Saturday, November 24, 2018

When Traditions Are Bittersweet

Mohammed's birthday fell on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving this year, which meant we all had the day off. Usually our mission team celebrates Thanksgiving on the weekend before or after, but this year, we got to have it on Tuesday, which felt a little more authentic.

Our team has its own traditions now; we barely need to coordinate who is bringing what because we pretty much already know. Though Grace did make her first apple pie this year, which is perfect for a middle-schooler who is content to sit and peel apples for two hours (as long as "Hamilton" is playing, which felt appropriate for Thanksgiving). I think that's the first apple pie we've had since "Aunt" Betty left Tanzania several years ago. 

So we met at the home of friends who have hosted Thanksgiving for the last several years, and played Wiffle ball out on the lawn while dodging toddlers making a run for it. And the whipped cream melted on contact with the balmy air and the five roasted chickens made up for the lack of turkey. 

There is comfort in sameness, like well-worn shoes. Thanksgiving in Tanzania never feels like Thanksgiving in America, because, well, Thanksgiving is American. But we've created our own version of it, and what might have felt like second-best many years ago has now become tradition. 

The nature of this life overseas, though, warns us against making traditions. Putting down roots is forbidden, and those who do so suffer the consequences. In the absence of our own families, we may forge family connections that are deep and strong, but we do so at our own peril. Because everyone knows, even if we try to forget, that all of this overseas life is always temporary.

The family who has hosted Thanksgiving for the last several years is most likely leaving next year. Others will not be far behind. And for the rest of us, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are all realizing that our days in Tanzania could be numbered. Next Thanksgiving, our mission might not have a team here.

The Future is a constant topic of conversation, so whispers of it flew around all day on Tuesday. We can't ignore it, of course. But nobody mentioned that this could have been our last Thanksgiving together. As far as I know, no one even took any pictures, for probably the first time ever. It's almost like taking pictures would have had to make us admit that everything is changing. And since our lives have been full of so many good-byes, sometimes we'd rather just pretend that they won't happen.

Yet there is always so much sweetness with the bitter in this overseas life. And since I don't have any pictures from our Tanzanian Thanksgiving this year, I'll delight in the ones from years past.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

This is Tanzania

This is Tanzania:
Kigamboni Beach, Dar es Salaam

During our October mid-term break from school, we visited our favorite beach for a few days with good friends.

This is also Tanzania....
Mufindi, Iringa region

Mufindi is a long way from Dar es Salaam, so it's a place we had never visited before--but always wanted to. So when Anja, one of our favorite former students, invited us to her wedding in Mufindi, we knew we couldn't pass up the chance to go. We all took off time from school, got on a bus for 14 hours each way, and spent three days at Mufindi Highlands Lodge.

We rode horses, played croquet and lawn tennis, ate absolutely amazing food, and enjoyed being really cold.

That's Johnny, and yes, shortly after this picture was taken, he did fall in.

....which is why he's naked in this picture.

Lily and lily.

And yes, Johnny did fall off his horse too. Don't worry, he's fine.

Those are jacaranda trees....just imagine what they look like when they are in bloom.

One of the best parts was that everyone's favorite two-year-old quadruplets came too! (Ironically, several years previously, I had been at their parents wedding in Kenya as well.)

The day of the wedding....

This is Tanzania. How extraordinary that I get to call it home.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

How to Help Your Kids Become Poverty Fighters

"Do you want to play with me?" "Yes!" 
Drawn in a Service Learning journal by a second grade HOPAC student. 

Just last week, my friend Trudie sat in my office at Haven of Peace Academy. Every year at Christmas, our elementary school kids participate in a gift collection for a local charity. Trudie coordinates our Service Learning program at HOPAC, and as she and I discussed the various options for this Christmas, I heard these words come out of my mouth:

I'd really like the students to be able to donate stuff, instead of just raising money. For young kids, donating stuff is so much more tangible than money.

I know what I've written before. Don't write me off as a hypocrite just yet.

But I'm telling you this story because I want you to know that I get it. I'm the mom of four kids. I'm the principal of 150 kids. Every single one of them falls into the category of "economically privileged." And just like you, I'm always looking for opportunities to teach them to be grateful, compassionate, and generous.

So I get it. I get why it's so cool to take your kids to Target, help them pick out gifts for an under-privileged kid a world away, write a note, pack the box together, and pray over it.

But this is the key question we must ask ourselves:

Are we only interested in teaching our kids generosity and compassion, or do we want to raise them to really, truly make a difference in fighting poverty?

Think about it. Filling a shoebox (or other charity gift programs) is sending the message to our kids is that donating "stuff" fixes poverty. That what poor people are lacking and what we need to give them is stuff.

