Friday, November 06, 2009

Poetic Justice


There is a noticeable lack of poetic justice in the world.

It seems more often than not, bad things happen to good people, and even worse things happen to very good people. It mystifies me that the very best people I know have been through some of the most terrible tragedies. While on the other hand, very bad people, those who seem completely bankrupt of any sort of responsibility, love, or human decency, often are rewarded with financial success and good health. 

Rarely it seems, do people get what they deserve. 

I was reading an article in a Malawian newspaper today and the story was describing how foreign investors here are taking advantage of local workers by underpaying them and overworking them. The Labor Minister was interviewed in the article, and he mentioned that some workers are made to work in cold conditions (presumably food storage freezers). He said with apparent concern, “They can get a disease known as cold frost.” 

Ok, so maybe his terminologies leave something to be desired. But, nonetheless, it was refreshing to see the government standing up for the downtrodden. That so seldom happens in Africa.

What is far more common in Africa, and elsewhere, is what the article was describing: unscrupulous and unsavory people becoming wealthy by exploiting hard working and honest people. 

Some would say this type of thing points to the absence of God. If there was a God, they argue, then the tables would be turned and people would get what they deserve.

But, perhaps, people really do get what they deserve.

Psalm 73 describes a journey – a journey in which the Psalmist goes from anguish over the apparent prosperity of the wicked, to rejoicing over the reality of his own less tangible, but far more genuine and lasting prosperity. Psalm 73 is a poem that addresses an issue which most people who try to serve God probably struggle with at some point: that the righteous seem to suffer, while the unrighteous seem to prosper in everything. In the opening lines, the Psalmist says:

Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
And later, he writes:

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure;
in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
All day long I have been plagued;
I have been punished every morning.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed your children.
When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me.

We feel the heart anguish of the writer as he honestly struggles with his emotions, while simultaneously being uncomfortable with what he feels. He faces a conundrum. He feels what he feels, and yet what he feels does not feel quite right. Most of us can relate. He sees the evil perpetrated by the wicked, and yet the wicked seem to get everything, except what they deserve.

At some point in his wrestling, the writer finds his way into God’s presence, His sanctuary. In verse seventeen the writer says:

till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
It is here, in God’s presence, that clarity comes. The writer begins to realize that what we see is not always the greatest measure of reality, that there are other truths which we don’t so readily see – at least not on our own. That’s why Paul admonishes “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).

There is just something about the presence of God. And the point of Psalm 73 is that only there, in God’s presence, can we attain a proper perspective on the world we live in, and a proper understanding of our own reality. When we are  near to God, when we focus our attention and affection on Him, His divine Presence has a way of scattering the illusions that often plague our thoughts, and illuminating the truth about our existence. And we realize that the prosperity of the wicked is instead a prison; those things which seem to be sources of delight for those who reject God, are ultimately the source of their own destruction. 

In God’s presence we discover the infinite value of an intimate God. We discover our own immeasurable prosperity in Emmanuel – God with us. And then, we begin to appreciate the fact that maybe the wicked really do get what they deserve, and that we have gotten far more than we deserve. 

The wicked want a life free from God, and to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, God gives it to them. But for the righteous, our infinite and ultimate reward is God Himself.  

And in wrestling with his frustrations over the wicked, perhaps, the writer of the Psalm is reminded that

Truth is best found, with our faces to the ground.

The words of this Psalm then are for all of us who struggle with the reality of an unjust world. It reminds us to focus not on the seeming pleasures and ease of life for those who do not know God, but rather on the genuine joy that we have, because we do.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Little Faith


This week we have been reminded on a few occasions how much we take certain things for granted.


A few days ago, I woke up and turned on the shower, only to discover that there was no hot water. The problem, as it turned out, was our water heater, which is a home-made version, fashioned from a fifty gallon oil drum. The element and thermostat had gone bad, as it does about every 4-5 months because parts here are made in China, and apparently China doesn’t put quite as much effort into their elements and thermostats as they do into their Olympics.


And so, the morning had me scurrying around town (and smelling a bit ripe as temps in Lusaka are hovering around the mid 90’s lately), looking for the spare parts. The first place I went to had the element, but not the thermostat. So, they sent me to a place down the road that they assured me would have what I needed. When I arrived at that place, I was told they never carried that type stuff. Never had. Never will.


Then, in a moment of desperation, I contemplated breaking “Jerry’s Golden Rule of Driving in Lusaka,” which states NEVER EVER EVER, Under Any Circumstances, Go Downtown at Lunchtime On a Weekday! But, I was desperate though, and the thought of taking cold showers for the next few days (weeks?) was enough to cause me to seriously contemplate taking these very insane measures.


In a moment of clarity, I changed my mind and headed home to see if there might not be another solution. Luckily, one of our landlord’s workers was able to pilfer what I needed from some old parts in the garage.


The whole incident though made me realize how much I take showers for granted. I mean, most mornings, I wake up, stumble toward the bathroom and turn on the water, and then, while still standing, take a short nap while I wait for the water to reach a nice, even temperature. Most mornings, I don’t even think about being thankful for the ability to take a shower. I just take one, and go on about my day. But when something is just there almost every day of your life, and then suddenly it’s not there, it has a way of making you take notice.


In Zambia, there are often shortages of one thing or another. During droughts, there are shortages of maize and many become malnourished and susceptible to illness. Today, there is a shortage of petrol, and cars are lined up at local filling stations, reminiscent of the 70’s in America.


People who have mused over the recent and phenomenal growth of the church in Africa (in 1990 about 9% of the population in Africa was Christian; today about 45% are Christian!), have pointed to a variety of reasons. Some have said that Africans are inherently religious, and that Christianity provides a framework for relating to the increasing presence of Western influence on the continent. Of course, those who would say that, forget that Christianity was African long before it was Western.


Personally, I think that the reason for the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa, is because the nature of life in Africa lends itself to understanding biblical truths, far more so than the nature of life in America. Africa understands that we live in a broken down world.


In America, I think we have a very hard time living out the mandate to “fix our eyes, not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” and understanding that “what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal,” (2 Cor. 4:18). We think that by trusting in what we can see, feel and touch, that we are demonstrating our superior intellect. We tell ourselves that to do otherwise, is to believe in magic or fairy tales.


And yet, the world around us is constantly reminding us of its temporal tendencies. Tsunamis wipe entire villages off the map in an instant. Automobile accidents claim the lives of those we love without warning. Our trusted homes, in which we invest so much time and care, are easily reduced to ruble by a tornado, hurricane, fire, or two year old. And, we have all recently been made aware that our financial security is far less secure than we would like.


A casual glance at the evening news reminds us that the world is a fragile place. Or, as Paul says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning, as in the pains of childbirth, right up to the present time,” (Rom. 8:22). And so, is it really a demonstration of our superior cognitive abilities that we would trust in what is clearly untrustworthy? Is it really that smart to put stock in things that “moth and rust destroy” rather than storing up for ourselves “treasures in heaven,” (Matt. 6:19-20)?


