Sunday, December 28, 2008

Creatures Great and Small

Africa is the land of creatures.

Our house is usually occupied by a variety of lizards whose special talent seems to be that they can deposit ten times their body weight in lizard poop into the crevices of our furniture on a nightly basis. There are also territorial spiders, called “wall spiders” (because, well they hang out on the walls) that are no more dangerous than a daddy longlegs (and no better named, either). They tend to simply look like a brown spot on the wall that scurries away into a dark corner if you come too close. Despite their being harmless though, I tend not to really care for any of these. I know that they are part of God’s creation but I suspect only in the way that a messy kitchen is part of a chef’s creation. Its simply an unavoidable part of the process.

And of course, there are the bigger creatures. There are plenty of elephants to be seen in Zambia if one goes to the right places. And last night on the way home from dinner we passed a couple of hippos grazing by the side of the road and it occurred to me when I saw them that I was barely impressed anymore.

And, to be sure, there are the human creatures.

Christmas morning I drove our night guard home and after dropping him off at his house, I started to make my way back home when just after crossing a one lane bridge an oncoming car full of drunks (it was 7AM) suddenly sped up and blocked me from exiting the bridge, refusing to back up. One guy got out and starting waving his arms and shouting, a sure sign that he was ready to take on me and my car all by himself.

Now I was driving a 4x4 with a diesel engine and a solid bull bar on the front, and this guy was in a beat up, old, Toyota Corolla that looked as weathered as the guy behind the wheel. For a moment, I contemplated just pushing the would be gladiators into the ditch with my larger and more powerful car, and heading home. But common sense (or something like it) got the better of me and I put my Landcruiser in reverse, backed up all the way across the bridge and let them pass. They were delighted in their victory, and as they drove past me they waved their fists and pointed to the stop sign just before the bridge as proof of their being in the right. Never mind that I had completely crossed the bridge before they ever got there.

The whole thing got my heart rate going and jolted me out of the half–sleep that I tend to stay in until my third cup of coffee. And as I drove away I was thankful that it hadn’t turned out worse, knowing well that it could have. But there was more to contemplate that morning than just my narrow escape.

There was also the nagging reality of my having somehow thought myself better than them.

The thing is, I didn’t want to back up. What I really wanted to do was drive them headlong into the ditch (as I mentioned) and gloat over my vehicular superiority (of which, by the way, I can take zero credit for) and over their drunken rediculousness. I wanted to put these guys in their place (which simply proves that their rightful place and mine are pretty much the same). I suppose part of it is due to the fact that most Zambians are the most gracious, kind and loving people you could ever meet. Until they get drunk and then they become much like any other drunk in any other country of the world: Obnoxious, overconfident and with far more swagger than is fitting mortal human beings.

I suspect the kindness of most Zambians, the abundant graciousness with which they treat us most of the time can lead you to believe that you deserve to be treated that way all the time. We would never admit it, but being called “bwana” (which is a swahili word meaning basically “boss” or “big man”) sort of grows on you, sometimes subconsciously and sometimes quite consciously.

And as I think about Christmas morning, and my little incident at the bridge, I am reminded again that Africa is indeed a land of creatures.

And that sometimes, the creature is me.

“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24–25).

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Problem with Poverty

This sounds like a terrible thing to say, but its true. Poverty makes me tired.

Not my poverty of course, because truthfully, I’m not poor. At least, not by the world’s standards. At least not in the sense that I’ve missed a meal due to a lack of money or had to wash my clothes in a muddy river, or had to walk miles to get water because of not having indoor plumbing. Not poor anyway in the sense of living in a house made of mud with no electricity and no more hope than the dim bit of sunlight that illuminates the holes in the roof. No, my brand of poverty entails little more than settling for a refurbished MacBook instead of a brand new one and watching for the sales at Penny’s.

Oh, the horror.

At times (not always though, because we tend to live in a world quite removed from this reality in Zambia), but at times our world and that world, the world of poverty, intersect. Or rather, they collide because the two really can’t just cross one another’s path and continue on as if nothing happened. No. They meet and the result is a sprawling wreckage of shattered ideals and lofty perspectives.

Recently a pastor came to visit us whose shoes were so worn out that he could only afford to wear them on Sunday, and then only by putting cardboard in the bottoms to fill in where the soles had worn through. He told us how his wife was no longer able to work at the market because she had just had a baby. Now his family hardly had enough food to eat. He asked us for a loan so he could set up a small stand and sell a few things, some soap and other common household items, in his community in order to earn a few extra kwacha to help make ends meet.

Today one of our workers came to us and asked if we could help him repair the toilet in the house he is renting. The landlord is nowhere to be found and the family has been using the outdoors out of necessity, much to the embarrassment of our worker (and surely his family as well).

The thing is, I wish I didn’t know that these things were a reality for people. I wish I didn’t know that a man who had committed his life to Christ and was serving God in
full–time ministry as a pastor can’t afford to buy shoes, or that a man had to go to bed every night mulling over the reality that his wife and children were living not much better than animals. Thoughts like that could really haunt a man.

