It is virtually impossible to not be greatly affected by your surroundings and culture in your worldview. It’s also virtually impossible to understand other cultures without a frame of reference. It’s hard to obtain a frame of reference without actually going, but the next best thing is pictures and video. So consider this blog to be my best attempt to provide a frame of reference. I’ve been back from Ethiopia for about three weeks now. Frequently after a trip, I pause my pontificating for a bit and just post pictures. There are unfortunately a lot of pictures I can’t show. However, here are a number of pictures from places we went and the people we met on the street. More later. Enjoy.
I’ve now been back from Ethiopia for about three weeks. I’ve had time to go through the pictures, and more importantly, I’ve been able to go through some of the hours of interviews I took of Ethiopians who are going out into the villages and towns in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. They are telling others about their faith and are suffering alienation from their families, physical violence against them, and some are paying the ultimate sacrifice. And yet they continue, because they know that God is worth it. They are seeing people freed from addictions and all kinds of things that destroy lives, and they’re seeing their communities changed because of it.
It’s very hard for me to convey what the gospel means to these people when I come back to the United States. We often have a very different view of what the gospel is in the United States. Just as in many areas where Christianity has been introduced, they have combined Christianity with their traditional beliefs, so we in the United States have largely combined Christianity with other beliefs. We combine our faith with politics, or with hedonism, or with capitalism, or any number of other beliefs. If we’re honest about it, these other beliefs often take precedence over our faith, and we end up changing our faith to fit these other beliefs rather than the other way around.
There’s a scripture that’s puzzled me since I first read it, and only since this last trip to Ethiopia am I beginning to understand it. It’s from Matthew 11, and in it, Jesus is looking at the crowds who had come out to see John The Baptist, and now that John was in prison, Jesus was addressing them. You have to understand that there was a large crowd of people out in the desert. He asks them, “What did you come out here to see?” He goes on to speak about John’s ministry that had started only about a year before. The verse that puzzled me was this one; “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” What did Jesus mean by “the violent take it by force?” Were John’s disciples violent? The answer is no. What Jesus was talking about was a descriptive picture of the crowds that had come out to the desert. They resembled an army besieging a city. They pressed in on all sides and would let nothing stand between themselves and John’s message, which was that the Kingdom of God is at hand. They were hungry for God’s Kingdom, as if they had been waiting since the beginning of the world for the message that was now before them. Truthfully, they had been waiting that long. They were taking hold of that message of salvation and repentance and the coming of God’s Kingdom as if, if they lessened their grip just a little, it would be gone.
It was only as I interviewed these Ethiopian pastors that I began to understand this scripture. The Kingdom of God belongs to people who turn their whole hearts toward it, who are willing to completely give up their old lives and take hold of it with a fervor that nothing can break. To reiterate his point, Jesus goes on to say,
“But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions,and saying:
‘We played the flute for you, And you did not dance; We mourned to you, And you did not lament.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”
Jesus was referring to the current religious generation, who heard the voice of the prophets, but were untouched by the message. They were so sure of themselves that when God and the prophets finally came, they saw only something to criticize. It is also what is referred to in 2 Timothy 3 “always learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
As I go through hours of video, I am planning to put together a longer video of the testimonies of several people. Their stories are unique, but remarkably similar in that each of them has given all for God.
I’ve been back from Ethiopia for a week and a half now. I’ve finally recovered from jet lag. My work on the photos is largely done, and now I’m going through hours of video. I spent the better part of a week with 150 people who live their faith in the same way the early church lived their faith. These men and women are living in some of the most dangerous places and are literally putting their lives on the line for their faith. I met people who have been beaten and stabbed, lost their jobs and families, and still find Jesus to be who he said he was and consequently worth everything they’ve gone through.
I shot video of some of the most incredible interviews you could imagine, some of which had to be shot in silhouette to hide their identity. I thought the stories of the early church were good, but some of what I heard was better. You’d think then that the interviews would be the highlight of my week, but they weren’t.