It seems that we have a hard time grasping that until some unfortunate circumstance forces us to take a cold shower, or wait hours in line for gasoline, something that just a few days we accomplished on our lunch hour, along with forty thousand other things. Until those things that we have taken for granted have suddenly and unexpectedly vanished, we seldom consider their truly fleeting nature. But when our trusted comforts and assumptions suddenly get swept away, we usually become quite willing to go running from place to place, searching for the solution to our problems, and willing to break our golden rules in the process, whatever they might be.


Remember how churches, synagogues, and mosques, were packed on the days immediately following 9/11? And, how as soon as it became clear that the threat had passed, those places of worship returned to their former state of less than overflowing?


Maybe the best thing that can happen to us, is for things to begin to break down every now and then, for the wheels to come off the cart, so that we can be reminded that there are destinations that can’t be reached with cash or credit card, that reality extends beyond the tangible, that the vast majority of the iceberg will always be hidden to those who refuse to venture from the surface.

No, there is nothing foolish about faith. In fact, most of us have more faith than we realize.


We just have it things that don’t merit it.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Listen

Recently, as I was driving to the Bible school where I was teaching, I had to drop Paula off at another Bible school where she was teaching, and we drove past a large, dirt football (soccer) field and a large dumpster that sits next to it. The area around the dumpster was strewn with litter and debris, and almost every day a half dozen children could be seen digging through the waste, looking for, who knows exactly what; possibly the makings of their next toy, or used plastic bags that can be wound together for a football, or maybe nothing at all. Maybe they were just looking because its what they see everyday, and their curiosity got the best of them.


These days, a good five months since the last rain, the ground in Zambia is as hard as concrete, and the winds are blowing up dust to almost blinding degrees.


Being in the shanty compounds of Lusaka always leaves me with an odd mixture of emotions. On the one hand, I can’t help but think how glad I am that I grew up in America, in a neighborhood that had clean sidewalks, and where all the houses had lawns that, if not pristine, were at least fairly well kept and quite usable for a game of tag, or hide–and–seek. Yet, at the same time, as soon as I think that thought, I find myself feeling guilty that things were so easy for us growing up, compared to what life is like here.


I try to imagine what it would be like to have lived in a neighborhood like these shanty compounds, my whole life; and yet, honestly, I find myself unable to do so. I find it hard to really imagine what its like to have always only ever known dusty, dirt roads, never paved ones, to have only ever had makeshift toys, never the store bought variety, to have pushed around old tires, rather than being able to ride bicycles. It seems that I just completely lack any common point of reference. There is no framework within my own experiences for such an existence.


And I’ve come to think that even though we can get in our 4x4’s and go where people are here, we can seldom, by ourselves, really be where they are at. We can drive the same roads they drive, we can walk across the same trash strewn streets, we can go to their churches, and we can teach in their schools, but it takes much more than being where people are, to understand who they are.


That, only happens when we pause long enough to listen.


Listening, has not always been my greatest strength. Maybe it’s ADD. I don’t know. And the thing is, I really do try to listen (most of the time), but somewhere between a person opening their mouth to speak, and those words actually reaching my ears, there are roughly 40,000 other things that are equally vying for my attention.


Now, in all honesty, I don’t think I am entirely to blame for that. Yes, its partly my fault, in that I have an attention span about as long as this sentence. But, that aside, many people seem to think that the point of a conversation is to win, and that one wins by saying the most consecutive words without pausing. Sort of the machine gun approach. What I can’t quite figure out, is why those of us who struggle to pay attention are often put on medication, while our rambling counterparts are left alone. But, that’s getting off the subject.


Truthfully, I think the ability to really listen is genuinely a human malady, something that few of us are really good at. I mean, think about your friends who are good listeners. Those that are, stand out! And the reason that person stands out, is because that quality is so rare!


I mean let’s be honest. The question, “How are you doing?” is most often simply a launching pad for “Let me tell you how I’m doing.”


And yet, listening is a crucial part of the Christian life. Our ability to know God, and to be transformed by him, begins with our ability to listen to Him. And our ability to serve God, is directly related to our ability to listen to others. John’s Gospel quotes Jesus as saying, “ It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.” (John 6:45). And one of the first things we see in the life of Jesus, is him, sitting at the feet of others, and listening (Luke 2:46).


The degree to which we have listened to God, will directly determine the degree to which we become like him. Unless the word of God penetrates our hearts, unless we allow ourselves to believe it, not because we like it, or because it sounds nice, but because it flows from Eternal Truth, then we can never participate in a relationship with God. And unless we have begun to know God, then our own listening will always be filtered through our own agenda. We will listen, in order to have a chance to speak. Our objective will be to display our wit, or wisdom, to gun down the other person with our vast amount of knowledge and expertise.


But when we have listened to God, when we have, like Mary, sat at the feet of Jesus because we’ve understood the inherent value in doing so, then we become empowered to truly listen to others. Because then, and only then, are we able to hear, not with our own ears, or even our own heart, but with the heart of God, whose Spirit has come to reside within us (Rom. 8:9).


And even if we can’t fully relate to growing up in a shanty compound, we can hear the cry of those who have grown up there, a cry that longs to be heard, because we ourselves have heard from the One who really has something worthwhile to say.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lost in the Shuffle

I have come to the conclusion that in Africa, the purpose of an immigration office is to force you to consider how much you really want to be in that particular country. In fact, I’m pretty sure that some immigration offices sincerely hope that if they make things difficult enough for you, you will eventually just give up and go home and save them a lot of paperwork.


Yesterday I had to make a trip to the immigration office in downtown Lusaka, for what should have been a simple thing: picking up our work permits.


As it turned out, that “simple thing” turned into three hours of the most agonizingly painful test of endurance I’ve ever encountered. It was as though I was Lance Armstrong, and the immigration office was the French Alps, except that (thankfully) I wasn’t wearing bike shorts, and the immigration office was only breathtaking in the way that a canister of tear gas is breathtaking.


The problem, was that they couldn’t find my file. After standing in line for an hour, I finally was able to hand the guy my receipt, and he began looking through stack of folders piled behind him. When he couldn’t come up with my file, he put my receipt on the bottom of the stack. This is completely in keeping with standard government operating procedures in Zambia, which states that, “a problem is a problem only so long as you are aware of it being a problem, and you are only required to be aware of it, if you are looking directly at thing which is potentially problematic. Otherwise, it may or may not be a problem at all.”


After watching my receipt get shuffled to the bottom of the stack several times, I finally approached the guy to find out what the problem was. He said my file was not there, and then asked me a very important question.


“Is it in the book?”


You see, before you can pick up your work permit, you have to verify that it is indeed ready, and you do that by checking a log book that is kept near the front door of the office. I had done all of this (or, at least some friends had done it for me) and so I knew that our permits were logged in on August 25. Nevertheless, the immigration official was skeptical and escorted me over to the book to have a look for himself. When we found my name entered, the immigration official looked genuinely surprised, and immediately returned to the stack of files and began searching with a renewed commitment. Within minutes the file had been found, and I was on my way home, work permits in hand.


