A couple years ago, I wrote an article about my wife’s experience as she moved through fears, worry, and difficulty on her first journey to Africa. I wrote about how the first time the gravity of what she was doing hit her was when she went in for her immunizations before going to Kenya. Here is a link to that blog.
Now it’s my son’s turn. In less than a month, he will be going with me to Ethiopia. It will be his first time overseas (other than the Caribbean.) Certainly it will be his first time to a developing nation. Whereas my wife had fears of the unknown, I don’t think my son even knows yet what there is to fear. That is a good thing. Fear is usually of the unknown, and when whatever it is you are fearing eventually becomes known, it’s very rarely as bad as you thought it was going to be.
Quite the opposite, I’m excited for my son. He is going to experience new cultures and languages, new foods, new continents. He is probably going to see things that can only be understood through experience. He is still in high school, but this will give him a better education than anything possible in a classroom. He is going to learn about the real world through experience. Being taught in a classroom is one thing, but you never truly gain understanding through second hand knowledge.
I suspect he’ll have a similar experience that I did on my first trip to South Sudan. I remember being on the plane, and suddenly “What on earth am I doing?!” went through my head. He’ll be alright though. I know he’ll come back stronger and wiser. I know he’ll see things perhaps that test his faith, but also he’ll see things that make him realize that God is even bigger than he thought he was.
This is the first of my children to travel with me. I have two more that are younger. My eight year old has already been asking for a couple years if she can go to Africa with me. I always tell her the same thing. “When you’re 16.” I’m excited that the day has come that the first one is going.
Coming full circle, in similar fashion to three years ago, I was in a Passport Health office taking pictures of someone getting a shot who probably didn’t want their picture taken. Fortunately for him, my son only needed three immunizations, and one of them was oral. His road to becoming bulletproof didn’t take as many needles as my wife’s or mine did. Lucky him.
Over the past seven years I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve covered about a dozen countries, several of them multiple times. I’ve been to Ethiopia three times, South Sudan four times, and Kenya about ten or so. I’ve stayed in cities, towns, villages, and some places so remote that when you try to enter it into Google earth, you get nothing. The great thing about being a missionary is that whenever possible, I’m either staying with the locals, or at least somewhere very nearby. I’ve seen all kinds of living conditions, from a family of six living in a 3 meter by 3 meter room, to relatively affluent people living in modern houses with soft furniture and satellite television. Having seen all that, what I’ve learned is that poverty and wealth have very little to do with income.
I learned this week that the average individual, non-mortgage debt in the United States right now is $37,000. That’s the average of every person, not every family. One in ten have non-mortgage debt over $100,000. That is a staggering figure. Now I realize that for some people this is medical debt, and there’s not much that can be done about that. But for a lot of people, it’s just lifestyle debt; the desire to attain some fictitious standard that we’ve either been told we need to achieve, or that we’ve decided we owe to ourselves. It’s the latter that’s the most insidious thing. As we tell ourselves and our children that we can be and have anything we want, we seek to self-glorify ourselves through things. It is the end product of the hyper-individualistic American mindset. In the land where the winner is the one who accumulates, and the king is the one who accumulates more than anyone else, is it any wonder that we see success as having the most stuff?
Here’s the cruel irony. The inevitable end-product to individualistic self-glorification is that we eventually become a slave to someone else. Don’t believe me? Which of the following two people is richer? An Ethiopian who makes enough money to put a simple roof over his head, feed his wife and children, and is content with his life, or an American making $75,000 a year with a mortgage that is going to take 30 years to pay off, student loans that don’t disappear even if he goes bankrupt, two car loans, and a year’s income worth of credit card debt? Who sleeps better? What good is having stuff if at any moment the bank can call in all my loans? Who has better security, if such a thing exists?
I write this today not as a condemning measure, but because for many of us, our paradigm is that this is the way it has to be. I’m here to tell you that it’s not, and in fact most of the world does not do it this way. Wealth is not just having a lot of things, it is also not having the things you don’t need. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 says, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
For those of us who have chosen to make missions our lifestyle, this is doubly important. Hebrews 12:1 says, “let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” I can’t think of a bigger encumbrance than $37,000 of consumer debt. How can we be a servant of God, when we are already a slave to the bank? How can we give our time when our time is already spoken for to pay for our debts? Simple living is a virtue. I want to challenge us to learn from the African who lives simply, but enjoys his family and every blessing that God gives him. It’s not too late.
