On Good Friday – A View From Above

Bab ZuweilaTwin minarets

In the city of Cairo twin minarets stand tall, their silhouettes marked against a clear blue sky. They stand distinguishable from the thousand other minarets because of their fame as a city landmark. The minarets frame a gate still standing since the 11th century, the gate of Bab Zuweila. The minaret towers are so high that they were used to look out for enemy troops coming up to attack the city. Now, centuries later, the minarets of Bab Zuweila provide an unparalleled view of the old city of Cairo.

Climbing up the minarets is a journey. Around ancient steps you walk – farther and farther up, dizzy from the spiral and half frightened from the dark staircase. You make it to the first area where you go out and stand looking over the vast city of 18 million people. But you’re compelled to go farther. So on you go. And it gets more rickety and frightening, the centuries-old steps become even narrower and darker. You can see nothing and you are grasping on to the steps in front of you for fear of falling. But you keep going.

You arrive at the second level. And it’s even more magnificent than the first. To your right you see Al Azhar Park, significant for its large and beautiful green space in a city that has so little. In this 360 degree view you see vast numbers of minarets, you hear the call to prayer going off at split-second intervals across the city – a cacophony echoing around you. You see thousands of people, tiny as they go from bazaar to mosque to bus. You see the tent makers bazaar, making out the beautiful colors even from this distance.

 

It’s the view from above. And it is glorious, breath-taking and conversation stopping. But you can go even farther. And once you get to the top, you don’t want to leave – because it took a while for you to get there and you’re so tired. And the stairs going down are still rickety and treacherous, they are still centuries old. But mostly you don’t want to go down because you want to continue to look out over the view, the view above the city, above the chaos. The view from above.

 

It’s this I think about today – for today is Good Friday. The day in the Christian faith where all of life stopped and the world darkened, a curtain in a temple torn from top to bottom. The day when Jesus, God incarnate, was condemned to the death of a criminal and bore our broken world on his shoulders. And today I set aside time to remember that day and focus on the view from above.

 

 That glorious, breath-taking, conversation stopping view. That view that sees the broken world that Jesus died for, the world that Jesus loves, knowing that each day that we fight this fight is worth it.

 

That view that remembers the words a Son called out to a Father “Why have you forsaken me?” A view that sees the grand Salvation narrative, taller and grander than a million minarets, a love that calls to us louder than a billion calls to prayer. The view where all ‘this’ will make sense, wrong will be made right, tears will turn to laughter, and sorrow to joy. We are invited into this view from above, a view where our story falls into the shadows for a time, and God’s great, redemptive narrative is remembered around the world. A story of mercy and grace, where good triumphs over evil and wrong is made right.

 

We from A Life Overseas hail from all parts of the globe. We are from Djibouti and Thailand, Bolivia and Botswana, Mexico and Cambodia, Haiti and Cameroon, Ethiopia and Niger, Egypt and China and so many more places. We go as idealists and we stay as realists. We live in the shadows of Hindu temples and near the courtyards of grand cathedrals; isolated near small villages and among millions in small apartments in Shanghai skyscrapers. We see poverty and suffering, starvation and crime, corruption and inequality. We learn to love when it’s hard and others learn to love us when we’re hard. We know failure, we know pain, we know how human and flawed we are. Yet daily we experience the persistence of God’s redemptive process.
And today no matter where we are in the world, we are invited to remember this view from above.

 

“Finally, as if everything had not been felt enough, Jesus cries out in an agonizing moment in the most powerful words that we will read in the world: ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’ And I am utterly convinced that the reason he said those words was so that you and I would never have to say them again.” – Ravi Zacharias
Where are you today, right now on this Good Friday? Where can you see the grand story? The view from above.
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My House Shall Be Called

Photographing weddings got me through college. It also taught me about the Church. Sometimes, your day is spent with really happy people. Sometimes, it’s spent with really stressed out people. Sometimes, the really stressed out people turn into the really happy people.

You get to be around radiant brides, people who dance but really shouldn’t, and people who sing but really can’t. And you get to photograph all.of.it.

You and your camera are invited behind the scenes. You’re paid to capture the excitement, the preparation, the emotion, in pixels and jpegs.

Oh, and there’s usually good food.

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I really like weddings, and I think God does too. In fact, I think God’s planning one.

In his book, The Prodigal God, Tim Keller says, “The climax of history is not a higher form of disembodied consciousness but a feast.” He’s talking, of course, about the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, vividly described in Revelation 19:6-8. The Church is the Beloved, the Bride.

During the Last Supper, Jesus pointed to the Great Supper and said, “I will not drink wine again until the day I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29) Mere hours before his crucifixion, Jesus points us towards that day, the day of his Wedding.

How we think about that day greatly impacts how we live this one. And what we talk about when we talk about the Church (the Bride) has tremendous bearing on missions. If we’re embarrassed by the Church, it’s sure going to be hard to plant it. If we see the Church as optional and only vaguely connected with the Gospel, we’re neglecting something that is very close to the heart of the Father. We’re also ignoring something that enthralls the heart of the Son.

What do we think of when we think of Church? Are we a group of people longing for a party? Are we longing to see our Beloved, face to face?

When we speak of the Church, do we speak of beauty and mystery and the Bride of Christ? Do we speak about God’s Kingdom, here, now, as a great force for good in a desperate world? Or do we speak of something else entirely?

The truth is that the Church is a gloriously magnificent idea straight from the heart of the Father.

The Church is a strong entity that will not lose, even against the full forces of hell itself.

The Church is the Bride of Jesus, stunningly radiant.

