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.

20 January 2012

Dear Tooth Fairy...

Dear Tooth Fairy,

I know that we live all the way over here in Kenya, but it would be really great if you could make the trip when Faith loses her teeth.  She so carefully and thoughtfully places them under her pillow before she goes to bed.  She's lost five teeth now and every morning when she wakes up we hear "MoooOOOM!"  In fact, while she's sleeping here, there aren't any kids sleeping over there in North America, so you can't be too busy, right?

She's got a few more teeth to lose, so we'd appreciate an effort on your part to make a more consistent appearance around here.  Before you know it, you'll have to be keeping up with Joel and Aaron.  You've got some time to improve your record.

Faith's Parents

Ooooohhhh, wait.

Shoot.  There are some of these parenting things that are just too much for us to handle.  The shillings-under-the-pillow thing is definitely one of them.

18 January 2012


Saturday was another of RVA's community outreach days.  Generally, about three quarters of our 500 students sign up for various opportunities to serve out in the communities surrounding Kijabe.  As a science teacher, I(Jim) am normally volunteered to lead the 'environmental option' which so far has involved planting trees somewhere.  This time, I was supposed to be building 'rocket stoves' down in the valley truckstop town of Maahi Mahiu.  They're fuel efficient cooking stoves that reduce the need for fuel and especially the need for charcoal.  I was excited about it and Faith was too, so she asked to come along.  As is usually the case in Africa, the plan wasn't actually followed.  I was reassigned at the last minute as a driver for a group distributing some food down in the valley.  I pictured giving a few small bags of maize to a dozen or so poor families.  Then I found out we were supposed to be distributing food to 135 families!  Faith still wanted to come along, so we loaded up 1,800 pounds of maize meal (in only 9 bags!) 200 pounds of cooking fat, and 9 students into two cars and headed down the hill.

This was all fine and dandy until we stopped to pick up three crates of sodas here in Kijabe and the locking mechanism on the ignition of our car broke, leaving us stranded just outside RVA's gates.  We borrowed a Land Rover and after bouncing down the 4-wheel drive road to Maahi Mahiu, we arrived at our rendezvous point only 20 minutes behind schedule.  The man we were supposed to meet (Christopher) wasn't there, so we called on the cell phone:  "I'll be there in 20 minutes."  This is Africa.

It's amazing to me how different the valley floor is than Kijabe.  Kijabe is green.  Cedar and olive trees and flowers are everywhere.  It's always between 60 and 80 degrees during the day.  Eden.

By comparison, the valley floor is all hot dust and thorns.

Just outside of Maahi Mahiu, we again leave the main road, first following a natural gas pipeline, here driving up an arroyo, later across a washed-out culvert - the deep wash on each side 'repaired' with two narrow rows of basketball-sized rocks.  Eventually, we rejoin the pipeline and drive through open grassland.  Dusty flat ground with knee-high grass is punctuated by the occasional thorny acacia.  Living in the states, this is what I had pictured Kenya would be like: open flat land with grass waving in the breeze.  The stuff you watch lions creep through, almost invisible, as they stalk wary zebras on National Geographic TV shows.

Eventually, we leave the pipeline and travel along a row of barren power poles.  Some are already beginning to show age, though the wires haven't ever been placed on them.  They stand sentinel, monuments to Kenya's slow development where big projects are started but never finished because the money suddenly disappeared into somebody's pocket.

Leaving barren power poles behind, we turn onto a fading dirt road where only the daily tread of feet beats back the invading grass.  Finally, we leave the tired road behind, following a footpath in white land rovers as they bounce incessantly over grassy tussocks to a mud hut and a waiting crowd of people pressed into the shade of a few umbrella thorn trees.

Community Elders sit in the deepest shade in ubiquitous plastic chairs, their distended earlobes flopping against their necks as they chew the ends of kunia branches and passively swat away flies with the fuzzy blue-green leaves.  The women fill the rest of the shady space, all of them talking excitedly about who knows what, their earlobes flopping against their necks as they absently wave aside flies with their hands.  Covered with bright kangas and buried beneath layers of tinkling beaded necklaces each clutches a bag to be filled with some of the maize meal we've brought.

