I’ve had a number of things on my mind lately that I’d like to write about, but I decided tonight to go back to the basics and tell a story of my travels. Specifically I’m going back four years to my last journey to South Sudan. At the time, South Sudan was the second most dangerous country in the world, and was quickly devolving to number one, which is where it currently stands. I’d like to be able to give reasons for why this is the case, but that would take volumes to describe. This being a blog, I fully expect to lose almost everyone if I go over 1000 words. If you’d like to know more about the how and why of the situation in South Sudan, feel free to look back through the archives where I write about it at length.
Staying put in South Sudan is not so bad. And if you have the opportunity to take a small plane where you need to go, you can avoid most of the danger, minus that of actually flying in poorly maintained small Russian planes.
The problem is when you have to travel the roads, and this is what we had to do. There was a village we had neglected to visit the last time we were there, and it was necessary to go and visit this time, despite the fact that the situation had gotten worse in the last six months since we’d been in country. The problem was two-fold. The first issue was what are known as “black snakes”. These are not literal snakes, though those exist as well, but rather armed bandits that wait along the road with Kalashnikovs for an easy looking target or a vehicle that has gotten separated. They then stop the vehicle and in the best case they only rob you. This is an ever present danger of road travel in South Sudan.
The other, more pressing problem was that of the White Army. An army of mostly children and teenagers from the Nuer tribe, they rub ashes on their faces as an insect repellent, hence the “white” moniker. They had been emboldened by the renegade vice-president and occasional war-lord of South Sudan, Riek Machar, to attack and raid villages of their cattle. The village we were visiting was directly in their path, and the only road back was in their territory. So to say the least, we were concerned about our road travel, especially since it would be nearing darkness as we were returning.
Many seemingly daunting or hopeless situations are punctuated by the simple phrase, “but God.” This one was no different. Normally I avoid soldiers in developing nations as much as possible, especially in South Sudan, where loyalties change at the drop of a hat. As Sung Tzu so famously wrote in “The Art of War”, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
As we turned out of the village along the Nile onto the rutted dirt road, a cattle truck full of SPLA soldiers was passing. We hung back a bit, but drove within sight of the truck the entire way back. Their presence offered a deterrent to any would-be attackers for the whole journey. As I thought about it later, a couple of things came to mind. Part of Psalm 23 was one of them.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;”
The table prepared came in the form of a cattle truck full of soldiers, and I was thankful for it. I managed to snap this clandestine picture as we drove.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about settlers, and I implied that there would be a second part. Well, after more thinking on the subject, here is the second part.
The word “settlers” has a couple of possible meanings. It could mean someone who follows in the footsteps of the pioneers and sets up camp when everything is safe. This was the angle I took in the first part if this blog. But there’s another possible meaning to the word settlers, that being the name given to people who settle for second best, or third best, or settle for the worst for that matter.
I wish I could say it wasn’t true, but when I look around myself, and when I look inward, I see an awful lot of settling, an awful lot of “that’ll do.”
Before we were saved, the enemy used tactics like lust, greed, hate, envy, and lots of other seemingly obvious ways to tempt us. After Jesus saved us, we (hopefully) stopped falling for those things so easily, though we will still often struggle. So the enemy changed his tactics to a more subtle line of offense, that being to get us involved in all sorts of good things, so long as those good things were not the best things that God had planned for us. This allows us to feel good about ourselves while still being disobedient. It allows us to continue to put ourselves first, and our faith atrophies like an unused muscle because we ignored the call to the best things God had for us.
Before someone starts thinking that I’m suggesting something that is too hard, I want to point out one truth that has been proven to me over and over again. God almost always wants better for us than we want for ourselves. Our recurring problem is that we’re unable to see it, because being Americans we associate blessings with money and power and things. Well I would go so far to say that the person that God chooses to give nothing but material wealth is truly cursed beyond all men.
God is not looking for our good, he’s looking for our best. He’s not looking for sacrifice, he’s looking for obedience. God is not looking for perfection, otherwise he wouldn’t have chosen us to do his work. Rather he’s looking for excellence, and a willing heart. God is looking for people that see that even though we live in temporary bodies, we are eternal beings, and our decisions should reflect that fact. He is looking for people who are not willing to settle for second best.
I don’t know what God has called any one person to except myself. What I do know is that it’s a question I have to continually ask, because each time I take a step, the decision about the next step is brand new. Each man and woman needs to ask that question, and then have the faith to take that next step.
I’d like to finish with some verses from Hebrews 11, which sums up what I’m talking about. The chapter is talking about many people who lived by faith, and it’s summed up with the following verses.