The Church carries the priceless message of salvation in Jesus alone, proclaiming that everyone’s invited to the imminent feast.

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But if you’ve been hurt by the Church, by people in the Church, those last few sentences were hard to stomach.

I’m convinced that one of our main obstacles to loving the Church like Jesus loves the Church is that we’ve been hurt within the Church. (And for the record, we’ve probably hurt people too.) Pain from within the Church sours the whole idea and tempts us to run away. It makes us angry at the Church. It makes us ashamed of the Church.

Sometimes the pain comes from rude comments and mean spirits. Sometimes it comes from rejection. Sometimes the pain comes from outright abuse.

This should NOT BE.

If you’ve experienced pain from within the Church, I.Am.So.Sorry.

Please, hear the voice of Jesus, clearly, and with great compassion, as he says, “My House shall be called a house of PRAYER, not a house of PAIN. Those people did NOT represent me. They were thieves and robbers.”

Look at this picture of a loving Bridegroom defending his Bride, and may it be to you a source of solace and comfort and healing. After showing up in Jerusalem to die, “Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the merchants and their customers. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the stalls of those selling doves. He said, ‘The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a place of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.’” (Matthew 21:12-13)

People are still thieving and robbing in the House of God. They turn a place of prayer into a place of pain. They’re messing with the Bride and ticking off the Groom.

But here’s the thing, Jesus doesn’t just kick out the bad guys and tell everyone to stay away from the Temple. He shows up in the place of pain and turns it into a place of peace and healing.  Right after he expels the “thieves,” we’re told that “The blind and the lame came to him, and he healed them there in the Temple. (Matthew 21:14)

Right there in the Temple! Why would he do that? Because he is passionate about His people, His Bride.

If you’ve been hurt in the Church, may you also find healing in the Church.

May our churches and teams, mission orgs and NGOs, be full of healed people who heal people. May they be full of loved people who love people. May we be so satisfied in Him, so amazed by Him, so filled with joy because of Him, that we are longing for that day as much as He is.

The day of our Wedding is coming, made possible by the passionate pursuit of a dying Savior who didn’t stay dead. Alleluia. Come Lord Jesus. Come for your Bride. 

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What does the idea of the Church as the Bride of Christ mean for you? What do you do with negative experiences within the Church?

College was a long time ago, so these photos are by my friend  Cherish Andrea and used with permission.

Dangerous Riches

I wrote last month about the troubling ways we sometimes talk about the poor – assigning the simplistic emotion of happiness while not allowing them a fuller, more complex array of human emotion. And about the way the poor are presented as inherently holy, simply because of their poverty.

Today I want to talk about the troubling ways rich Christians handle our wealth and our steadfast resistance to identifying with the poor, our endless and dangerous pursuit of riches, and the example Jesus set before all of us, poor and rich and everyone in between.

dangerous riches

I saw a commercial a few years ago that encapsulates the god of consumerism:

A man hands a boy a vanilla ice cream cone. The boy says, “And…?” The man adds sprinkles, hot fudge, and whip cream. The boy happily licks his treat.

A young man is offered a good job. The man says, “And…?” The interviewer gives him stock options, a corner office with a window, a month of paid vacation, and a major signing bonus. The man happily accepts the job.

A man spots the sexy butt of a woman wearing blue jeans. The man says, “And…?” The woman turns around and is gorgeous. They happily hop into bed.

A man drinks a Coke. The man says, “And…?” The Coke turns into Coke Lite. The man is happy.

This reminds me of the story in Luke 12. A farmer kept building bigger barns. He looked at his harvest and said, “And…?” And God struck him down dead. If that Coke commercial were in the Bible the ending would have been much different.

How much are we like the man, the farmer? We never have enough, we are never satisfied, we are never happy, we are never content, we are never as well-off as the person a few tiers above us. Gluttony, greed, discontent, comparison, envy, hoarding…they barely register as the serious sins they are. We take fighting poverty seriously (at least in word) and we explode over theological differences regarding the end times or marriage but we continue to consume and consume and consume and fail to recognize the danger to our souls. And just because I live and work with people of little to no income doesn’t mean I am exempt from this. Far from it.

I’m proud and I think: look how good I’m doing. I live at a lower standard than so-and-so. Or: compared to many Christians in the US, I look pretty good. As if holiness were based on how other people lived instead of being based on an absolute standard. And in the very next instant I can be self-pitying and think: I better get a good reward for this in heaven. Or: why can’t I just live in America where my standard of living would look poor and I could feel proud of my scarcity instead of ashamed of my abundance?

Lord have mercy.

There is a very real way in which the poor are free from the concerns of wealth, worry over protecting and maintaining their stuff, time wasted on managing bank accounts or caring for the goods that money buys. The Bible is clear that money is a hindrance to faith, contentment, and joy, that God has special concern for the poor, that the last will be first, that where our treasure is there our heart will also be. Did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom, which he promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)

A wise woman wrote this to me in response to last month’s essay, “I believe that when my tangible resources are fewer here, I have at least the possibility of depending on God in quite a different way, and I think that can reap powerful and eternal benefits.”

And this, “To discard the link between poverty and holiness, and between poverty and happiness, I think does overlook some inconvenient truths for our own lives.”

I struggle with this, I feel obscenely wealthy in Djibouti. I wonder what a ‘reasonable’ standard of living is. Is a generator for power cuts when it is 120-degrees excessive? Is it excessive to run an air conditioner, to eat meat, to have a refrigerator? when so many around me don’t? I struggle to be content in cold showers or while sharing a bedroom with my entire family while we run that air conditioner.