But what if all that stuff we're donating in order to teach our kids compassion is actually making poverty worse by creating shame, helplessness, and dependency for the recipients? And what if there really were better, more helpful ways we could teach our children how to fight poverty?

I think there are. And I've learned them from Haven of Peace Academy.

We're a privileged school. We are an inexpensive school compared to other international schools in Tanzania, but we still are only accessible to the middle and upper classes. Yet on one side of our school is a hollowed-out rock quarry that is now a slum inhabited by some of the poorest people in our city. And right outside our gate sit people who are pounding rocks into gravel or selling bananas or sweeping the streets and living on a dollar a day.

For many years now, HOPAC has had the vision to teach our privileged students how to fight poverty. We know that one day, our students are going to be government officials and business owners and educational leaders in their countries, and we want them to have the tools to be world-changers.

So what I'm sharing today are the parts of our Service Learning program that can be implemented by any parent anywhere.

#1 Kids need to be educated about poverty alleviation, just like any other school subject. And they can learn it a lot younger than we might think. For example, last year in sixth grade at HOPAC, Grace learned (and even memorized!) the Sustainable Development Goals put out by the United Nations. And all ninth grade students spend a good portion of the year going through When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. (They also watch a video series based on the book.) For the past ten years, I've recommended When Helping Hurts over and over and over again. Every American Christian needs to read it. And HOPAC has shown me that kids as young as fourteen (with adult help) can digest it as well. Why not? 

If your kids are too young to be reading books on poverty, then you read it and bring it down to their level. There's still lots they can learn.

#2 Kids learn best from local, relationship-based service projects. HOPAC students have these kind of service projects built into their curriculum--but they could easily be built into family life as well.
  • Local: The occasional overseas missions trip can be great, of course. But kids need to learn that poverty is not just "out there," across an ocean, far away. Every single community includes under-privileged people, and the best people to help them are in their own community
  • Relationship-based: This is different from anonymous gift-giving or even volunteering occasionally at a homeless shelter. Kids learn best from an on-going project or activity where they are given the opportunity to build relationships with those who are under-privileged, preferably with other kids.
And if that sounds scary or impossible or too time-consuming, let me reassure you: This could be as simple as regularly visiting a park in an under-privileged neighborhood in your city. Seriously. That simple.

Let me also emphasize the importance of doing both of these things together. Simply jumping into #2 without doing #1 is not going to work. Learning how to help people in poverty requires an entire shift in worldview, and that requires education, not just a heart of service.

However, starting with #1 is an excellent place to start, even if you never get to #2. In fact, if you're a family of readers, let me suggest you read Behind the Beautiful Forevers before getting into When Helping Hurts. I have never read a better book that presents the harsh reality and incredible complexity of poverty in an engaging (albeit disturbing) way. This is not a fun bedtime read, but most kids as young as twelve are ready to start thinking deeply about our fallen world.

I get that reading books and playing at a run-down park isn't actually doing much to fight poverty. But that's okay. Growing up is a season of learning, right? And I guarantee that if you work hard at exposing your kids to the reality of poverty in your community, as well educating them on how to best meet those needs, that your family will organically come up with some pretty great, tangible ideas on how to help...without hurting.

Which brings me back to my conversation in my office with Trudie. Yes, I'm not always a fan of donating stuff. But I understand the value of kids learning generosity through it. So why do I feel confident in this particular charity drive? Because in my years of learning about poverty, and Trudie's wisdom as our Service Learning coordinator, I've found that there are good places and times to donate stuff.

So this Christmas, we decided that HOPAC's elementary school kids will be asked to donate school supplies to a nearby school which is serving the poorest disabled kids in their community. This school, which is run by passionate Christians, is running on bare bones and has very few resources. I feel confident donating stuff to them because they are local, we will be buying local products, and we have a relationship with the school, so they can tell us exactly what they need. Plus, it's only one part of the bigger picture of how we are educating our students about poverty and giving them opportunities to be involved in local, relationship-based ministries.

Thanks for caring, friends! And if you have other ideas, I would be happy to hear them.  

HOPAC kids (green shirts) teaching under-privileged kids about caring for the environment.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Wise Generosity...and Chicks for Christmas

Almost 120,000 people have read my post on Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. That's about 1/10 of ALL of the hits I have on ALL of my posts over ELEVEN YEARS of blogging. Good grief. I knew I would hit a nerve, but not the entire nervous system.

Many, many people have asked me, But what's a better alternative? And I can't tell you how incredibly humbled and encouraged I am by you. First of all, that you were willing to listen to what I (and especially our church planting friend) had to say. And second, that there are so many people out there who sincerely want to help eradicate poverty and are longing to give generously and wisely. Seriously. It's inspiring.