During lunch each day the team I was with would walk back to our hotel and have lunch at the hotel restaurant. One day I decided to instead go across the street to a vendor who had been cooking a pot full of something that at the time I could not identify. Generally I would go across to her spot (there was no stall,) and have buna, or really strong coffee served in a small cup. As I sipped my buna earlier that morning and watched her cook, I decided to have lunch there instead. Now before you tell me that it’s foolish to eat street food in Ethiopia, I’m just going to say that just because the kitchen is in a hotel doesn’t mean it’s any cleaner than the street food. Plus, I’d been able to actually watch her cook, and I was comfortable with it.
As I walked over with a couple friends I’d traveled with, I realized that the place I would be having lunch was where the indigenous church planters we’d been ministering to were also having lunch. There were probably about thirty people all sitting together on plastic stools at low tables having what turned out to be shiro with either injera bread or baguette. Shiro is boiled bean flour mixed with water, berbere spice, garlic, and rosemary and boiled until it’s the consistency of thick soup. You then sop it up with the bread. Flavor wise, it was one of the better meals I had in Ethiopia. But flavor isn’t all there is to lunch.
The church planters made room for us at a very small table and through our translator, we began to get to know each other in a way that hadn’t been possible in the more formal setting we’d generally seen them in.
Before I left for Ethiopia, a friend of mine had told me that God felt he had a message for us as we were going. That message was that a lot of these men and women were having such difficulty that they were thinking of giving up. He said our presence would be very important, because it would help the Ethiopians know that they are not alone.
As I sat telling and listening to stories, they conveyed to us how incredibly important our presence was to them. They let us know just how much it meant to them that we’d come all this way to teach and encourage them. They said that because we had come, they would go and do even more. By having lunch with them, we were able to connect on a deeper level. No longer just teachers and pastors and students, we prayed for each other and become brothers and sisters bearing each others’ burdens. Lunch cost about $2 for the three of us, including tea, but I can’t put a price on the connection we all made that day.
We had lunch there the next day as well. When I go back to Ethiopia again, I will make a point to eat with the church planters again. The hotel restaurant may have more than one thing on the menu, but it can never match the company.
I am now back from Ethiopia. My plan was to write at least a post or two from in the field. Unfortunately, a few days before I left, electronic devices in carry-on bags were restricted on flights from a number of middle-east airports including one I would be traveling through. This meant that I was going to have to check my iPad in my luggage. Due to experiences some of my fellow travelers have had with airport workers with sticky fingers, I opted not to bring any more expensive gear than was absolutely necessary.
Though I would have liked to have been able to write from the field, by best thoughts on the things I’ve seen and experienced when I travel often come not during, but weeks or even months afterward. I need time to process and ruminate on things. I took a couple thousand pictures and hours of video on this trip, and looking at those will also help me to put things together.
If my writing seems a bit off, it’s because I’m still jet lagged. I was up for almost 48 hours straight this time coming home, due to the schedule and some very uncomfortable flights. (I truly hate middle seats). I traveled a different airline this time than I have before, Turkish Air to be specific. I had some initial trepidation about flying this airline, but after the experience I can honestly say I would do it again. The food, by airline food standards, was actually pretty good. Furthermore, I had an eight hour layover in Istanbul on the way home. Turkish Air, though they don’t seem to advertise it, will give you a free tour of the city with a guide on a nice bus if you have a long layover. We opted to do this, and I’ve got to say that Istanbul is a fantastic city to visit. At least the parts that I visited were modern and clean, but full of ancient historic sights everywhere.
So the long and the short of it is this. I had lunch in Eastern Ethiopia, dinner in Addis Ababa, Turkish coffee in Istanbul, then I flew to New York where I had pizza in Brooklyn with a very old friend. In Istanbul I was able to see Asia across the water as I drank my coffee. All told it took about thirty six hours, but from leaving Africa to landing in New York was about 24 hours. It was not the most relaxing way to travel, but it was an adventure, and I was able to add Turkey to the list of countries I’ve been to.
Soon I will start writing about Ethiopia, but I need to get some rest first so I can put two words together and have them make sense.
In four days I leave for Ethiopia. This will be my third trip to Ethiopia. I’ve also been to South Sudan four times, and I’m not even sure how many times I’ve been to Kenya. Every country I’ve been to, and every city, and every village has been different in some way or another. Cultures are different. Tribes are different. Nations that border each other have vastly different characters and cultures. I’m only talking about East Africa. I haven’t even been to central or West Africa, and only passed through South Africa.
