Tomorrow is the big international dinner to raise both awareness and funds for our missions activities. It will be taking place at Praise Assembly of God in Beaufort, South Carolina. I am happy to say that as we’ve been willing, God has given us more opportunities than we think we can handle. This is only a confirmation to me that our vision is consistently too small.
We are expecting 150 people tomorrow to come and try dishes from all over the world, and at the same time hear about ways to get involved with our missions work.
My wife and I are of course in charge of the Africa table, so tonight we are cooking up Chapatis, misir wot, and shiro, and tomorrow the suku-mowiki. A special thanks to Helen Inzobeli in Kibera, Kenya, who taught my wife to make the best chapatis.
Over the past seven years I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve covered about a dozen countries, several of them multiple times. I’ve been to Ethiopia three times, South Sudan four times, and Kenya about ten or so. I’ve stayed in cities, towns, villages, and some places so remote that when you try to enter it into Google earth, you get nothing. The great thing about being a missionary is that whenever possible, I’m either staying with the locals, or at least somewhere very nearby. I’ve seen all kinds of living conditions, from a family of six living in a 3 meter by 3 meter room, to relatively affluent people living in modern houses with soft furniture and satellite television. Having seen all that, what I’ve learned is that poverty and wealth have very little to do with income.
I learned this week that the average individual, non-mortgage debt in the United States right now is $37,000. That’s the average of every person, not every family. One in ten have non-mortgage debt over $100,000. That is a staggering figure. Now I realize that for some people this is medical debt, and there’s not much that can be done about that. But for a lot of people, it’s just lifestyle debt; the desire to attain some fictitious standard that we’ve either been told we need to achieve, or that we’ve decided we owe to ourselves. It’s the latter that’s the most insidious thing. As we tell ourselves and our children that we can be and have anything we want, we seek to self-glorify ourselves through things. It is the end product of the hyper-individualistic American mindset. In the land where the winner is the one who accumulates, and the king is the one who accumulates more than anyone else, is it any wonder that we see success as having the most stuff?
Here’s the cruel irony. The inevitable end-product to individualistic self-glorification is that we eventually become a slave to someone else. Don’t believe me? Which of the following two people is richer? An Ethiopian who makes enough money to put a simple roof over his head, feed his wife and children, and is content with his life, or an American making $75,000 a year with a mortgage that is going to take 30 years to pay off, student loans that don’t disappear even if he goes bankrupt, two car loans, and a year’s income worth of credit card debt? Who sleeps better? What good is having stuff if at any moment the bank can call in all my loans? Who has better security, if such a thing exists?
I write this today not as a condemning measure, but because for many of us, our paradigm is that this is the way it has to be. I’m here to tell you that it’s not, and in fact most of the world does not do it this way. Wealth is not just having a lot of things, it is also not having the things you don’t need. 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 says, “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”
For those of us who have chosen to make missions our lifestyle, this is doubly important. Hebrews 12:1 says, “let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” I can’t think of a bigger encumbrance than $37,000 of consumer debt. How can we be a servant of God, when we are already a slave to the bank? How can we give our time when our time is already spoken for to pay for our debts? Simple living is a virtue. I want to challenge us to learn from the African who lives simply, but enjoys his family and every blessing that God gives him. It’s not too late.
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.
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.
In my last post I wrote a bit about agreements. It’s been a while since I’ve written, but the subject is still on my mind. Now that I’ve become aware of it, I have become more able to see what kind of agreements people make (including me) that we shouldn’t enter into.
In the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Tommy is telling the others about how he met with the devil at a crossroads and agreed to give up his soul in exchange for being able to play the guitar. Delmar responds with, “You sold your ever loving soul to the devil for that?” To which Tommy responds, “Well, I wasn’t using it.”
The agreements we make are frequently not made so explicitly, but they are made nonetheless. I’m finding that most of the agreements we make are made not because we met with the devil at a crossroads, but because bad things enter our lives, and rather than fight them, we become comfortable with them over time, until we finally fail to see them at all. Then, even when we are given an opportunity to be free of what plagues us, we’re so comfortable with our affliction that we choose not to give it up.
This blog is mostly about Africa and missions, so let me give you an example from that vein. I will shortly be going back to Kibera, Kenya. I’ve been to a lot of places in Africa that seem hopeless, but Kibera is possibly the worst. The filth alone is enough to completely overwhelm. People live (and I use that word loosely) on less than two dollars a day. Disease is rampant. Sewage runs between all the shacks. Children are abandoned during the day as mothers go out looking for work. There are constant fires because of electrical shorts from spliced wiring as people steal electricity from neighbors. Garbage has literally formed layers like a geological feature that you can see from the past hundred years. When you ask people what they have hope for, they literally come up with nothing because hope is a distant relative that died a long time ago. For some people poverty is a temporary thing; a temporary setback until they are able to get back on their feet. Kibera’s poverty is something much worse. It’s poverty that is over 100 years old. It’s no longer simply a lack of resources, it’s now a pervading state of mind. It’s old, generational poverty.
Many people living in Kibera do not have what it takes to extricate themselves from the slum, but some do. These are probably the saddest cases, because they have made an agreement that Kibera, as bad as it is, is ok. The first time I was in Kibera, after about forty five minutes, I literally felt like I needed to get out. From that point to being so comfortable with it that you decide not to leave even if you can is almost unfathomable to me.
Now, I’m going to preface my next statements by saying that I have a real problem with prosperity doctrine, which is unfortunately popular both in the United States and Kenya. It teaches basically that if you have enough faith, God will bless you and make you rich. I could go on for an entire blog about how this is wrong both scripturally and in the real world, but I won’t. While I don’t believe it is God’s intention to make us rich, I do believe he cares for us as his own children, which we are. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11. ““Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11: 11-13
The bible frequently talks about how we will suffer along with Christ if we follow him, but if we realize that we are beloved children of God, when he sends the opportunity to be freed from bondage and suffering, it hardly makes sense to then say, “No, that’s ok. I’m good”. While we are called to suffer with Christ, we are not called to make agreements with the devil simply for the sake of taking on suffering. “My marriage is bad, but it’s ok.” “I live in filth, but it’s ok.” “My children are starving, but that’s just life.” These are all agreements from the pit of hell. Something I have been learning is that I don’t pray big enough. I pray for something but cut short the full extent of what I need, or the needs of someone I’m praying for. When you realize you’re praying to an infinite God, it suddenly seem stupid to put limitations on your prayers. I met an Ethiopian pastor recently who said “I always pray for something, then double it.” He’s not praying for riches, he’s praying for the lost to be saved, for the captives to be set free, and for a bit of God’s kingdom to show up here on Earth. The first step in that process is to stop accepting the physical, spiritual, and mental squalor that we have agreed to live in.
So I’m back in the land of the Internet now, Addis Ababa to be specific. I had intended to post something thoughtful about something that happened in this trip, but unfortunately it didn’t save, for some reason or another. Consequently I’ve shown up unprepared. The alternative then is a sort of show and tell about a few of my favorite unedited photos from this trip to Ethiopia. I’m sure I will do some cropping and editing later, but I have some shots that I’m very happy with even as they are.