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.