26 December 2012

Merry Christmas!

We pray you had a blessed Christmas.  Our recent newsletter is now posted here, in case you haven't been able to read it yet.  Thank you for praying for our family!

11 October 2012

Fear... is good.

We just returned to class from a 4 day mid-term break here at RVA and entered straight into our annual Spiritual Emphasis Week.  I wrote about the last two here (Under The Tree) and here (Under The Broom Tree).  This year our speaker is Dick Brogden, a missionary in Northern Africa.

Last night's two points: God hates sinners and God loves sinners.  One thing he said that really challenged me was that hate is a neutral word.  In our contemporary culture, he argues, we've assigned hate a purely negative connotation, i.e. we've said hate is categorically bad, but Biblically we see a much different picture.  We're to hate injustice, malice, greed and a whole host of unrighteous behavior.  At this point I was right with him.  His next step made me a little uncomfortable. God hates sinners.  Then he brought up a favorite Evangelical Christian line: "Hate the sin, not the sinner."  A line I've used many times myself.  I'm always thinking of a God who hates sin, but loves sinners, but that's only half the picture.  He also hates sinners.  Dick read off reference after reference from scripture where God says over and over that he hates not just sin, but sinners - which was totally sobering.

His point was that unless we understand our sin and God's hate for it, we cannot grasp His love.  Unless we fear God's holiness, perfection and justice we cannot understand (much less accept) His grace, mercy and forgiveness.   It was a very convicting, moving a powerful message.

Some later events of the evening (concerning which I'll be totally vague)  brought up lots of uncomfortable questions about spiritual warfare, demons, etc...  Some students were obviously fearful.  Others thought overt spiritual warfare was a perfectly normal part of a worship service.  One of our staff members made the observation that for kids growing up in the bush surrounded by very animistic cultures, this was nothing new but for kids in more urban settings (more western and developed) this was something totally new.  This made me think:  What is the difference?

I think it has a lot to do with fear.  In the purely natural context, we as humans are powerfully and uncontrollably affected by fear.  Why not also in the supernatural context?  If we fear the supernatural, it has control over our spiritual life.  Like Mr. Brogden said about hate, fear is another neutral word.  In our Western culture, we've constrained fear to a purely negative emotion (I'm remembering the early 90s motto of 'No Fear').  In Christianity, we're quick to pick out the 'fear nots' in the Bible and focus on them when a healthy spirituality probably has a lot more fear of God.*

This also made me think a lot more about how few supernatural things I've seen.  Maybe it's because I fear very little - especially God.  If I fear nothing, nothing has power over me...  but I'm not so special.  Perhaps God's willingness to work in and through me is directly proportional to the fear I have for His power, perfection, and holiness.  So too, my fear of rejection, my fear of living in poverty, my fear of the demonic give pride, greed and envy, and doubt a foothold to work in and through me.  Maybe there are so many miracles on the front lines of Christian evangelism because there is also so much fear.  What if we as a church feared God so much we feared even to speak his name as the Isrealites feared to speak the name Yahweh?

Please pray for our spiritual emphasis week - that students and staff will be open and receptive to God's leading in their lives.  There are sessions from 7:30 to 9:00 the next three nights (from 10:30am to 12:00noon for most of our readers in the Mountain Time Zone)

*We had a student over for dinner tonight who grew up in a non-western culture and family and when I mentioned my thought that Biblically fear is a neutral word, she said, "Of course it's neutral!  Fear is good, too." as if that was a well-established social norm.  When we explained that in the American context fear is largely seen as negative, she was surprised.

24 September 2012

Ants and Slugs

We moved into a new house at RVA this term.  It's got an incredible view and it's a little quieter than the one we were in before.  That's been an unexpected blessing as we returned here to RVA.  The only real negative?  Ants.  Pinching ones.  

We've hung some great swings in the yard.  The kind that carry you out over the edge of the hill and, for a couple of seconds, give flight to little minds and a rush to little hearts.  Big hearts and minds too, really.  But they haven't seen a lot of use lately after a few bad experiences with pinching ants.  One evening after picking ants from Aaron's diaper and pulling a big ant head from between Faith's sliced and bleeding toes (these guys are vicious) I decided to declare war on the ants.  I tried to find their major holes and sprayed Doom (a scary-powerful insecticide) down them.  I killed several thousand.  The next day there were more ant encounters and that evening a carpet of solid ants about 25 feet long and 3 feet wide across part of the lawn and I was out of Doom and feeling bad about spraying so many harsh chemicals around.  

The next day, I decided to dig the ants out.  I started scraping the grass and soil away trying to isolate the holes.  I worked for quite a while and the next day, asked Edward, our yard worker, to continue.  That afternoon, he proudly showed a pretty substantial hole about six inches in diameter teeming with ants.  I decided to wait until evening and spray more Doom down the hole.  I was somewhat optimistic of at least getting them to move.  

The next day I assured the kids it was fine, but... more ant-child trauma.  I considered running the hose down the hole and flooding them out.  Then I came home from lunch to smoke boiling out of the ground.  Edward had decided to burn them out.  "I pushed many of the burning plastics down the hole," he said.  "I am hoping the bad air will kill them."  Of course.  Why didn't I think of that?  The next day there were still trails of ants crawling around, so I ran water down the hole for an hour or so and for the last two weeks, there were no ants!

Returning home from school today, there was quite a line of ants across the path and birds perched on all the nearby roofs.  Then, Heather spotted a slug crawling across the step and a hoard of ants in hot pursuit.  I never realized how much angst existed between our family and the ants until Heather squealed, "Save the slug, save it!"

So I picked up the slug and flung it off into the grass where it was immediately engulfed by a swarming mass of previously-unseen ants.  I raced out and threw him off in another direction.  The reward for my kindness?  A frantic minute pulling a dozen pinching ants out of my pants - not really worth it for a slug that is probably dead by now anyway.  In the taut (and now silent) search for any remaining ants in my pants I realized you could actually hear the ants racing through the hedge. I noticed dozens of slugs and other faster creepy crawlies fleeing the ant hoard as the birds, like vultures, greedily snapped them up.  It was amazing in a barbaric, gritty, life-and-death sort of way.  So I took some pictures.
It's amazing the sympathy I developed for a slug fighting a stacked deck as it was found by first one ant, then almost instantly hundreds more until, overwhelmed, it would fall to the ground and be hauled away in just minutes in small ant-sized bites.

I wondered for a bit why God would make life work like that.  But I guess it's not really supposed to be that way.  At the same time, without the messed-up unfair things about life we wouldn't ever recognize our sin or our need.  So tonight I'm grateful for vicious and heartless ants... I guess.  And the opportunistic birds are beautiful.  But imagine life in a world that wasn't fallen.  I can't wait to be HOME.

09 September 2012

Thoughts From Home

We've been gone a while.  You may have noticed.  We made a summer visit back home and got to spend almost a month.  It was wonderful to to see so many friends and family.  And miserable to not see everyone.  We enjoyed cheap food and gas (crazy, right?), wide open spaces, smooth roads, odorless people...

