together. There were many very low, dark times.

But I also had the privilege of watching the awe-inspiring, miraculous transformation of their hearts during those years. As they wrestled with God in the darkness and through the unknown, and as they waited, and waited, and waited, God transformed them into different people. In this last year or two, though their situation had not changed, the peace and joy they radiated could only be supernatural.

Our families together
Andree Seu Peterson writes, “Waiting is the laboratory of the godly character. We have it all backward when we think our best times are our happy and successful times. It’s just the opposite. I have nothing against happiness and success, but nobody ever learned much by them.”

Just a few months ago, out of the blue, the boulder in their path started to move. After seven years of disappointments, they didn’t believe it at first, and were afraid to let themselves celebrate. But since July, things started moving astonishingly fast. I’ve personally completed four adoptions in Tanzania, and I’ve never seen a family move through the court process as quickly as they did. There was no particular reason for this other than that the right people were in the right positions at the right time. And on October 12, 2018, seven years after they started pursuing her, a judge declared Zawadi to be the permanent daughter of Ben and Lauren.

When the news hit the Haven of Peace Academy campus on Friday, an eruption of joy filled the air we breathed--all 500 of us. Teachers hugged each other. Nobody could concentrate on work. Zawadi was barraged with hugs and tears and shouts--not exactly what a self-conscious seventh grade girl desires--but she danced the rest of the day.

Zawadi and Grace
Peterson writes, “Twenty-five years [Abraham] waited. Unglamorous years of eating sand and believing for a son. Just think of the daily talking to yourself you’d have to do under these conditions to keep waiting for something humanly implausible based only on a word you heard way back when. Abraham is one of the greatest men in history for simply believing God for a long, long time.”

As I think about Zawadi’s story, I keep thinking about those passages in Scripture which talk about the fullness of time. There is so much waiting in the Bible. Abraham and Isaac. Moses in the desert. Joseph in prison. The Israelites in captivity. The coming of the Messiah. And yet, in each instance, God delivered in the fullness of time. Because he knows. He sees. He is sovereign. And he is waiting….for exactly the right time.

No eye has seen, no one has heard, no ear has perceived any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Don't Touch My Bacon: Eating, Drinking, and Dressing Overseas

The American teacher stood in the staff lounge with a cup of yellow broth. Look at this, he laughed. It looks just like beer!
A Tanzanian staff member just stared at him. Do you drink beer? she solemnly asked.
He paused for a moment. Yes, he said. I do sometimes.
That was the end of the relationship. From that moment on, she wouldn’t make eye contact with him. Because for many Christian denominations in Tanzania, drinking alcohol is not compatible with Christianity.
When we move overseas, we give up a lot. Christmas at Grandma’s, Girl Scout Cookies, garbage disposals, 24-hour stores, our own language, feeling competent.
So we should be able to hold onto some of what’s important, comfortable, and familiar to us, right?
Sometimes we sure would like to think so.
I should be able to wear what I want in my new culture, because clothes express my unique identity. So if I look cute in bikinis, then I’m going to wear my bikini. If I am comfortable in shorts, I’m going to wear shorts. I’m not comfortable in long skirts or head coverings. And my tattoo is an expression of who I am, so why would I want to cover it up?
I should be able to eat what I want to eat, because asking me to give up pork or eat only vegetarian–well, that’s asking too much. I should be able to drink alcohol, because it’s not a sin, and it’s something I enjoy.
You might take away Starbucks and Target, but don’t touch my bacon.
For those of us from western cultures, we might be nodding in agreement. Of course. We’re used to a culture where self-expression reigns supreme. Conformity is viewed with disdain. Even our churches are pushing the boundaries of what was considered taboo or morally unacceptable. We aren’t legalists, right?
So when our host culture conflicts with our forms of comfort or self-expression, who wins?
Go here to read the rest.