Normally I don’t put two photography-only blogs nearly back to back. However, there were simply too many pictures from the last trip to include in my April post, so here is another. Plus, my thoughts on other subjects are still ruminating. So rather than work on getting my disheveled thoughts into a proper order, I’ve decided to be lazy and put pictures up instead. Judging by the number of people that look at my blog when it’s only pictures, that seems to be what people want anyway. So here are more pictures from my trip to Ethiopia last month.
In October 2014 I was in the living room of an Ethiopian pastor in a very remote region of the Ethiopian highlands. He had three or four other pastors staying with him from out of town. We were having a prayer meeting, and I was kneeling at a chair. If you every get a chance to join Ethiopian Christians in prayer, do it. They will show you how to pray. A normally stoic people suddenly become animated and full of emotion as they come before the one on whom they can lay their burdens and thank for their triumphs. As we prayed, one of the pastors started speaking over me. Through another person who could speak English fairly well, he said that God would give me new skills that I would wear like ear rings, and that God would use me not only in Ethiopia and South Sudan and Kenya, but throughout the world.
What he didn’t know was that just months before, I was unsure I would even be involved in missions anymore. I had come out of an unhealthy relationship with another organization, and I could see no clear path ahead. It was one of the most discouraging times of my life. I felt as if the work I had done had been for nothing, especially since each time I went to South Sudan things continued to get worse. It’s one thing to not see results from your work, but it’s another thing entirely to see entropy overtake your efforts. Now my relationship with that organization was done. To top it off, civil war started back up almost as soon as I left South Sudan for the last time. The town I had been visiting had been burned to the ground, and one of our good friends there had been killed, and the rest of our friends had either fled or were suffering.
I began to praying regularly that I would see God move. Now I realize that God was under no obligation to answer this prayer. I can’t remember where it says it, but there’s something written in the Bible to the effect that many of the prophets never lived to see the results of their work. I’m part of a Kingdom that’s greater than myself and lasts longer than myself (eternity is always greater than finite time). Consequently, though I may see God move, He’s under no obligation to show me that movement.
Then I went to Ethiopia, and it was like I was standing in the book of acts. God was moving in such powerful ways. He was moving in miracles and healings, in events that I hesitate to even write about because the reader who hasn’t seen these things would likely dismiss them. But as a pastor I was interviewing recently said, “To us the healing and miracles are common. What is amazing to us is what God does in a man when he is saved from the life he was in.” The long and the short of it is, I got to see God move. I got my prayer answered.
Now back to what the Ethiopian pastor spoke over me. When I first got involved in missions, I saw my only purpose as photography and documentation. Although I still do that, and I will likely have that as a large part of my ministry for a long time, those other skills have been developing. I have been getting better at writing. I have been getting better at teaching and being an advocate for what I’m passionate about. I know how to lead a missions team now. Some friends and I have started a non profit organization called Bright Wings for the purpose of spreading the gospel and allowing others to fulfill their callings. Next year I will likely go to a country to which I haven’t been, that unfortunately I probably will not be able to write about, at least not directly.
Sometimes it seems like life is standing still and that nothing is moving. But then when I look back, I see how much ground has been covered, and it’s truly staggering. My prayer to see God move was not answered in a one-time event, but in a lifestyle. That is how I got from there to here.
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.
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.
As this year comes to a close and I assess all that has happened with missions and travel, I am reminded of the spiritual warfare that has happened throughout the year. I realize that all things work out for the good of those who love the Lord, but that doesn’t mean that the trials are any easier. Only as I learn more and experience more, I worry about it less and less. I am no longer blind-sided by it as much. I am still continually surprised by the ways in which it shows up, but it’s timing can be almost always timed down to the day shortly before something big is supposed to be happening. As I start counting down the days before I go to Ethiopia again, I can expect more warfare.
Lately I have been reading The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. It’s been decades since I last picked this up, and I am enjoying it if nothing more than for the word pictures it contains that give clarity to a lot of abstract concepts. During my pondering about this book, the subject of the armor of God came up. We find the subject of the armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-18.
“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.”