In most ways it felt like we'd hardly been gone at all.  There were occasional reminders: Heather learning how to use an iPhone from a septuagenerian in the JFK airport terminal, familiar faces markedly older (especially kids), clear air, and errant turns into the left-hand lane; Police sitting in cars; a lack of visible assault rifles, military camouflage and batting-helmeted security guards; Absolutely enormous cows, sheep and goats.

But for the most part it felt comfortable - normal, really.  And that's probably the most frightening thing for me.  I've learned a lot here in Kenya and when we return to the states in 7 months I don't want to live the same life I lived before.  I want to live more simply - with less stuff (we've even got too much here!).  I want to be more compassionate to the homeless and outcast.  I want to be a part of the church outside Sunday Stained-Glass.  I want to talk to non-Christians daily.  I want to exhort people trapped in a rigid, idolatrous and empty christianity.  Because I still fall into that deep pit all the time.

What if we go back and forget our privileged status in the world or that weird people are the ones God loves to show his most powerful work in, that church isn't really about Sunday at all, that Jesus spent very little of His time with the religious and that a faith wrapped up in Sunday-morning-best is smothered and dies?

11 July 2012

A Problem With Prayer

Joel gets crazy bad mosquito bites.  Fortunately, Kijabe has very few mosquitos but with all the wet, foggy air lately we've had another problem: mold.  So, we tried sleeping with our windows open in an attempt to dry out the air in the house.  This was fine for a couple of days but then, Joel got enormous bites all over his face.  So we closed the windows.  Still more bites.  Then Joel added another step to the bedtime routine:

"Dad, did you check the room for mosquitos?"
"Under the bed?"
"Well, I think mosquitoes usually like to hide on the ceiling."*
"Oh... (long pause) Did you check the ceiling?"
"Did you check in the closet... up high?"
"OK, I'll check the closet...  No mosquitos here either."

And finally, a question that made me cringe:
"Daddy, can you pray that no mosquitos get me?"

Heather overheard from the other room and after bedtime asked, "So are we going to have a faith crisis in the morning?"

I wasn't sure.  Joel is a magnet for mosquitos.  If there is one near, he'll be bit.  And it's not as if he won't notice a bite.  His bites quickly swell to half-inch-thick welts the size of quarters and they last for days.  One bite on his eyebrow made his whole eyelid puffy and droopy.  I wasn't sure what kind of faith crisis we'd wake up to but I expected one.  Joel's prayer was way too specific - and it was too likely he'd get more mosquito bites, so I began to think of contingency plans.

Later, I began wondering exactly why I was so bothered about Joel's prayer request. Matthew 7:7 clearly says, "Ask and you will receive..."  Why don't I take this at face value? What is it that makes us as parents immediately think, "Well you know, Joel, God sometimes says, 'No.'"  Why do we as Evangelical Christians rush to tack on the phrase "IF it's your will, Lord" when a request seems too specific, or too measurable, or too miraculous?  Honestly, I approached Joel's prayer with at least as much belief that the answer would be, "No."  Why so little faith?

I've been reading "With Christ in the School of Prayer" by Andrew Murray** the last few weeks and it has a recurring theme:  Prayer increases our faith - we lack faith because we do not pray.  I've always thought of prayer requiring faith*** but maybe this is because I've not approached prayer properly: Haven't we all come to the uncomfortable realization at one point or another that our prayer life consists of a whole lot of asking without much listening? Maybe we ask, but do not receive because we ask wrongly (James 4:3).  Maybe we ask wrongly because we're not really approaching prayer as part of an actual tandem relationship, but with a self-centered God-as-giver, man-as-receiver kind of attitude.  

I haven't done too well at this tandem relationship lately.  We've been crazy busy, preoccupied with all kinds of things.  I was uncomfortable with Joel's request because I wasn't in step with the Holy Spirit and I knew it.  I wasn't comfortable asking because I felt guilty - a kind of going-to-an-old-acquaintance-you've-avoided-for-weeks-asking-to-borrow-something type of awkwardness.

Praying and checking the closet for the boogie-man... er... mosquitos has been part of the bed-time routine for about four weeks now.  Curiously - no more mosquito bites, save one night that I forgot to pray about mosquitos - The next morning, Joel noticed fresh bites on his nose and without hesitation said, "DAD!  You forgot to pray for mosquitos last night!"  

*Come to think of it, on the underside of the bed probably is a pretty good place to find mosquitos.

** You can download the entire book as a free PDF file here.  It's in the public domain.  You can also purchase a copy for Kindle for $2.79!  Hmmmm...

***Andrew Murray does say that some faith is required to pray in the first place, but that we cannot move beyond being 'ye of little faith' without time in prayer.

27 June 2012

Home Burning

We're wrapping up the school-year here (don't mock us) and I (Jim) am really looking forward to a trip back home.  I've been homesick quite a lot this term.  Totally understandable when you consider this trip will be the first time I get to see so many faces and places in a little over two years.  I really wrestled with this homesickness for the past several weeks.  It's pretty clear that as Christians this world is not our home and I keep feeling like we should be yearning for heaven.  I felt like I was getting a handle this and then my facebook feed blew up with pictures of home burning.

I've been choked up seeing pictures of the neighborhoods I used to ride a mountain bike through on free weekends in flames.  Queens Canyon and the hills behind Glen Eyre, the punch bowls I used to hike beyond when Heather was here in Kenya and I was lonely and which Benjer Mcveigh fell into chest-deep in mid-November.  He wasn't as concerned about hypothermia as the wet floppy disk in his pocket. The crazy hike I took up to Palmer Reservoir and back - scorched.  Along with that lonely little ridge with the mineshaft that I used to visit for solitude to pray and journal.  The mule-deer shed I left under a rock there was probably eaten by rodents long ago but I doubt I could recognize the place today anyway.

Closer to Woodland Park, Nichols Reservoir; where Faith caught her first fish, where we took family picnics and where one evening Kendal Hovel and I fished the miracle rise; has already burned.  The Rainbow Gulch trail From Rampart Reservoir which I used to hike home in the dark, fish in hand, is probably gone by now.

It's been interesting to watch from the other side of the world knowing there is nothing we can do.  Heather and I were trying to figure out if our house is in a pre-evacuation zone or a voluntary evacuation zone or if there's a difference (and ultimately deciding is doesn't really matter).  So I've waited impatiently for updates (as Colorado sleeps) and done ridiculous things like use Google Earth to determine that the fire perimeter map from late Tuesday night Mountain Time shows that the fire is precisely 3.47 miles from our cozy little 95-year-old house in Woodland Park but that it would have to burn through approximately 1/2 a mile of other homes to get there.  I've also noticed how uncomfortably THICK the trees are in that part of town.  And I've also used Google Earth to determine that yesterday when the wind blew this fire into Colorado Springs, parts traveled much more than 3.47 miles.  Most of that shouldn't really matter because our stuff is no longer in that house.  But it still matters a lot to me.

All this has made me realize how attached I am to this life.  I am concerned about a place I no longer live - and wouldn't have lived for long, regardless.  Do I have the same attachment to my eternal home?  Am I as concerned about my eternal home?

