Recently I was looking at a group I follow on Instagram. It’s an organization that puts together short term missions trips for which people can get involved. They put up a map showing all of the planned trips for the year. There were a lot of them, and they were certainly going to be very busy. But one thing stood out immediately, and that was the blank parts of the map, places where there were no trips planned. The entire Middle-East was missing. North and Central Africa were missing. Central Asia was missing. In short, the planned trips were all to places where the gospel has already been heavily preached. All or nearly all where there is a significantly large indigenous church presence to take up the job for which we’re sending short term missionaries.
Even in the first century, the Apostle Paul talked about this. Romans 15:20 says, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”
The problem is this; when Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations, going to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the Earth, we weren’t all supposed to go to the same place. God was looking for pioneers. He was looking for people who would do the hard work, going into hostile, uncomfortable places. That’s what pioneers do. But at some point the settlers came in. Settlers are people who see that the wolves have been killed, the land has been cleared, and the railroad has been constructed. Settlers want to do something worthwhile but don’t like risk. In short, settlers build on someone else’s work. They not only settle the land, they settle for second best.
What we have to realize is that the Great Commission was never about us. It was not about feeling like we’re doing something worthwhile. It was not about being or looking busy, or having a life-changing experience. Sometimes these things happen. It’s good to have a life-changing experience and have a heart change. But it’s more important to be obedient. When Jesus said to go to the uttermost parts of the Earth, he meant the uttermost parts, and not just the convenient and easily accessible parts of Mexico. When we go to these places, we often go to places where we are not needed, and local ministries often find themselves taken from critical work in their own communities to accommodate our insatiable need to feel like we got something done. In cases like this, it’s better to have just stayed home. I don’t want to sound harsh, but the more quickly we figure out that missions is not about us, the more quickly we can fulfill the actual commission we were given.
So the next time an opportunity comes up to get involved in missions, ask yourself, “Am I a pioneer or a settler? Am I doing the best God has called me to, or am I settling for second best?”
I’ve now been home from Ethiopia for almost three weeks. I went straight back into normal life. I shot a wedding with a case of jet lag. Then went on to edit the one I shot right before I left. I’ve had jobs to do just as if I’d never been gone. On top of that, I also had the pictures from Ethiopia to edit, and I’m just getting to some of the ones I shot in September as well. Needless to say, I’m tired. Which is why I have not written until now. It’s certainly not because I lack content. A lot happened on this trip, most of which I hope to write about once I figure out how to convey my thoughts properly.
Though I don’t yet feel completely ready to start writing about the experiences I had on this trip, it’s been long enough, and I need to just start writing.
The first thing I’d like to write about is something that happened the first day of the medical clinic. Medical clinics are always hard, particularly on the first day. That’s the day when the most desperate people show up; the ones who know something is seriously wrong but don’t have the money to go to a doctor. You see a lot of tuberculosis, a lot of cataracts, HIV, thyroid problems, even leprosy.
But one lady just wrecked me. She was dropped off on a donkey by two men, who promptly left. She was elderly, bend over at a 90 degree angle, she was blind from cataracts, and she was extremely agitated. She said she was sixty years old, but if you told me she was ninety, I would not have thought twice about it by looking at her. Even before anyone was able to help her, she was saying if she didn’t get help she was going to kill herself. She said she had no home and no family, and had nowhere to turn.
Looking through the lens gives me a little bit of separation from what’s happening in front of me. Even still, after I was done shooting what was going on in front of me, I had to go find a quiet corner and just cry. After that, I had to compose myself and get back to the tasks at hand. I saw this happening to other people as well. There are plenty of tragic human stories you see in Ethiopia, but the ones where you see no hope in people’s eyes are truly the ones that hurt.
The woman got in to see the doctors, though I don’t think there’s really much they were able to do for her. We didn’t work on cataracts, and I don’t think there was anything they could do for her posture. We didn’t know who had dropped her off, so we also didn’t know what to do with her. Consequently she spent a lot of time in the medical clinic being tended by various people of different backgrounds that day, medical or not. I was also able to keep track of her since I saw so much of her.