Looking back, I find it intriguing that nothing I could say to the official would convince him that my work permit must be there. Not until he saw for himself that it was “written in the book,” was he even remotely open to a possibility which he had not really considered before – namely, that it actually was there somewhere!


What amazed me about the whole incident, was the immigration official’s inherent trust in the integrity of the book! If it’s in the book, he clearly believed, then the work permit must be there!


Reflecting on this incident has made me think about my own devotional life, which lately has sort of been on a lull, and about my own views of the Book we Christians hold so dear. It seems I go through seasons regarding my time with the Lord, and some of those seasons are more often characterized, in all honesty, by a sort of going through the motions than by a wholehearted effort to hear and receive from the Lord. At times, I think this happens when my Bible reading has me at places in scripture that are more laborious to read – such as the lists of names in the opening chapters of Chronicles, or when the immediate connection between my life and that which the text is describing is not plainly obvious. But sometimes, I think this happens simply because I begin to lose a sense of the Bible’s inherent authority and ultimate importance. Not that I do this intentionally (or admit to it easily), but if I honestly evaluate the time I spend reading the Bible as compared to the time I spend reading other things, well, my actions speak for themselves.


But if the Bible is anything at all, it is inherently authoritative! And yet, I can only discover that authority if I approach it believing that to be so. The famous theologian Karl Barth once said that the printed pages of the Bible do not constitute the word of God by themselves, but that they become the Word of God when they are preached and believed. And I think what Barth was getting at was that when it comes to the Word of God, it all starts with our approach. Approach it as a collection of ancient writings ordered and arranged by men of antiquity, and you will find it to be little more than a fantastic collection of poetry, history and sagely advice. But approach it as it truly is, as the word of God, and you will be changed, broken, and empowered by it as the Spirit of God from whom those words originated, leads you into all truth. It’s very much like my friend at the immigration office. He would have never searched again through the mountainous stacks of folders, had he not had confidence in the authority of the book!


In fact, this is similar to the point Jesus was making when he was talking to those who refused to listen to him. He said, “And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life,” (John 5:37–40). And, “He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God,” (John 8:47).


In this present age (which, is probably not unlike most every other age that preceded it), the truth often seems obscured by political agendas and personal interests. For instance, I am often amazed at how my friends on different sides of the political fence can see a particular current event in such vastly different ways. What is disastrous to one, is glorious to another, (in fact, I’m fairly certain that if all my Facebook friends ever ended up in the same room, WWIII would ensue).


But in this time of wearying banter in which the genuine truth seems lost in the shuffle more often than not, I am reminded of what a wonderful thing it is to have a source for truth that is never flavored by partisanship, or selfish ambitions, but rather flows from the One who himself is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and whose only agenda is my wholeness.


And when my devotional time is at a lull, what I need to be reminded of, is that I sit down, not with a book, but with the Truth, that what I read are not words, but a Way, and that what I receive is not information, but Life!




Sunday, August 16, 2009

When He Comes

This week Jerry and I celebrated 4 years in marriage – four precious years of zero regrets and immeasurable love and gratefulness for each other. This week also marks one year since we committed our son Josiah into the arms of Jesus. It has been the longest year of our lives. We know we are in the process of being redefined and resurrected by God. The journey is far from over, but we’re on the road.

Although we thought we already knew such things, what we’re really learning is this: “Trust Him at all times, O people, pour out your hearts to Him, for God is our refuge” (Ps. 62:5). We’ve poured out a lot of things – pain, tears, anger, disappointment, and questions, but also, our faith, love, and worship. That faith and worship is of a different sort than it was a year ago, but not less sincere. Quite the contrary. We are more real, more weak, more broken and more alive all at the same time.

God in His goodness has both Jerry and I doing something we love this month – teaching at the Bible Schools. Jerry is presently at the Extension Training Center, and I’m at the Assemblies of God school. One of my favorite things about coming here to teach is the chapel services. There’s just an indescribable fullness and depth in worshipping and interceding with our Zambian brothers and sisters. Thursday morning there were just seven of us present, in that big church, and Pastor Mwanza led in worship. We sang the good old “Alleluia” song. And to the same tune we started singing “He is mighty,” a capella, in simple harmonies. We must have sung “He is mighty” through at least seven times. And in that big church, with a handful of people, singing that simple old song, the presence of the Lord came, and we began to truly worship.

How does one describe the presence of the Lord? He comes and lifts us out of our smallness, our heaviness, our weakness – and gives us a glimpse of His incomparable glory, a taste of His infinite love. And suddenly we find ourselves no longer mindful of “prayer requests” – but of the greatness of God.

And I couldn’t help but feel amazed at the wonder of it all. A small, struggling Bible College. Seven needy people (teacher included). And the glory of God.

His presence changes everything – our standards, our self-importance, our interests, our perspective.

Sure wish ya’ll could join us for chapel.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Healthcare Reform

This past week I have been teaching a class on church history in one of the Bible schools we work with in Lusaka. And I love church history, because it reminds me that for every person who has ever represented a gross corruption of the Gospel, for every big–haired, dollar–eyed, televangelist who has confused “take up your cross” with “take out your wallet,” there have been thousands over the centuries who did indeed do the former, and gave everything for the sake of proclaiming Christ.


Yes, there have been the horrible chapters in Christian history of the Crusades and the Inquisitions, but there have also been many, many glorious chapters of transforming hope, and selfless sacrifice.


On the last regular day of class, after we had reviewed for the final, we decided that we needed to go to the home of two of the students and pray for them and their wives. Both of their wives have been very sick, one since February, the other, since 1987!


I had mixed feelings about the outing, because, my experience has been that God doesn’t always heal those we pray for. Now, some claim that that is due to a lack of faith in the person being prayed for, that If only they believed a little more, then God would heal them. Others say that God only heals through medical doctors nowadays. That healing in the New Testament was a mere sign, pointing to the arrival of God’s kingdom. And, they would say, since that kingdom has come (at least in part), then healing miracles are no longer necessary.


The problem with these two positions is that the first seems to make God a servant of faith. And if a miracle is dependent on my faith, then God hardly seems sovereign. The second position likewise, denies God’s character. It says that God only healed in order to make a point. Not because he loved people, not because he had compassion on them, not because he hated their suffering even more than they did.


But Jesus said that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed...that is, really small faith...then we could do, or rather, he would do through us, rather amazing things. We could metaphorically move mountains, he said. And any arguments based on the New Testament text that miracles were for a limited time only, are desperately thin. One might achieve some (limited) success arguing philosophically or scientifically that miracles are a thing of the past, but to make such a claim based on the New Testament is a hard sell indeed.


At any rate, I had mixed feelings. I wanted to see God help these people, who unlike most Americans, have few other options. And yet, I was afraid of the outcome if nothing came of it. What if they weren’t healed? What would be the effect on the students? On those we prayed for? On me?


At the first house we went to, we prayed for a lady who for the last 22 years has suffered varying degrees of mental illness. In America, of course, we would promptly load such a person up on Prozac and whatever else is the anti–depressant du jour. And occasionally, we would do so with good cause. But in Zambia medical care for the mentally ill is virtually non–existent.