Equally as important, I've been reminded how messed up this world is.  Living in Kenya helps highlight how unjust this fallen world is.  But these fires do the same.  The world should be a beautiful place and peaceful place.  But it's not and this makes me long for my eternal home.

Finally, the power of destruction in that fire is amazing.  The first pictures I saw showed a massive mushrooming cloud of smoke reaching to 30,000 feet and I've seen video of people staring at the flames, awestruck as they devour houses.  God is described a consuming fire (Heb 12:29). I forget this aspect of God's character.  A God of Love, yes I remember that - and with it Grace.  But I overlook His power - and forget to tremble.

Let's be longing for our eternal home but lift up prayers for His kingdom here.  Let's pray for Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Green Mountain Falls and Woodland Park and remember He's a powerful God.

17 June 2012

Father of the Century

I have a stubborn daughter.  Obviously a challenge at times, but a huge blessing too.  Here's an example:  Once each term all the elementary students here at RVA check out skates and roller blades and head out to the basketball court for about 4 hours of skating-rink style fun.  It's called the Titchie Skate Party and has BBQ, loud music, louder kids and a whole bunch of beginning skaters.  Faith really wants to know how to skate.  She also wants to learn without falling down.  Earlier this year, I spent about four hours walking backward or legs-spread and in various other awkward positions while holding Faith's hands.  But she had a great smile and attitude and I was having a wonderful time.

Toward the end of the skate party, students are allowed to dedicate songs to people.  Most kids dedicate songs to their friends and teachers.  Part way through these dedications,  the DJ, Steve Peifer, interrupted.  Steve is our college guidance counselor and a really great guy and one of his jobs here is to get students into great colleges.  The guy lives and breathes college recommendation letters and, as a result, speaks in hyperbole.  In this case, Steve interrupted the line of dedications and gave his own: "This next song is dedicated to the most patient man alive.  This guy is really incredible.  The Father of the Century, Mr. Frazier!"

I obviously felt pretty flattered (hyperbole and all).  That feeling lasted about two seconds as Faith looked up at me with big excited eyes and said, "Dad!  They're playing this song for GRANDPA!"

My Dad made a few mistakes while raising two kids.*  But he was and still is a very patient man.*  He's an excellent teacher, loving husband, and just about anything else you'd look for in an example of a godly father.  Both my Grandfathers fit this mold as well.  This Father's Day I feel madly humbled by the Dads in my life.  I'm also incredibly grateful for the role models they've been for me.  Happy Father's Day, guys!

*I speak in Hyperbole too.  This statement is what you call a hyperbolic understatement.  I'm most guilty of making these statements on hikes - "There's just a little bushwhacking."  "The car's just at the bottom of this hill."  "The lake's just on the other side of that ridge." "This hill is pretty steep!"  This tendency has caused many (my own patient Father among them) to mutter mean things under their breath*(warning: this footnote is an infinite loop)

06 June 2012

Listen! Watch!

Believe it or not, missionaries often struggle with really basic tenets of the Christian faith.  At least, I do.  

Giving up a regular job, asking for donations and moving far from home did cause a lot of spiritual growth, but lately I’ve even been wondering why, exactly, I ever felt there was a compelling case for Christianity.*  

Heather and I read book after book and took class after class in preparation for the mission field.  Most of this was great.  I learned a lot.  I firmly believe that a more investigated faith, one which is intellectually tested and well-supported, is a richer, more authentic faith.  But there is a subtle trap for me: the more I know about God, about the Bible, and about historical events from Biblical times the more I rely on my knowledge of these things as the very foundation of my belief.

This afternoon as I was reading a few pages these words really struck a chord with my recent struggles:

“Faith is very far from being a mere conviction of the truth of God's Word or a conclusion drawn from certain premises. It is the ear which has heard God say what He will do and the eye which has seen Him doing it.” ~Andrew Murray

But how can I hear God say what he is going to do if I’m not listening?  How can I see God working if I’m not watching? 

My folly?  Faith doesn’t defend itself with clever arguments or objective proofs.  As I begin questioning our finances, occupation, daily decisions, and my faith itself I tend to slide into the most rational, well-supported arguments.  

Faith is not so pragmatic.  Instead, faith whispers, “Listen! Watch!”  

Calling me to obedience.

*Most missionaries (myself included) probably feel like this is a struggle they can’t really share with others.  It’s hard to talk about a lot of stuff on the mission field but it really shouldn't be, should it?  Missionaries tend to think they have to be perfect and to admit struggle is to admit defeat.  This is not so different from the predominant attitude of Christians as a whole.  Can we change this?

27 May 2012

5 Things: African Sunrises

Longonot Sunrise, Kijabe
September 22, 2010
55mm, 1/40 sec, f8 ISO100

I got up early to photograph a near-simultaneous sunrise/moonset over Mount Longonot.  Unfortunately, the moon was gone a mite too soon for a very good image.  But just a couple of minutes later, I snapped this shot.

Tsavo Sunrise, Tsavo West National Park
April 10, 2011
300mm, 1/400 sec, f5.6, ISO400

Staying at Ngulia Bandas on our trip to Mombasa, I got up early to watch the sunrise from our porch.  While the accommodations are rather dated and run-down (read: mice, lizards and bugs making so much noise in the walls you could barely sleep) the view was perhaps the best we've seen in Kenya - for sunrises especially.  I had a nice long think while watching the sun rise over the African mist.  I blogged about it here.

Whistling Thorn Sunrise, Nyeri
December 11, 2011
125mm, 1/400 sec, f10, ISO200

The best part of this sunrise was photographing with my dad on their visit here.  The Whistling Thorn Acacia grows galls on its branches which provide a home for pinching ants who in turn protect the plant (because three-inch thorns are not enough!)  This image with the dew on the thorns, the warm morning light and the silhouette of Mount Kenya is one of my favorites.  You've really got to view it full-screen to get the effect (just click on the image).

Amboseli Sunrise, Amboseli National Park
April 12, 2012
150mm, 1/400 sec, f4.8, ISO400

This is one of a handful of great sunrise pictures we took on a family safari to Amboseli National Park.  Amboseli is known for is huge herds of elephants.  It's also the park that Heather spent significant amounts of time studying in during college.  I really enjoyed seeing the Kenya Heather saw before we were married.

Mara Topi Sunrise, Maasai Mara National Reserve
April 18, 2012
300mm, 1/125 sec, f5.6 ISO1400

I had a great opportunity to go on a budget photo safari with a couple of staff here at RVA.  One of the guys, Mike, does photography as a side business and it was with him and a couple of his professional photography friends that we got robbed in Nakuru.  This trip, while wet, made up for it.

      The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
      It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
      It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
      Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
      Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
      And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
      And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
      Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

      And for all this, nature is never spent;
      There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
      And though the last lights off the black West went
      Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
      Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
      World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
      ~ Gerard Manley Hopkins

19 May 2012

Camel Hair

Last August, Heather’s brother came out for a visit.  It was a quick stop on his way back to the states from India.  Being a single guy in his late twenties, he has this enviable drive and ability to see opportunities without the obstacles of children, limited time or limited energy. 