Hebrews 11:13-16. “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”
Just as the people spoken of in these verses had the opportunity to turn back, so we have the opportunity to do the same. But just as they were pilgrims and strangers on this earth, so are we, whether we recognize it or not. We have eternity written in our bones, and we were built for far more excellent things.
I’d like to start this post a little differently than usual. I’d like to start by just listing some recent observations I’ve made. They may seem disjointed at first, but hopefully I can bring them all together.
Yesterday I was in the gym. As I looked around the room, everyone in my line of sight was staring at their phones.
Sunday was the Superbowl. Today someone declared to me “We did it!”
A friend of mine from my childhood was furious yesterday because Donald Trump bragged about the great economy but was silent when the market did badly. He proceeded to verbally abuse someone about it on Facebook.
These observations might seem like they have little or nothing to do with each other, but I would argue that they do. I love the line from the movie, The Princess Bride. You don’t even have to know the context to understand it. “Come now, we are men of action. Lies do not become us.”
The very first thing that God tells Adam in the garden is to subdue the earth. Subduing the earth is a really big job, a job for men of action. All throughout history, God has been looking for men of action. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” “Be not only hearers of the word, but doers.” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” There are so many examples that I could not list them all. But at some point, we decided to discontinue being men of action and go with the lie. Which lie was that? That security and living life vicariously through the doers was preferable to taking a risk and being the doer firsthand.
What are people looking at on their phones? They’re seeing what kind of exciting lives people on Instagram are living. They’re seeing what celebrities are doing. They’re checking the sports scores. They’re watching people who are doing or are making the appearance of doing what they wish they were doing.
To the man who watched football and declared, “We did it!” I’m sorry, but you didn’t do anything. You weren’t on the field.
To the man who was so upset about the president bragging about something; why on earth should that bother you? If you’re looking to control something, start with self and don’t abuse other people because you’re upset about what someone you’ve never met is doing.
People are frustrated and fearful because they’ve given up significance. There is no significance in staring at your phone, or any social media. There is no significance in living life as if we’re somehow immortal in our current body if we can just avoid risk. We are supposed to be influencers and subduers. But if we don’t subdue the earth, the earth will subdue us. That’s just the way it works. The decision not to make a decision is still a decision. We are more than conquerors through Christ, unless we just give up. And that is what I fear we have done and just given up.
Jesus told Peter and James, and by transitive property, us, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At some point, we left the nets on the beach. They became weathered and dry rotted and ripped. It’s time to go back and pull those nets back out of the mud. It’s time to repair them, and fix the holes, and start catching men again. Don’t be fooled. You are an influence. It’s just a question of what type of influence you decide to be.
I’d like to finish with a parable out of Matthew. Matthew 5:13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
I’ve been in a lot of uncomfortable situations. Without going into too many details, I’ve done public speaking, which I’m told most people fear more than death. I’ve eaten some very sketchy meals and stayed in even sketchier places. I’ve traveled on some very dangerous roads. So in my own mind at least, it takes a lot to make me uncomfortable. Or so I thought.
My last trip to Ethiopia was supposed to be a documentation trip. My function, at least in my own head, was to take photos and videos. It’s what I do for a living and it’s what I’m comfortable with. Furthermore, when I’m taking pictures, there is a bit of a disconnect that happens by looking through that electronic device between myself and the subject, rendering the uncomfortable and the difficult just a little bit more palatable. Sunday that was taken away from me. One of the things on my shot list was to go to a particular local church of about 700 and take pictures of the service. A vehicle and a translator was procured. The plan was to show up, get some pictures, and get back out again. After all, I had to get back to finish work on the Tesfa Center, which was opening that afternoon, and there was still a lot to do.That plan went right out the window.
What happens when you are the only representative from an organization that shows up to a church that said organization has been supporting? Guess what? You’re preaching today.
I had about 40 minutes notice. There were no excuses, nor was I going to make any. Didn’t they know I’m just the photographer? Apparently not. We entered the church, and as tradition dictates, guests sit up on the stage with the pastor and the elders. You would think I wouldn’t have a hard time thinking of what to say. After all, I have 150 or so blog posts to draw from. But for some reason, none of that seemed to fit in a church I’ve never been to, in a language I don’t speak. I’ve preached before in Africa, but I knew a long time before that it was coming and spent quite a bit of time preparing. It’s not one of my highest skills.