There is an inconvenient truth in my heart that I like comfort and ease. And yet, when I am comfortable and life is easy, I do not cast myself on God. I don’t beg and plead and demand that Jesus make his presence palpable. I don’t cry for miracles, I am less desperate in prayer.

I want more than this:

To know Christ and the power of his padded bank account, the participation in his glowing accolades, becoming like him in his affluent lifestyle, and so somehow, to attain to the comfort of treasures here on earth.

Jesus didn’t take on the nature of a ‘reasonably’ comfortable human. Though he was rich, for our sake Jesus didn’t become middle class. He took on the nature of a slave. For our sake he became poor.

While I challenged us not to oversimplify the experiences and personalities of people in poverty, I also challenge us to be like Jesus and to let go of the idol of wealth. To hold our stuff and money loosely, to be generous to the point of excess, to live unreasonably, to know, and live like we know, that godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it.

How do you deal with economic disparity where you live? How do you address this issue of wealth and poverty in your own heart?

*image via Flickr

Reflections of God

Many times in missions, we speak of the difficulties with greater frequency than the good things.

We talk about racism.
We speak of our various phases of culture shock.
Stories of being hurt by those we work with abound.
Even at times, we venture into difficult topics like trauma or loss.

What of the positive?

I don’t mean newsletter stories of lives changed or projects completed.

What do we love about the people we work with?
What traits are present in the cultures or nations we work in which serve to glorify God?

Since all human beings are made in the image of God, there are glimpses of the Almighty which shine through in all peoples, cultures, and nations.

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We can easily point out the negatives of a culture, but what of the positives?

When people meet me as an American, they are quick to point out all our deficiencies and failures as a nation. But, what of Americans generosity and value of human life resulting in simple things such as customer service, free speech, and freedom of religion.

It is so easy to see all you do not like.

Can we take a moment to pause and see the hope and treasures our nation or people reflect of God?

In South Africa, I work in a land rift with horrible crime statistics, corruption, and an all too often broken family structure.

But as a land, South Africa and her people reflect these traits of God as they are made in his image.

– A peaceful transition to democracy.
– A land of opportunity and hope for all of Africa.
– It’s people have incredible abilities in the arts, such as art, writing, and most of all singing.

People will often look at the development here and say, “This is not real Africa”. Essentially we are saying Africa can not develop and must remain poor. This nation reflects a God given ability to “take dominion” and make things better. I love that about South Africa.

And its natural beauty in many areas is second to none.

How about you?

The only rule here is – only positive things!!! (and no criticizing or critiquing others positive statements- no one can debate what I love about America because it is how I see God through her people and my nation)

So let’s go!

Share.
Rejoice.
Learn.
Worship.

What do you love about the people you work with? How do they reflect the image of God?

What are your favorite things about the cultures or nations you serve in?

Photo By Sylwia Bartyzel

We, the People of the Globe

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We are the people of the Globe. Not a city or a state, or even a single country, but the whole wide world–

the one He’s got in His hands.

We are a people made tender by airport goodbyes and flexible by the travel we log after those tears have dried.  We are those who open Christmas presents over Skype, who sleep in foreign beds in our home countries, who taste the pain of the missed funeral, the birth, and the regular family dinner after church.

We are a people not of roots like the Oak, deep and strong, but a people of roots like the Aspen, wide and connected, whose strength is in its breadth.  A people who taste the bitter and the sweet of yet another transition, those that wrestle with the belonging, those that understand-deep that we are all really aliens and foreigners on this mass of dirt we call earth.

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We are a people whose compassion runs deep because we’ve seen with our own eyes the orphan, the starving, the slave; “those” people have become “our” people, in fact. We might be men and women of last year’s fashion, but we are also people of this year’s front line.

Our kids may not be on the cultural cutting-edge, but they have walked the cliffs of big-faith and hard-truths and they have witnessed a God who shows up.  Again and again. And again. 

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We are men and women whose hearts bleed for those with different skin, and we are people that experience the Bride in houses and underground and among mud walls. We are those that struggle, that fail, that adventure, that hope.

People of both dramatic stories and mundane survival; people that go and let go.

We are those that have tasted life outside the boundaries and walk forever marked.

And we will continue to walk all over this whole wide world–

the One He still holds, in His hands.

*****

I wrote the above as I struggle with what it means to fully embrace this idea that missions is planted-deep in my heart. I believe fully that God can and does work in all corners of the globe, from suburbia America to African hut, and I do not belittle those that stay home by any means. It is honorable work to follow Jesus and love well, wherever that journey may lead. However, I am personally finding a new confidence in accepting that for whatever reason, God has birthed a heart for the globe in our family. And there is great hope in knowing that I’m not the only one. 

Third Culture Kids in the World of Faith

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By Cindy Brandt

Every person in the congregation put their right hand over their chest and started reciting something in unison. Like having discovered I was driving on the wrong side of the road, I frantically tried to make the correction and catch on to the protocol. Rather panicked, I looked to my American husband for guidance, but having spent years abroad with me, he was a bit confounded as well.

We were living in China at the time. Me, a TCK born in Taiwan but raised in an international school, and my husband from the US. During the summers we usually travel back to Colorado to spend time with my husband’s family. That particular Sunday happened to be the Fourth of July, and as was customary at this church, they recited the pledge of allegiance during the service to honor the occasion. Having spent time trying to communicate our faith to people outside of America, we sensed a sudden jolt of dissonance at the way patriotism and church tradition intertwined.