So this is my attempt to answer that question. I really don't feel like an expert at this. But there are so many of you who are listening (thank you!) that I'm going to share what I've learned, and then I'm going to give you an excellent example of a great cause to donate to.

When choosing how to donate to poverty-fighting charities, consider the following:

1. One-size-fits-all rarely works. One massive lesson I've had to learn is that cultures and worldviews are more different than I ever would have imagined. And what works in my home culture is not going to work in other places. So what sounds like a great idea in your neighborhood is not necessarily going to work in another city. And most likely not in another country. Which leads to my next point.....

2. Smaller is usually better. Not always. But often. Smaller organizations are able to concentrate more intensely and intimately on the particular needs of a particular community. Which leads to my next point.....

3. There needs to be evidence of cultural sensitivity and an attitude of learning. If you hear about the next "big, exciting, God-sized project" that sounds like it would be amazing to support, stop and ask: Where did this idea come from? How much time was spent learning about and from the local people before plans were set in motion? Is this a project that's being done for the people or with the people? Which is why.....

4. Development is almost always better than hand-outs. Just think of that "give a man a fish/teach a man to fish" proverb. Ask: Is this project just giving people stuff? Or is it actually helping to bring about change? Occasionally, mainly during natural disasters or war, it is certainly appropriate to just give stuff. But that should be temporary and rare. Most of the time, projects should be focused on helping others improve their standard of living for themselves. Which is why....

5. Unless the charity is in your hometown, it's almost always better to donate money rather than stuff. I know that's disappointing, because shopping/selecting/packing stuff is a whole lot more fun and satisfying than sending money, especially for your children.***

But as good stewards of God's resources, sending money is almost always better stewardship than sending stuff. There will always be some exceptions, but usually the only "stuff" worth sending is specialized materials that cannot be found in the receiving country. A good example could be sending specialized equipment to help children with special needs in schools and hospitals. But even in cases like this, wait for the recipient to ask for it, don't just assume they need it.

So.....want a great example to consider supporting?

Let me introduce you to Kilimo Timilifu (Holistic Farming)... KT for short. 

KT is a Tanzanian sustainable nonprofit with a vision of sharing the love of Jesus while providing training and tools for their neighbors to elevate themselves out of extreme poverty.

KT is a farm, but it's not just a farm. It's not just helping the local community with what it produces, it's helping local farmers become better farmers. KT will soon start receiving Tanzanian interns who, after completion of their internship, will be sent as self-supporting Conversation Agriculture Trainers to serve Tanzanian coastal communities in the love of Jesus.

KT was started by our very good friends, Tim and Emily. They spent over 10 years years doing community development in rural villages before starting Kilimo Timilifu. They didn't set out to start this farm from the beginning. Instead, during those years of learning, they recognized the need and potential for this unique farm.

KT has already started a number of agricultural projects, but this Christmas, they are looking for donors for their new chicken farm, which they will use to train interns to start chicken businesses. $20 will pay for six chicks. 

This isn't a once-size-fits-all approach to poverty alleviation in Jesus' name. This is a very specific, very specialized, well-researched, culturally appropriate, small organization that has huge potential to make an extraordinary difference.

I encourage you to consider sponsoring some chicks for Christmas. I wholeheartedly believe it's a great cause.

This is just one example. There are many, many, many others like KT. They'll probably be small, probably won't have flashy campaigns, but if you look carefully, they will stand out. If you know of one, leave their info in the comments!

***One last note here. I get that sending money just doesn't have the same impact on kids as sending stuff. And I share your concern in wanting to help your kids develop hearts of generosity and service. So my next post is precisely about that.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Saying "God Called Me" Can Be Dangerous

Back when I was 23 and raising support to be a missionary in Tanzania, you would have heard me say, “God is calling me.” I would have told you that I had a heart for teaching missionary kids. I would have told you that I loved Africa and wanted to see God’s kingdom built there. And those things were 100% true. I wasn’t a deceiver who was trying to pull the wool over my supporter’s eyes. But there was more to it than that.
As a teenager, I was terrible at sports and fashion, and my very introverted personality meant that I had all sorts of interesting thoughts going around in my head but they rarely came out articulately. My best friend was a cello player and a track runner and Valedictorian; I was always a few steps behind. But I had spent six years of my childhood in Africa. That was my thing. That I had experienced this whole other life–that’s what made me different. And I clung to it. A guy in college told me that boys wouldn’t want to date me because I was so set on living in Africa, but that just made me more resolute.
And evangelical Christian culture made it easy. I could express my individuality and get lots of gold stars and pats on the back at the same time. Saying “God is calling me to Africa” put me on a higher spiritual plane; so very few people probed with deeper questions. But sometimes saying “God called me” can actually mask a lot of other motives.
When we want to be missionaries, it’s easier to say, “God called me,” than to say
“I really love traveling.”
“I’m looking for adventure.”
“I want to stand out, to be different.”
“If I start a new life, I can leave my problems behind.”
“If I do this big thing for God, he will give me what I want."
“I really like looking/feeling spiritual and all the attention that gets me.”
“I want my life to feel significant.”