My time came and I got up and spoke. To say the least, my sermon was short, maybe five minutes. I talked about the long legacy of following Christ in Ethiopia, all the way back to Peter speaking to the Ethiopian eunuch in the first century. I spoke about how it was possible that a missionary from Ethiopia may have been responsible some time in the past for the salvation that my family was blessed to have. I talked about how we follow Christ not because we have to, but because we have gratitude to our Father, who even while we were enemies of God, sent his son Jesus to sacrifice for us. I can only hope that I made some kind of coherent sense. One of the verses I said was translated wrong (the wrong verse was translated.) I can only hope this was divinely inspired. After all, if Balaam’s donkey could speak by the Spirit of God, there’s hope for me as well.
I finished, and the translator was quite surprised that I was done already. (That’s what you get when you ask the photographer to preach.) But it wasn’t over yet. I asked the translator if it would be rude to leave early, because I really did have a tremendous amount of work to finish. The answer of course was yes. Not only that, but I would be going to the pastor’s house with all the elders and deacons for a meal afterward.
The thing about missions is that there is a plan you start out with, and usually there’s an entirely different series of events that happens that looks nothing like that plan. Missions is not for the inflexible, and there’s a time to just give in and go with what happens. This was one of those times.
I sat down to the meal with some very gracious hosts who put an extravagant meal together by Ethiopian standards. There were two kinds of meat in a place where meat is not usually served at all. There was a spicy bean stew, and even bottles of soda. All of that was fantastic…….except for the injira bread, and that was where my second event taking me out of my comfort zone happened.
Injira is an acquired taste. It’s a spongy bread made out of a grain called teff. Injira, when fresh, isn’t bad. It’s used in place of silverware. You rip a piece of it off, and scoop up whatever is on the plate. It comes before the rest of the meal, and you unroll it and put your other food on top of it. This is all fine.
The problem is the Ethiopian taste for fermented injira. Lots of Ethiopians consider the flavor better after it’s had a few days to ferment, and fermented injira bread gets VERY, VERY, did I say VERY sour. If my Ethiopian friends are reading this, I’m sure you are laughing at me right now, but the injira I ate was so sour, I thought the meat with it had gone bad. Nevertheless I knew it wasn’t going to kill me, and I put on the best face I could as I choked it down and tried not to insult my very gracious hosts.
So where does this bring us? As with all things in missions, there are the plans we walk in with, and there are the plans that God has. Frankly, I was wrong to pigeon hole what I thought God’s plans were to simply taking pictures. He wanted me to preach that day, and not take pictures. He wanted me to engage in community and not work on the Tesfa Center. John 3:8 says “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
When I made that decision to follow Christ, I gave up the right to tell him what I will and will not do. The events of that day were a good reminder of that, and will allow me to be more prepared next time, perhaps at a time and place where the stakes are higher.
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.”
This blog is a bit different than what I usually write. Usually I’m considering ideas or thoughts having something to do with a recent or upcoming trip to Africa. Although I do leave again for Ethiopia in less than three weeks (yes, I was just there), my thoughts this week have come from an entirely different source. It also means that this post is going to be wordier than usual, because I’m writing for a specific purpose to a specific person, but I thought it might be worth sharing.
Several days ago, I was speaking with a Christian brother in the middle-east. He is an evangelist in a very difficult area, and he wanted to know my thoughts on resisting the devil. You see, he had just been to an area where people were supposedly proud to be Christians, and that there was not a mosque in the village. In talking though, it became more apparent to me that the people in the village were not so much proud that they were Christians as they were proud that they were not Muslims. They did not know the word of God, and many of them were living self-destructive lives. Many were trying to keep this fact hidden from the communities around them so as to not look bad.
Over the last few days, I’ve been praying and pondering on the subject of resisting the devil. I thought about all the methods mentioned in the Bible, and all the verses mentioned about resisting the devil. What I kept coming back to in my thoughts is this; You have to want to resist the devil before you can resist him.
Not resisting the devil is easy. All it requires is that you live the way you want to live, to consider yourself first, and that whatever you see as right in your own eyes, you do. It requires no humility, no accountability, and when all that causes problems in your life and the lives of those around you, you blame others.
What are the devil’s tactics? Well, on the obvious end, his intentions are to “steal, kill, and destroy”. John 10:10.
So why would anyone not resist that? If it was obvious that were the devil’s intentions, then everyone would resist. So his intentions must not be obvious, or people simply refuse to see it.
There is an interesting passage in Mark 3: 22-26. Jesus has been casting out demons, and learned men (the scribes) come against him, accusing him of casting out demons by the power of demons.
“And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebub,” and, “By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons.” So He called them to Himself and said to them in parables: “How can Satan cast out Satan?If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end.”
