It is virtually impossible to not be greatly affected by your surroundings and culture in your worldview. It’s also virtually impossible to understand other cultures without a frame of reference. It’s hard to obtain a frame of reference without actually going, but the next best thing is pictures and video. So consider this blog to be my best attempt to provide a frame of reference. I’ve been back from Ethiopia for about three weeks now. Frequently after a trip, I pause my pontificating for a bit and just post pictures. There are unfortunately a lot of pictures I can’t show. However, here are a number of pictures from places we went and the people we met on the street. More later. Enjoy.
I am now back from Ethiopia. My plan was to write at least a post or two from in the field. Unfortunately, a few days before I left, electronic devices in carry-on bags were restricted on flights from a number of middle-east airports including one I would be traveling through. This meant that I was going to have to check my iPad in my luggage. Due to experiences some of my fellow travelers have had with airport workers with sticky fingers, I opted not to bring any more expensive gear than was absolutely necessary.
Though I would have liked to have been able to write from the field, by best thoughts on the things I’ve seen and experienced when I travel often come not during, but weeks or even months afterward. I need time to process and ruminate on things. I took a couple thousand pictures and hours of video on this trip, and looking at those will also help me to put things together.
If my writing seems a bit off, it’s because I’m still jet lagged. I was up for almost 48 hours straight this time coming home, due to the schedule and some very uncomfortable flights. (I truly hate middle seats). I traveled a different airline this time than I have before, Turkish Air to be specific. I had some initial trepidation about flying this airline, but after the experience I can honestly say I would do it again. The food, by airline food standards, was actually pretty good. Furthermore, I had an eight hour layover in Istanbul on the way home. Turkish Air, though they don’t seem to advertise it, will give you a free tour of the city with a guide on a nice bus if you have a long layover. We opted to do this, and I’ve got to say that Istanbul is a fantastic city to visit. At least the parts that I visited were modern and clean, but full of ancient historic sights everywhere.
So the long and the short of it is this. I had lunch in Eastern Ethiopia, dinner in Addis Ababa, Turkish coffee in Istanbul, then I flew to New York where I had pizza in Brooklyn with a very old friend. In Istanbul I was able to see Asia across the water as I drank my coffee. All told it took about thirty six hours, but from leaving Africa to landing in New York was about 24 hours. It was not the most relaxing way to travel, but it was an adventure, and I was able to add Turkey to the list of countries I’ve been to.
Soon I will start writing about Ethiopia, but I need to get some rest first so I can put two words together and have them make sense.
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.
My wife made an interesting observation recently about censorship, and how nations use it to control their people. She noted that most of the nations that censor their media and internet, like China, North Korea, and a number of Arab nations, do so because they know that if the word got out that much of the world was such a great place to live, they’d never be able to keep people within their own borders. You look at the blind, maniacal loyalty displayed in North Korea (at least on the outside), and it only exists through a combination of fear and the kind of propaganda that only can exist if the flow of information is tightly controlled. Which begs the questions, “so what’s our excuse?”
Do I mean that our government censors the information we receive about other nations and cultures? No. They don’t have to, because we do it ourselves. The average American has no idea what the rest of the world is like. We don’t watch international news, learn other languages, or travel. When we do travel, we go to resorts where we won’t have to mingle with the indigenous populations. We are not generally taught geography after the seventh grade. According to National Geographic, half of American 18-24 year olds can’t find New York on a map, which is in their own country. One third can’t tell you which direction northwest is on a map. Three quarters think that English is the most commonly spoken native language in the world. Only half could find India on a map.
So why all the self-censorship? I believe it’s the repeated mantra that America is the greatest country in the world. Is it? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. It depends on what standards you are basing your assumptions.
When I was in my twenties, I mountain biked with one or two friends quite frequently. Compared to them, I was quite fast, so I decided to start racing. I entered my first race in the intermediate category, thinking I was too good for the beginners. Well, I came in dead last by a long margin. It wasn’t until I actually raced against people who were serious about it that I found out where the bar had been set. Only someone with a lot of arrogance or a self-proclaimed idiot declares themselves the best at something when they don’t even know what standard that statement is based on. I was probably a bit of both, and I had to be both educated and humbled by those that actually were the greatest. It was only at that point that I really started to improve and start winning some races.
Thinking we’re the greatest as a nation is potentially more damaging to ourselves and the world. On one hand, without knowing anything about the world around us, we fail to see the needs of the world around us. On the other side of things, we also don’t see where other cultures or nations do things better than we do, and believe me, there are many areas where we are not first. By having this myopic, insular view we have lured ourselves into complacency for both the needs of the poor and our own improvement as a people. We have both no compassion for the world and no willingness to strive for what is better. We have willingly relegated ourselves to live in a cultural wasteland. We think that the rest of the world isn’t worth knowing about because we are better than them in every way, and we’re totally wrong.