I sincerely wish everyone could do what I do, at least once. I wish everyone could uproot and leave home, truly leave home and go somewhere so far out of their comfort zone that you couldn’t stand on a stool and see where your comfort zone is.
I hear so many people say, “We are so blessed here. We have so much we take for granted.” Having traveled to the places I’ve been, I know how true that statement is. I also realize how little the people saying it realize what they’re saying. If you take something for granted, then by definition you do not understand what it is that you either have or do not have. It’s easy to say, “We have so much,” because that’s the more obvious observation one can make, but it doesn’t mean you understand poverty. There is so much depth to what we don’t understand that I can’t describe it without taking someone with me and letting them experience it for themselves. There is so much more than, “We have so much.” There are cultural things we have so engrained within us that we have no understanding of how other cultures think. Each time I go, I understand a little more, and I realize more how much I don’t understand.
The observation of “We have so much” also belies our idea that our culture is somehow superior to other cultures, because we see them as having so little, while having little understanding of what we lack within our own culture. What are the divorce rates within American culture? How much of this “We have so much” is actually things we don’t need that get in the way of family relationships and friendships? How many families have been broken up because we had a choice of either building a legacy with our spouse or children, but we chose instead that a career was important and having a nicer car than our neighbor? How many of us have heart disease, cancer, gout, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity because we are “rich”? While most Africans would be considered poor in our eyes, it’s not always because they lack basic necessities. Rather it’s because our idea of “richness” is so monetarily based that we fail to see our own poverty. I know many Africans that have a legacy that I can only dream of.
There are so many other things we take for granted that I could get into, but I fear that it would only evoke a deer-in-the-headlights look in many readers. I say this not to be demeaning or to look down on people. It’s because I’ve been there. It’s fairly easy to describe some ways of doing things that are different, but it’s virtually impossible to describe the different ways people think. Which brings me back to the beginning. If you ever have the chance to do missions, by all means go. Get to know the people one on one. Build relationships. You’ll find you learn just as much what you didn’t know about yourself as you do about them.
In a week I leave for Ethiopia. I often write my thoughts and post pictures as I’m in the field, and it’s best to work any bugs out of the system before I’m there. There are no gorillas in Ethiopia, but this one I took a picture of last week is helping me today as I test software to help with my internet connection when I’m overseas. In the next week or so, you should be seeing pictures from my trip.
Tonight I’m writing this blog because in less than 60 days, I leave for Ethiopia. It doesn’t seem like it, but it will be two years since my last trip to Ethiopia. I was supposed to be going in November, but the security situation on the ground wouldn’t allow it. Last year I had work to do in Kenya and couldn’t go. Now the time is coming.
One of my favorite foods in Ethiopia, and a taste that I miss is misir wot, a dish made from red lentils, garlic, onions, and the ubiquitous berbere spice, which is in nearly all Ethiopian food. This week I was excited to have found some locally; excited until I made misir wot with it, and found out that it was nothing like the authentic spice I knew so well. Nevertheless it was better than nothing, and I was able to give my friends an ersatz taste of Ethiopia.
I’m also writing this blog today to get any kinks out of the system I’ll be writing from. I normally write on a computer, but I will only have an iPad with me, so I’m writing from that. I’m also testing out transferring files over wifi from my camera to the iPad, then editing a picture with Snapseed. So far, so good, though with the snags I’ve run into, I’m glad I’m practicing at home first.
I will be writing my normal blog as I get thoughts worth writing, but I’ll also be writing more about the preparation for the upcoming trip as it gets closer. Until next time…
There is an Inuit legend that says, in the beginning there was only a man and a woman. Nothing else lived on the earth. So the woman made a hole in the ice and began fishing, and one by one she pulled out all the animals. The last animal she pulled out was the caribou, the animal that feeds the Inuit, and she ordered them to multiply. But as the herd multiplied, sickness came to the herd. As the herd got weaker, the people began to starve. So the woman made another hole in the ice and pulled out the wolf. And the wolf hunted the caribou and began to eat the weak and the sick ones, and the herd grew stronger. And the people realized that the caribou and the wolf were inseparable, because even though the wolf eats the caribou, it is also the wolf that makes the caribou strong.