So why would such supposedly learned men suggest something so seemingly preposterous? It’s because there is some precedent to the claim. You see, the devil has no kingdom of his own, and no creative power. He has only the power to usurp the Kingdom of God for his own purposes. If we carry “steal, kill, and destroy” to its final end, we have not only the complete destruction of God’s kingdom, we have, by transitive property, the destruction of Satan’s kingdom as well. The solution to this is a periodical reduction in the destruction the devil brings in order to put things into balance again, hence extending the reign of the devil as the prince of this world.
There is a fine line in this. If there is too much destruction, people begin to wake up and resist the devil. Take what is happening right now in Iraq and Syria. There is cruelty, destruction, and killing the likes of which the world has not seen in a long time. As a consequence, despite the threat of death, multitudes of people from those cultures are coming to Christ. This will ultimately be a massive failure for the devil, because by carrying things too far, he has undercut himself.
Being a parasite on the Kingdom of God is a precarious place to be, because there is not a winning position. If you do too much, people begin to resist you. Do too little, and the world begins to revert back to the way it was when God created it. That fine line in the middle is where the devil would like to be. Cause just enough strife that man takes it for granted. When he gets used to that, cause a little more, and so on. It’s amazing how much evil men will tolerate if it’s brought on slowly enough. It’s the tipping point that’s hard to gauge. The objective is to keep man in a place where he will not resist, because when he resists, it’s over. James 4 is very clear.
“Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers andadulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?
But He gives more grace. Therefore He says:
“God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.”
Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.”
It doesn’t say, “resist the devil and he might flee from you.” It says, “resist the devil and he WILL flee from you.” If we do not resist the devil, it is because we have made an agreement with him that things are fine the way they are. Essentially, I won’t resist you so long as things are relatively easy and I can put myself first. It starts with an agreement, and agreements with the devil are never a good idea. (See the post called The Hyena Gate.) I’ve heard the phrase so many times, “I chose the lesser of two evils.” Choosing the lesser of two evils, over time, always leads to choices becoming more and more evil. And so the cycle repeats itself, where Satan must cast himself out again to bring order to his usurped kingdom, and therefore extend his reign.
So what would it look like if we stopped making these agreements? If we put ease, and convenience, and most of all Self aside and started resisting the devil? What would it look like if the Church resisted the devil? What would it look like if we woke up each morning and prayed, “Lord, not I, but you?” What would it look like if we stopped constantly trying to lift ourselves up and let God do it instead? I’ll just finish by allowing us all to ponder those thoughts, and I will be thinking about them as well.
The widow was ready for our arrival. She smiled warmly as she greeted us with “Akum Nagoma”. Her simple mud walled house had been cleaned and was in order. She was dressed in her best. New magazine pages had been plastered to the walls, as is the custom to beautify homes in this part of Ethiopia. A television sat under a plastic cover in the main room. She seemed to be doing well…if you chose not to really look.
The rows of dots tattooed on her shrunken neck were too close together; in fact she looked skeletal. When we complimented her on the new wallpaper, she said, “oh, that’s old,” even though we could see that it had just been put up. The television sat there conspicuously, but what good is a television when you don’t have electricity?
We knew something was up. The house had been beautified for our arrival. The wallpaper was obviously new. The television and many of the items in the home were likely borrowed from friends or neighbors. Though she tried to look happy, she was obviously either sick or starving or both. As we asked her questions about how she was doing, her smile and warmness changed. She at first said that she wasn’t able to express how she is doing, and finally broke into tears. It was likely that she knew we were there to help, but the thing about poverty that most people who are not financially poor don’t understand is that Poverty and its ugly siblings Shame and Isolation usually walk hand in hand. Though she knew she needed help, she also didn’t want anyone to know that she needed help, particularly not these strange foreigners coming into her home. She didn’t want anyone judging her ability to take care of her children or herself. Being poor is bad, but everyone knowing you’re poor is so much worse.
This situation cuts to the core of why Christ calls us not only into relationship with Him, but also into relationship with those around us, who are made in Christ’s image. The scriptures are numerous in this area, but I’ll just highlight one. Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” It is because of this principal that the enemy seeks so much to divide us. If we remain in relationship with each other, we are less likely to fall into sin, less likely to fall into not only financial poverty, but poverty of spirit. Studies show that married people live longer than single people. It’s nothing magical, it’s just that it’s not good for people to be alone. Its why the writer of the book of Hebrews thought it important enough to write, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” The enemy knows that we are stronger together, that is why one of the most worn out tools in his box is Shame. How many times has someone disappeared from church when trouble hits? “Iron sharpens iron” is the saying, but we can’t sharpen each other if we isolate ourselves.