Shortly after arriving in Nairobi, he heard about a camel race in Maralal.  We read about it and in a fit of late-twenties bravado decided that kids, time and energy were no obstacles and headed off (about 8 hours North of here) to watch Andrew race in the Tri-camel-on, a run, bike, camel-riding race, kids and all.  Needless to say, it was an unforgettable adventure – one we’ll probably not be repeating.  But there are interesting spiritual lessons in just about everything. 

Toward the end of the trip, we were buying some mementos to remember the occasion.  I bought this ‘calabash’ or milk jug.  It’s a hollowed-out cylinder of wood that probably holds about a half liter.  The guy who sold it said it was used for carrying camel’s milk and was authentic (a typical hawker’s technique and a typically false statement) but this time I chose to believe him.  The reason? He only wanted 50 shillings (60 cents) It’s covered in rancid fat, and smells like sour milk and camel. It stinks to high heaven.  So why is it my favorite purchased trinket to date?

Camels are some of the most obnoxious beasts I’ve ever seen.  Their Kenyan handlers beat them with sticks to get them to do anything.  Probably because camels are incredibly stubborn and they smell so bad no self-respecting person would spend the time necessary to whisper in their ears and get them to be polite, well-mannered beasts of burden.

All of this has added a lot to my picture of John the Baptist.  A guy in the desert eating locusts and honey is one thing.  Wearing camel hair is quite another.  The stuff really smells bad.  It’s really itchy too.  I’m sure John didn’t have one of those fancy camel-hair sport coats.  I have no idea how they make camel hair look like that, either.  I’d think it impossible.

It’s always been interesting to me to think about John wandering the wilderness.  I always pictured this rough-looking character physically hardened by the wilderness but with a soft, teaching heart.  The kind of guy I’d get along with really well. The whole camel hair thing makes things a little different.  I’m pretty sure that by most reasonable people’s standards, he was a raving lunatic.  I think he even yelled at people.  Not, “Hey, guys… The Judgment is near, so maybe you ought to think about repenting. I can even baptize you, if you’d like…” but something more forceful – and probably not even polite.

The other day, I was reading John 3.  It begins with a perfectly reasonable, respectable man asking about the Kingdom of God.  Jesus explains and this man, Nicodemas, can’t comprehend.  Then Jesus goes out to baptize followers and sees John the Baptist there.  John speaks wisdom regarding the very things that so confused Nicodemas – the intelligent, wise, perfectly respectable man.  The scary part?  I’m more like Nicodemas.  I’d be more likely to listen to somebody like Nicodemas. Calm, confident, and well spoken. He knows all the rules and can explain complex theological issues quickly and clearly. But inside, he’s spiritually confused.  I’d most likely stay as far from the socially outcast, raving-lunatic truth-in-camel hair as I could.  Mostly on account of the smell.

It’s this culturally-governed religious construct I’ve been wrestling with lately.  The empty one that values regular baths over obedience.

"He must become greater; I must become less."  John 3:30

17 May 2012

5 Rules for Driving in Kenya

We bought a car a little less than a year ago and while learning to drive on the wrong side of the road, signal with the right hand, shift with the left, etc... seemed intimidating, it was actually fairly easy.  The more interesting part is learning Kenya's rules of the road, so to speak.  Here are 5 rules for driving in Kenya:

1: The Law of Inertia.  The Law of Inertia states that the vehicle with the greatest Inertia has the right of way.  Most drivers in Kenya have an uncanny ability to precisely calculate in split seconds the exact moment of inertia of any two vehicles.  We have a fairly large car, and it's a good thing, too - if we drove a compact car, we'd still be stuck in Nairobi traffic on that trip to town last week. This rule's corollary? Stop lights don't mean anything.  Somebody somewhere decided stoplights at roundabouts would be a good idea... but nobody knows how to use them.  If traffic is bad, a couple of policemen with radios will stand in the roundabout directing traffic; watch the police, not the lights.  If traffic is good, please default to The Law of Inertia. The color of light is irrelevant.

2: Flashing headlights.  Contrary to driving in the States where headlights are primarily used to see at night, headlights here are used to bully and intimidate.  Example:  A Matatu (12 passenger van used as a taxi) struggling to pass another Matatu up a steep grade will continue to drive into oncoming traffic while rapidly flashing its lights.  This means, "get on the shoulder, I'm coming through." (Never mind that the shoulder is a good 18 inches below the road surface.)  A nervy driver can call this bluff.  Generally, a vehicle in the wrong lane will yield in deference to The Law of Inertia.  Of course if somebody in your lane approaches with momentum on their side, you'd better yield.

3: Hurry in Africa.  Whoever said there's no hurry in Africa never spent time driving in Kenya.  There is an unstated rule in Kenya that if there is a vehicle driving in front of you, YOU MUST OVERTAKE IT regardless of relative speed, road conditions, proximity of blind corners, or oncoming traffic.  Most oncoming hazards can be forced off the road by flashing your lights - if your inertia is greatest and that's the whole point, anyway.  The more inertia the better.

4: The turn signal.  Kenyan drivers have a great idea for turn signal communication.  It goes like this:  If you're following close behind another car, the slower vehicle will put on their right turn signal, meaning either, "I'm pulling out to pass (sometimes)" or "I'm turning right (rarely)" or (most frequently) "stay behind me, there's traffic up ahead."  In any case, you want to stay behind.  Conversely,  A left turn signal means, "I'm turning left" (sometimes) or, "All's clear, go right on by." (most of the time). These are great ways to communicate - in theory.  The problem?  Half the time, the left turn signal means something like, "I turned left about 30 minutes ago," or worse, "Watch out, my hazards are on because my headlights are not and it's dark.  (Never mind that my hazards don't work properly, it's surely better than nothing!)"

5: Police checkpoints.  Police don't sit in cars here.  They stand by the side of the road in bright yellow coats staring ominously into oncoming traffic.  If they lift their hand and make eye contact with you, you've been pulled over.  The trick is to watch for eye contact.  I have no idea how this shakes out in court.

And a Bonus Rule:

6: Rocks in the Road.  All vehicles are supposed to carry warning triangles.  In case of accident or breakdown, you're to place them 50 meters before and after the vehicle.  That's the law.  But nobody follows it.  When a truck breaks down or has a flat, they park the truck in the middle of the lane.*  The warning?  First some branches in the road followed by rocks increasing in size.  You'd better slow down and be careful because as often as not, there is a man lying under the vehicle with his legs hanging out into oncoming traffic. The kicker is that weeks after the ailing vehicle has been moved, the rocks are still there - beware!

*Nobody pulls off onto the shoulder because there is usually a large drop-off to reach it.  Abrupt shoulder doesn't have the proper connotation.  Interestingly, they just spent several months reconstructing the shoulder on the road into Nairobi.  They meticulously graded and packed it flat.  It felt like a nice safe road for about two weeks.  Then they dumped boulders all over the shoulder to keep vehicles from driving on it. Now a quick exit to the shoulder would most definitely mean death to your car... not to mention risk of your own life and limb.