It was because of all of this time spent with her that her story began to crack. It turned out she was not alone. She had children, including a son, who had been watching from a distance. She also was not homeless, and apparently also had plenty of food, judging from the amount she kept pulling out of her blouse. (Yes, the story keeps getting stranger.) I heard people say (and honestly felt myself) that it had been foolish to feel such angst over this woman, because she lied to us. But should I have?
I’d like first to say that dealing with the poor and the marginalized is often and usually messy. Sometimes they lie to you. Sometimes they have habits that cause them to be in the situation they are in. Frequently, it can take an emotional toll on you to the point where you begin to look for the emotional “out” if you will. It was for times like this that Paul wrote in Galations, “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” People were feeling foolish for having compassion because she had lied to us, but the fact was that her story was still tragic. She was still blind, still crippled. The desperation she had on her face when she arrived and the tears she shed were real. She lied because she wanted someone to show compassion to her and spend time with her, which is exactly what happened.
Should God feel foolish for having compassion for us when we prayed that, “Lord if you only get me out of this, I’ll do (fill in the blank)?” Of course not. In the same manner that God showed grace to us, we need to show the same grace to others. That is why our creation in the image of God is so profound. In the same manner that God shows grace to us, we should act in grace toward the others around us who are also made in God’s image. This is summed up well in Romans 5. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.”
Though there was little we could do for her physically, she met people that day that cared about her. She met people who were willing to listen to her, and people who would sit down and pray for her. She met people who were willing to be the hands and feet and voice of Christ on Earth. She met people that showed the same grace to her as Christ showed to us on the day that “while we were still enemies of God, Christ died for us.”
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’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.
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.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been born in America, or maybe the sum of my experiences has carried me in a different direction than most of my friends and acquaintances, but as time goes by, I find my world view changing and my values diverging from what many in this country find important. As the lyrics from a profound song by Downhere goes,
I was born depraved but created for the divine
With death in my bones, in my heart eternal life
I’d love for Eden, but I’d kill for Rome
I’m native in a land that is not my home.
One of these values that I no longer hold dear is for comfort. Comfort and the seeking thereof is everywhere around us in America. Comfort is seen by many as a right. Just look at all the ads, whether it is for clothing, or mattresses, or some prescription drugs that promise comfort in one way or another. Well I have to say, comfort is overrated. Comfort keeps us from doing the hard things, the noble things, the right things.
I’ll be teaching a class on missions soon at my church, and this is one of the concepts I want to try to convey. Too often, missions is pitched as “a golden opportunity for a life changing experience”. You get to go and help people and have a wonderful experience, and at the end of it, we’ll go snorkeling.
This is not the experience I’ve had. If missions is going to be a lifestyle and not just a chance to make you feel good, it’s going to be hard. I’ve been sick, brought sickness home to my wife, traveled on bone-jarring roads, slept with sweat dripping down my neck, woken to the sound of a woman wailing who had just discovered her dead child, seen starvation, malaria, leprosy, AIDS, and TB. I’ve been stopped at gunpoint and my driver pulled out of the car and beaten. I’ve woken to gunfire. Are we having fun yet? If you go expecting a wonderful experience, what happens when the reality is so hard that it leaves you questioning your faith? Will it fail?
“Consider it PURE JOY by brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds, because the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” This is how the book of James opens. I’m genuinely sorry if this is a hard blog to read today, because I know this concept at best lurks around the periphery of many people’s faith, but rarely does it look them straight in the eye. Let’s be honest, we have it extremely easy in the western world; many fail to realize just how easy we have it.