The whole thing practically screamed, "Missionary in Africa." Everything about the day fit all the stereotypes and it made me think a lot about the way the Evangelical Church does missions.  As I tried to distill one big take-away for the blog, it became more and more apparent that this one day was really a great illustration of a whole bunch of points I've been thinking about a lot over the past year.  So over the next few days, I've got a collection of reflections on the modern missions movement and some ideas for becoming more effectively involved in fulfilling the great commission.

10 January 2012

Comparison, moms, and ministry

Life for a young mom can be a sometimes arduous exercise in building character.  I'm not talking about the kids, I'm talking about the mom.  We get the questions about what we do all day, the comments about how 'oh, it must be nice' (it is, but not in the way you are implying), we get asked what else do we do, and on and on.  At home, it seems the cooking, cleaning, diapers, nose-wiping, and discipline never ends, as raising a kid can't really be done in a day, week, or even a year.  It is a time during which we wrestle with our importance, our purpose, and we are constantly re-evaluating that illusive state of being, called 'balance'.  If we let the perceptions of the world lay heavily upon us, the task of remaining focused on our families is daunting, if not impossible, to do peacefully and confidently.

Since we've been here, I'm beginning to wonder if our living situation is an advanced course of the mom-building-character thing.  If there's one thing that is so tempting to do in this close community that is focused on one ministry, it is to compare.  We compare our daily schedules, we compare who-does-what, we compare what we think is "too much" or "just enough".  In this environment, in which something inevitably always needs just one more person to do something, that chameleon of comparison creeps in.

It might be in the form of defending one's self, thus putting our worth in what we do, or it might be in the form of pointing at others, with blame, judgement, or resentment.  Anything to make ourselves feel better, or to aim the attention elsewhere, right?  Comparison also might create that monster of insecurity, which is a powerful tool of the enemy, especially in us women.  Let's face it, there's always something we could do better, something we could do more of, something that maybe five years ago, we should have done totally different that would have been life-changing.  Seriously.  There's always something.

But when we are looking at others as our measure of success or greatness, we'll always fall short.  Yes, we were all created in the image of God, but we were each given unique gifts and personalities.  I wasn't created in the image of my neighbor, so I shouldn't strive to be like her.  I won't ever gain any ground if that is my goal, and that comparison will most likely lead to jealousy and envy,  good poisons for any relationship.  Maybe she has some Godly attributes that I recognize aren't so fruitful in my life, but I need to first go to God and ask the Spirit to work in me to be more like Him, not my neighbor.

Christ is my measure, to which I will certainly fall short.  But He is also my redeemer, the one who took my sin as his own.  The one who loves me so dearly that He longs to share eternity with me.  He is my salvation and what I do for Him counts, not what I do for anyone else.  If I am serving others to look good in my neighbor's eyes, or to feel like I'm doing my part because of what everyone around me is doing, I'm completely missing the mark.

Last week, I was the Advanced Cooking teacher for a grand total of three days.  I've been a mom for seven years but every once in a while, I begin to wonder if I should be doing "more", and in my mind, the importance of mothering seems to fall a few ranks.  These thoughts always come when I'm looking around, instead of up.  In theory, the idea worked very well for our schedule. We hashed out the idea of me teaching over more than a few days and felt that we made a careful decision.  But in reality, it didn't work for our family.

There are no badges for the busiest mom, the stay-at-home mom, the homeschool mom, the mom who only feeds her kids organic food, or the mom who seems to 'do it all'.  We've all been given a unique path, life, and personality.  God is my guide, my goal, and my judge.  No one else.  Nor am I anyone else's.

I'm thankful for the crash course in this I received this month,

and I'm sure it will happen again.

(Disclaimer: This perspective of the fallen-ness of missionaries' thoughts about ministry is not criticism of the administration and leadership at RVA.  It is more a reflection on the general struggle of women in ministry, young moms in particular.  The administration has been beyond helpful, loving, and encouraging to me during this time of "figuring it out", and I am thankful.)