People who think they have nothing to learn from anyone else are people who have willingly decided that they are going to stagnate. And stagnation is no recipe for greatness.
Each year, I try to publish some of my favorite photos of the year. This year, as I went through my files for the various things I took pictures of this year, it became apparent to my the vast diversity of things I shot this year. Up until this point, I hadn’t realized this year was different from any other. Sure, I take pictures in Africa every year, but this year there was so much more than that. From Eastern Ethiopia to shooting a wedding in the Bahamas to documenting life on a fishing boat, I truly have a lot that I’m happy to have captured this year. I’m posting quite a few photos in this blog, and there are many more I could have posted. Some made it in for the technical quality of the photo, some for the backstory or the story the picture tells. Hopefully the latter two will represent well. Please enjoy. I look forward to the adventures that 2016 brings. All photos can be clicked on for a larger view.
This blog is about missions, and about living a missional life. It’s also about photography, but not this time. The world is at a crossroads today; a turning point that has never been seen before, and a turning point that the church will either lead or fail miserably. The choice is entirely ours, but first we have to understand the choice.
I’m going to skip around history today to try to connect the dots. Let’s start with the great commission, the last words Jesus said before he ascended into heaven. “Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Many in the church seem to think this is optional today. We feel that the church is more about being on the right side of things; about defending territory that’s already won. In building on the last blog, many think openly that there is God’s team, and there is everybody else, especially Muslims. I am certain that many reading this blog feel that way.
Let me go back to more than twelve centuries before the great commission. Joshua was about to lead his army into the promised land, and the attack on Jericho was coming close. A man (who turned out to be an angel) appeared in front of Joshua, and a very telling conversation happened.
“When Joshua was near the town of Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and demanded, “Are you friend or foe?” “Neither one,” he replied. “I am the commander of the LORD’s army.”
We have deluded ourselves today into thinking that God is on our side. I can assure you, He is not. The question is whether we are on His side. We are confusing God’s faithfulness with our own worthiness. The former is infinite. The latter doesn’t exist. It’s as if we think all the nations of the world got together for a kickball game, and we picked God on our team. God doesn’t play on our team. He is the whole game, and we exist for His glory, and not the other way around. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that He has blessed us with salvation because of something that we’ve done. The book of Romans is pretty explicit about this subject.
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This takes away any idea that we are saved because of anything that we’ve done. We do what we do in the name of Christ because we have gratitude for what He did for us, and not because we fear we haven’t done enough. If we keep this attitude, the ideas of “Us” and “Them” suddenly disappear, and we realize that we are ALL fallen people, and we realize that we need to do what Jesus called us to do; to go to every part of the world and tell people what He did for us. Some preach, some teach, some do engage in humanitarian endeavors, some stay home to make it possible for others to go, and some use other skills. “What is in your hand?” is the question that God asked Moses. With that question, God used the staff that was in Moses hand to free his people. What is in your hand?
This brings us to the turning point the world has come to. Islam has always been a violent religion. Few people with a knowledge of history will dispute this. Lately though, radicalization has become even more pronounced. I believe this is an indication of the devil working harder because of an imminent defeat.
There are radical changes happening within the Muslim world. When we go into the Muslim world, we hear stories of Muslims having visions and dreams of Christ when they’ve never heard the gospel before. These are not unusual stories anymore. They are becoming more common. This is because the field is ready for harvest. The only reason Islam has had such a stranglehold on the area it has for the past fourteen hundred years is because of a control of information. The penalty for reading a bible in many places has been, and continues to be, as severe as having your right hand shredded, or even execution. We live in a world now where it is getting harder and harder to control information. I have seen where my blog is read, in places like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and many other places where a lot of the information I write is considered forbidden.
This is a phenomenon that can’t be stopped. You can censor the internet, but you can’t do it completely. People who are questioning Islam now have access to the information that they never had before. The gospel is reaching the Muslim world, and the only one who can mess this up is……. The Church.
The Muslim world can not only see the Gospel, they can also see your attitudes about them. Every time someone posts an article about how Syrian refugees should stay home, or how Muslims are on the losing side and God is on our side, we display our arrogance and self-righteousness and the idea that somehow we are more deserving of salvation than they are. God is currently spreading His redemption to places where it hasn’t existed in a long time. I would not personally want to be the person who stood in the way of that. To conclude, I’d like to quote a parable of Jesus. I’d also like to point out that these parables were written down because the writer knew they would continue to apply to us, and not so we could look back at people in history and look down on them.