Do we want comfort, or do we want to be effective and walk in the Spirit of God? If there is a way to do both, I don’t know that path, and I haven’t seen it. The title of this blog today comes from an observation my wife made. She asked me, “you’re comfortable being uncomfortable, aren’t you?” I had never thought about it before, but I had to answer that I was. I wouldn’t have it any other way. So many times the Bible talks about the joy of the Lord, or says we will find rest in him, or that he binds our wounds. All of these verses though speak of that joy or rest or comfort that we find in God. This is why it’s possible to be comfortable being uncomfortable. The trials and “uncomfortableness” of the world, if you will, are temporary and finite. It’s an infinite God that we find comfort in even when the experiences of the world are harsh, painful, sorrowful, and hard. It’s why it’s possible to see and experience terrible things without losing our faith. It’s possible because it’s all in God’s hands, and the harder the word, the more glory is brought to His name. So go ahead and consider it pure joy when you face those trials, and when the opportunity comes to go to the truly hard places, take it.
In my last post I wrote a bit about agreements. It’s been a while since I’ve written, but the subject is still on my mind. Now that I’ve become aware of it, I have become more able to see what kind of agreements people make (including me) that we shouldn’t enter into.
In the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Tommy is telling the others about how he met with the devil at a crossroads and agreed to give up his soul in exchange for being able to play the guitar. Delmar responds with, “You sold your ever loving soul to the devil for that?” To which Tommy responds, “Well, I wasn’t using it.”
The agreements we make are frequently not made so explicitly, but they are made nonetheless. I’m finding that most of the agreements we make are made not because we met with the devil at a crossroads, but because bad things enter our lives, and rather than fight them, we become comfortable with them over time, until we finally fail to see them at all. Then, even when we are given an opportunity to be free of what plagues us, we’re so comfortable with our affliction that we choose not to give it up.
This blog is mostly about Africa and missions, so let me give you an example from that vein. I will shortly be going back to Kibera, Kenya. I’ve been to a lot of places in Africa that seem hopeless, but Kibera is possibly the worst. The filth alone is enough to completely overwhelm. People live (and I use that word loosely) on less than two dollars a day. Disease is rampant. Sewage runs between all the shacks. Children are abandoned during the day as mothers go out looking for work. There are constant fires because of electrical shorts from spliced wiring as people steal electricity from neighbors. Garbage has literally formed layers like a geological feature that you can see from the past hundred years. When you ask people what they have hope for, they literally come up with nothing because hope is a distant relative that died a long time ago. For some people poverty is a temporary thing; a temporary setback until they are able to get back on their feet. Kibera’s poverty is something much worse. It’s poverty that is over 100 years old. It’s no longer simply a lack of resources, it’s now a pervading state of mind. It’s old, generational poverty.
Many people living in Kibera do not have what it takes to extricate themselves from the slum, but some do. These are probably the saddest cases, because they have made an agreement that Kibera, as bad as it is, is ok. The first time I was in Kibera, after about forty five minutes, I literally felt like I needed to get out. From that point to being so comfortable with it that you decide not to leave even if you can is almost unfathomable to me.
Now, I’m going to preface my next statements by saying that I have a real problem with prosperity doctrine, which is unfortunately popular both in the United States and Kenya. It teaches basically that if you have enough faith, God will bless you and make you rich. I could go on for an entire blog about how this is wrong both scripturally and in the real world, but I won’t. While I don’t believe it is God’s intention to make us rich, I do believe he cares for us as his own children, which we are. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11. ““Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11: 11-13
The bible frequently talks about how we will suffer along with Christ if we follow him, but if we realize that we are beloved children of God, when he sends the opportunity to be freed from bondage and suffering, it hardly makes sense to then say, “No, that’s ok. I’m good”. While we are called to suffer with Christ, we are not called to make agreements with the devil simply for the sake of taking on suffering. “My marriage is bad, but it’s ok.” “I live in filth, but it’s ok.” “My children are starving, but that’s just life.” These are all agreements from the pit of hell. Something I have been learning is that I don’t pray big enough. I pray for something but cut short the full extent of what I need, or the needs of someone I’m praying for. When you realize you’re praying to an infinite God, it suddenly seem stupid to put limitations on your prayers. I met an Ethiopian pastor recently who said “I always pray for something, then double it.” He’s not praying for riches, he’s praying for the lost to be saved, for the captives to be set free, and for a bit of God’s kingdom to show up here on Earth. The first step in that process is to stop accepting the physical, spiritual, and mental squalor that we have agreed to live in.