The first verses of the book of James say, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” Many people read these verses and either don’t comprehend them or uncomfortably skip past them. After all, God just wants us to be happy, right? I heard the televangelist say so. Wrong. God wants us to have joy, but joy is something that comes outside of circumstance, and it comes through faithfulness and maturity. Happiness, on the other hand, is situation dependent. Happiness is external and fleeting, joy comes from the state of one’s spirit and is much harder to destroy.
How many times have we heard someone say, “why would God let this happen?” or “if God loves me, why am I going through this?” Well, sometimes trials are self-inflicted, but often they are not, and it’s not because God doesn’t love you. It’s exactly the opposite. You see, the human nature is to focus on self. When trials come, they can have one of two effects. They can turn one’s focus even more inward, in which case people become bitter, regressive and self-destructive. The other effect they can have is to cause growth. Trials can build patience, and character, and wisdom in people. They can turn a person’s focus outward. They can teach empathy toward the suffering. They can build understanding of situations. Trials can teach a person to stop listening to Self, and start listening to God. They can teach a person all of those “foolish” practices like dying to yourself and not always seeking pleasure, but becoming the person who seeks the needs of others over your own needs and wants. Why else would some of the wisest, selfless, and most effective ministers be the people in countries where persecution and trials are constant?
We often have the option in the west to avoid trials. We set ourselves up to avoid failure through insurance, 401k, working two jobs so we can invest more money, and most of all, avoiding the Great Commission. When Jesus told his followers to go to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth, making disciples, it was not a suggestion for those who felt like it. It was a commissioning of purpose for everyone who follows Him. If we choose to avoid this commission to avoid trouble and protect our security, then we are content to accept God’s grace that is new every morning, but not to do what He asked us to do. We have traded our Purpose (capital P intentional) for a self-built security that is an illusion anyway. We are content to not grow.
Jesus said “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.” Sheep among what? Wolves. The people Jesus was speaking to didn’t know what caribou were, but he just as easily could have said “caribou among wolves”. Being sent out as sheep among wolves sounds crazy, but it wasn’t until after imprisonment and beating that the timid Peter who denied his Lord three times became the fearless lion he was to become. Legend says that Peter was crucified upside down because he said he was not worthy to die the same way as his Lord. I know this is a hard thing to grasp, and some might say it’s crazy, but this is the kind of people God is looking for, and this is what trials, hardship, and persecution produce. So when the wolf comes, let us not kill it, but be aware that it might be there to make us stronger, to produce people of supernatural faithfulness and character and wisdom. To create people that fulfill the verse in 1 Corinthians 1:27, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;”
What is a missionary? This is a question that my wife and I pose when we teach a class on missions. We get a variety of answers. Everything from teaching to building churches to giving food to the poor; the list goes on for a while. I think the answers we come up with come from both the roles we’ve seen others take, but also from how we see our relationship between those who are going and those we are going to see. I’d like to relay a story from a good friend of mine that I believe sums up the latter very effectively.
I have a friend that moved a long way from her family. She rarely saw them because of the distance, just once a year or so. She was bothered by the fact that her kids were not growing up knowing their grandparents very well. With the limited time available each year for them to see each other, she considered the time very valuable for her parents and kids to spend quality time together.
Her parents, on the other hand, would come to visit and were always concerned with what projects they could do. Despite her effort to get them to spend time with their grandchildren, they always somehow diverted to working on some project around the house. After a while, she finally gave up trying to get them to stop, and instead found herself focusing on trying to find them projects to do. Her parents never seemed to believe that she was content with the way things were, so to bide their time she sometimes found herself coming up with projects that were neither important to her nor actually needed to be done. Her parents were acting out of love, but they were also acting out of paternalism, which had traditionally been their role, but was one that never changed when their daughter got married and moved out. She appreciated their effort, but wished that they would take some of that time to strengthen the family bonds.
Now let’s travel to South Sudan and see how similar the story is. We went to visit a church plant we were supporting. I showed up a day before the other missionaries, so I had some time to talk to the local indigenous pastor. He told me about how important it would be for us to go visit one of the new churches they’d planted in a more remote area. In fact, he made this point several times over the next day or two.