08 May 2012

Being Best

The other day we played the annual staff vs. JV rugby game.  It’s full-contact mud and blood rugby.  This year, I came out relatively unscathed (much better than last year’s detached lower lip and broken nose). 

Photo by Scott Myhre: Read their blog here.
A friend took this picture and put it on Facebook.  Another posted the following comment: “Oh my, not competitive or anything, are you?”  From the picture, it’s pretty evident I am.  Certainly, there are others who are much more ruthlessly competitive, but still, I try very hard to win.  It doesn’t have to be a bad thing - except for me, it usually is.

I spend lots of time thinking about how I can get back in shape, become an honored teacher, write the best blog… be the best missionary. We are commanded to be diligent; to do our best whatever we do but generally speaking, I’m more likely to ignore a faltering relationship with God than to slack in my public responsibilities.

Pastors get sucked into carefully managing their image.  Worship leaders pour their energies into cultivating a certain mood. Missionaries obsess over their personal contributions to the great commission. 

It’s not a new struggle.  Christ was constantly calling out the Pharisees for their self-righteous (read shallow) worship.  These guys weren’t thinking in terms of eternity but instead watching the court of public opinion - obsessed with being best.  I do the same: 

How many complements are there after I speak in chapel? How many compliments about how well I played in a rugby game or a soccer match?  How many kids say I’m their favorite teacher?  How many people looked at my last blog post? Do people think I’m a righteous man?  Do people think I’m a decent missionary?

I suddenly find myself floundering on the borders of faith with doubts and questions. I’m spiritually stagnant, regardless of how frantically I’m working.  The measuring stick is no longer righteousness… it’s my view of others.  And they inevitably appear just a little more holy, more spiritual, more faithful…  always better than me at something.

In terms of eternity, my measuring stick is perfection. Holiness.  And that’s an alarming and comforting fact.  Alarming because there’s no way I’m getting there.  Comforting because if perfection’s the mark, there’s got to be help.

My challenge: stop asking myself, “How can I do better?” And start asking God, “Am I being obedient?”

We’re not called to be awesome, just obedient.

03 April 2012

Fit right in?

Cool missionary who ties her baby on her back just like a local?  


Not exactly.

25 March 2012

Strange Revolution

One of the greatest parts of living in a different culture for me (Jim) has been the perspective it gives when looking at our cultural interpretations of our faith.  Here in Kenya, Palm Sunday is a really big deal, maybe bigger than a Christmas service.  In our American context, this seems odd, but I've been trying to picture this through the lens of poverty.  When I used to consider Christ's coming to Earth, I was struck by how he shunned wealth and was born into poverty as the lowest of the low.  In fact, as we were preparing to come to Kenya, I wrote about this in a newsletter.  Here it's different.  We're confronted with poverty on a daily basis and it's been interesting to realize that for a large part of the world, Christ's birth in a stable is remarkable only because He became one of us.  The only shocking part is how normal His birth was.

The Maasai people are herdsmen. Each night, they drive their goats into traditional thorn-fenced enclosures around their mud and stick homes.  The youngest and weakest goats are kept inside the entrance to the house itself.  We tend to associate stables with dirtiness, bugs, etc... the last place you'd want to have a baby.  To them, Christ's birth in a stable is completely unremarkable.  Most likely, this was a common sentiment of Jesus's contemporaries.

This makes a lot of sense when we begin to think about what these people must have been thinking when the Messiah rode into Jerusalem.  They thought primarily in political terms.  The Christ was going to bring liberty to the persecuted Jew.  When Jesus began his ministry, they were probably surprised at first that he was not in any way nobility, but his presence as a normal person was even better - this was a revolution, and who better to stick it to the man than one of us?  People were understandably excited.  Normal people were finally going to receive justice; they were going to have power; the Messiah was there for them!

Large crowds danced and celebrated his entrance to Jerusalem.  They followed wherever the Messiah went.  They were fully expecting to be redeemed.  This was the perfect revolution: A new government was going to be founded under the principles of their religion overseen by their religious leaders.  It sounds a lot like the Arab Spring but even better; The Messiah could work miracles and he was a normal citizen.

But it all ended up being a very brief flash in the pan.  The first thing Christ did when he entered Jerusalem?  Come unhinged in the temple, throwing out the money tables and calling it a den of thieves.  For the next few days, he attacked the corrupt Jewish leadership, said nothing against the Romans, and seemed more interested in changing people's spiritual lives than pursuing any real physical revolution.  Most people weren't buying this type of revolution.  The religious leaders were hurt, defensive, and ready to do anything to stop a raving lunatic. By the end of the week, Jesus was dead.  Some revolution.

I do the same thing.  Instead of expecting Christ to first be changing ME, I look to Him for political justice, for equality, for healing, and for power.  An inward spiritual revolution is pushed to the margins for more tangible revolutions:  social equality, justice, healing the sick, power... all the same things people were buying into when they marched triumphantly into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  Today they'd be camped out in downtown Jerusalem hoping somehow to stick it to the man, blogging about Joseph Kony, trying to stop modern slavery, sex trafficking, the spread of HIV...  All the kinds of things that Christ did, but I'm beginning to realize that focusing on these things can actually kill the real message.  It's an inward, spiritual revolution.  I'm guilty of overlooking this in my personal life, on the blog, in my home.

This Easter season, let's recenter our lives on His revolution.

20 March 2012

5 Things: no. 1

We're going to start a new series on the blog with new posts cropping up every week.  We want to compile various lists that represent facts, stories, thoughts, and lessons from our time here in Kenya.  We hope this helps you to gain a better glimpse of our lives here, and we also hope it helps us chronicle the important things that we want to remember.

Please leave a comment with your ideas for topics, we would really like to know what you would like to hear about!

This week's is a good starter:

5 Things we love about Kenya

1. Cheap stuff.  Okay, not everything is cheap.  But we appreciate the things that are.  We buy a dozen roses weekly for $2.50, avocados for $.25, mangoes only a little more.  Even our fruit splurge, strawberries, are under $2 a pound.  I have had an hour-long massage for $10, and a pedicure for less than $5.  (In case you are wondering, this is Heather.)

2. As two Biology majors, we love exploring here.  The diversity of life and habitats is amazing.  It is so much fun to see such different environments and animals than we see in the states.  We have loved taking advantage of living here in Kenya, and having adventures with our children.

3. The climate can't be beat.  We came from a pretty awesome place in the states with mild, beautiful winters, and perfect 80-degree summers.  Just cut out the winter part and you have Kijabe.  We also live too high (7500 feet) for malaria and other pesty bugs.  (Or snakes and scorpions.)  We have two rainy seasons, during which we do miss the sun, but not having heat or air conditioning, or the need for either, says a lot.  It's been Crocs and shorts for Joel since we arrived almost two years ago. 