I grew up in Taiwan and can be considered a “missionary convert”. Attending a Christian International School, I began my journey as a TCK as my educational life existed in an American cultural bubble in the midst of the broader local Chinese culture. Infused into the ethos of the school were Christian teachings, and I received my faith wrapped in red, white, and blue. I became an expert shape shifter. At home, I spoke my mother tongue and watched Taiwanese TV. At school, I switched modes and studied, socialized, and worshipped in English. If conversion is defined as a definitive turning from one identity to another, then my entire existence was one continuous conversion experience. Managing two distinct cultural identities became my vocation, the framework through which I developed emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

After graduating out of the small community I was raised in, I entered the larger world of ideas. With my persistent TCK curiosity about other cultures and customs, I discovered the vast disparity between what people considered meaningful. For instance, in Taiwan, birthdays for children are a minor affair but a really big deal in America. In adulthood, I began to understand the motivation and values behind my Chinese family upbringing and how it differs so drastically from the sentiments of my American in-laws. Having been exposed to both cultures and in fact, embracing both as the norm as a TCK, those differences do not induce fear but challenge me to expand room for what is true. I realized the faith passed onto me by American missionaries were clothed in a set of cultural patterns but the God I believe in is not limited to one outfit.

I began to convert again. Previously, I adopted faith traditions as a Chinese girl welcoming American Christian practices. Now, I must discover how the religion of my childhood can possibly be truth for all cultures. The more I searched the Bible and the more I experienced encounters with my big beautiful global family, the more I became convinced such diversity of peoples must reflect the very character of God. In other words, the closer we draw in our faith quest to find Truth, our embrace of the variety in cultures broaden.

In the west, Christian hospitality looks like wedding and baby showers; presents with lovely gift wrap, crafty party favors and pretty decorations. In Asia, hospitality manifests primarily with food and lots of it! Big, boisterous banquets where the amount of leftovers indicate the level of intentional love. Neither form of this spiritual exercise has the monopoly on faith. On the contrary, being exposed to both cultures expands one’s view of the outworking of our beliefs.

By the time our scrambling minds understood what was happening, the reciting of the pledge was halfway through. We felt sheepish and awkward for not joining in the custom, the familiar feeling of not belonging quietly crept in. I fight the urge to disappear, to flee this discomfort of exclusion. I remember I am bound to this community by marriage and by faith. I am reminded the TCK life can’t be forever reaching for a place to belong, but to bravely stay and still the voices in my head telling me I can’t fit in. Soon, a friendly face leaned over the pews and explained to us what was happening. The simple explanation communicated embrace. My complicated story entered a space, and instead of threatening the community with a different culture, it required explanations and elicited hospitality. Perhaps it caused some to be reminded not all who go to church pledge allegiance to a country, but that faith makes room for all cultures.

Our generation is in need of voices with storied backgrounds. TCKs who participate in a faith community are equipped to bring about a certain vitality and prophetic voice. They embody a different story to congregations with a single narrative. In this fast paced society of sound bytes and noise, we need the sharpened clarity brought by multiple cultural lenses, a valued asset TCKs possess. They live outside the box, upset the status quo, captivate larger dreams, and compel those around us to examine preconceived notions and to live with deeper integrity and passion.

A Note from the Author: My name is Cindy Brandt. Like a true Third Culture Kid, I feel sure I belong someplace, yet live each day in search of it. Along the way, I write about faith, culture, and beauty in the margins at cindywords.com. I live in Kaohsiung, Taiwan with my husband and two TCKs with very well-stamped passports.

The Existence Of Poo (On Shame, Part I)

Almost four years ago now, on a velvety Friday night, my husband, Mike, and I had a hot date. We’d been married a year and a half by that stage, and living in our new home-town of Luang Prabang, Laos, for three whole weeks. We decided to go somewhere special to celebrate. That somewhere was a tiny restaurant called Tamarind.

Tamarind is tucked opposite a gold-glazed temple and serves traditional Lao food along with a dash of cultural orientation. It was at Tamarind that I first sampled a stalk of lemongrass stuffed with minced chicken and herbs and grilled over an open flame. It was also where I first tried the brown triangles of dried riverweed studded with sesame seeds that you are meant to dip into tiny bowls of chili paste mixed with buffalo skin. The latter was not such a transcendent epicurean moment, but I guess you can’t win them all.

Despite the occasional appearance of buffalo skin in the dishes, I love the food at Tamarind. At least initially, however, the food at Tamarind did not return my affection in equal measure. Although I was feeling perfectly perky when we sat down to dinner, I suddenly felt markedly less perky about halfway through our feast.

There are few things more deflating than suddenly becoming aware that you may need to make an emergency toilet run in the middle of a hot date.

outhouse-231367_640Mike – a water and sanitation engineer and himself a veteran of giardia in Tajikistan – was sympathetically no-nonsense. We got the coconut sticky rice desert to go and caught a tuk tuk back to the guesthouse immediately. After we got there, I made a beeline for the toilet. Then I collapsed, petulant and groaning, onto the bed.

“What?” Mike asked. “Don’t you feel better?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s just that, well, Asia is forcing me to acknowledge poo.”

“What about poo?” Mike asked.

“Its existence,” I said.

“Wait,” Mike said, genuinely baffled. “Let me get this straight. Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the existence of poo?

“Yes,” I said.

Then Mike busted up laughing so hard I really thought that he might fall over.

“Did you really just say,” he started, when he was once again able to speak, “that Asia is forcing you to acknowledge the operational out-workings of a normal bodily function that you have, on average, been experiencing at least once every two days since you were born?”

“Mere existence doesn’t mandate open acknowledgment,” I said. “And I am not the only one. This is a widespread woman issue.”

“What do you mean?” Mike asked.