“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Let’s go ahead and be glad if the Muslim world is exalted in the end, but let’s not find that we had to be humbled in the process.
Less than forty eight hours ago, we got back from Kibera. All in all, I’d say the trip was a success. We were able to build good relationships with the people in the church and help out in the daycare. We were also able to help in some financial ways, but I see these as secondary to the job we came to do, which was build understanding of the issues and the people so we can partner for the long term. None of that can be done if we go with blinders on and a singular goal to build something or feed somebody. We are broken in certain ways, some of us financially, some of us spiritually, some of us in other ways. The goal of missions is to help each other overcome these various forms of brokenness. As I think over the issues I saw and more is revealed to me over time, I will write about these more in depth.
The trip home was an ordeal. My wife got sick to her stomach half way through the first flight, and is still a bit uneasy two days later. It was to the point where she came that close (you can’t see me thumb and forefingers about half an inch apart) to not getting on the plane from Zurich back to the United States. A couple missionaries saw what was going on and came to pray for Lynn. She met someone in the last five minutes before boarding who had some prescription nausea medication, and she was able to settle her stomach enough to board. God truly puts the right people in the right place. My friends wife also got sick to her stomach on the plane, but not to that extent. Then we had to get through the nightmare that is customs in Dulles (very close to dullard), where everything is done in the least efficient manner possible. Our plane was boarding by the time we got through that, but we still needed to get to a different section of the airport entirely. As I rounded the corner I saw the sign that said the next train would be coming in 23 seconds. I shouted back the information to everybody else, and we managed to get onto that train. After getting off, I ran ahead to the gate and found they were about to close it. I told them my group was right behind me, and they let us on. I can feel my blood pressure rising even as I write about it. Nonetheless, we made it on our last plane and back home.
I have been going through the pictures from the trip. I have far fewer this time. As I mentioned in a previous blog, my role was very different for this trip, and I was watching out for three other people rather than focusing all my attention on taking pictures. Nevertheless I have some that give what I feel is a good representation of our trip, and I will post more later as I have something to write about. Enjoy.
I had a lot of thoughts on my mind lately; a lot of heavy thoughts. I decided to throw them all out and write about my upcoming trip to Kenya instead. After all, this blog doesn’t always have to heavy.
In just a few weeks, I leave for Kenya. This will be my eighth trip to Africa since 2010, and the frequency of the trips has only increased. It’s now at least twice a year. Nevertheless, this trip will be full of firsts. This will be the first time I am going to Kenya when I’m not either just stopping through on the way to somewhere else or taking a partial vacation. I will be doing ministry in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. Though I’ve been to Africa several times, this is the first time I will be leading a team. There will be three people traveling with me, and two of them have never been to Africa before. My wife has only been once. To be honest, it makes me a little nervous, because I have more responsibility on my shoulders. I am fine with nervousness though. Everything that is worth doing comes with some risk, and the rewards are eternal. I know also that my nervousness will be nothing compared to that of my fellow travelers. I am looking forward to seeing that look on their faces the first time they step off the plane in Nairobi to the sights and sounds, and ah yes, the smells of Africa. I am looking forward to this because I remember the first time for me; for the awestruck wonder usually reserved for children but nonetheless granted to me one more time. I’m excited for them because I have some idea of what’s in store for them even if they don’t. I’m excited for the life changing epiphany that awaits them if their eyes are open even a little.
This is also the first time I will be going to Africa when photography will not be my main function. Yes, I will still be doing that, but I will have to put the camera down a lot more and do tasks which I may not be accustomed to. A year ago, when I was in Ethiopia, an African pastor prophesied over me as he prayed, saying I would be given new skills that would be used all over East Africa. Now is that time, and I will keep that in mind when I feel I am being stretched past my limits. New abilities don’t normally just drop into your lap. They form when we are pushed past what we have already become comfortable with into the realm of what might be possible. There are no participation trophies. I am looking forward to what is hard, knowing that what is hard now will not be as hard later. I’m looking forward to becoming more capable, even if it involves making mistakes. As I read in a book recently, “God cares more about the worker than the work.” I think this is a true statement.
I intend to be giving updates on our upcoming trip while in Kenya, including pictures. Thankfully I will have good internet access in the evenings. I also hope to be able to write about my team members’ first impressions while they are still fresh. I’m looking forward to that. One last note, I wanted to congratulate my friend Peter in South Sudan, who’s wife brought a joyous new life into the world last week.
For those wishing to follow my travels, and see the parts of Africa the tourists never see, you can follow this blog, and you’ll receive an email each time there’s a new post. Until next time.