The thing that occurred to me when I read it this time that I had never noticed before was the choice of armor; helmet, shield, sword, breastplate, etc, and specifically what they have in common. The thing they all have in common is that they are only effective when you are facing and engaging with the enemy. A Christian who either has his back to the enemy or has not engaged the enemy has lost. God gives us the tools with which to fight, but we have to decide whether to fight or not. I wanted to talk specifically about the shield. When the apostle Paul wrote this, he modeled the armor after the Roman legion, which used a large curved shield called a scutum. Our faith is that shield. It is what allows us to stand up to what the devil and the world throw at us and allows our faith not to be shaken. But it does more than that. The scutum not only protected from the flaming arrows of the enemy, but when the combat got close, its size allowed its bearer to knock the enemy back. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this metaphor was chosen, because it’s only in the thick of spiritual warfare that we get close enough to knock the enemy back on his heels. James 4:7 completes the thought. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
This of course runs counter to our culture. We call ourselves Christians, but we refuse to engage the enemy. The evidence of this is in where we spend our missions dollars. 24% of the world has never heard the gospel. Yet those areas receive 1/2 of one percent of our missions dollars, whereas 94.5% goes to areas that are already filled with professing Christians. This makes absolutely no sense. Jesus said “Look, the fields are ripe for harvest, but the workers are few.” We keep going to the same fields that have already been harvested looking for a speck of grain that someone dropped, while the field next door, though harder to get to, has been completely ignored. Parents with children in the military are proud that their children are serving in conflict zones in Afghanistan or Iraq or elsewhere, but how many would send their children or go themselves to share the saving grace of God in those same areas? We somehow think it’s less important, when nothing could be further from the truth. Someday the sun and moon will fall from the sky, and we’ll all be long gone. At that point the only thing that will matter is whether and how we engaged the enemy. Is it a harder way? Yes. But as we see the world falling apart around us, don’t think the destruction that has fallen over Syria or Afghanistan or Yemen or Libya will fail to come to us simply because we failed to recognize that the enemy was not political factions but rather the prince of this world, the devil. We MUST engage the enemy, or we too are lost.
I want to make one final point about the shield of faith. If faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen, then we are taking something that cannot be seen and has no substance and turning it into substance and evidence, both of which are tangible things. It is only when we use faith, and faith becomes action, that action turns into something of substance. As James said, “show me your faith without action, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” The opportunities are there. We must have the courage to engage the enemy.
As I wrote in my last blog, I am supposed to be leaving for Ethiopia in just a matter of days. Well, as of now, that is not happening. I received an email at the last minute that threw our idea of the current situation into question. Reports had been conflicting for some time depending on the source they came from. (This is a subject for another blog entirely.)
For those who don’t know, Ethiopia has been in turmoil for a number of months now. The very simple (perhaps simplistic) version of a complicated situation is that Ethiopia is ruled in large part by the Amhara. The Oromo people are the largest ethnic group within Ethiopia. Disagreements between the Amhara and the Oromo have recently come to a head over a plan to expand the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, which would displace Oromo farmers. Tensions have grown, and now there are protests happening thoughout the country, with many turning violent. Protestors have begun attacking foreign interests because this will directly affect the bottom line of the government. With this in mind, at the last minute our trip was cancelled.
Now, I’ve had trips delayed for a couple weeks before, but this puts it off at least until the next scheduled trip in March, if things improve. I was disappointed by this, but also relieved at the same time. I’ve been watching the situation get worse for a number of weeks, and was wondering how effective I’d be able to work even if I did go. I know personally that a lot of other people are disappointed as well.
But after getting past the disappointment, I had to go back to thinking about why. Why would timing be such for this to happen this way? What do we do now? For the first question I would simply say that it’s better to find out now than when you’re already there. Also, I don’t mind there being a certain level of danger when traveling, but there’s nothing virtuous about going into a dangerous situation when you can avoid it by simply waiting.
For the second question, “what do we do now?” I want to go to Acts 16. Paul was traveling East through Europe toward what is now Turkey. “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia,having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
It’s easy when something like this happens to simply throw up your hands and say, “well that’s it then!” Why Paul was prevented from entering Asia we don’t know, but when prevented he didn’t just give up. He waited for God to tell him what to do and redirected. Paul eventually did make it to Asia, but not then. It would be easy to just sit around being discouraged, but that is not what God wants us to do. This is our opportunity to seek God and ask what it is He wants us to do now. Doing nothing but being discouraged is not it. If we are the kind of people who held a ticket to Ethiopia because of our faith, then we are people of action. Not being in motion is not in our character. So take a day if you must, but then get to action, because it’s likely there is something else God wants you to do, if you just ask Him to direct you.