The next day the other missionaries showed up, and noticed that the gravity shower we had built on a previous trip was broken. The water tank was cracked. Fixing this became the first item of attention, and a significant amount of time and money were spent doing this. In fact, so much money was spent that we didn’t have enough left to be able to visit the church plant that was so important to the pastor there. The fact was, that the water tank had cracked because it rarely had water in it, and as the broiling South Sudan sun would bare down on the empty tank, it cracked. It simply wasn’t that important to them when it was built, and it wasn’t that important to them when we fixed it. They wanted to build relationships, we wanted to build STUFF. This relationship also had more than a sprinkling of paternalism. A paternalistic relationship says, “I’m from the rich country and I know what’s good for you better than you do.”
I learned a lot from that trip. Thinking about it made me think of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, as well as those of the other Apostles. What was the purpose of those journeys? There are so many answers to that question found in the New Testament that I’m not even going to narrow it down to any particular verses. They include evangelism, teaching, encouraging the body of Christ, dealing with problems within the churches, discipleship, raising up new leadership, and in one case taking up a collection to help another church that was in a region dealing with famine. Not once was the purpose to do projects. I understand that there are times when this is necessary, but if we go in with the attitude of “what can we build?” we frequently and completely miss out on the more important purpose of being there. That purpose is to expand the kingdom of God and to promote unity within the Church. There is no Western Church and developing world church, there is only the Church. We need to be aware that a Church is people, and not buildings and stuff. As it says in Acts 7, “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: “ ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?”
This is hard for Western missionaries, particularly Americans, to grasp. We are a very task oriented culture. We know that when we go somewhere, particularly if it’s a short-term missions trip, we have a limited time and we feel like we need to have something tangible to show for it. Most of the rest of the world though, considers relationships to be far more important. We need to keep this in the forefront of our mind when we go to see our brothers and sisters overseas. That project may be really important to you, but if it’s not important to them, you’re really not doing any good.
A while ago, I spoke with someone who was a missionary to China. For those that don’t know, China is a country largely closed to the gospel, and Christians frequently face persecution and often spend time in prison for their faith. Despite that fact, there is a thriving church there. This person lived there for a couple years, actually learning the language and living with the people, and was a witness through personal contact with the people.
He relayed a story to me about a particular Western missionary group who would periodically come to China. They based their method of ministry on John 6:35. ” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” They would do what they called “crumbing”, or dropping crumbs of the bread of life. This involved dropping tracts and literature from the windows of moving vehicles, hoping someone would pick them up and read them and therefore learn about the gospel.
The local authorities would find the literature, and the first ones they would blame (of course) was the local illegal church. This would then invite persecution on the indigenous Christians who had to live there every day and couldn’t go back to North America where it was “safe”.
The last words of Jesus in the book of Matthew are as follows. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Usually the last words someone gives you can be considered pretty important, and in fact, those words are what this blog is all about. We have all been commissioned as Christians to either do or help someone else do what Jesus said, that being to make disciples of all nations and baptize them. We need no special commission because Jesus was very specific.
There is a place for mass media in missions, but we also need to be wise in how we go about it. When we go to a place where persecution exists, (which is most of the world, by the way), we need to be very aware of how our actions affect the local church. If they are going to do something that invites persecution, that should be their own choice, and not ours. We have no skin in the game if we can just go home afterward and tell people stories of how wonderful it was that we could proclaim the gospel by littering out bus windows. Jesus said to make disciples and baptize them. The “crumbing” if you will, was actually hindering this effort. As an addition to that story, that missions organization was contacted and told what was happening, and they refused to stop.
Discipleship can’t happen out the windows of a bus. It requires more of you. It requires spending time, and building relationships. It requires love and friendship, and it requires you becoming vulnerable yourself. This is also why it is hard to disciple people with short term missions, though there are ways to do it. I have a friend in Kenya. We have only met on three occasions in person, but we keep in touch several times a week either by email, text, phone, or Facebook messenger. We disciple each other, pray for each other, and keep each other accountable.
In either case, we must consider not only what it costs us to go and disciple, but also what it costs those we are going to minister to. In Matthew 10, Jesus is sending out his disciples. He tells them, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” It is not enough to have good hearts, our heads must also be on straight. Being innocent is not enough, we must also be wise. There are so many situations where this applies in missions. There are some countries where if people even suspect that someone is a Christian, their own family will kill them. So let’s consider this before we decide to litter for Jesus.