In eastern Ethiopia is a small and ancient walled city called Harar. It was founded sometime between the 7th and 11th centuries, depending on whom you talk to, and it is Islam’s fourth holiest site. One of the things Harar is known for is the nightly feeding of the hyenas. The people of Harar and the hyenas have an “arrangement” if you will, where the hyenas come in at night and clean up the trash. There is actually a small gate in the city wall for the hyenas, known appropriately enough as the hyena gate. Though the hyenas will eat out of a person’s hand, they are by no means tame, but it makes for a great show for the tourists every night. Hyenas are known as scavengers, but I think a more accurate description of them would be that they are opportunists. If hunting is easier, they’ll do that. If intimidating a lion out of its kill is more convenient, or if taking food from a willing Ethiopian works best, then that’s what they’ll do. But the fact is that they are wild animals with no loyalties, and if ripping your face off works for them, so be it.
A couple days ago, I read a simple phrase that said, “The devil is an opportunist”. My thoughts were immediately brought back to the hyena gate. What is the purpose of a wall, but to keep things out that are dangerous to life and limb? Every walled city has weak points, but the people of Harar have made an “agreement” and purposely allowed something unsavory into the city. Yes, attacks are rare, but it remains that at any time that arrangement might no longer be considered convenient for the hyenas, and at that point, it’s too late.
This works for people as well. After considering this, I had to ask myself, “are there things in my life that I have made agreements with that have the potential to destroy me?” Have I told myself that having the hyenas inside my city wall is ok because they clean up for me? Have I learned to trust them? How many of us have gone so far as to install a hole in the city wall? The devil is an opportunist. I’ve heard lots of people say in one way or another, “the devil made me do it”. This is nonsense. He doesn’t need to. “But each one is enticed by his own evil desire. When desire is full grown it gives birth to sin. And sin, when it has reached completion, gives birth to death.” The devil has only to wait and see where our weak points are and exploit them, which is why it is so important to be vigilant and to daily put on the full armor of God. What are the gates we have installed? They’re different for everybody. “I have to drink after work or I can’t wind down.” ” “I know I shouldn’t look at that, but I’m not hurting anyone.” The list is almost endless, and if you think you have no gates, I can almost guarantee that pride is your gate.
The news recently has been full of people who had everything going for them, but had made agreements in their life they thought they could control. They were wrong. Their agreements were found out, and their lives were destroyed. It’s time to take inventory of the gates we’ve installed, and ask God where the weak spots are in the city wall. It’s time to get a pile of stones and some mortar and fix those spots, before the hyenas grow tired of our arrangement.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about “privilege”, especially when talking about subjects dealing with the poor and with social justice. I’ve had some thoughts on the subject I’m going to write about for a while, but I’ve really had to take some time to formulate my opinions on this. I knew from the beginning that there was something that rubbed me wrong about the whole concept of “check your privilege”, etc, but it took my a while to work out in my mind why. I think after a couple months of thought on the subject, I’ve figured out the whys of this enough to write it down, and I doubt it’s what you think.