“What do men do when they feel the urge and they’re out somewhere – at the office, or at a friend’s house?”

Mike looked at me as if trying to figure whether I was asking a trick question.

“You use a toilet,” he said. “That’s what they’re there for – to deal with our body’s normal waste in a sanitary and efficient manner.”

“There are some exceptions to this, obviously,” I said. “But women usually find it excruciatingly embarrassing to be caught out in public and need to do the poo. It is generally understood that you do not do the poo anywhere where other people may surmise what you are up to – much less anywhere you may be heard or smelled. Ideally you do not do the poo unless you are at your own home. Alone.”

Mike did not want to believe me on this. I had to tell him about women I know who will never use a public restroom. I had to tell him about women I know who regularly go to an entirely different floor of their office building to use the toilet if they simply cannot wait any longer at work. I had to tell him about women I know who spent their entire honeymoon constipated because they refused to use the bathroom in their hotel room.

“No!” Mike said, horrified, upon hearing this last tale of poo-shame.

“Yes!” I said. “They made covert runs to the bathroom in the lobby.”

“Did you…?” he asked.

“No!” I said. “I wasn’t that bad. But I get it. It’s hard to suddenly acknowledge the existence of poo to someone else when you’ve spent much of your life working to hide it.”

How can there can be that much shame around something everyone experiences?” Mike asked me.

We lay on the bed for a while that night, staring at the ceiling, and pondering this question. We didn’t come up with a great answer four years ago, and I’m still not sure I have one now. I have, however, done some more thinking about shame and guilt since those days, and next month I’ll revisit this topic of shame, guilt, vulnerability and living overseas in some more depth.

In the meantime, however, I’d love to hear from you on this topic. Help me think through how to take this further in next month’s post by picking one or more of the following questions and leaving a comment.  

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1. Has living overseas “cured” you of any shame?

2. Has living overseas “created” any shame(s)?

3. Do you differentiate between shame and guilt? If so, how?

4. What is the most scenic/unusual toilet you’ve ever used?

 

(P.S. With regards to question 4… For me, it’s probably the three-sided shack overlooking the rice terraces of Banaue, Philippines. There was no door on the side overlooking the valley, but when this is your “while you pee” view, who really wants a door?)

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Say Less, Listen More, Love More

The world is a garish, noisy neighborhood. Decibels and pixels abound. The phone in my pocket spews more information in hours than I can assimilate in years. I’m reminded of my college speech prof who counseled tongue-in-cheek, “Shout louder if your argument is weak.” There’s a whole lot of shouting these days.  -My Uncle, Rick Porter

The Internet allows us to say too much.  I am convinced of it.  We have the time to say so much and somehow we have less time to listen or love.

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I grew up in the 80’s, it was a time of feathered hair, Duran Duran, ET, and The Cosby Show. It was a time before the Internet and social media reached us all. (My children don’t even understand what that means.) It was back when there was a cold war, instead of a daily internet war.  You know what I am trying to say, albeit cliché – it was a simpler time.

I am guessing that I am just one of  loads and loads of people who feel this way. I believe the very thing that connects the world, the WORLD WIDE WEB, is making us dislike one another with increased fervor.  I cannot possibly know if this is true for anyone but myself, but I wonder if we are so busy sharing what we think that we are not able to hear from God as well. (Either directly or through His chosen channels.) We are very busy saying things.  How much listening can we really do?

For years my Dad resisted moving forward with technology, I mocked him for hating email and wanting me to call him. To this day there are still hold-outs, the 60-somethings that just refuse to engage social media or digital communication. Today is the day I humbly submit my apology for mocking their resistance.  They knew something we didn’t know. They knew that noise overwhelms.

“How we hear or see God is likely as diverse as our styles and personalities. But we best begin in quietude. If you really want to hear Him and know Him, let the chaos of contemporary life settle. Listen for the whisper. Watch for the wink. Your faith will be encouraged and your life enriched. We dare not lose the best of forever in the noise of now”. -My Uncle, Rick Porter

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I recognize in myself a need to let the chaos settle – to be quiet. I don’t have a lot of answers or the time to listen for them, but oh so many things to say. I want to say less and listen more. I want Internet wars to go the way of the Cold War. I came up with some helpful questions that reduce my commentary by all the percents.

Five questions we (I) could ask ourselves (me) before we (I) post on-line:

  1. Why is it important for me to disagree with something I’ve seen? Do I need to prove myself? Do I need to be right?  Am I attempting to shame someone for their opinion?
  2. Does my disagreement in a public forum bring the person I am disagreeing with closer to Jesus?
  3. Does the tone of my thoughts convey respect and love for people who don’t think like me?
  4. Could I say, “Interesting thoughts, I want to think and/or pray on this for a few days and I may be back to dialogue after I do.”
  5. If I feel it is important to share my thoughts on a particular topic, could I share them and then end them more humbly by saying, “That is my belief, but I could be wrong.” (Tony Compolo just modeled this to me.)

Whatever the hot-button debate is, it is fairly common to see friends questioning one another’s sanity, love for Jesus, or comparing someone’s politics to Hitler. Something has happened that makes us bold enough to type things that we would not say if we were standing face to face. Nothing gets worked out during an Internet debate, I am afraid we need to find a way to stop the madness of our mouths (fingers) and find our ears again.

Maybe if we  found the quietude and listened more to God and  one another, our capacity to live AND LOVE  in the tension of varying opinions would increase. Maybe we could say less and listen to and love one another more.

Maybe not, I could be wrong.

Romance, Science Fiction, and Missions (or, I Dreamed a Dream)

What motivated you to go into missions? What keeps you going?