I wish I didn’t know, not because I don’t care about them, but because I do (at least I want to care, and sometimes that’s enough, isn’t it?) and more often than I would like, I find myself wrestling with this vast discrepancy in things, in the lives that people live because my life is so far removed from not being able to afford a new pair of shoes or not being able to call a plumber when the toilet is broken.

But I suppose it doesn’t do much good to wish that you didn’t know something. You know what you know and the world is what it is.

I suppose the heart of the thing, what wearies me about poverty, is that I’m uncomfortable with being uncomfortable; and being confronted with other people’s pain is uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable because I don’t usually know what to do and because I know that there is no really good reason that I’m not in their place and they’re not in mine, except that that’s just the way things turned out. Neither of us had a choice in the matter and sometimes when I look into the eyes of some of our Zambian friends I can’t help but think that it could easily have been me in their shoes, or lack of shoes rather.

Today I read an article that stated that, “for nearly two out of every three people alive today, hunger is not merely an occasional pang felt before lunchtime. It’s a lifestyle.”

The article also said that the amount of money needed to provide basic education, health care, and clean water to the entire developing world is equal to the amount of money spent every year worldwide on golf. 1

Ouch.

And in case you don’t play golf, its also equal to the amount of money spent worldwide on diets.

I know what your thinking. God does not care about my Slimfast! He wants me to be skinny! And you’re probably right.

As I try to process my aversion to the unpleasant face of poverty I think that the source is (and this sounds a bit trite and I hate to even offer this except that I’m sure its true), my American brand of Christianity that causes me to believe that my faith in God is mostly about me. I have become pretty accustomed to the notion that God likes me and that I have nice clothes and other things precisely because he likes me.

But I’m starting to wonder if its not poverty that makes me tired, but rather my own excess, and the vast amounts of effort required to maintain the belief that there is nothing wrong with the fact that I have enough clothes to fill two large suitcases.

Maybe my stuff is really what makes me tired.

And perhaps poverty just makes me see things a little clearer.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Journeys

Well, its official. We’re moving again. Over the last month or so Paula and I have been praying and exploring the idea of relocating to Lusaka due to a sense that God was leading us to make the move. In the last few days, one by one the doors have opened for us to do just that and today we found a house in Lusaka. Between now and January 1st we will pack up all our things, say goodbye to Livingstone and relocate once again.

It seems that following the call of God is all about mobility.

I was speaking in church the other day and made the comment that as Christians we shouldn’t focus too much on the journey, but rather on the One who calls us, sends us and leads us. If we focus on Jesus, I said, the journey will take care of itself. It was a very churchy thing to say and I could tell everyone thought so because they all said “amen” just like I had hoped they would.

But as I was walking back to my seat, it occurred to me that that is so not true! At least not entirely.

Now I know that Jesus said, “seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). Which we take to mean that if we’ve been really good, everything on our list will show up under the tree on Christmas morning. When in fact, Jesus is talking about how unnecessary worry leads to unnecessary pursuits. Worry too much about clothes, and you will end up getting a third job just so you can afford a $200 pair of jeans that will never look as good on you as they do on the half-starved teenager who was hired to advertise them. Worry too much about your weight, and you’ll turn into Richard Simmons.

Frightening isn’t it?

But, to the best of my knowledge, Jesus never said, “Pay no attention to the journey.” He did tell the disciples what not to take on their journeys and later, what to take. But if we consider the record of men and women of faith in the Bible, we notice that often their journeys were as important as their destinations. Consider Israel. Forty years wandering in the desert after 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Why? Perhaps because arriving in the promised land was as much an internal thing as it was an external thing.

What I mean by that is that as I reflect on our journey, our ever changing, often challenging journey I am constantly brought face to face with who I really am, and often it ain’t too pretty. I am daily confronted with my own apathy, my own limited compassion, my own lack of grace. And I am starting to think our journey of faith, our efforts at being followers of Jesus, are meant to lead us to discover our own broken selves as much as anything else. Because if that never happens, the truth is we may travel far but we will never really go anywhere. A journey that doesn’t change us, that doesn’t lead us to wholeness, is ultimately a journey destined to be repeated.

Of course the journey is about a destination. When Jesus told the disciples to follow him, he was going somewhere! But the journey is also about transformation. Its about what happens to us as we go. Its about our failures and frailties, our frustrations and tears because those things more than anything bring us out of where we’ve been, and out of who we were. We leave Egypt not on foot, but on our knees. It is there that our hearts are poured out and set on the potters wheel where we can be plied into something useful.

Today was a hard day in Zambia. This afternoon we took a young lady named Prisca (pronounced Priska) to the clinic after her boyfriend had beaten her until she collapsed in the middle of the road. He then started kicking her in the head and ribs until someone finally pulled him away.

Prisca became a follower of Christ just a few days ago, led to the Lord by some missionary friends here in Zambia. The reason her boyfriend attacked her was because after she became a Christian, she told him she couldn’t see him anymore, that she wasn’t going to live the way they had been any longer. As Paula was comforting her, helping to hold an ice pack on her swollen, bruised face she spoke about her new found faith. She said, “I’ve made my decision. I’m not turning back now.”