At the second house, we prayed for a lady who had been sick since February with fevers, headaches, coughing, bloodshot eyes and itchy skin.


As we gathered at the second house, which was in a busy compound just off the main market, in earshot of noisy bars and foot traffic, my fears about our prayers not being answered were quickly swallowed up in the reality of being there. In that tiny house, with its bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling, and its tin roof and chipped plaster walls, it occurred to me that we pray for healing, not only because God can and does heal the sick, but also because when we pray we become what we could never be otherwise.


By that, I mean that in praying for those who are hurting, we lose something of our earthly and fatal perspective – a perspective that fears prayer because of what might not be, and enter into God’s divine perspective – one that embraces prayer because of who God is. We turn from a temporal, results-centered living, to an eternal, Person-centered loving. And in that, we find that prayer for healing is never about us, and it is even only partly about the person being prayed for.


And this is what both of those positions I mentioned above get right. It is ultimately about faith, and it is ultimately about the Kingdom. But neither of those, biblically speaking, is ever about us. Faith comes not from our will power, but from God’s all power. And the Kingdom of God that has burst in upon the kingdoms of men with the coming of Christ, is not about God making a statement, but about God making us whole. It is in the Kingdom that we are healed because it is in the King that we “live and move and have our being,” (Acts 17:28).


This last year, it seems there has been an abundance of opportunities to pray for a number of our friends who have faced, and some who still are facing, major health issues. And at times, I have found myself wearied by the news of yet another beloved friend in desperate need of a touch from God. Because the truth is, to care, to really care, is exhausting and dangerous. It’s exhausting because it shatters all notions of a world in which things are just fine, and in which every malady is solvable with a Band–Aid or Ritalin. And its dangerous because it violently reminds us that despite our memberships at the gym, and our IRAs and 401Ks and all the degrees and placards hanging on our walls commemorating our accomplishments, that we ultimately are as dependent and helpless as little children.


And when we pray for the sick, I think somehow, we too find healing that we never even knew we needed. We might, I suppose, think of it as holy healthcare reform. When we come to God in faith and in recognition of our complete dependence on Him, we finally are able to, not only understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Unless you change (reform), and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” but more importantly, we are actually enabled to do it!


So maybe we need to be praying for the sick more often because, 1) God can and does heal, and 2) because it is in doing so that we ourselves are cured of our greatest ailment, the disease of self–sufficiency.


Saturday, July 04, 2009

July The Fourth


America is far from being perfect. We have our problems, no matter what political lens you chose to view the action from.

On the Republican side, we have the Governor of South Carolina, who seems to have borrowed his present political strategy from Forest Gump: stupid is as stupid does. The Democrats, of course, have their share of gubernatorial goofballs too, starting with Rod Blagojevich.

Now some among us have drawn some rather astonishing conclusions from these wayward politicians. The non–logic goes something like this:

Sanford had an extramarital affair and ran off to Argentina to hook up with a woman he claimed to be his ‘soul mate.” Sanford is a republican. Therefore all republicans, who claim to adhere to “family values” are really adulterers who secretly lust after Antonio Banderas and Charo. And this is why Hugo Chavez is so angry.

On the Dem side:

Blagojevich tried to sell Obama’s senate seat to the highest bidder. Blago is a democrat. Therefore, all democrats, who claim to be champions of the poor, are in reality greedy elitists who want the rest of us to be driving around on riding lawnmowers while they’re busy joyriding in a 747 doing photo ops over New York city, on their way home from a weekend at Martha’s Vineyard.

Of course, this is all nonsense.

We all know that Hugo Chavez is angry because his haircut makes him look like Herman Munster, bless his heart. Perhaps John Edwards can recommend a good barber.

So, yes, America has issues, just like the rest of the world.

But the longer I’m in Africa, the more I appreciate just how good we have it in the good ole’ US of A. Here is short list of some of my biggest ‘gratefulnesses”.

  • In America, I’m grateful for mostly honest policemen who aren’t constantly trying to con me, as one did this week in Lusaka when I was given a speeding ticket for going 4 miles per hour over the speed limit. The officer tried to claimed the fine was three times what the law says it is.
  • In America, I’m grateful that my tax money generally goes to important things, like roads or schools. In Africa, tax money can just as easily go towards a new fleet of Mercedes for government Ministers, presumably because the poor roads destroyed their previous ones.
  • In America, I’m grateful that a person can say whatever they want about the President, and not fear being tortured or killed. In many places in Africa, a person can say whatever they want about a president, as long as it is flattering.
  • In America, I’m grateful that loud explosions in the middle of the night usually don’t mean that we’re at war. Instead, it just means that Americans are celebrating their freedom, in the usual fashion, by blowing stuff up.
  • In America, I’m grateful that people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Franken can run for office, and win. If they can’t get laws passed, then they should at least be good for a laugh or two.
  • In America, I’m grateful that there is a Fox News, and a CNN, and that neither of them are as “ fair” or “balanced” as they claim. It makes us all think for ourselves a little more than we otherwise might.

I was sort of hesitant about posting this, because the last impression I wanted to give is that I think that everything about America is good, or that I think that everything about Africa is bad. Both places have their share of both.

But in America I sometimes wonder if we are losing a sense of our most valuable national treasure, and by that I mean our ability to celebrate both our unity and our diversity. It seems that more and more our differences erupt into bitter personal attacks and slanderous accusations. Little by little, we are losing the ability to respectfully disagree.

And if the Church, as possessors of the Spirit of unity (Rom. 15:5), cannot take the lead in changing this, how can we expect anyone else to?

Because, as we have seen in Iran recently, we are never really independent until we can celebrate the freedom of dissent.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nature

Nature takes many forms.

There is what we oddly call “mother nature,” and by which we usually mean severe weather or geological anomalies such as volcanoes and earthquakes. I’m not sure where that expression comes from though. I imagine some guy who had a rough childhood stood watching a volcano spewing hot lava, or a hurricane uprooting trees, and said, “Hmmm. Kinda reminds me of mom.” However it came about, it is an odd monicker. Mothers are usually nurturing, compassionate, and fond of nice, well–built homes. Nature on the other hand is often violent, disruptive, and fond of trailer parks. I fail to see the connection.

Environmentalists strive for the preservation of nature. And this, contrary to what some Christians believe, is a good thing. God has made us caretakers of this planet we are on and it is our responsibility to be good stewards of what God has entrusted us with. Now, granted, some take things a bit too far. This past week I read a story about a group that wanted to promote clean air by riding their bikes naked through New York City. The bike part I get. The naked part, I don’t. Yes, a large man on a bike instead of in a car lowers our human footprint, as they say. However, a large naked guy on a bike instead of in a car, does not inspire me to greater concern for nature. It inspires me to greater concern for my corneas.

And then there is what we call human nature. Human nature, of course, has many faces. There is the compassionate and loving side. There is the side that gives selflessly, that puts others first and that gives little thought to personal needs. That is the rare side of human nature. More often, though, we encounter the ugly side of humanity.