Romance. I don’t know about you, but romance is what drove me into missions. The romance of being a great missionary, of changing an entire people group, of seeing a whole country turn to Christ. This romantic idea was first kindled during my children’s homeschool studies of St. Patrick — the man in the 5th century AD who took the Gospel to Ireland, where practically everyone turned from paganism to Christ.

This dream of mine was further fueled when I learned about one of our organization’s church planting teams in South America. Churches have been planted that have grown to membership in the thousands. Those churches have planted other churches. Those churches have even sent out missionaries themselves. When I first heard of this field, I thought Cambodia was going to be just like that. Woo hoo!

Never mind the fact that those missionaries had been building a reality from their dream for over 20 years by the time I ever heard of them. And never mind the fact that all you experienced missionaries are laughing at me right now — I still believe it’s those kinds of dreams that propel us forward, into missions.

Science Fiction. Maybe today, my initial missionary dream seems like unattainable science fiction to you. Completely unrealistic, and completely out of reach. But Ray Bradbury, notable author of the science fiction novel Fahrenheit 451, believed that science fiction actually drove real science:

“I think it’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and then build to a reality. There’s hardly a scientist or an astronaut I’ve met who wasn’t beholden to some romantic before him who led him to doing something in life.”

Ray Bradbury continued discussing the idea of romance versus reality:

“I think it’s so important to be excited about life. In order to get the facts we have to be excited to go out and get them, and there’s only one way to do that — through romance. We need this thing which makes us sit bolt upright when we are nine or ten and say, ‘I want to go out and devour the world, I want to do these things.’”

Does the reality of life as a missionary start as a dream, somewhere deep in our pasts? In order to go out and teach Christ’s love, do we have to be excited about it? Do we need something that makes us sit bolt upright when we are nine or ten and want to go into all the world? [Or perhaps,  if you are like me, something made you sit bolt upright much later, more like age 29.]

Bradbury also said, “We may reject it later, we may give it up, but we move on to other romances then.” He clearly thought scientists needed something to motivate their work, even if they shift their focus. I wonder then, do missionaries need the same? To survive on the field, year after year after year, do we need a dream? But is it the original dream that keeps us going, or do our dreams change?

Science, like missions, is not all guts and glory. There are the countless experimental trials. There’s the disappointment when your data doesn’t support your hypotheses, or worse, it doesn’t make any sense at all. And there’s the frustration when your equipment breaks down, or not everyone interprets the lab results the way you do. Science is not mostly sudden breakthroughs – and working with the hearts of people isn’t, either.

My dream has changed. . . sort of. I’m still beholden to the romantic idea that the entire nation of Cambodia could turn to Jesus. But I no longer think that might happen simply because I showed up in obedience to His call.

It’s true that some days seem like a never-ending clinical trial, but I do still dream of nationwide revival. I long for it, I pray for it, I want it, just the same as I did when I first studied St. Patrick or learned of those thriving South American churches. That dream keeps me here, believing there’s a purpose to living through countless, repeated trials.

So today, I want to invite you to reminisce along with me.

What missionary dream did you first dream? Is that still your dream, or do you dream differently now?

What happens if you’ve lost your dreams altogether? Do you keep going without one, or do you ask God for new dreams?

Giving Good Gifts

Day One family

The Batwa people live on the edges of Burundian society, marginalized in their own country. Local humanitarian workers tell tales of these people who thwart good gifts and show little gratitude, making them notoriously difficult to work with.

One organization generously gave corrugated metal roofs for the thatch-constructed homes. But soon after the installation, the aid workers discovered the metal was sold.

Another religious-based agency gave these families window insets and doors for their unsecured homes. It didn’t take long for word to travel back to the team – all the items disappeared, probably sold for quick cash.

These organizations promptly labeled this Batwa community as ungrateful. They said the people were incompetent to care for the gifts or unable understand the value these gifts could add to their community well being. “They are troublemakers,” the workers said. We were warned to stay clear of them and help someone else or our energies would be wasted.

But my husband had learned to not take the solitary narrative of the NGO workers as gospel. Claude visited this community often and forged friendships with them. He listened to the stories told by the chief, the mamas trying to feed their children, the men looking for regular work. They painted a different picture about the good gifts.

The Batwa families lived in frail homes on the side of a barren hill. “Winds whip across the terrain plying the metal roofs off,” one man shared. The families would try to secure the metal sheets with heavy rocks on all four corners of the roof, but still the rambunctious winds would pop off the metal and the rocks. “Given the conditions, how feasible is it to do roof repair every time the wind blows?” he asked.

The window insets that shut tight and doors that locked were fine gifts, one mother said. “But I have eight children, no husband and no food. What would you do?” she asked. She decided, like all the other mothers, to sell the material for food that fed her family for weeks.

The chief told my husband about the many moves the families had made in the last set of years. These people had no deed for their land; they lived at the mercy and whim of the government officials. With no stability there was little interest in securing homes and bettering this place. Our Batwa friends knew better to build their homes on shifting sand.

When we listened to all the stories, we came up with a very different assessment of the situation. Our Batwa friends weren’t guilty of being ungrateful, incompetent or troublemakers. They had families to feed and no jobs, no fertile land, no stability. These facts radically altered their priorities and shaped what, in fact, were considered to be good gifts.

We began to frame the difficulty another way – the problem rested squarely on the shoulders of the givers, the ones giving gifts too soon to be useful, the ones giving gifts without enough relationship to know if what was on offer was necessary or timely. The trouble is that a roof over your head is little comfort when there is no food in your belly – and many organizations never take time to listen to that story. Instead, good people get labeled as ungrateful and miss out on strategic help from others.