There are two sides to this whole equation, the side as seen from the “haves” and the side seen from the “have nots”. I’m going to start with the side of the “have nots”. The idea of privilege basically says that there are certain things endemic or common to a certain group of people that makes it difficult if not impossible to get ahead; that you will never be able to battle against the “haves” who have had everything handed to them. The idea that “I will never get ahead because I’m the wrong gender or the wrong race or I was born in the wrong country or my parents were from the wrong societal class, etc, etc, etc.” My main gripe with this mode of thinking is that it automatically relegates entire groups of people to victim class. Let me start by saying that there are classes within society that generally speaking have a harder time getting ahead. Now that I’ve aired that fact, unless someone is blaming themselves for things beyond their control, the worst thing you can do for someone having a hard time in life is to tell them they are a victim. People who see themselves as victims tend to give up. They see life as something that is beyond their control, and any effort to improve themselves or their situation will be met with failure, because the system is against them. People who see themselves as victims also see anyone better off than themselves as the enemy, and frequently demand their pound of flesh, even if those people grew up in the same circumstances that they did. I’m reminded of the Lakota Reservation near where I used to live. The conditions there are deplorable, worse in fact than those in some of the developing countries I’ve worked in. There was a Lakota man who bought a house to fix and live in. Right after he replaced the windows in the house, his neighbors thought he had “sold out”, and threw rocks to break all the new windows in the house. This is what happens when someone takes ownership of the victim mentality, and there is no profit to anyone in driving that idea home. Some of the people I respect the most started out with the least. Some of them still have very little monetarily, but they are tremendous stewards of what they’ve been given. The difference is that they are not unaware of the difficulties, but they do not see themselves as victims.
The other side of this equation is from the perspective of the “haves”, if you will. This side of the equation bothers me even more. Lately a common way of thinking has been that there are certain people who just by who they are and where they are born, are more likely to be successful than other people. They will have less difficulty in life and more success in what they do. While in a large number of cases this is true, the conclusions drawn from this are what bother me. The conclusion is that one should feel guilty about this and hold yourself back from the benefits of this because someone else did not have the same opportunities you did. Does this make sense? Well, I guess that depends entirely on how you see yourself. Do you see yourself as the final recipient of all the blessings you’ve ever received? Do you see yourself as the ocean into which all blessings flow? If you do, then feeling guilty about how you got where you are makes some sense. But in this line of thinking, it’s still all about self, which is in fact the root of the problems we’re talking about. The unfortunate result of this is a twisted line of thinking by which your feeling guilty about your own success in life somehow absolves you, and by feeling guilty you actually feel better about yourself. It’s as if staring at the severed finger of Saint Guilt in it’s golden box absolves you of your sins. It’s truly an indulgence for narcissists. No matter how guilty you feel about yourself, if you see yourself as the final recipient of all good things that have happened to you, your focus is still on self, no matter how much you say it’s about the less fortunate. Remember, a lake with no outlet is usually a stagnant pond. In some ways, thinking like this actually allows you to secretly feel superior to the less fortunate so long as you feel guilty about it.
The other way of seeing yourself is that if you receive a blessing, it is a gift from God. But it doesn’t end there. If you receive a gift, it is just that; a gift, something given to you because of the generosity of the giver and not because of the virtue or deservedness of the receiver. Gifts, then, are something to be shared, and not something to be hoarded. If you are given good things, whether they are talents or money or favor, these are things to be shared with those who did not receive them. Feeling guilty helps no one and does not help you to be a good steward. If you are not the final recipient of a gift, you are more like a lake through which rivers flow both into and out of. The constant recirculating of fresh water in and out keeps the water clean.
The parable of the talents in Matthew comes to mind. It talks about three people who are given different amounts of money (talents).
“For it (the kingdom of heaven) will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.So also he who had the two talents made two talents more.But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed,so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
The two things I notice here is that first, the master (God) gave different amounts to different people, but it was not FOR them. It was given to them so that they would make something of what they had been given for the benefit of the master. The second thing is that the one who was scolded and punished at the end was not the one given the most, who should naturally feel guilty about all he’d been given, but rather the one given the least, because he was not faithful with the little he’d been given.
We are given what we are given to make the world a better place, to bring a piece of the kingdom of God to Earth. If we are given much and spend it on ourselves without regard to those around us, who are made in God’s image, then it doesn’t matter whether we are given little or much. We are still being unfaithful. The book of James sums it up very well. “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” God does not give to us because we deserve anything, so let us treat his gifts as such, and be good stewards with what he gives us. Guilt has nothing to do with it.
I haven’t written much since getting back from Ethiopia. It’s not because I don’t have a lot to write. Frankly, it’s because it’s hard to put it all together. It’s hard to describe the things I’ve seen and make it seem relevant or even believable to western readers. There’s a point where you no longer are able to convey the amazing things that happen somewhere because you cross the line where people simply dismiss what you’re writing as fanciful drivel. So today I’m going to try to convey what “kingdom” is, and I’m going to quote such seemingly unrelated sources as Nate Saint and Douglas Adams.
