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.
I’ve now been back from Ethiopia for about three weeks. I’ve had time to go through the pictures, and more importantly, I’ve been able to go through some of the hours of interviews I took of Ethiopians who are going out into the villages and towns in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. They are telling others about their faith and are suffering alienation from their families, physical violence against them, and some are paying the ultimate sacrifice. And yet they continue, because they know that God is worth it. They are seeing people freed from addictions and all kinds of things that destroy lives, and they’re seeing their communities changed because of it.
It’s very hard for me to convey what the gospel means to these people when I come back to the United States. We often have a very different view of what the gospel is in the United States. Just as in many areas where Christianity has been introduced, they have combined Christianity with their traditional beliefs, so we in the United States have largely combined Christianity with other beliefs. We combine our faith with politics, or with hedonism, or with capitalism, or any number of other beliefs. If we’re honest about it, these other beliefs often take precedence over our faith, and we end up changing our faith to fit these other beliefs rather than the other way around.
There’s a scripture that’s puzzled me since I first read it, and only since this last trip to Ethiopia am I beginning to understand it. It’s from Matthew 11, and in it, Jesus is looking at the crowds who had come out to see John The Baptist, and now that John was in prison, Jesus was addressing them. You have to understand that there was a large crowd of people out in the desert. He asks them, “What did you come out here to see?” He goes on to speak about John’s ministry that had started only about a year before. The verse that puzzled me was this one; “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” What did Jesus mean by “the violent take it by force?” Were John’s disciples violent? The answer is no. What Jesus was talking about was a descriptive picture of the crowds that had come out to the desert. They resembled an army besieging a city. They pressed in on all sides and would let nothing stand between themselves and John’s message, which was that the Kingdom of God is at hand. They were hungry for God’s Kingdom, as if they had been waiting since the beginning of the world for the message that was now before them. Truthfully, they had been waiting that long. They were taking hold of that message of salvation and repentance and the coming of God’s Kingdom as if, if they lessened their grip just a little, it would be gone.
It was only as I interviewed these Ethiopian pastors that I began to understand this scripture. The Kingdom of God belongs to people who turn their whole hearts toward it, who are willing to completely give up their old lives and take hold of it with a fervor that nothing can break. To reiterate his point, Jesus goes on to say,
“But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions,and saying:
‘We played the flute for you, And you did not dance; We mourned to you, And you did not lament.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”
Jesus was referring to the current religious generation, who heard the voice of the prophets, but were untouched by the message. They were so sure of themselves that when God and the prophets finally came, they saw only something to criticize. It is also what is referred to in 2 Timothy 3 “always learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
As I go through hours of video, I am planning to put together a longer video of the testimonies of several people. Their stories are unique, but remarkably similar in that each of them has given all for God.
I’ve been back from Ethiopia for a week and a half now. I’ve finally recovered from jet lag. My work on the photos is largely done, and now I’m going through hours of video. I spent the better part of a week with 150 people who live their faith in the same way the early church lived their faith. These men and women are living in some of the most dangerous places and are literally putting their lives on the line for their faith. I met people who have been beaten and stabbed, lost their jobs and families, and still find Jesus to be who he said he was and consequently worth everything they’ve gone through.
I shot video of some of the most incredible interviews you could imagine, some of which had to be shot in silhouette to hide their identity. I thought the stories of the early church were good, but some of what I heard was better. You’d think then that the interviews would be the highlight of my week, but they weren’t.
During lunch each day the team I was with would walk back to our hotel and have lunch at the hotel restaurant. One day I decided to instead go across the street to a vendor who had been cooking a pot full of something that at the time I could not identify. Generally I would go across to her spot (there was no stall,) and have buna, or really strong coffee served in a small cup. As I sipped my buna earlier that morning and watched her cook, I decided to have lunch there instead. Now before you tell me that it’s foolish to eat street food in Ethiopia, I’m just going to say that just because the kitchen is in a hotel doesn’t mean it’s any cleaner than the street food. Plus, I’d been able to actually watch her cook, and I was comfortable with it.