And perhaps one of the most common aspects of the ugly side, is that of corruption. Corruption can be found anywhere and everywhere, and Africa is no exception.

This week the big news story here in Zambia has to do with a government official who made off with something like 6 million dollars (US) in funds from the Ministry of Health. In reaction to the news, doctors and nurses went on strike claiming that if there was 6 million dollars lying around waiting to be stolen, then there was surely enough for them to get a raise. Then, teachers across the country went on strike claiming that it just seemed like a fun thing to do. As a result, students from local high schools began to riot by throwing rocks at passing cars, claiming that if there was 6 million dollars lying around waiting to be stolen and that if doctors and nurses and teachers could go on strike, then surely, rock throwing must fit into the picture somehow.

At times, when we hear things like this in Africa, we shake our head in bewilderment as though we know nothing of such things. Of course, this is far from true. My thoughts and actions frequently testifies to my own various forms of corruption. Granted, I have never stolen 6 million dollars. But my inclinations, my nature, is seldom faultless.

For instance, I find myself frequently jealous rather than joyous at the successes and opportunities enjoyed by my friends. And even when I do serve others in whatever way, I often find that I am motivated by my own need for significance rather than by genuine compassion and concern. And sometimes, becoming aware of these and other less than godly qualities that I possess, can be discouraging.

This past week we hosted a team from a church in Virginia. On the last day of the team’s visit we took them a few hours outside the city of Lusaka so they could rest and take in a bit of nature, Zambia style.

The Lower Zambezi River is home to an ample array of flora and fauna. And as we were speeding along the river, I couldn’t escape the sense that it was all put there for our benefit, that the beauty of nature is far too precise, far too harmonious to have been accidental. Perhaps this is why some prefer the term “mother nature.” Because nature, is intensely personal. It bears an unmistakable note of dedication that is far more than merely the signature of the Artist. Rather, it is a note from the Artist himself, to all who would appreciate it declaring that it is done for our benefit, from the Creator himself to us.

And in all of this, I am reminded that God is an intensely personal God who has come to restore to humanity the beauty of the divine imprint upon our human nature, an imprint that has long been lost (Gen. 1:27). And in the slow saunter of a Saddleback Stork, and in the quiet restoration of my own soul, I am reminded that what God does, is inherently good (see all of Gen. 1), and that what we do apart from his Spirit, despite whatever clever things we may dress it up in, is inherently corrupt.

“Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace,” (Romans 8:5-6).

Thus the hope for Zambia, the hope for an imperfect missionary, the hope for the environment, is not merely a greater appreciation for nature, but rather a greater seeking of the Spirit that changes our nature and makes us more like the One who created it all to begin with.

And best of all, no one has to get naked.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jelly Island

A few weeks ago I had to take our puppy Allie to the vet. I am still undergoing indoctrination into all things doggie, and I suppose this was a necessary next step in the process. You may recall from previous posts that I have not traditionally been a pet person. Not that I dislike animals or anything, but rather that I simply prefer to enjoy them on either the Discovery Channel or the end of a fork.

Mostly my frustration with animals is that they tend to take far more than they give. Now, if they could do a few dishes or clean a bathroom once in a while, then my view of pets might be radically different. But so far, we have had a hard enough time training Allie to do…well, just to doo somewhere besides on the rug in front of the TV.

Those of you who are animal lovers are, I’m sure, protesting by this time, declaring, “But pets are wonderful because they love you unconditionally.” Which is true, if by unconditionally you mean providing that you feed them and rub their bellies for hours on end. If that is what you mean by unconditional love, then yes, they do that.

Anyway, my trip to the vet got off to a difficult start as Allie seemed to innately know what was about to happen because usually she comes right away when I call her. But when I tried to put her in the car, she began running around in circles, not circles big enough to make it impossible for me to catch her mind you, but rather small little circles that seemed to accentuate the fact that it was Allie and not me that was firmly in control. Our neighbor’s workers stood and watched in delight as this racoon sized dog eluded my capture and occasionally stopped long enough to mock me and let me catch my breath, in between my hysterically shouting, “Allie. Allie. Come–here, Allie. Allie Come. Come. Come...here. Allie. Allie. Allie. ALLIE!!!!! UGGGGGH.”

By the time we reached the vet, I was completely worn out and my self confidence had been greatly shaken. Its amazing how much self–confidence we derive from what we can (or, in this case can’t) do.

The receptionist at the vet’s office took my information, name address and phone number as well as Allie’s name, and made us an official file and we were taken right in. When the vet grabbed the thermometer, I immediately began looking for some reading material as I had no desire to see where she was going to put it. The only reading material nearby was the file that the receptionist had made and so I quickly grabbed it and began scanning the information.

Sometimes, people (like dogs) don’t always hear what we say and I chuckled out loud as I read the name on the file.

It read: Mr. Jelly Island.

You know, Jelly Island, that wonderful little fairy–tale place right next to Peanut Butter Bay, where the Doughnut Dolphins can be seen jumping in unison alongside the Gravy Boats as they head out to the Syrup Sea. Tra–la–la–la–la. Yeah for Jelly Island!

On the whole, the day thrust me into a major identity crisis as though the headline of my life suddenly became, “Gelatinous Land Mass Man Outwitted by 1lb. Dog.”

This week we just finished a seminary class on the History of Christian Missions. And one thing that I am reminded of as we have studied the spread of Christianity from the Middle East to Africa, to Europe, to Asia and eventually on to America is that the Gospel when properly understood, never robs a people of their identity, but rather it reveals it.

And I have noticed a tendency in myself to look for my identity in so many things, in my meager accomplishments, in education, in writing, or yes (sadly), even in really dumb things like clothes or gadgets. It seems my whole being constantly is crying out and asking, “Who am I?” And yet, any answer to that question that is not rooted in Christ leaves me in sorry state of affairs. Because when my identity comes in what I do, or what I wear, when it comes in things so fragile that you can wake up one day and find them simply gone, then the chief characteristic of your life becomes an endless desperation to cling to what perhaps you never really had to begin with.

And this is the trouble with postmodern thought. If there are no absolutes (which is preposterous – because then that statement itself could not be absolutely true!), then there is nothing other than the temporal and absurd to which we can cling, to which we can turn for life and hope.

Consider the words of the apostle Paul, who said, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” (Gal. 2:20). As I meditate on that, and on what a profound sense Paul seemed to have of his life being “hidden in Christ” (Col. 3:3), I am reminded that what Christ offers us in our identifying with him in his death, is in reality the supreme entrance into the abundant life he has promised us.

And apart from that, we, and those without the gospel, will forever be mere Jelly Islands.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Day

I like humor as much as anybody.

However, I am disturbed (and at the same time, aware of the inherent “old foginess” in what I’m about to say), but It seems like more and more, funny is being redefined as simply crass.

Humor these days seems to have become little more than a bunch of feckless, personae non gratae whose sole talent seems to espousing the profane. As I was checking out the news on the internet today, I came across an article about a “comedian” who had himself crucified during Good Friday commemorations in the Philippines. And yesterday my homepage featured a “Family Guy” YouTube clip (which I didn’t watch) about a dog fetching a cross.