There is no shame if we realize that we are all broken people. We are all broken in different ways, but when we gather together as one body in Christ, my strength helps you in your weakness, and your strength helps me in my weakness. But we have to go in with the humility of knowing that “while we were yet enemies of God, Christ died for us.”
The great thing about having indigenous staff in Ethiopia is that there are people who can check on this widow and see how she is doing. It’s also why short-term missions is so hard. It’s hard to build relationships from afar, but if you have people on the ground it’s that much easier. Hopefully this widow will realize that no one is there to judge her, only help. Starting is the hardest part, but if she goes the path of many of the other widows in this community, she will soon be sustainably feeding her own family and herself. In so doing, she will lift the community as a whole.
As is my tradition, before I take a trip overseas, I write a test blog from my iPad. The interface is a bit different on a mobile device than on a computer, so I like to write at least one blog from the iPad to work out any kinks while I have access to power and bandwidth.
Saturday I leave for Ethiopia. This is also the time when a hurricane is predicted to be passing through, but we will pray against that. If Jesus commanded the wind and the waves, and we are acting in his authority, then so can we.
We are traveling to Ethiopia to do the finishing work on the Tesfa Center, which is a center designed to give destitute widows in the rural countryside a place to work and sustainably support both themselves and their children. James 1:27 came to mind today. It says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God is this: to look after widows and orphans in their distress and to keep oneself unspotted by the world.” We have been given the awesome opportunity to do this. Notice that is not enough to be unspotted by the world? There are also things that must be done. Likewise we are not just called to be busy. Faith without works is dead, just as works without faith will not save us. By faith we show gratitude to the God that selflessly gave himself for us, that while we were yet sinners he died for us. We in turn should live as ransomed people. As God gave his life for us, we return it by giving ours back.
So long as I have internet I plan to give updates while I’m gone. Finally, I leave you with a picture of one of the widows we are going to minister to.
I remember as a teenager, there was a book in our school library titled, “Nuclear War, What’s In It For Me?” Clearly it was satire, but the title made me think. My blog is usually geared toward a western audience and all of the Western pre-conceptions and paradigms about the way we think the world is and what life should be. We think the title I mentioned is ridiculous, but with how many other things can we replace “Nuclear War” and it makes perfect sense to us? “Marriage, What’s in it for Me?” “Faith, What’s in it for Me?” Most of what we do and think about comes back to, “What’s in it for me?”. It seeps into the way we think about everything. Life is about money, and comfort, and prosperity. Life is about……..me. Even the verses we like to quote are about us. Jeremiah 29:11 is one of our favorite verses to quote. “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.”
The context and the preceding verse is conveniently omitted. This was the situation when Jeremiah prophesied those words; Israel had been carried into exile in Babylon. Their kingdom was gone, and their freedom gone along with it. They were aliens in a land not their own, and subjects of a pagan king. They longed to go back home, and false prophets were telling people that they would go home soon. Jeremiah had something entirely different to say, and it was something that came straight from God.
“This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Israel was complaining and asking “Why has this happened to us? When will God deliver us?” This sounds a lot like us whenever we face adversity, or when our life doesn’t look the way we want it to. We quote the verse about God wanting to prosper us, and fail to realize that He didn’t place us here for ourselves; that it’s not about us. I especially like the last part. “Seek peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” They weren’t to pray for judgement out of spite for carrying them into exile. They were to be agents of positive change where God had put them, even thought they didn’t want to be there.
Have you ever seen a tree growing on bare rock in the desert? Often it will grow where a seed found a small crack, and will start putting down a tap root that eventually splits the rock. Here’s the thing about that tree. It doesn’t complain that it was planted in such a bad place. It doesn’t envy other trees that were planted closer to water, or in a better climate. It quietly takes in sunlight and whatever water God gives it, and uses those resources in the fullest possible way for where it lives. As it splits that rock, more soil gets trapped in the crack allowing other small plants to grow there. Sometimes it reaches water that was hidden or trapped beneath the rock, and it’s able to flourish and provides shade for animals and less heat tolerant plants. Eventually, over centuries, the entire landscape can change, and if enough plants grow, even the climate changes and the desert can disappear. If a tree growing on a rock can do this, how much more are we called to as beings created in the image of God?
We were not placed here for us. We were placed here to make a difference in others, and consequently a difference in the world around us. Don’t moan about your situation and ask that God immediately remove you from the situation you’re in. Pray for the people and places around you, because if those around you prosper, so will you.
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.