Despite the advice of other organizational leaders, we began working alongside our Batwa friends two years ago. We planted trees to begin to break the gusts of wind that barreled up the hillside and threatened the homes. We worked hard to get identity cards for thousands of men and women so they would have legal rights – and eventually they got the deed to their land. Wells with access to clean water came in last year followed by a new school and a health clinic.

Day One child

In our community development efforts over the past six years we haven’t always done it right. We’ve learned there is more than one story in operation so we must lean in and listen well. We also discovered the importance of working out of relationship with our Batwa friends so that we better know their needs – and any mistake made can be untangled together over time.

During the intervening years other groups have come to give goats, shoes and more offers of metal roofing. But they weren’t the gifts the community needed then or now. Currently the community leaders have asked for help growing pineapples and learning some trades they can use in the marketplace. They are naming the gifts they need to move forward.

When our friends ask for locking doors or a roof over their head – we’ll be eager to give that good gift and they’ll be ready to receive it. Until then, we’ll keep working on the necessities we discern together. Maybe the best gift we can give one another is long-term friendship and the readiness to give partnered with the willingness to listen to the whole story.

*****

Was there a time you were tempted to offer the gift you wanted to give before asking the community members what they wanted or needed?

When has listening to the stories of your community members changed your praxis and opened up new possibilities?

Have you listened to the long history of your community, shared over multiple meals with different people, to learn what they’ve lived through before you arrived? How did that alter your perspective about them and your work?

 

 ~ Kelley Nikondeha, community development practitioner in Burundi, living in transit between  Bujumbura & Phoenix

blog:   www.kelleynikondeha.com |  twitter: @knikondeha | organization: www.communitiesofhope.tv

The Hard Questions

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It was late afternoon and the sun was slowly setting across the solid blue, desert sky. The call to prayer echoed across the city of a thousand minarets. My blonde-haired 7-year-old looked at me, her deep blue eyes serious. “Is Faiza going to Heaven?”

We were living in Cairo, Egypt and Faiza was our baby sitter extraordinaire. But she was so much more.

She was our informal language teacher, our cultural broker, our friend. And she would iron our clothes just to be kind so that we looked like we stepped out of a dry cleaner’s shop. We had been in Cairo for 3 years and Faiza was an essential part of our lives.

We loved Faiza.

Faiza was a devout Muslim and our children knew this. She prayed five times a day and faithfully fasted during Ramadan. She gave to the poor and cared for those in need. She had even gone on the Hajj to Mecca – something every Muslim is encouraged to do in their lifetime if possible, but for a woman who was a widow and had only the money she made from babysitting this was a huge sacrifice.

Faiza would arrive at our house clad in a long, plain galabeya(traditional Egyptian dress) with her hair completely covered by a white hijab, always carrying with her pita bread and crumbly white cheese known as ‘gibna beda.’ This was her lunch but my kids grew to think of it as their snack. She lived her faith out loud, praying in our living room as soon as she heard the call to prayer from the mosque down the street. She was ever patient and cared for my kids the way she would her own grandchildren.

“Is Faiza going to Heaven?” I knew my response was critically important to this little girl – and to myself. I sighed internally and shot up an arrow prayer to the One who’s always listening.

“I don’t know” I said finally. “I know that Faiza loves God very much. I don’t know if Faiza knows Jesus.”

The blue eyes continued to search mine. “But she loves God – isn’t that the same thing as loving Jesus?”

Now hear this: I believe with all my heart the words of John 14:6. They are memorized, branded on my heart. “I am the way, the truth, the life…

I believe there is one way to the Father.

But I have learned that there are many ways to the Son. God is infinitely creative in the way he draws people to his heart. Our God is not defined by nation or nation building; he holds citizenship nowhere but Heaven and extends his grace throughout the world. And so I have seen people find Jesus, find ‘the way’, through white steepled Baptist churches and through gold-trimmed icons in Orthodox churches; through Bible studies and small groups and through reading of Jesus in the Koran; through the irritating street evangelist on a busy city corner and through reading Mere Christianity. Those nail-scarred hands stretch out to us in unlikely spaces and places and we marvel at the mystery of Grace.

The way to Jesus must not be dictated by a North American construct for it is like trying to fit the ocean into a bathtub – it is far too limited.

So my words “I don’t know” were truth and honesty.

But I prayed then and I pray now for the Faiza’s of the world — those zealous for God, searching for truth. And I prayed then and I pray now for the children asking these questions, questions of eternal significance.

In talking with my mom, a long-time missionary to the Muslim world, she said this: “I remember hearing the late William Miller speak about his many years of work in Iran.  One statement stood out, and although this may not be an accurate quote, it is how I remember it:  ‘We will be amazed on the Day of Resurrection to see how many will rise from the Muslim cemeteries of the world.’

The mystery of grace will continue to confound and comfort until the day when all is made clear. Until that day I will continue to pray as I grapple with the hard questions even as I continue to proclaim the name of Jesus wherever and however I can.

So I ask you now: How do you answer the hard questions? The questions of eternal significance?

 

 

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Home Assignment Blues

I remember when I used to think that teachers had the best job in the world BECAUSE they had a whole summer vacation.

Many of my Nigerien friends think that that distinction actually belongs to missionaries on home assignment BECAUSE they have a whole YEAR vacation.

Halfway through our home assignment year, halfway through our fourth home assignment year, halfway through my first home assignment year with a parcel of teenagers, my response is “UGH!”

Eloquent, I know.