My initial reaction, because these people so readily trample on what I hold dear, is to want to lash out in a violent tirade of verbal abuse. I want to tell them in plain English that their banal attempts at humor are merely vapid repetitions of what has been around for centuries. People have been mocking Christianity since its inception and those who continue to do so offer nothing creative or original in the least.

That’s what I want to say.

But when I consider the way Jesus dealt with mockery, I’m reminded that there is perhaps a better way. When Jesus stood before his accusers, and they mocked and beat him, he didn’t lash out. He didn’t defend himself. He didn’t tell those mocking him that they were insignificant peons. Because the truth is, they weren’t. In fact, they were the very reason he was about to die – so that they may have life, and have to the full (John 10:10).

And when I think about my outrage at those who have no respect for the cross, what really comes to light is not their waywardness, but my own. After all, the Bible clearly says that unbelievers cannot comprehend the things of God. They simply don’t have the tools to understand the Cross or the crucifixion or the resurrection or any of it (1Cor.2:14). Paul clearly explains this when he says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1Cor. 1:18).

And so the real tragedy of the day is not that some people have no regard for the cross and go to the Philippines to have themselves crucified in mockery of the greatest act of compassion mankind has ever known, or that they make ridiculous cartoons about dogs fetching crosses. We should, according to the Bible, expect nothing less. The real tragedy is that despite that this is exactly what we should expect, I still find it hard to love these people.

And the message in that is that its not those people who need to better understand the cross. Rather, it’s me, who has professed to understand it, that is shown to be wanting.

And so this Easter, I am reminded not only of the profound rejoicing we should embody regarding the resurrection, but also of the need to at times, be simply silent and to love.

Maybe then those who would mock this day, might pause long enough to contemplate it.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Heroes


I suppose we all have our heros.

For the people that were on flight 1549 this past January, Pilot Chesley Sullenburger was a hero. And from all appearances, a worthy one at that. Others of us choose somewhat less noble individuals at times as our heroes, such as athletes, politicians, and movie stars. And often we regret it later on when the person turns out to be about as smart as a walnut. Movie stars in particular are especially good at declaring themselves to be heroes. They emblazon their names on bronze stars, and embed them in the sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard, lest we forget them and the great contribution they made to society, by pretending to be someone else and getting paid an obscene amount of money to do it.

The thing is, though, I think we all want to be thought of as heroes. Most of us want to be remembered for having done something significant with our lives and whether we admit it or not most of us wouldn’t turn down a star on Hollywood Boulevard. At least, I probably wouldn’t, though admittedly the chances of that are about as good as my being appointed the next Pope.

I’ve began to notice, though, that there is something about being a missionary that seems to make me think of myself at times in heroic terms.

The last few weeks, I’ve been teaching in a Bible school that has just gotten off the ground (and in fact, some might say is still firmly ON the ground). The school meets in a church with no electricity, and the principal takes a pew in the back of the church as her “office.” Our sessions start at 7:30 with a chapel service, which always consists of fervent and passionate prayer that is so typical of African believers, a lively time of worship, and a sermon, usually given by one of the schools five students. Mid morning, we take a break for a bit of tea and bread and butter. We finish at about one in the afternoon and then have lunch, which might consist of a boiled egg and some rice.

And one day last week as we were sitting down for our tea and bread, I couldn’t help but begin to think that it was quite noble of me to be there, giving of myself in such humble circumstances. My thoughts drifted back to my days in Bible college and to how much more lavish that setting had been, with the theatre style, cushioned seating of the chapel, the large projection screens, the sound system, and the clear plexiglass podium (I suppose that enabled you to always be sure that the speaker was wearing pants?).

I thought about our nice little coffee shop and my almost daily cappuccino that kept me from sleeping through whatever class I had right after lunch, and how lunch was NEVER rice and a boiled egg. And I thought about how our classes were, well in actual classrooms, with desks, and places to “plug in,” and a projector and a screen. And I remembered how some professors would go to great lengths to “wow” a generation of visual junkies with their technological acumen, like one particular professor who would act as though he were “throwing” the Greek words onto the screen, and we would watch them slowly replace the English words; and how much to his chagrin, we weren’t that impressed.

As I sat sipping my tea and eating my piece of bread, I happened to glance out the window, through the security bars that keep people from stealing the chairs, and I caught sight of a cross on top of a neighboring church and was reminded that for the Church, for those of us who follow Christ, there can only ever be one Hero.

Whatever small sacrifices we make (and, really, we mostly make small sacrifices), they all pale in comparison to the cross. And whatever notions I might have about how noble a thing I think I’m doing, my actions can only truly find meaning in light of the one truly noble act the world has seen. Namely, God dying on a cross for my sins.

That is the only really viable starting point for comparison. We can always conjure the hero within us when the starting point is ourselves because there will always be something or someone that we think is less noble than us.

But when we start at the cross, we are left to the inevitable conclusion that the apostle Paul came to, when he said, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world,” (Gal. 6:14).

And the truth is, the world will never come to know the significance of Christ on the cross, if we keep trying to take his place.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Upside Down


A few days ago, I woke up and shuffled my way to the kitchen and took a mug out of the cabinet, and then after placing it upside down on the counter, proceeded to pour coffee over the top of it, and then watched the coffee run down the sides of the cup and onto the counter.

Unfortunately, my reflexes and logic prior to those 2–3 cups of coffee also leave much to be desired, because even when I realized what I had done, it took a good 5 seconds before I actually did anything about it (like stop pouring the coffee).

My brain: The cup is upside down dummy.
My arm: Shut up, and go back to sleep.

On Sunday we attended church in a cornfield. The congregation met at a sight that will one day, ideally house a decent sized structure. But at the moment, its nothing more than a tin roof, supported by twelve iron beams. There is no floor, other than a rough concrete slab. A makeshift platform consisted of a nice piece of fabric spread out around a rudimentary, wooden podium. The church has no walls, and as I was preaching a light rain began to fall. A strong wind was blowing and my glasses kept getting covered in tiny droplets of water.

There was something about the whole experience that made me feel like I had just been to church for the very first time. The idea, the very biblical idea I might add, that “the Church” is not in fact a building, but a people, seemed writ large in the glaring simplicity of the scene.

I am often amazed at how little attachment Zambians have to things. Things break, and people seem to shrug it off as though they expected that very thing to happen all along. Here when things get stolen, one says simply, “It went missing.” As though whatever it was might have just ceased to exist as easily as it could have been taken by a neighbor or passerby. What is noticeably absent in these instances though, is rage. In the two years we have been here, I have never seen a Zambian get all bent out of shape over the loss or damage of something they owned. And that to me is astounding, considering that most people here own so little!

As I looked at the piles of cinderblocks that would one day be the walls, and that lay stacked all around the perimeter of the church, I couldn’t help but feel that something beautiful, intangible and invaluable, would be lost when the building is eventually completed. And then, I realized what an easy thing that is to want for someone else. And what a nearly impossible thing it is to want for yourself.