Nate Saint, who was martyred by the Huaorani people in Ecuador in the 1950’s, said, “People who do not know the Lord ask why in the world we waste our lives as missionaries. They forget that they too are expending their lives… and when the bubble has burst, they will have nothing of eternal significance to show for the years they have wasted.” While Nate himself was not able to personally bring the gospel to the Huaorani people, his courageous wife went into the lions den, to the people who had killed her husband, and brought the gospel of Jesus to that tribe. The consequences were staggering. The tribe was on the verge of extinction because they lived such a violent lifestyle. There was no word for “grandfather” before the gospel came, because no man lived long enough to become one. All that changed because of people who believed in kingdom. So what is kingdom?
In the “Lord’s prayer” Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father in Heaven, Holy is your name. YOUR KINGDOM COME, YOUR WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN.” So what does he mean by that, and what does “your will be done” have to do with kingdom. Well, imagine it this way. To an earthly ruler, anywhere that ruler’s will is done is their kingdom. Consequently anywhere where God’s will is done is his kingdom. I think this is where Christians in the west have gone completely off course. We’ve been taught that kingdom is what we experience when we die. Consequently, following God becomes a set of rules we follow as we go about our business with the final goal of going to heaven. It becomes a very inward-focused faith that doesn’t touch the world around us. It leads to such statements as, “my faith is a personal issue”. Imagine if you started working for a company, but you were only there for the retirement benefits, and never intended to actually do anything during the 30 years or so you were there. This is what kingdom looks like if you see it as only heaven when you die. If, on the other hand, we recognize that kingdom is not only what is to come, but what is also here now, our focus changes from the inward to the outward. In Colossians 1 it says, “all things have been reconciled through Christ, whether on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of his cross.” How long have we ignored the part where “all things on earth have been reconciled” and just moved on to the heaven part? Admittedly, it’s easier to ignore that part because it takes work, and it takes faith.
Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy states that there are three kinds of people. There are thinkers, doers, and everybody else. I believe this is true, to an extent. Ideally I’d like to be both a thinker and a doer. When you take prayer, and add thinking and doing, that is where visionaries come from. Many of the people I met in Ethiopia are visionaries. Being either one or the other frequently causes problems, but there are too many of us content to be the “everybody else”, neither a thinker or a doer, especially when it comes to our faith. Let us be the visionaries, the thinkers, and the doers, not the spiritual equivalent of a forty year old living in his parent’s basement playing video games.
I got back from Ethiopia about three weeks ago. While I was there, I was able to see kingdom in action. 175 church planters were there for training, but the great thing about being with these people is that we truly learn from each other. Two or three of them weren’t able to make it because they were in prison for preaching the gospel. Several people from their churches were also in jail for being Christians. We interviewed every one of those pastors, and every one of them faces persecution. They’ve been beaten, had their lives threatened, had stones thrown at them when they’re preaching to their churches, had their families attacked when they’re away to keep them from leaving, and had phone calls in the middle of the night threatening to kill them. The sobering thought is that it is very likely that some of the church planters we send out this fall will be killed for their faith. I am not exaggerating at all. These men and women understand kingdom, and if you told them your faith is a personal thing, I think they’d look at you dumbfounded, because where they are coming from, that is not even possible. In their prayers, and in the way they speak, and in their entire demeanor, it is evident that they are all in. And this is what kingdom is all about. It is about expending yourself to make the world the one God intended it to be; one where the gospel is preached to the poor, where the brokenhearted are healed, where the captives are set free, where the blind are given their sight (both literally and figuratively), and where the oppressed are liberated. That is what kingdom is about. I see a movement coming in this country (we’re rather behind the much of the world here) where people put the old “fire insurance” version of following Christ to bed, and start recognizing that kingdom is not only coming, but is now.