4. Kenyans LOVE children.  They pay attention to little ones.  Children are to be greeted just as adults.  While the expected hand-shaking and talking was difficult for one of our kids in particular when we arrived, I think it is a beautiful gesture of value to a young generation.  Since having a baby, we have only noticed this more.  Kenyans are greatly honored when we offer Aaron to be held.  Sometimes we don't offer, he is simply taken, and most of the time we feel comfortable with this too.

5. The sense of life in community.  Most people don't own vehicles here, and a lot don't have jobs.  Relationships are very important in the culture so wherever we go, there are people out talking, walking, and doing daily tasks.  Together.  In the states, most people are in their cars going from building to building to building all day.  We loved going to the Friday farmer's market during our brief 10 weeks of summer in Woodland Park to see everyone we knew.  But life here is the farmer's market every day.  

15 March 2012

Past struggles; and moving on

Before we came to Kenya, I (Heather) briefly mentioned my struggles with postpartum depression here on the blog.  Some of you might have been wondering if I'd mention it again, since we had a baby here in Kenya last year.  It took quite a bit of faith to delve back into the pregnancy and baby years that we had so quickly left behind but we also had really chosen to take a piece of scripture to heart.

Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:22-23

Aside from scripture, the support of others was very important as well and I quickly noticed something.  There were now two categories of people in my life.  All my new friends in Kenya, who knew me circa July 2010, and old friends in the states who knew me before we arrived, some longer than others.  Some watched my previous struggles, some watched me recover, and some watched me tell my story after a lot of healing.

I cannot deny that it was secretly wonderful to have a third pregnancy where not many people around me knew my history of depression related to pregnancy and nursing.  I just as freely shared my story as I did in the states, but I was already pregnant before I could share with most people.  It was almost like experiencing God's view of myself:  New, clean, forgiven, whole, loved, precious in his sight.  Every day.  No matter what.  Except God knows all the dirt and my new friends and acquaintances were just... oblivious.

But the even deeper, more wonderful experience was having those who had been a part of my life for longer see this pregnancy as its own, not assuming it would be like the others, that depression was inevitable.  It was good to hear others tell me they were excited, that they felt peace about having our baby born here in Kenya;
             much less to ME, the one who had a hard time before.

While I think those critical thinking skills you learn in school can be helpful in making wise choices in relationships, skepticism should be overrated.  I think that grace, compassion, and mercy are more important when it comes to the way we love and see each other.  How much do we let the history of those around us taint our relationships in the present?  Are we applying labels to one another that have a permanent adhesive?  If we are forgiven and washed clean by Christ, and if he accepts our repentance and sees us as new creations, shouldn't we do the same for one another?

In an education class in college, I heard about an elementary teacher who never read the comments about students passed on by their previous teachers.  She instead wanted to give them a fresh start and not begin the year with a student's personality and problems already formed in her mind.  In her situation, that might have been a wise choice, but we aren't always given that option.

It's difficult to know someone's painful, or even sinful past but then allow them to have a 'clean slate' in your mind.  I think striving to love one another in this way allows us to glimpse God's mercy and forgiveness, and the newness of life each day.

No, the last 18 months haven't been without ups and downs, but one thing I learned from my past struggles is that if I can wake up and be thankful for a new day and see it as a new start, no matter what happened the day before, then I'm doing okay.  Or fine.  Or great!

New days are such a gift, and I hope that I can give that grace to others as well.

09 March 2012

Why Send Missionaries Overseas?

This is the last in a series of reflections on modern missions.  If you’re new, start at the beginning here.

As we were raising support to come to Kenya, we read a book by K.P. Yohannan called "Revolution in World Missions".  Its basic premise is that the churches of the West should stop sending foreign missionaries overseas and that several indigenous Christians, sent the same amount of money, could accomplish much more with less cultural mess.  It’s not really a book I’d recommend for missionaries trying to raise support.  But his point is a valid one.  I think we as Christians and as missionaries should take a good look at where the money we give is going and what it’s accomplishing.  There’s often a tendency to send off a check and consider ourselves ‘involved in missions.’

One of our supporters asked us just before we left what I thought about the book.  I told him that it raised a lot of good points, but that it was missing something – foreign missions are important.  I guess I’d still stand by that statement, but I’ve got a little more perspective now.  At one time, I would have said missionary work in Kenya needs to be geared toward equipping local Christians to care for themselves, the aim being that in a few years, western missionaries could leave and the Kenyan church would be self-sustaining.  I still think that’s largely true, but our day with the Maasai changed a lot of that view. (if you don’t remember any of the introduction, you might want to look at it here)

Our original plan was to meet Christopher (the trip organizer), distribute some maize meal and to return to RVA by noon.  We arrived at the village around 11:00.  We hadn't even finished the highly formalized ritual greetings at noon!  This was followed by a sermon; formal speeches of thanks by this community elder, this chief, that senior chief, the community chairman, the pastor of the Baptist Church, the AIC Church, the Pentecostal Church, The Presbyterian Church... Christopher's mother... Eventually we distributed food, but rather than the 135 families for which we'd planned, there were over 150.  At around 2:00 we sat down for a meal, followed by sodas, then oranges and bananas and finally chai.  Around 3:00 we began leaving.  This involved more formal thanks, and requests to send greetings to 'Bruce' at Kijabe (who's no longer at Kijabe) and to the members of our families and to our churches in the US, Canada and Korea.  There was a tour of the mud hut and finally at around 4:15 we left, the space once occupied by bags of maize meal now filled with 20 or 30 Maasai women and children who wanted rides back toward the main road.  We finally rolled back into RVA just after 5:00.  Hot, dusty, exhausted.

One could argue, that we could simply send Christopher money – there’d be more if we didn’t travel and it would go farther. But as a church we’re called to break bread together.  Most of this will naturally be done in our own local community, but it’s interesting to note that Paul revisited (or desired to revisit) many of the churches he’d started. In the last post, I talked about the importance of relationships in evangelism.  When we visited the Maasai community and spent a day sitting under their tree eating their food we established some real connections.

Christopher’s mother is a perfect example.  She spoke no English and was basically deaf.  We could not communicate with her at all.  Just the same, she loved Faith.  Kenyans in general love kids, but this woman really admired Faith, stroking her hair, patting her cheek and smiling - gap-toothed grin from ear to ear.  She appeared and reappeared several times throughout the day and each time greeted Faith warmly.   Toward the end of the day, she brought a beaded necklace and placed it around Faith’s neck, beaming with all the joy you can imagine.

Later, as the village elders were giving their formal thanks, they kept saying over and over that they were so grateful we’d come – but they rarely mentioned the food.  Instead, they said things like, “Thank you for coming to see what is happening here.  Thank you for visiting us – tell your friends about us, I think many fear to come here.” 
As I turned on the car, Christopher’s mother rushed over to us.  She stood at my open window, lifted her hands before her and spoke rapidly in Maasai – an uninterrupted stream of words for at least two minutes.  At first it felt awkward to sit there, unable to communicate and unable to understand, but her eyes spoke the most intense blessing I’ve ever seen and eventually, I think I did understand.