What I want for myself is almost never simplicity. What I want for myself is usually more. I want more cell phone, even though I never use half of the features on the one I have, I want more computer, not because I need it but because it exists. Somewhere out there I know that someone is running around with a computer that makes mine look like a waffle iron, and it drives me crazy.

I’ve often thought that missions is a two way street. That we have as much to learn from the churches we serve as they have to learn from us. And perhaps this is one of those areas where we should take notes.

Because when I look at the way that Zambian’s view stuff, and at the way I tend to, I am more and more convinced that I’ve had my cup upside down for quite some time.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Shall We Dance?

Jerry often jokes with our Zambian friends that he’s not as talented at dancing as they are. However, twice recently I have witnessed his unprecedented and inspired . . . choreography. The first incident occurred when, upon awakening, our eyes focused immediately on a large, fat lizard clinging precariously to the inside of our mosquito net, mere inches over our heads. We were up in a flash. And in the process of capturing that creature, Jerry made some most amusing noises and moves – the best entertainment I’d had for some time. The second incident took place in church last week. Wondering if the Spirit was descending on my husband in a previously unexperienced manner, I observed with interest as his body made strange contortions and an odd look came upon his face, as he sat beside me on the front row. Only after church did I learn the real source of his inspiration: a cockroach inside his suit jacket!

The truth is, we’re both longing to dance again. To lay down the weight of sorrow that clings so tenaciously, and sometimes seems just too much to bear. The other day we went for a walk in the sunshine, only to find ourselves caught in a rain that came up in an instant and left us soaked. So too our hearts can go from hope to despair, from peace to pain, with no warning at all.

We find ourselves daily engaging the Enemy in ways we have never before experienced. The issue? Trusting in the goodness and Sovereignty of God, trusting His love for us, submitting ourselves to His work of grace in our lives. So easy to say, so easy to preach about . . . so hard to own, in the midst of a storm.

Though we teach classes here, we’re actually quite engaged in learning ourselves. About praising Almighty God in brokenness. About listening intently for His voice. About being authentic before God, and also, with people.

Today as I sat in a classroom of Zambian pastors and leaders, I thought, “how amazing of God, to allow us to be under the care and tutelage of such gracious people in a time like this.” People who have suffered deeply, whose faith sustains them, and who amaze us with their capacity for joy. After class I sat and chatted with a friend, Pastor Beatrice. This humble lady is a church-planter, director of a Bible School, widow, mother, grandmother, and woman of grace. Though her own children are grown, she still cares for several orphaned children in her home, on a meager ministry income. She shared some of her story with me – losing several children, and then unexpectedly losing her husband. In a land where there is very little employment opportunity, let alone “Social Security,” widows struggle greatly to survive. Her words of encouragement were simple and gentle. “ You just have to trust God. There is a reason for everything He allows. Just thank Him, and praise Him, in everything.”

There was not an ounce of triteness in her words. With a glow on her face, and nothing but love in her eyes, she exalted the Lord as she spoke of His sustaining power and faithfulness to her. I sat there and drank in the humble joy, the precious peace, and love that flowed out of her “like rivers of living water.” It occurred to me that perhaps never before had I seen the fruit of the Spirit so beautifully on display, as I did in that moment. It was almost like having a conversation with Jesus. The sparkle in her eyes rekindled something inside of me, and I felt my heart saying, “Yes! Yes to what you say, yes to who you are, yes to Christ in you!”

Ah, the tenderness, the strength, the God-confidence of those who have suffered – and overcome. People like Beatrice. People like . . . Jesus. Jesus, who suffered for us, that He might turn our mourning into dancing.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dust

The other day I had to take my wife’s laptop to the repair shop because, as a wise friend once said, “In Africa, we have dust.”

Dust here is not just that sort of greyish film that settles as an unsightly coating on your old books and new exercise equipment. Here dust is second only to the British in its propensity to settle where its not wanted.

At any rate, Paula’s laptop fan had become caked in dust to the point that the “housing” melted (“housing” being a technical term for a little three bedroom ranch where the fan goes after it gets off work) because the fan was not able to spin at its normal capacity. The repair guy fixed the fan within a few hours (much to my amazement and skepticism). When I returned to pick it up, I turned the computer on to make sure everything was working properly. Immediately I noticed that those four little lights on the front of her Dell that tell you if 1) the power is on, 2) if the Wi-Fi is on, 3) if the power supply is plugged in, and 4) if the processor is running, were not lighting at all.

When I complained about this I was given an innocent shrug that seemed to say, “Listen pal, you should be happy that it even turns on.” Which of course I was, and considered leaving and just dropping the little blue light issue altogether. But just then a lady emerged from the back who seemed to be in charge (because for one, she had enormous shoulder pads in her blouse, and two, because she looked quite unhappy, as though nothing would make her happier than to fire someone right then). I stopped her and asked her what they proposed to do about the fact that my wife’s laptop was in no better (and in some ways worse) shape than it was when I brought it in.

She looked at the computer and looked at me, and said (and I’m not kidding), “I have a laptop too. Those lights aren’t supposed to come on.”

It took every bit of kindness I could conjure to keep from saying, “Oh, my yes. You are so right. These are the non–functioning, purposeless lights that Dell installed right on the front of their laptops to alert the user to ABSOLUTELY NOTHING except that they could have placed SOMETHING QUITE USEFUL there had they wanted to.”

But perhaps she saw the sarcasm trying to escape because as soon as she said it she made a bee-line for the office and immediately summoned the clerk to join her.

Later, through the kindness of the repairman whom the store did eventually send to my house to fix the issue, I learned that the woman had informed the clerk that I was a “difficult customer.” Which is true, if by difficult she meant “wanting something for his money.”

The thing is, I was having a really good day that day, which I don’t always have in Africa. Sometimes Africa gets the better of you and by noon you’re ready pack everything up and move to Tulsa and open a bagel shop. But that day I was doing well, and was managing my frustrations fairly easily (or so I thought). But when I learned that the manager had labeled me a “difficult customer” I was quite upset, because I AM NOT difficult and it really drives me insane to be accused of things that I’m not! Even though a bit of reflection reminds me that not than long ago I blogged about a similar incident in a Staples store.

This week in the class I’ll be teaching on the Gospel of John, we will be studying Jesus’ trial before Annas, Caiphas and finally before Pilate. And today as I was reading those passages, it struck me what restraint Jesus embodied in the face of such arrogance, audacity and abuse. And what’s more, is that at every point Jesus’ concern seems to never have been for his own justification, or to be proven right, but instead to provide an opportunity for those who would destroy him to believe in Him and come into the Light.

And I can’t help but wonder if we as Christians don’t sometimes spend far too much time trying to “be right,” and prove the superiority of our position, and far too little time trying to “be light” that might lead someone out of their darkness and into the embrace of Christ.