I also know that “vacation” is a definite misnomer, even if the blog, Facebook and prayer letter photos sometimes seem to contradict that statement.

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We’ve been on the road almost every weekend of the last three months. We’ve been in or traveled through nine different states. We’ve visited over ten of our partnering churches and have also caught up with some of our individual supporters. And our kids have mostly been back to school on time by Monday morning, every week.

Most of our traveling happens on the weekends. Friday evenings, after school lets out, are usually filled with high school games, school activities or visiting – sometimes just for fun but not always. Saturdays are times to clean the house, catch up on laundry, make sure homework is mostly done, tournaments and other competitions take place, big girls work their jobs, more visits with more people. Sometimes we need to leave on Saturday to get to where we need to be on Sunday. Sometimes we leave before the sun’s even up on a Sunday morning and the only life at our home church is the snow crew shoveling and salting in preparation for their Sunday morning services. Sometimes, not even the snow crew is out and about.

travelaftermath

Then usually sometime late Sunday night, our big green van rolls into our driveway, we tramp to the door through another fresh, not-yet-shoveled couple inches of snow – Michigan is our home assignment home and we’ve been blessed with a doozy of a winter – and:

  • some start directing half-conscious little ones to find pjs and toothbrushes and beds,
  • some start helping unload the paraphernalia that winter travel with nine necessitates as well as gifts and goodies from the church and other miscellaneous stuff that has made its way into the van, and
  • I head to the laundry room to make sure school uniforms will be ready for six different bodies in just a few short hours.

Then comes the scramble to make sure all big girl homework did actually get finished and didn’t get trampled by a snowy boot, that backpacks are accessible, no lunch boxes were forgotten and have rotting food remaining from the previous week. Yeah… that does happen around here occasionally more than I’d care to admit.

One by one, the biggers finally trudge off to tumble into bed, parents make sure doors are locked, lights are off and there’s at least a path through the mess to find the bathroom, no urgent emails arrived in our absence and no pipes froze… and then we crash, too – hoping we remembered to check if there’s milk for breakfast in the fridge.

exhausted

…all to drag our exhausted and starting to feel old bodies out of bed so that we can then drag the kids out of bed early the next morning –

  • setting bowels of Cheerios under noses in the hopes that they’ll eat and not collapse into them as they wrap in blankets and sit on the heating vents,
  • making sure they have their uniforms on both right side out and forwards,
  • verifying socks or tights or something on feet because boots get really (and I mean REALLY) stinky when these TCKs insist on some semblance of bare feet even in the midst of winter,
  • packing lunches,
  • stuffing their snow accouterments in a bag in case the wind chill will permit outside recesses, and
  • ensuring that both teeth and hair are brushed before

sending them off for the beginning of another busy week of school while still feeling like we are somewhere caught and lost in the previous week that never properly finished.

Even with that description, I must attest:

It’s all good. Seriously!

sledcollage

We do, truly, love visiting those who’ve partnered with us as we’ve ministered in Niger. We delight in sharing what God has done and how we’ve seen Him work. It thrills our hearts to see how He’s continued working in the lives and ministries of our friends, families and supporting churches on this side of the ocean. And we never fail to be totally and completely overwhelmed by the generosity and genuine arms-wide-open love of God’s people as we travel around, visiting those we affectionately claim as “our” churches.

It is also hard and exhausting work.

It looks different than ministry while on the field, but it is still ministry. It is still work. It is NOT a year long vacation.

It is vitally important to be accountable to those who’ve been… who are… contributing to the ministry God has given us – be that contribution through prayer, finances or other means. We’ve committed to traveling as a family – and “our” people seem to enjoy visiting with and hearing from our children. They minister with us. God has worked mightily in and through them, and they are also greatly ministered to by many of the dear folk with whom we are privileged to collaborate. Other families make different decisions during their home assignment years and I totally get that. I also get that sometimes it would be easier for my husband to travel, to give the kids a break – and there are times we’ve made that choice. But most of the time, this is what obedience in this area of our life looks like for this family.

Lately I’ve been asking God what in the world He’s asking of our family, of my teenagers, of me.

In our earlier home assignment years, we felt we’d figured out furlough. There was a lot of traveling, yes. Somehow, although it was more physical work with younger children, it was much less traumatic and dramatic and exhausting than it has been this year with TCK teenagers. Getting them – and the rest of the family – out the door, with a sweet attitude makes some Sunday mornings feel more like guerrilla warfare… not preparing our hearts to minister or even just another daily parenting battle. On those mornings where defeat appears to be the family headline, we feel like horrible hypocrites even as we are seeking to be accountable to and minister to “our” support team… and wonder what in the world we’re doing anyways.

So I asked my big girls.

Their answers were similar, but here’s a paraphrase of what my oldest daughter had to say:

Mama, sometimes, I wish we could just be regular people visiting churches… but we aren’t. It really is the getting there, the getting started, another new – that is so hard. Once we are there and with the people, I’m always glad I went and mostly sorry that it was ugly and hard to get out the door. It is good to tell people what God’s doing in Niger. It’s fun to see old friends and people love on us. I just love the people especially the ones that are grandparents. Last weekend was awesome, even though I didn’t want to go at first.

We’ve still got a long haul before us: several more trips both long and short, many more partners both old and new to visit. But I’m just now starting to think we might actually thrive this home-assignment-accountability-reporting-raising-support-again-year… and probably at least survive our next trip… 

onthe beach

How does your family handle home assignment travels?

How do you thrive instead of just surviving? What works for you and your family?

What’s the hardest and/or best thing about visiting with and being accountable to your ministry partners?