I don’t think Paul revisited the churches he’d established to police them or to give them advice – at least I don’t think this was the primary goal.  I think the primary goal was to break bread together – to maintain relationships.  I left Maasai-land feeling much more connected to their community.  It’s a shallow relationship – I can now recall less than half a dozen names from the village – but it has helped to shape a more robust vision of the global church and, more importantly, it really encouraged all of us and fostered a sense of unity. Churches in the West need to continue to send missionaries overseas – even to places where churches are well established - just so we can feel more united. Share some time with people from another church in your own community and you’ll see what I mean. The modern church is so disjointed.  We can use all the unity we can get. 

06 March 2012

On Actually Evangelizing

This is the third in a series of posts on modern missions inspired by a trip to the valley floor with the Maasai.  I know it doesn't seem like a series, mostly because the posts are so slow in coming. 

The last two posts talked quite a bit about the damage caused by missionaries from the west coming to 'minister to the lost.'  You only need to spend a few hours in Kenya before you'll begin to notice the effectiveness with which Western missionaries changed the culture of an entire region of Africa.  The problem is that for many Kenyans this change was simply a desire for Western gadgets and lifestyle.  The gospel we spread (and continue to spread) was one of Western philosophy and ideals.  As a result, much of Kenya seemingly lost its identity for a time.  So where did we go wrong as missionaries?  Some examples are obvious. Early attempts at "Christianizing the savages" were clearly not based on Biblical teaching but cultural ideals.  I've been thinking a lot about this, wondering why exactly why we are trying to reach 'the lost.'  Obviously, there's a Biblical mandate, but why are we commanded make disciples of all nations? (Matt 28:19)  

When we first came to RVA, I often viewed our work as 'missionary lite.' RVA is an American-curriculum school.  Most of the staff is from the US.  On the average day I interact with almost as many Koreans as Kenyans.  We drink water from the tap.  Our house has wiring for 110 and 240 volt electrical outlets.  We’re certainly not living in the bush and we didn’t leave friends, family, everything behind planning never to come back.  Even so, it's amazing how much energy we expend trying to feel 'at home.'  

When our time is spent pursuing comfort, others see that priority.  If I preach to or teach somebody, they can quickly point out statements or ideals that don’t match my actions.  In some areas, I’m quite clearly a hypocrite.  Sure, I’m only a common man with a sin nature and I’m trying to improve and even Paul talks about this struggle but in the mind of a non-Christian who might hear me say one thing and see me doing the opposite, I am a hypocrite, and a liar.  Add the pitfalls of culturally based miscommunication, conflict, insensitivities… I’m not trying to “Christianize the savages,” but maybe evangelizing isn’t such a good idea.

A few months ago, this article from a contributor at CNN called, “Why Evangelicals Should Stop Evangelizing” made the social media rounds.  It’s a good and thought-provoking read.  His argument is really only a call to re-think how we approach evangelism.  He argues that most of the damages caused by well-meaning evangelists (especially missionaries) would be eliminated if we approached it from a less confrontational, more loving relationship; he asks  He’s absolutely right.  But how many of us actually struggle with being overzealous in our attempts to share the gospel?  A few people do forget love and just badger unbelievers… but that’s not my problem at all.

I’m happy starting relationships.  I don’t mind just hanging out with people.  If that’s how evangelism is supposed to be, count me in!  Here’s the rub: I don’t actually view my relationships as an integral part of evangelism.  My guess is most ‘evangelical’ Christians don’t.  I’m constantly saying this statement to myself: “I’ll just do my best to live a Christ-like life and let my actions speak for themselves.”  For me, it’s just an excuse to avoid talking about my spirituality.  I can go fishing with somebody for an entire day and not once mention anything spiritual.  I can spend an entire year in a classroom and some of the students might not even know I’m a Christian.  “Spread the gospel.  Use words if necessary.”  Good advice, but for me it’s more often used as an excuse not to speak.

If I’m brutally honest, I don’t think many people have really been drawn to God by just watching me live my life.  It’s quite possible that nobody has, and that’s messed up.  IF Christ is as important to me as I tell myself then shouldn’t I be eager to share Christ with my friends?  Reaching the lost isn’t just a command for missionaries or preachers or other ‘professional Christians.’  It’s for all of us.  Our relationships should be the primary vehicle for this evangelism but won’t be an effective tool until we’ve actually said something.  It’s about time I just started evangelizing.

31 January 2012

What Gospel Are We Spreading?

Driving North from Nairobi, back to the Northern Hemisphere, beyond Mount Kenya is the town of Isiolo.  It's basically just like any other largish Kenyan town.  A noisy, crowded contradiction of wealth and poverty.  But as we drove through it last month, something really caught my eye.  On the South side of the town is a fairly sizable mosque.  White and green with turrets, it's a good example of your basic Kenyan mosque.  On the North side of town, there's a large Catholic church with an enormous mural in garish blues.  In the mural's center is a big white Jesus.  I guess the traditional representation of Jesus as having a lot of white European features really stood out  to me after a year and a half of Kenyan faces.  It's an interesting juxtaposition to say the least.  I'm not sure what to really take from it but it did make me think about which parts of our worship are cultural and which parts are Biblical.  More than that, which parts of our worship are cultural but Biblically acceptable and which parts of our faith are culturally acceptable but Biblically off-base?

Sunday I took a group of RVA students down to the town of Maahi Mahiu for outreach Sunday school.  We walk through the streets and eventually gather a crowd of young kids eager to listen to a Bible story and play football (soccer) with the wazungu (white people).  Last spring, there were probably three small house-churches along our route.  Interestingly, they just keep cropping up along the six or seven 'blocks' we walk to the large empty lot where we hold our Sunday school class.  I'd say that there's been a new church started every month.  Just last week, a brand-new frame for a new church sprang up virtually overnight.  The total now is nearer to ten.  On Sunday mornings, we walk to our Sunday school class amid people carrying plastic chairs into several unmarked house churches and the blare of competing loudspeakers.  On the one hand, this is exciting.  But it worries me a little.

In Kenya, sometimes churches are just business.  A con man will set up shop in a make-shift church claiming to have the power of healing, prophesy, etc...  Many even sell miracles.  They're easy to condemn.  In a poor town like Maahi Mahiu, weekly tithes would supply an attractive salary.  Maybe it's a cultural relic of the village witch doctor, but these culturally exciting services attract people.*

Churchgoers in America often fall into a similar trap.  I've been guilty of going to church because it's what we do on Sunday mornings.  Not for fellowship, growth, or obedience but out of routine because it's a part of my living of the American Dream.  If this is my motive for attending church, church becomes stale.  Church leaders listen to these complaints.  They buy better sound equipment, they employ a worship pastor, they make their sermons more interactive.**  These are all good things - great, in fact, but when do we cease to worship God and begin to worship a cultural ideal?  How do we strike a balance here?

The real problem is, that when unbelievers look at the American church, they don't see people living lives in obedience to Christ.  They see nice sound systems, entertaining programs and multimedia presentations.  Young believers see churches claiming to be 'authentic' Christians with Saturday night services led by rock bands with a big stage and fancy lights and they want to be 'authentic' Christians too.  After attending, they complain that this new church is impersonal and that nobody notices them so they simply leave.  It's all a big show, and it's the gospel we're spreading.