As I think about this last week of class and the students I have the privilege to teach, I wonder if Africa will get it right. I wonder if the Church in Africa will be the one that finally, after 2000 years of (at times) sordid history, presents to the world a Christ that is forever reaching out to those that are hurting, disenfranchised and yes, even predisposed toward unbelief.

Or, will they, like we so often have, get caught in endless debates and defenses about, quite honestly, rather meaningless little blue lights.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Modern Inconveniences

Love can be terribly inconvenient.

Of course, I don’t mean those kinds of love that we all are so fond of, like the love between a husband and a wife, a child and his dog, or a man and anything requiring internal combustion. No, those types of love come quite naturally.

But there is another type of love however that requires some real effort, some intentionality, sort of like that which you would need in order to actually eat Spam, or read a Danielle Steele novel (both of which, by the way, are nearly equal in nutritional value and I am certain one would benefit far more by eating the Danielle Steele novel and reading the Spam).

This week was my first week of teaching the Gospel of John, which many scholars believe to have been written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” which is not a matter of the writer bragging about being Jesus’ favorite, but rather a humble way of the disciple John saying, “me,” since in the first century the concept of American Idol (and its attenuating notion that the winner becomes the center of the universe) were only beginning to take shape due to the fact that Paula Abdul was still undergoing Botox treatment. Had American Idol fully evolved by that time, the writer would have identified himself, of course, by wearing a bikini.

The class has been a wonderful experience. And by that, I mean that I made it to class on time every day and hardly anyone fell asleep during the entire four hour session, which I attribute, primarily to the fact that the Bible is endlessly fascinating and relevant, and secondarily, to my wearing a bikini.

Plus, I discovered that when you’re the teacher and you don’t know the answer to a question, you can always say, “Well class, we have a lot to cover today, so let’s keep moving.” And everyone will just think you’re a neurotic workaholic. Which is much better than being thought a normal human being.

On Wednesday though, (on a far more serious and somber note) one of the students in class reported that a lady in her church had died after giving birth. She was “an older” lady, which by Zambian standards might mean 40. Paula graciously offered that after class we would take her to the funeral house (which would be the home of the lady who had died and where all the family, friends and relatives are gathered).

I have to admit, I wasn’t immediately thrilled by the idea, knowing that we could be there a long time. In Zambia, when you go the funeral house, you traditionally go and just sit with those that are grieving. You don’t talk much but just sit and be there. And I knew that in going we would cross from our reality into another, a reality characterized not by modern conveniences, but by the ancient inconveniences of poverty and despair.

In Zambia, we who have the comfort of good health care and nice homes live in sort of a constant awareness that the “other Zambia” is not so far away and will one day soon, often when we least expect it, intrude upon our lives and give us a healthy dose of a reality very different from the one in which we normally move.

I suppose my unstated personal philosophy has been to not go looking for this intrusion of the other reality, but to just know that eventually it will find me, upset me, and, of course, inconvenience me.

And I suppose a little inconvenience is a healthy thing. I mean, if we lived our lives entirely according to what was expedient, then we would have the depth of a turnip and former senators would get appointed to cabinet posts without having had to pay their taxes (as qualified as he may or may not have been, said Jerry in his most apolitical voice, ironically aware that I am using this story because of its convenience).

But if Jesus had only ever done that which was convenient (as I am sometimes inclined to do), He would have never entered human history and “pitched his tent among us,” (John 1:14). And one is left to wonder if convenience has any place in love at all. I mean, is it not the nature of love to sacrifice, to endure, to give?

So, while yes, love can at times be terribly inconvenient, it can also be uniquely, and wonderfully transformational and our job then is not to weigh the cost of love (as I seem so innately inclined to do), but to simply live it out.

And in doing that we enter, in a remarkable way, into the most universal and rarest of languages, a language in which Jesus spoke with perfect clarity in dying on the cross (John 3:16). And surely, there was nothing convenient about that.

It is that message more than any other that is capable of transforming the broken lives of this world.

And, more importantly, its a message that can be proclaimed without anyone ever having to don a bikini.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Broken

Some days, it seems like everything in Zambia is broken.

Last night we had an electrician out to hook up our dryer and 30 minutes after he left the plug was melted to the outlet. Apparently, attaching a 30 amp device to a plug made to handle 13 amps is sort of like shaving with weed eater (its just a BAD idea). Now you may be wondering, why in the world didn’t the electrician notice this? And the answer would be that, well, the term “electrician” can mean so many things in Zambia, and doesn’t necessarily mean someone who knows anything at all about electrical stuff, but that simply decided one day, “I think I’ll be an electrician.” And thus, he became an electrician. Which is of course, the same way that many people in Africa, and around the world, have become presidents.

In fact, there’s an old missionary adage (and we, being missionary, often speak in adages) that says, the proper question to ask when hiring someone for a job, is not CAN you do this, but have you done it before. This morning as we were getting ready for church, our hot water suddenly was reduced to little more than a trickle (sort of like Michael Jackson). And as I went to unlock our front door so we could leave, the key would hardly turn and almost broke and I felt my love for all things Zambian beginning to drop faster the Dow.

The church we were ministering at was in Ngombe compound (which means cow, and is named that because originally it was settled by Timbuka people, although no one really knows what Timbukas and “cow” have to do with each other. Nonetheless, that is the reason we were given).

The compound, like most compounds in Lusaka, consists of make shift mud brick houses, many with only a sheet for a door. To get to the church we had to drive through the market, which after an all night rain was a mucky mess of mud stained black from charcoal sold for cooking and heating. It was before 9 a.m. in the morning and drunks were stumbling out the bars and half naked little kids were running around unattended nearly getting hit by passing mini buses.

And I thought as I looked at this market, and compared it to the place where we shop, a nice modern shopping center, with carts and pleasant music playing and courteous employees wearing matching smocks, I thought to myself, this world is broken! This strange world we live in, with worlds within the world, worlds that are as distant in realities as farthest galaxies.

Just before church I slipped away to the “facilities,” knowing that we might be here a long time, and found myself at nothing more than a hole in the ground, attended by roughly made walls and a wooden door that wouldn’t shut, and no roof and the rain steadily falling. I thought of what it would be like to live in this place and to never know the luxury of indoor plumbing. And I thought, this place is broken.

After church during a meeting with the board, we listened to the pastor, a lady, describe some of her challenges. She didn’t have a car and lived on the other side of town and her husband had recently had their only car confiscated by the police because it was “registered as a personal vehicle and was being used for business.” Likely nothing more than a matter of the police looking for a bribe. But the result was that her husband had been unable to work and had become depressed and they had been without food until friends came and helped them out.

And then another pastor shared about a 15 year old girl in his church that was being sexually abused by her brother–in–law and how he had been able to counsel her and her family, but the result was that the 15 year old girl was shipped off to live with other relatives, without any counseling, without anyone real help at all. And I thought, these people are broken.

As I listened to these stories I found myself not wanting to hear anymore, but just wanting to go and get back to the comfort of my quite unbroken home (by comparison) and my very unbroken life.

And so, yes, many things in Zambia are broken.

Some are too broken to be fixed. And others, like myself, are perhaps not broken enough.