Equally important, when we want to go back home, it’s easier to say, “God called me,” than to say
“I don’t get along with my co-workers.”
“I can’t hack the way of life here."
“My leadership hasn’t given me the support I wanted."
“I miss my family too much."
“I hate feeling incompetent all the time."
“I’m so depressed/anxious/burned out that I can’t function anymore."
The reality is, everyone falls for it. Saying, “God called me” shuts down any questions. No one is allowed to argue with that statement. Because who wants to argue with God?  But that’s why saying “God called me” can be dangerous. And we need to challenge the culture that allows it.
What do we even mean when we say, “God called me?” Christians will give various answers, but a call from God often boils down to some kind of supernatural experience or a very strong feeling. The same line of reasoning is used with “God hasn’t called me.” If a person hasn’t experienced some sort of supernatural experience or strong feeling, then we believe that is an indication that the status quo is sufficient.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Often, “God called me” basically means, “I want to” but with a spiritual veneer. So let’s think this through. Can God work through our desires? Absolutely. God gave us our emotions, our personalities, and the way we’re “wired,” and he will use all of these to lead us and guide us.
Our emotions are often selfish, fickle, and foolish. It’s quite possible for us to feel good about a terribly sinful choice (at least for a while). We are very capable of ignoring the Holy Spirit, misinterpreting Scripture, or “hearing” what we want to hear from God.
So how do we know when God is actually leading us in a certain direction? And if we discover that hiding behind “God called me” are some selfish motives, does that mean he hasn’t?
Not necessarily. It’s very possible to have noble motives and selfish ones mixed in together. I once read that as fallen people, our motives are never going to be completely pure. We must remember that we are complex beings–capable of feeling multiple emotions and desires at once. We aren’t usually honest even with ourselves, and sin will always be there, even when we’re being our most honorable.
So what does that mean for us as missionaries, whose whole lives are built on “a calling?” It means we need to ask ourselves the hard questions. We need to root out our deeper motives–all of them, even the ugly ones. And senders need to be careful not to be so dazzled by “God called me” that they hold back from asking those same hard questions. We (both the goers and the senders) need to remember that being a missionary doesn’t put us on a higher spiritual plane, immune from sinful motives.
When someone says, “God called me,” that should be the starting point for a lot of good questions and conversations. Why do you want to go (or return)? Why is it important? What does your church think about this? What does the team on the field think about this? What might you be running away from? How has God uniquely prepared you–not someone else–for this specific time and place? Or if you are leaving, what circumstances assure you that God is releasing you? And how does all of this match up with what God has spoken to us through Scripture?
This is why we need the Body of Christ. This is why we need to put ourselves under godly, strong, but humble leadership. This is why God intended the Church to be a part how he calls us.
When I think back to the mess of motives and emotions I felt when I was 23, I truly believe God did call me to Africa. But I was equipped: I had grown up on the African continent; I had been certified as a teacher; I had spent years in cross-cultural ministry in the States. I had the blessing of my church family. I had been well-vetted by my mission organization. Yes, I wanted to go. But it was the culmination of all of those things that confirmed that God was calling me.
Did that mean my motives were entirely pure? Absolutely not. And it would have been helpful if I had been honest with myself about it, or if I had someone in my life who asked me the hard, penetrating questions. Back then, coming to the realization about my desire to be different and significant probably would not have negated my assurance that I should go, but it would have helped me to learn some hard lessons a lot sooner.
Because that’s the thing about selfish motives–they are always there, but God has his ways of purifying them. Every missionary who stays on the mission field for any length of time knows this. I might have dreamed of gold stars or adventure or fulfillment, but that all came crashing down pretty quickly. And when it did, I needed a strong foothold to assure me that God really had directed me. But the weight behind “God called me” had to go a lot farther than just a feeling. God’s promises in Scripture, the Body of Christ back at home and on the field, and the ways God had uniquely prepared me for my role gave me assurance of his calling. Seventeen years later, that’s the calling I still lean on.
(This piece was originally posted at A Life Overseas. If you'd like to share it, please do so from that site. Thanks!)