I don't really know what to do about it or how to fix it.  I guess I've just been realizing lately that the heros of the New Testament - Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, etc... - were probably a whole lot more like hippies living in tents on the fringes of society than the All-American dads we prop up in our minds.  And that last part scares me - because I've spent most of my life so far becoming an All-American dad.

The local pastor who sets up our Sunday School in Maahi Mahiu is named Peter.  His perspective on the whole thing is a great example for me.  Many of the RVA students are frustrated that the number of children attending has been dropping.  We had nearly 80 kids every Sunday early on.  Now we only see about 20.  "Maybe we need to make it more exciting."  Yet Peter is undeterred:  "Jesus says even if we have only two, that is enough.  Even if it is only just you and me, it is enough.  We will be faithful."

Instead of spreading a gospel of the American Dream or one that worships a certain cultural ideal, I want spread a gospel of obedience.  Instead of worshiping an entertaining god, I want to worship the God who is present in my daily, boring life.  I have a hunch that if I'm obedient, my daily life will rarely be boring.  It doesn't matter how I look or what words I use.  It's not about becoming a part of the 'authentic' church, the emergent church, the reformed church.  It's certainly not about being unique.  It's about becoming the Body of Christ.

I want to be more obedient.

*An interesting rabbit-trail: are these churches still cause for celebration? At least people are hearing and if they are seeking after God, that's good, right? Philipians 1:15-18

** Sometimes I forget that the technology world is racing along as we sit here in Kenya.  I watched an online sermon the other day, and the congregation was texting the pastor questions during the service - crazy!

21 January 2012

Great White Savior

This is the second post in a series of thoughts about evangelical missions from a trip I (Jim) took into the valley to distribute food among the Maasai people.  If you haven't done so, you should definitely read the introduction here.

There has been a lot of discussion lately among our missionary friends about the usefulness of short-term missions.  I don't know if this is a new topic or whether we've simply fallen into a community for which this is a frequent point of discussion.  The discussion usually centers around this question: With all the damage short-term missions do, shouldn't we just stop organizing short-term mission trips?

Now you may be wondering what damage short-term trips cause.  There are a ton of examples of this damage. Here are just a couple:

They foster dependency.  My first short-term trip was to Tecate, Mexico.  We built a house for a poor family.  It seemed like almost everybody we met was hoping to be the next family to receive a house.  There was almost a culture present which enabled a "wait for the Gringo heros" mentality.  They weren't interested in our message.  They just wanted another handout.

They steal jobs.  When a short-term mission group travels overseas and 'serves', it's often doing menial labor such as painting church walls.  This looks bad.  Usually, there's almost as much paint on the floors, shirts and faces of the wealthy white kids as there is on the walls.  In developing countries, these jobs are at a premium.  Why not put a fraction of the cost of these plane tickets toward employing a local person who needs work?  They'd appreciate the work, and probably do a better job!

They mock poverty.  If you were living in a hut wondering not what to prepare your family for supper but if you'll eat anything for supper and some wealthy American with culturally inappropriate designer jeans, stylish shades, and flashy jewelry bounces up in a fancy new car, drapes their headphones around their neck, hands you a bag with a good day's meal, snaps a couple of pictures and says perkily, "God Bless!" before rushing off again, how would you feel?  Just imagine how much it cost that person to get to Africa to hand out that simple meal in the first place!


When we arrived at the project in the valley, it was easy to feel like a rock-star.  Everybody was so excited to see us.  Faith, the mzungu kidogo (little white person), was a huge hit.  Everybody wanted to shake her hand and mine.  Each and every person wore a huge smile.  It's a thrill, to say the least.  The joy in the air was palpable and I think just about anybody would expect to get hooked on that feeling.

When handing out food, people are so grateful.  They're thrilled.  That gratitude is a subtle trap.  It's not long before you start to feel that you're really awesome.  That these people really need you.  That you're some sort of savior.  In fact, there are missionaries and people in charge of NGOs all over Kenya who have this aura about them.  It's not the presence of God.  It's a huge ego.

Feeding projects in Kenya are big business.  Some are done well, but others are just a job.  It's easy to raise money to feed starving people.  We're even given a Biblical mandate to feed the hungry.  But in projects like these, it's easy to see that the wealthy person is in authority.  They are not really empowering the poor, not enabling them to become self-sufficient.  In this setting, the poor are indebted to the wealthy, dependent upon them for just about everything.  These projects foster an endless cycle of inequality.  Eventually, the poor begin to view missionaries as some sort of great white savior.

So it seems pretty clear.  Short term missions need to stop.

But there are two reasons I believe short-term missions are essential.  The first is that most people who go on a short-term trip will leave feeling like anything but a 'great white savior.'

It's basically a given in Kenya that if you're an adult white male at any religious gathering, you'll be asked at some point to speak to or pray for the group.  I said some stuff about loving our brothers and that we hoped that our small gift would be a blessing to each of them, and that Christ would somehow multiply that blessing.  Then I finished with a loaded statement which I almost swallowed as it came out:

"But we know that Jesus Christ is the greater blessing."

True, no doubt.  But what if I were to look at that statement through the lens of poverty?  I made that statement out of my wealth.  It's an easy statement for me to make - I haven't been hungry in ages.  What if simply having food were a big-to-me blessing?  Would I still be able to make that same statement?

As we began handing out food I felt chastised by my own words.  Here I was giving 6 pounds of flour and 2 pounds of cooking oil to each family knowing that as soon as we were finished, they would be feeding us.  And not just cornmeal paste.  Rice, chapatis, carrots and peas, and beef.  They even gave us some oranges and bananas.  We were giving out of our wealth; They gave out of their poverty.  Any inkling of being the hero was gone and it was replaced with a healthy sense of humility.  If more people in the evangelical church could actually experience that sort of humiliation, a lot of our messed-up attitudes about poverty and wealth, the global church, our own personal needs and even our worship would be corrected.

The second reason I believe short-term missions are essential is this:  almost everyone I've met here in Kenya who is currently trying to help the hurting with long-term sustainable projects either grew up here or was drawn to long-term service by first experiencing a short-term mission trip.  Short-term missions create life-long servers.  I'm convinced.  Yes, there are a lot of messed up things about short-term missions.  Yes, a bunch of jobless Kenyans would really like to earn a little money by painting that classroom... and they'd do a better job than your youth group too.  Maybe if short-term trips were organized specifically to help us as westerners directly confront our material privilege and our spiritual bankruptcy, they'd be more effective.

Anybody going on a short-term trip or leading a short term trip should have to read the chapter on short term missions in the book "When Helping Hurts" which talks about some of these issues.  Reading it might make you never want to go on a mission trip to Mexico again, but short-term trips ARE useful.  If half the people sitting in the comfortable evangelical churches of the West did attend a good short-term missions outreach, the American church would be fundamentally changed for the better.