Each of our journeys are hard in their own way I suppose. But it often takes someone like Prisca, who is welcomed into her Christian faith with a brutal beating, to bring a little perspective to our own journeys. Then we realize that there are some among us who are on t inconceivably difficult journeys, who know suffering and loss to a degree that is beyond the comprehension of the well–cushioned Christian lives that most of us live.

And though I’m tempted to complain about having to pack up our stuff, and though I really want to cry out to God asking, “Why do we have to go through this whole moving thing again?”, I tend to think now that the better thing is to follow Prisca’s lead and to say simply, “I’ve made my decision. I’m not turning back now.”

Friday, December 05, 2008

Faith, Feelings and Wooden Hippos

It doesn’t feel much like December, let alone Christmas, here in Zambia. Its hot out, really hot, and everything is green and there are none of those wonderfully delightful and not the least bit annoying Salvation Army bell ringers anywhere to be found. Plus, there are no green and red lights lining the tops of peoples houses (which are, of course, meant to commemorate Rudolph safely leading the wise men to the baby Jesus). There are no giant inflatable snowmen or Candy Canes adorning peoples yards (which are, of course, meant to inform your neighbors that you are a raving lunatic – not that there is anything wrong with being a raving lunatic, mind you).

Worst of all its not cold, and Christmas without cold is like egg without nog. Whatever that means.

But despite the appearance of things it is Christmas (almost) and we are doing our best to have a sense of that. But I’m amazed at how much my state of mind is dependent on my surroundings because I find myself wishing that I FELT like it was Christmas more than I do. And I realize that, despite my best efforts to hide it beneath a healthy layer of Old Spice, feelings really do tend to run my life.

Of course I know that men aren’t supposed to even have feelings beyond a psychopathic attachment to sporting teams that leads some of us to wear giant blocks of cheese on our heads, paint our entire bodies blue and fly enough flags from our SUV’s that people might have mistaken us for the President had it not been for the cheeze whiz dangling from our beards.

Now any preacher worth his salt (by the way, how much salt is a preacher worth, anyway? I mean, is there a place where you can buy salt and can pay for it in preachers?), will be glad to remind us that as Christians we’re not to operate on our emotions, on what we feel like doing. No. We who follow Christ are to operate by faith not feelings. Right?

Well, sort of.

The problem with that idea is that we’re left thinking that feelings are our enemy, or as if Faith and Feelings are the names of a couple of Pro Wrestlers who hate each others guts and are forever smashing chairs over one another’s heads. But is that the way it really is? I’m not so sure.

I don’t think faith and feelings are opposite ends of the good/bad spectrum. Now they’re not the same thing, that’s certain. But I do think they compliment each other. I mean, imagine where faith would be without emotions. Imagine worship void of emotion. It wouldn’t be worship at all, it would just be, well weird.

The truth is I cherish my feelings because they tell me who I am. My feelings tell me that I hate poverty because every time I see a Zambian kid who’s clothes are nothing but tattered rags, and who looks like he hasn’t eaten in a day or two, I get mad and I’m glad that I get mad. My feelings tell me that I care. When I see a street kid approaching me and I know that he’s going to ask for money, even though I’ve seen all the billboards and read the books that say that giving to kids like this only encourages them to continue to live on the street, I still wrestle with what to do – because life is more complicated than billboards would have us believe.

But the problem with emotions is not that we have them, but that sometimes our emotions are ill-informed and therefore we react based on what we think is true, and not based on what is true. And so the problem then is not an emotional problem, its an informational problem.

Today I went to the Road and Transportation Safety Office in downtown Livingstone, which is the place where you go if you need to renew your driver’s license or pay your road tax (which of course, is never used for the improvement of ANY road: perhaps they are saving it up in case the roads should ever get REALLY bad). Anyway, after waiting in line for about 20 minutes I was told that the computers were down and I would have to come back later.

As I was pulling out of the parking lot a guy came up to the window of my car and knocked. I scowled at him and continued to pull out of my parking space because I knew he was going to try to sell me something – either bootleg DVD’s, or a copper bracelet (Zambia is known for its copper) or a wooden hippo, and having all the bootleg DVD’s, copper bracelets and wooden hippos I will ever need, I did my best to ignore him and give him the distinct impression that I had no qualms about running over his foot if he became too persistent.

Finally though as I was backing out, I did role my window down (mostly to tell him to go away). When I did he informed me that the my presence was being requested by the folks in the Road and Transportation Safety Office. So, I grabbed my paper work and thanked the guy that moments ago I was ready to run over, and when I got inside they informed me that the computers were back up and they proceeded to process my request and in a matter of minutes my 2009 road tax was paid and I was on my way.

Not only was it a miracle that the computers came back up, but it was truly a miracle that they sent someone out to the parking lot to see if I had left yet, and even more of a miracle that that someone actually went and tried to catch me before I drove away. Things like this NEVER happen in Africa!

And as I walked back to my car, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that its starting to feel a lot like Christmas!