As I walked over with a couple friends I’d traveled with, I realized that the place I would be having lunch was where the indigenous church planters we’d been ministering to were also having lunch. There were probably about thirty people all sitting together on plastic stools at low tables having what turned out to be shiro with either injera bread or baguette. Shiro is boiled bean flour mixed with water, berbere spice, garlic, and rosemary and boiled until it’s the consistency of thick soup. You then sop it up with the bread. Flavor wise, it was one of the better meals I had in Ethiopia. But flavor isn’t all there is to lunch.
The church planters made room for us at a very small table and through our translator, we began to get to know each other in a way that hadn’t been possible in the more formal setting we’d generally seen them in.
Before I left for Ethiopia, a friend of mine had told me that God felt he had a message for us as we were going. That message was that a lot of these men and women were having such difficulty that they were thinking of giving up. He said our presence would be very important, because it would help the Ethiopians know that they are not alone.
As I sat telling and listening to stories, they conveyed to us how incredibly important our presence was to them. They let us know just how much it meant to them that we’d come all this way to teach and encourage them. They said that because we had come, they would go and do even more. By having lunch with them, we were able to connect on a deeper level. No longer just teachers and pastors and students, we prayed for each other and become brothers and sisters bearing each others’ burdens. Lunch cost about $2 for the three of us, including tea, but I can’t put a price on the connection we all made that day.
We had lunch there the next day as well. When I go back to Ethiopia again, I will make a point to eat with the church planters again. The hotel restaurant may have more than one thing on the menu, but it can never match the company.
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.
There is an Inuit legend that says, in the beginning there was only a man and a woman. Nothing else lived on the earth. So the woman made a hole in the ice and began fishing, and one by one she pulled out all the animals. The last animal she pulled out was the caribou, the animal that feeds the Inuit, and she ordered them to multiply. But as the herd multiplied, sickness came to the herd. As the herd got weaker, the people began to starve. So the woman made another hole in the ice and pulled out the wolf. And the wolf hunted the caribou and began to eat the weak and the sick ones, and the herd grew stronger. And the people realized that the caribou and the wolf were inseparable, because even though the wolf eats the caribou, it is also the wolf that makes the caribou strong.
The first verses of the book of James say, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” Many people read these verses and either don’t comprehend them or uncomfortably skip past them. After all, God just wants us to be happy, right? I heard the televangelist say so. Wrong. God wants us to have joy, but joy is something that comes outside of circumstance, and it comes through faithfulness and maturity. Happiness, on the other hand, is situation dependent. Happiness is external and fleeting, joy comes from the state of one’s spirit and is much harder to destroy.
How many times have we heard someone say, “why would God let this happen?” or “if God loves me, why am I going through this?” Well, sometimes trials are self-inflicted, but often they are not, and it’s not because God doesn’t love you. It’s exactly the opposite. You see, the human nature is to focus on self. When trials come, they can have one of two effects. They can turn one’s focus even more inward, in which case people become bitter, regressive and self-destructive. The other effect they can have is to cause growth. Trials can build patience, and character, and wisdom in people. They can turn a person’s focus outward. They can teach empathy toward the suffering. They can build understanding of situations. Trials can teach a person to stop listening to Self, and start listening to God. They can teach a person all of those “foolish” practices like dying to yourself and not always seeking pleasure, but becoming the person who seeks the needs of others over your own needs and wants. Why else would some of the wisest, selfless, and most effective ministers be the people in countries where persecution and trials are constant?
We often have the option in the west to avoid trials. We set ourselves up to avoid failure through insurance, 401k, working two jobs so we can invest more money, and most of all, avoiding the Great Commission. When Jesus told his followers to go to Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth, making disciples, it was not a suggestion for those who felt like it. It was a commissioning of purpose for everyone who follows Him. If we choose to avoid this commission to avoid trouble and protect our security, then we are content to accept God’s grace that is new every morning, but not to do what He asked us to do. We have traded our Purpose (capital P intentional) for a self-built security that is an illusion anyway. We are content to not grow.
Jesus said “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.” Sheep among what? Wolves. The people Jesus was speaking to didn’t know what caribou were, but he just as easily could have said “caribou among wolves”. Being sent out as sheep among wolves sounds crazy, but it wasn’t until after imprisonment and beating that the timid Peter who denied his Lord three times became the fearless lion he was to become. Legend says that Peter was crucified upside down because he said he was not worthy to die the same way as his Lord. I know this is a hard thing to grasp, and some might say it’s crazy, but this is the kind of people God is looking for, and this is what trials, hardship, and persecution produce. So when the wolf comes, let us not kill it, but be aware that it might be there to make us stronger, to produce people of supernatural faithfulness and character and wisdom. To create people that fulfill the verse in 1 Corinthians 1:27, “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;”
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.
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.
Recently I started going through many of my pictures and revisiting some that either I hadn’t looked at before, or revisiting some with a new eye. What I found was that there were a tremendous number of stories that haven’t been told. It is probably about six months until the next time I go to Africa. Until that time, I plan to honor as many people as I can, telling their stories and showing you through words and pictures the beauty of who they are. All will be from either South Sudan, Kenya, or Ethiopia. I’m doing this primarily because the more I talk with people about Africa, the more I realize just how vast the disconnect is between what I have seen and what people understand. There is simply no frame of reference for people in the western world. I can tell stories, or I can show pictures, but without both together; a powerful picture with an explanation of what you’re looking at; people just fill in the blanks with their own preconceived ideas. So without getting too wordy, here is the first one. All pictures can be clicked on for a larger view.
This is Alemi. I met her in the highlands of Ethiopia. She is a widow who lives with her son. I really don’t know what happened to her husband. The most common reasons in this region of Africa are either tuberculosis or HIV, but I don’t know for sure. Alemi lives in a simple home. She has wallpapered the mud walls with newspapers full of ads for things that will likely never be within reach for her. However, she recently received a micro-loan through a Christian organization called the Petros Network to help her start a business. With just a small amount of money, she is able to feed herself and her son, and even put a little bit of money away. She is able to do this not because of a handout, but through a method that allows her keep her dignity, promotes work, and teaches her son the value of work. I hope to see her again next year and see how she has progressed.
As westerners, our first reaction is to feel sorry for people we see who are poor. Don’t feel sorry for her, except perhaps for the loss of her husband. She has a roof over her head, food on the table, a small business, her faith in Christ, and she and her son are healthy. She is complete in that she has everything she needs except her husband, and very little that she doesn’t. However, let her be a centering perspective when we think we deserve better than what we have.
In the book of acts, Paul is described as a tentmaker. “Then Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he became acquainted with a Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently arrived from Italy with his wife, Priscilla. They had left Italy when Claudius Caesar deported all Jews from Rome. Paul lived and worked with them, for they were tentmakers just as he was.” Paul didn’t simply live and travel through the generosity of others, he worked as he went. He had a trade.
I have to be honest. Fundraising is my least favorite part of missions and traveling for the church. It takes a huge amount of time and effort, and I don’t really like asking people for money. Fortunately, I have a trade that helps. Whereas Paul made tents, I take pictures. The blessing for me is that I can take pictures anywhere I go, and when I come home, they become art that helps fund my next trip. It’s at least partially self-sustaining. Today I sold two art pieces, the proceeds from which will probably fund about ten percent of our upcoming trip to Kenya. It truly is a blessing to be able to do this. So with that thought, I just wanted to post the two pictures that sold, and put up a few others that I’m thinking of replacing them with on the Thibault Gallery wall in Beaufort, South Carolina. I’d actually like feedback on what people would like to see as art, so opinions are welcome. What I like is frequently not what other people like, and vice versa.